Last month, I got married.
Regular readers might wonder how on earth I went from every second column whinging about my dire personal life to blissful matrimony – the answer is 2.5 excellent years with a woman named Divya, whose family hails from Chennai, formerly known as Madras, which is the capital of Tamil Nadu state and the sixth-largest city in India.
One day late last year, we decided to get married. And given the choice between a three-day traditional ceremony in India and a relatively brief event with a celebrant here, the choice was obvious.
(Actually, we chose both, the latter being necessary to make it legal.)
This meant I had a lot to learn, seeing as both sides of my family were predominantly raised Anglican. Here are some of the things that happened when I got to – well, not walk down the aisle – walk around a sacred fire, in fact.
1) It goes for three days
I’ve heard that some varieties of Hindu weddings have events stretching across a whole month, but our wedding lasted for three days. It began with a mehndi, or henna ceremony – a party at the hotel where many of us were staying, at which the female guests got their hands painted with henna.
Then, the following evening, there was an engagement ceremony or nichayathartham, at which I promised to return for a marriage ceremony the following morning. Then, at 7am – yes, 7am – the following morning, we began the ceremony in earnest. The various ceremonies took until lunchtime and were then followed by a formal reception dinner back at the hotel.
2) It was vegetarian – and dry
It was much longer than a typical Australian wedding, of course, but there were two other major differences that our overseas guests had to adjust to. Firstly, all the food was vegetarian, as are my wife’s family, and secondly, there was no alcohol.
And, despite being advised that it was going to require three days of not drinking, quite a few brave Australians volunteered to attend.
One of the major lessons for me was that there’s incredible variety within the Hindu religion, which has no overarching hierarchical structure – there are no archbishops, let alone Popes. For instance, I was told that in the neighbouring state, Kerala, traditional Hindu weddings can often take a matter of just a few minutes.
3) Hands and feet were painted with henna
The mehndi is traditionally a North Indian ceremony, but it seems to have been adopted elsewhere, probably because it’s really fun. Divya’s family had already had a ceremony at their home the evening before, meaning not only that she looked spectacular with ornate decorations up to her elbows and knees (within which somewhere the letters of my name were concealed!), but that she was free to welcome our guests at the first event.
Two canopies were set up inside a function room and there were two women at each station, meaning that their ‘customers’ could get their hands painted simultaneously. Everyone’s designs were different, and yet somehow the artists managed to make the patterns match on each hand.
As this was going on, a DJ played Bollywood tunes (and a bit of Daft Punk as the party progressed), and everybody ended up on the dancefloor. At 4pm. Sober.
It was a great lesson for all of us, especially a certain self-conscious groom who was meant to lead the group in Bollywood dancing. And yes, me doing that made for some wonderfully awkward photos.
4) We wore incredibly colourful outfits
Saris must be among the most beautiful garments ever conceived, and of course my bride looked gorgeous in each of her eight or so wardrobe changes throughout the event. I honestly don’t think it’s possible to look anything but elegant in a sari, and they looked terrific on our guests from a wide variety of backgrounds.
As for me, not only did I get to wear some excellent outfits, including some rather fetching Nehru jackets atop kurthas (traditional shirts), but our guests embraced the Indian wardrobe with unexpected gusto. The local retailers of Indian formalwear must have thought that all their Diwalis had come at once.
During the wedding ceremony itself, I managed to negotiate wearing a simple white shirt rather than exposing my pasty skin to direct sun for four hours, which I really feel was in everyone’s best interests, but my lower half was wrapped in an extraordinary length of cloth called a veshti which had been dyed an auspicious shade of yellow in turmeric overnight by both our mothers (thanks mums). It took two brave men to get me into it, and after trying it, I fully expect Aussie blokes to embrace the veshti someday with the same vigour that visitors to Bali have embraced the sarong.
5) I travelled by bullock cart
At a typical Western wedding, the bride gets to make a grand entrance – but at our wedding, the arrival was all about me! The tradition is that the groom’s family travels to the bride’s home, so it makes sense for him to get the big entry at the engagement ceremony.
The one question everyone asked me before I left for India was whether I’d arrive on a horse or an elephant. Apparently the latter is still an option, although an increasingly unpopular one given welfare concerns, but the idea of a traditional bullock cart seemed wonderful, especially since my family could accompany me on it.
