It was with twenty-seven-year-old Neha seated beside me in her family’s chauffeured car in March of 2016 that I had gotten my first glimpse of India—of New Delhi’s infamously congested traffic with its constant sound of high-pitched horns; of the familiar smell of burning trash that I had grown to love during my time in Southeast Asia due to what I believed to be an unexplainable likeness to the scent of chocolate; of the vibrant sight of fuchsia-colored flowers that seemed to entangle themselves around every possible vertical surface lining Delhi’s arid, dusty roads. Despite my slight unease over the vast and overwhelming differences between my new surroundings and those of my previous destinations’ in Thailand, my first sensory experiences en route to Neha’s apartment quickly became what would inevitably keep me coming back.
Fast forward ten months: Neha had shared the big news with me in January of this year via WhatsApp. The text read, “Get ready with your dancing shoes, baby!” followed by the ever-appropriate dancing lady emoji. Sure enough, she was engaged and almost exactly one year following my four-day stay with her family in March 2016, I would return to New Delhi, India, to attend the marriage celebration of Neha and her fiancé, Abhay.
For those of you unfamiliar with Indian marriage culture (and I claim to be no expert), I can tell ya that it’s a big frickin’ deal. Typically spanned over the course of three or four days, Indian weddings seamlessly combine age-old ritual and tradition with ebullient and boundless celebration. As Neha’s extended family trickled into town for the grand event, festivities were kicked off with the mehendi ceremony on day one, followed by the engagement, the haldi ceremony, the Ladies’ Sangeet, the chooda ceremony, and of course—on day four—the marriage itself: the shaadi ceremony. Like most Punjabi weddings in Northern India, Neha’s was boisterous, colorful, and extravagant—not to mention by far the coolest thing I’ve ever attended.
Though merely one of a hundred guests of the bride, never have I been made to feel so genuinely welcome at any event in my life. It was a pleasure to both attend and photograph this unique occasion, and, for my readers’ sake, I hope this post captures the inclusiveness and absolute awe I experienced on my last trip to India. Congratulations, Neha and Abhay! I can’t thank you enough for your kindness, your hospitality, your friendship, and for giving me the opportunity to be a part of such a wonderful celebration.
Wishing you a lifetime of happiness together.
Day one. Following a late night of catching up and building an extensive list of Hindi swears for me to take back home, I woke up with Neha and her family to an incredible breakfast of chapati, paneer, and aloo gobi. A gentleman soon ascended the stairs of the plein air apartment complex with streaming bushels of genda phool—marigold flowers of yellow and orange to be vertically hung from the family’s apartment door, as they often are in preparation for such auspicious occasions. In the evening, friends and family members funneled through the decorative entrance to take part in the mehendi ceremony, complete with a DJ having set up shop in the stairwell and two drummers pounding away inside the apartment’s living room. As the music raved, mehendi artists laid stunning designs on the hands and feet of the female guests, the scent of henna paste and rich vegetarian food hanging heavy in the air.
Despite the current turmeric craze that seems to be sweeping the nation (sliiiiiiide on over, coconut oil), this bright, flavorful, mustard-colored spice has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. Thanks to the active ingredient, Curcumin, turmeric powder, or haldi, has been proven to work as an antiseptic, an anti-inflammatant, and an antioxidant among SO many other things. Native to India, haldi plays an enormous role in religious ceremonies, particularly in cleansing rituals. During the haldi ceremony before a wedding, family members rely on a turmeric-based paste in order to ward off bad omens such as Buri Nazar, or the “evil eye”, as well as bestow their blessings upon the bride and groom. On the morning of the ceremony, I had joined Neha and her family out on the apartment’s porch. Before us, Neha’s aunt had prepared several thick, herbal pastes consisting of turmeric powder, sandalwood powder, and rosewater. As the elder women led the group in traditional song, each of us were to dip leaves into the haldi and brush them against Neha’s feet, knees, shoulders and head a total of seven times.
