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Sharing a magical Indian wedding with old friends and new

Updated: Mar 2, 2023

I was 8,600 miles from home and the bridal party was taking advantage of the afternoon sun for group pictures, so I used the delay to adjust my pink turban in the tropical heat. A tall, bearded man wearing a bluish green headpiece for the groom’s side and a Sherwani that seemed to fit better than mine turned and asked me if I was ready to sing.

Two Punjabi drummers began a thundering, hypnotic beat that would roar for 45 minutes, and the colorful crowd began what New Orleanians would recognize as a second line - a joyful walk-dance escort for the bride and groom on their way to the Yagna Pooja.

Welcome to the midway point of Day Three at our first Indian wedding.

I’ve always been a fan of ethnic wedding traditions, which I’ve mostly experienced as diversions woven into the traditional American celebrations. (My younger cousins performed an Irish dance at my wedding.) But this was an actual Indian wedding. In India.

The parents of the bride were part of a crew of old friends who I’ve known since we ruled the bars and breakfast joints of Chicago’s north side in the late 1980s. Most of us are empty nesters in one form or another, and we'd been wearing out the group text for months in giddy anticipation. Now we were here, bearing suitcases packed with traditional Indian formalwear, along with sunscreen and malaria pills.

Although the groom is from Mumbai, the wedding was held in the resort area of Goa, a few hundred miles to the south. We took over the Grand Hyatt Goa for the better part of a week.

Day one started with a bridesmaid’s luncheon for the ladies. We didn’t arrive in time for Mary to make it. But we were ready to go for the Mehendi, a large outdoor reception that featured henna body art. While we reconnected with old friends and were introduced to new ones, the ladies sat down in small groups to have elaborate artwork drawn on their hands by very talented – and amazingly fast-working – artists.

Day two started with the Haldi, an Indian ceremony aimed at calming the nerves of the busy couple by applying soothing natural pastes. Yash’s aunt, an effervescent, friendly woman named Neeta, explained what was happening for us Westerners.

“They’ve been working, hectically preparing for their big day,” she said. “So there is a lot of anxiety. There is a lot of heat in the body which is coming up. So they need to be calm and relaxed.”

The paste was made with sandalwood, turmeric, saffron, and other “medicinal herbs,” she said. While music played, we all waited in line for a turn to greet Yash and Kate on the stage, and apply a small amount of the paste to their arms or face. It was very fun, with just the right mix of silliness and intimacy to make the moment special. As with all things Indian, it was very colorful, with flowers everywhere.

After that was the “Western Wedding,” a nod to our side of the aisle. The ceremony was set against a magnificent sunset on the Arabian Sea. Yash and Kate, a lovely couple who met at the University of Wisconsin, read their own vows. Family members offered readings. And it was all followed by cocktails and a reception.

The Indian wedding band, in Ray Bans and Buddy Holly tuxedos, played great American dance music.

Day three started with yet another cultural turn, a Quaker Meeting. It was a nod to Kate’s high school alma mater, a Quaker school outside Philadelphia. In that religious tradition, we all sat quietly, and shared whatever thoughts came into our minds. My friend Bill took the words out of my mouth when he pointed to our group, and urged Kate and Yash to nurture their friendships.

Next came the Safa Bandi, a gathering of the men for the assembly of our turbans. We were instructed to arrive in the Sherwani – long Indian shirt – we would be wearing, as we would not be able to put anything on or take anything off once the turban was built.

Then each of us, in turn, sat down under the care of an Indian gentleman, holding about 20 feet of fabric. (He may or may not have retrieved more when he saw my Big Irish Head.) He started by placing one end in my hand, and telling me to hold it tight against my chest. Then he wrapped it carefully, creating a handsome headpiece, decorated with a broach in front.

Then we all stood around admiring his handiwork, some of us drinking tea.

Next it was time for the Nach Baliye, which is where this story started. In a typical Indian wedding, this would involve the groom, often on a white horse, processing in celebratory dance with his family and friends to greet the bride and her family. Yash and Kate improvised, and rode together slowly, standing and dancing in an open car, while we all danced around them.

The man who turned and asked me if I was ready to sing, also offered some basic lessons in Indian dance, as did Neeta. And everyone got in the spirit of the moment. Some formed circles, with a dance leader in the middle. Others clapped and moved. At one point a group of dancing young men jumped on Yash and Kate’s car, playfully stopping its progress as they danced and mugged for pictures. All of this happened under the bright tropical sun, with the sea in the background.

The next stage of the event was the Yagna Pooja, a Hindu prayer service. The groom’s mother was not at the wedding, as she was in the hospital receiving treatment for a very serious illness. She was particularly remembered at this event, with prayers offered for her recovery.

On a large raised platform spreading across the lawn, 10 small stations were set up, each around a fire pit. Four people from the groom’s side and four people from the bride’s side gathered around each station, while a group of Hindu priests sung a series of prayers. Each time a certain word was spoken, we would all toss some herbs into the fire. The idea, we were told, was to purify the air and let the smoke and fire lift our prayers.

I couldn’t understand the words, but quickly realized that one prayer was being repeated over and over again. At first glance it might seem like we were doing something wholly different from anything I ever experienced growing up Catholic. Then I recognized the ritual as, more or less, a rosary. It was easy to fall into a comforted trance. I thought about my late parents, whose marriage lasted 62 years, and tried to project that good feeling onto Yash and Kate.

When it was over, I felt calm and peaceful, even if I did need help getting up from sitting on a cushion for so long.

Next came the Sangeet, an Indian reception that started with an all-wedding dance contest. One by one, various groups of friends and family took the stage to perform choreographed dance routines that we had all learned. Mary and I had been practicing our part all across Europe. I will leave it to the critics to assess our performance.

A nice moment for me was sitting watching the other groups. I was next to Sanjay, the groom’s uncle. When the bride’s aunts and uncles performed – the mother of the bride is one of six children, all of whom I have known for years – he asked me to tell him the name of everyone on stage. He listened carefully, and I was impressed by his effort.

The reception was our introduction to Bollywood-style, Hindi pop music, which I believe is impossible not to dance to when you hear it. We let the youngsters do most of the work on the dance floor. But Mary and I had one of those moments where you are swept away by the volume and the beat, and dance without caring about anything other than the fact that you are dancing.

At one point, when the music was particularly fast and loud, a young Indian man turned and started dancing with me. I did my best to keep up. I interpreted his intense gaze, then nod and smile, as an acknowledgement that an old white dude was getting into the spirit.

We walked off the dance floor and tried to find our friends.

“Could they have gone up to their rooms?” Mary asked, surprised.

I pulled out my phone and showed it to her. It was 1:48 a.m.

Was India a long way to travel for a wedding? Heck yes. But this was a very good wedding. And these were very good friends. The best way to learn about a new culture is to dive right in, as we all did together. One of our group called it "the experience of a lifetime," which I know is a cliche. Except when it isn't.

As I sit here writing this, I remember that our trip started six weeks ago at another wedding, in Providence, where the son of another old friend got married. It was also a great wedding, teeming with happy people and lots of dancing - including an impromptu Irish jig by the father of the groom. I sat at a table with people I met 42 years ago, when we were moving into the first floor of Claver Hall at Boston College, in the Fall of 1980.

Here's to old friends.

Check out our other travel posts here.



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