The procession was led not by horses, but by traditional poikkal kuthirai dancers dressed as horses, and accompanied by loud piping on an instrument called the nadaswaram which made everything highly festive.
It was a brilliant way to arrive at the wedding hall, so much so that I’m still waiting for the Uber app to offer a bullock cart option.
6) We had a very short engagement
We’ve all heard of lengthy engagements – Audrey Tautou made a movie about one once – but ours only lasted for about nine hours. On the evening of the second day, we gathered at the wedding hall (mandapam) for the wedding to be formally announced, which involved reading out the names of our ancestors for three generations back. Rings were exchanged, along with jewellery, more clothes, food items and even toiletries just to prove that we were going to be well looked after, and I formally promised to return for the wedding.
Traditionally, the bride and groom’s families stay at the wedding hall until the end of the wedding – mine went back to the hotel overnight, while Divya’s stayed at the beautiful traditional Kerala-style seaside home that was our venue.
And that meant we had to be up at 5am and onto a bus at 6 to get there by 7 for the start of proceedings. Everyone made it, impressively – which was great, because after all, I had promised I’d be there.
7) I called the whole thing off… and then called it back on again immediately
The wedding itself involved a great many ceremonies, largely conducted in Sanskrit, with a few directions in Tamil. As I understand neither language, some of Divya’s relatives helpfully translated for me. We had to build a holy fire and distribute various offerings into certain sacred receptacles, and the sound of the Sanskrit chants was mesmerising.
The one thing I got to do in English, though, was the kasi yatra, a ceremony where I announced I was going off on a pilgrimage to pursue further religious studies and renounce worldly pursuits. Armed with a copy of said scriptures, a parasol to shield my hairless pate from the hot sun, and the most uncomfortable sandals I’ve ever worn (because I was renouncing the comforts of this world), I set off for the gate, announcing that I’d changed my mind, and that the scriptures were my priority henceforth.
At the gate, though, my prospective father-in-law stopped me, and suggested that marriage was a superior state, and that I’d have his daughter as a partner through the travails of life. Of course I agreed, and back we went.
8) There was a swing!
A common feature in South Indian homes, the swing is called an oonjal, and it’s a wooden plank big enough for two. We gently rocked backwards and forwards to symbolise the ups and downs of life. I was very much feeling the ups at that point, especially as I’d just taken off those sandals.
9) We sealed the deal with a thread and seven steps together
The actual moment of marriage – the equivalent of “I now declare you man and wife” occurred at the “auspicious time”, when I performed the mangalya dharanam, and tied a yellow thread around my wife’s neck. I only tied the first knot though – the second and third are tied by the groom’s sister to symbolise that she is joining the family. As I don’t have a sister, my sister-in-law officiated.
I promised three times to take care of my wife, and after this we took seven steps together, each one representing a promise not unlike the western marriage vows. I then placed her toe on a grindstone, and we promised to be as solid and firm as that slab of rock so we can always depend on one another.
10) We joined our families
One of the biggest differences from the wedding traditions I’ve previously been familiar with is that there’s much more of a role for the whole family. The bride and groom’s parents are involved at various points throughout proceedings and sit on a dias to symbolise their blessing for their children. (Unfortunately my father was unwell and could not attend, so my aunt and uncle joined my mother on the dias, while my dad watched from Sydney via FaceTime – a truly modern situation!)
My brother and nephew accompanied me on my “pilgrimage”, and we received the blessings of five married women from each family. Divya’s cousin was also very much involved in the wedding ceremony itself, in particular during a part where we threw puffed rice into the sacred fire to represent prosperity in our new lives together. I honestly felt that I was joining a family.
So, after all that, I feel well and truly married… and in a few weeks we’ll say a few more vows, this time in English, to make it legal. (If we lived in India, we could register the marriage there, but having something here seemed a nice option.)
It was undoubtedly the most extraordinary wedding I’ve ever attended. I’m very grateful to Divya’s family for organising such a spectacular occasion, and to everyone who travelled a long way to be part of it.
As a result of all this, I can promise no more mopey columns about being single. From now on, I’m going to be one of those infuriating smug marrieds.