The Bride’s Mehendi
On the afternoon before the wedding ceremony, it was Neha’s turn to sit patiently for her mehendi. The bride’s mehendi is often done on the days following the ceremony, for it is bad luck for her fiancé to see the henna designs prior to the wedding. Surrounded by three more artists, Neha took her pillow-padded seat in the living room of her family’s apartment and waited as the men filled small plastic pipes with pungent henna paste of an earthy deep brown. Eucalyptus oil glistening on the limbs emerging from her heathered grey t-shirt dress, somewhat reminiscent of a hospital gown, the practiced professionals doused Neha’s skin with soaked cotton balls as if preparing to make the first incision. For three-and-a-half hours, the exhausted bride-to-be sat motionless with arms and legs outstretched as the men worked silence—their steady hands laying the most intricate designs with impeccable precision, yet with unbelievable ease and speed. With the letters of her fiancé’s name scattered at random throughout the ornate patterns, we spent the rest of the afternoon marveling at the finished product.
On the day of the Ladies’ Sangeet, Neha and her sister Saga had surprised me with a beautifully embellished blue and gold “suit”, as that is what women typically adorn at this particular event. The three of us had stopped in town in order to have my measurements taken for the churidar and kurta I would wear that evening, which happened to be my favorite night of the entire four-day celebration. The Ladies’ Sangeet, a Punjabi wedding tradition hosted by the bride’s family, is the absolute epitome of what I’d imagine comes to mind when one thinks of an Indian wedding—incredible food, fruity cocktails, vibrant colors, ridiculously high energy, and hours upon hours of dancing (cue the crowd fave: NaJa by Pav Dharia). It is Punjabi tradition for the female guests to take turns dancing with a jaago on top of their heads, which is essentially a decorative tiered pot covered with neon lights. Yep, don’t worry, I had my turn.
Day four. There was an undeniable sense of excitement in the air as all twelve of us in the apartment awoke on the morning of the wedding. We had an early start, as the chooda ceremony was to take place soon after Neha’s family returned from the temple. During this ceremony, it is tradition that the bride-to-be slips on a set of 21 red and white bangles gifted by her maternal uncle, which are to be covered with cloth until the wedding and then worn for several months following. As Neha’s family members paraded in song up the decorated stairwell after temple, Neha—donning oversized aviator sunglasses—was thrown over her uncle’s shoulders and brought back down in order to take her place on the canopy-covered rug in the atrium below. Following the ceremony, myself and Neha’s other female friends and family members lined up to tie kaleeras onto her wrists—light-weight, chandelier-shaped metal ornaments, which are essential in Punjabi weddings.
With the exception of the four years she had spent abroad attending university in the UK, Neha had lived her twenty-seven years of life at home with her family, as many young Indian women do until marriage. However, this era was to come to an end on the day of the shaadi ceremony. Her suitcases packed and loaded beside her in the car that was to escort her to the final venue, Neha had said goodbye to her life at home. Following the ceremony that would take place later that evening, Neha would leave with her new husband to live with her in-laws until joining him in Australia in September.
While her exit from the ceremony in the early hours of the morning was certainly an emotional one, the wedding itself was unlike anything I had ever seen. As we shuffled through the grand entrance of the Seven Seas Hotel upon arrival—the women, myself included, dressed in heavily beaded, colorful lehengas—a sea of hanging lilacs illuminated with soft pink lights waved in the wind above our heads. Fans blew sweet floral fragrances down the carpeted entryway while a group of seated musicians played the shehnai and the drums. Inside, stations serving various appetizers and cocktails had lined the perimeter of the room while waiters circulated with bite-sized vegetarian Indian hors d’oeuvres. As we had moved through the enormous venue, the room opened up into an elegant dining room complete with a dance floor and stage.
Despite the evening’s grandeur, sacred Punjabi/Hindu traditions were of course closely followed, beginning with the agwaani ritual in which the groom arrives at the venue (on horseback, no less!!!) with his procession close behind, and ending with the many rites that make up the four-hour shaadi ceremony. Dinner had been served around midnight and the ceremony—a beautifully understated and awe-inspiring affair—had wrapped up around 4am with tearful goodbyes.
Below are some of my favorite photos of Neha. I had taken them during the vadhu aagman ritual, or the arrival of the bride, as well as during the shaadi ceremony. After several exhausting days at the center of attention—days of being prodded at and fussed over as all brides are—it was in these moments, I believe, that Neha had felt the most at ease; genuinely happy to be surrounded by friends and family and thrilled to be starting life anew with the man she loved.
If you have a spare few minutes, check out Neha and Abhay’s wedding video by Monocha Studio Wedding Photography and peep me groovin’ at 5:56!