I slept much better last night, probably as a result of sheer exhaustion. Looking around this morning, there seems to be people everywhere. It was estimated that around 1000 people attended yesterday's celebrations at some stage during the day, and somewhere between 150 and 200 stayed over last night. People just grabbed a space as and where they could find: on the roof (not an inch of space was left between mats up there last night, and people were sleeping two or more per mat), on cots dotted around the grounds (lots of extra cots and mats had been hired for the occasion), on top of tables, on the ground sheet in the marquee, and in the house or on the porch of course. Everywhere there was space in other words.
There's nothing like having an audience when you wake up.
Even Sabu came and joined us in the tent this morning; showing off his katar (ceremonial dagger) that he has to wear until after the wedding.
Until today I thought mehendi (henna painting) was just for the girls, but Sabu has beautiful decorated hands too!
I have no idea how many people were invited in total, but there were boxes and boxes of invitation cards on the farm when we arrived, with people taking huge stacks with them in the car and coming back empty handed. I felt extremely honoured that we were actually mentioned on the invitation itself – the only thing we did understand on it! The invitations were very fancy, about 5mm thick in a classy gold envelope. Inside, a padded and embossed folder holds two cards, one of which has our names on it.
A leisurely morning, followed by a light lunch, and it's time to get ready for the big day.
First of all there was another haldi (turmeric) ceremony inside the small room which doubles up as a shrine. This time Sabu was joined by his young nephew as they were being smeared with turmeric paste seven times for luck, prosperity and to protect from evil spirits.
With temperatures of over 40 °C outside, the small inside rooms get very hot indeed, especially when crammed full of people wanting to see what is going on.
Someone's been busy this morning decorating Sabu's car for the journey to Sikar (the bride's city) today for the main wedding ceremony.
Time to prepare the groom for his long journey. Again we were inside, this time in the slightly bigger TV room, although it was so packed with people trying to get in on the action, it seemed even smaller and even hotter than before.
All the time Sabu was being blessed by someone waving money over his head.
If I am hot, then Sabu must be boiling in his long, heavy embroidered silk sherwani (coat).
Of course, Sabu and his trusty mobile phone are rarely far apart!
Next the tilak (mark on the forehead) is applied.
Now Sabu is wearing another, much larger and grander katar (ceremonial dagger) to go with his wedding outfit, and he is placed on a small pedestal.
He then steps off the pedestal and on to money. There are so many rituals involved with an Indian wedding, most of which I don't know the significance of. I mostly just go with the flow.
Next, several people hand Sabu something (gifts maybe?), along with some money, but again I didn't not manage to catch the meaning of the ritual.
Then a flower garland is placed around Sabu's neck.
A tray with coconuts and money is offered to the groom.
More money is being offered the groom.
Who then touch his garland.
Back in to the small prayer room.
Then it is outside under the red canopy for another puja.
This ritual involved more money (of course), as well as a coconut shell with something inside being waved over Sabu's head.
Sabu still can't leave that mobile phone alone.
Then the horse appeared. It is traditional for the groom to ride to the bride's house on a horse, in a procession called baarat. Of course, it would not be possible for Sabu to ride the 150-plus kilometres from Dagri to Sikar, but he is starting off from the farm on a horse.
But first the horse had to be blessed of course.
As well as his master.
Sabu is helped onto the horse. He is not a rider, but has been practising for a few days here on the farm apparently.
This is one of the more unusual rituals I have come across on this trip – traditionally, as the marriage party prepares to leave for the bride’s place, the mother of the groom comes forward and publicly suckles the bridegroom in a ceremony called boba dena. This symbolises his final departure from his mum's house to that of his bride. It is fairly tastefully done, and if you'd blinked you would have missed it. In fact, my camera did miss it. Probably just as well.
Groom's Procession – baraat.
During the baraat, the groom rides in on a horse, accompanied by his someone close to him (in Sabu's case, his young nephew). In the front of the procession is a truck with a huge music system, blaring out traditional Indian wedding tunes; behind that the guests dance as we make our way from the farm to the village along the sandy tracks. The horse with the groom follows, both decked out in their finery and there is much noise, pomp and circumstance. I reckon there must have been at least 200 of us in the procession.
Later, another young nephew joins Sabu on the horse.
The entrance to the farm had been beautifully decorated with a huge red arch for yesterday's party, but unfortunately it was too low for the truck and horse to pass through, so it had to be quickly disassembled before the procession could continue.
As the lads were trying to manhandle the arch out of the way, the strong wind caught it, and the whole thing crashed to the ground, much to the amusement of the kids. No harm down, and the baarat continued towards the village.
It really was very hot out today, and just walking is exhausting, let alone dancing in the street! I soon finish my water bottle and as I go, I feel more and more over-heated, fatigued, dehydrated and light-headed. As Sabu's honorary mother, I am requested to walk alongside the horse, rather than dance in front of it, so at least that saves me some energy!
It is only around two kilometres from the farm to the village, but in today's heat it seemed like 20!
I have to say, looking back on it afterwards, this was one of my favourite parts of the wedding – it felt so surreal, so dreamlike, so extraordinary to be there; like being part of a Bollywood movie!
As we arrived into the village of Dagri, people either watched from the side lines or joined in with the procession and dancing.
Again money was waved in the air over the groom (or close to, he was a little bit too high while on the horse for people to actually reach above him). I am still unsure about where that money goes, as a lot of people tried to grab it, with the officious security guard “fighting” them for it. The same thing happened back at the farm last night during the dancing.
By the time we'd reached the village, the sun had come out, increasing the heat tenfold. I was a like a wet rag, not coping at all well with the heat. I was severely dehydrated, feeling very dizzy, light headed and close to passing out. I no longer cared about anything other than sitting down somewhere cool and having a drink. In that order. I was totally unaware of the surroundings, and when the procession turned round and appeared to be heading back to the farm, I'd had enough. I collapsed in a heap at the side of the road and refused to walk another step. A great deal of fuss was made (although I was somewhat oblivious to everything that was going on around me), the wedding car (which had been following the procession) was summonsed for me to sit in and PC thankfully took my camera (yet again) to photograph the rest of the baarat.
While I was in the air conditioned wedding car trying to recover, Sabu and some of his baarati (members of his procession) went in to the small village temple to perform a puja.
A packet of crisps was produced for me (it later appeared they had a huge supply of these) and the salty snack (along with the cooler air in the car) soon made me feel well enough to apply some lipstick and put some flowers in my hair ready for the next part of the celebrations.
The procession was NOT returning to the farm as I had initially feared (I think it was just the thought of another 2km walk with the psychological effect of this that finally sent me over the edge), we were in fact piling into cars and local style buses for the journey to Sikar. They had all been following behind the procession, and now we were travelling in a cavalcade of motor vehicles – some 15 cars and a handful buses and trucks with a couple of hundred or more people.
First stop was to get some cold drinks – Jo had introduced me to a fresh mango juice called Mango Slice on this trip, and now I was hooked. The cold liquid soon rehydrated me and we made our way in a lively convoy towards Sikar.
Many stops were made, for various reasons such as making sure everyone was together, comfort stops, picnic stops and getting stuff from one car to another. At one stage Sabu rang me to ask if I had some “red peppers”. Red peppers? What on earth did he want red peppers for? I asked again, and I could have sworn he repeated “red peppers” Several more attempts were made to communicate, but to no avail, all I kept hearing was “red peppers”. I handed the phone to Rishi, and he “translated” for me: “Red tissues”. OK, I am no wiser now. Eventually we somehow managed to ascertain that Sabu was after some WET TISSUES! Fortunately I'd brought a large packet of baby wipes with me in the camera bag, so these were promptly handed over to PC at one of the many stops.
Along the way we saw many other wedding palaces and groom's processions. There is a very good reason for that: Today was chosen for the wedding ceremony to be held, not in a random way, or for the convenience of guests and wedding party as is the norm in the West, but by its auspicious qualities. Calculating the best day to get married is very involved and time consuming and is carried out by an astrologer analysing the bride and groom's life periods using their complex 36-point birth charts and the location of the wedding to find a window of opportunity when both their charts are in perfect harmony with the forces of Time. This involves drawing up charts for each day of the year, and then fine tuning the time slot using the Panchangam, the Hindu astrological calendar to harmonise with the astrological energies for both parties in order to maximise the good effects of the marriage outcome. Anyway, today is the day!
By the time we got to Sikar, it was dark. From the car park we walked down a gravelly lane and you could hear the party before you saw it. Not only were fire crackers being let off making it seem like we were taking a casual stroll through Beirut, a live band was playing music to welcome the guests outside the Wedding Palace too. Nice touch.
A long corridor led into the palace, which had two main parts and a few other smaller rooms. The VIP area was indoors with fans and AC units, covered comfortable chairs and a stage. There was a hush about the place and a formal atmosphere.
The other part was open to the elements, with a grass floor, trailing lights and a party vibe with people eating, drinking and mingling.
Food was available from uniformed waiters, some of whom spoke passable English.
Fresh fruit juices were being brought round: mango, pineapple with cumin and a hint of chilli, and an unidentifiable concoction that smelt like drains and tasted little better.
An army of chefs were on hand to ensure the 2000 or so expected guests did not go hungry.
We spent a lot of time in the VIP section (it was cooler and had more comfortable seats), relaxing, eating, drinking and chatting to the children. A lot more English was spoken here than at the farm, with the kids being particularly keen to practice their English.
“What's your name?”
“What's your country?”
“You friend Sabu?”
“How many kilo you weigh?”
“How much your camera cost?”
“You take my photo.”
There are some questions that are not taboo in the same way in India as it is back home, weight, costs and salary being the more common ones.
My cold sore is still growing, and constantly bleeding and pussing. I have managed to partly conceal it using an “invisible” cold sore plaster, which I applied lipstick on top of. I have even put on mascara and eye shadow for the occasion.
After what seems like an eternity of nothing happening, suddenly there is a hive of activity. Chairs have appeared on the stage, and the groom's representatives are bringing out the jewellery, shoes and wedding dress for the bride.
It's the tradition that the groom pays for the bride's trousseau and Sabu has spent an absolutely fortune on gold jewellery and a wedding dress to die for! Reena is going to look absolutely stunning!
Have you seen these killer heels? Just as well the bride does not have to walk through the village in a baarat procession like the groom does! While Sabu's family are all very tall, Reena is really quite short, so the heels will help in the photos later.
The groom arrived with much pomp and circumstance, to another ritual involving the bride's family, sacred threads, touching the forehead and the exchange of gifts.
Sabu is constantly being wiped down with the wet tissues (also known as “red peppers”) by PC – he must be really feeling the heat in that outfit!
The jewellery and wedding dress were taken away and was followed by a lot of blessing with tilak (red marks on the forehead).
Trying to keep PC happy with his constant cries of “Me camera”, as well as being able to do my own photography; I lend him my spare camera body (the Canon EOS 6D) fitted with a wide angle lens. Now we are both happy.
By this time I am beginning to feel rather dehydrated again, and they've run out of filtered water, I have a few more glasses of pineapple juice with cumin, but it is beginning to taste more and more odd as the night goes on. It is now over 12 hours since I last peed (despite drinking several litres of fluid during that time), a very clear indication that I am seriously dried out!
Having been called outside with some urgency, I discovered that Sabu is having another baarat (groom's procession) on horseback through the streets of Sikar too.
At the front of the procession is a live band, followed by Sabu on a white horse.
Bringing up the rear is a PA system with a singer, and a donkey cart carrying the generator providing electricity for not just the sound system, but also a string of huge lamps being carried on each side of the procession. One of the young lads operating the generator took a bit of a shine to me, but I must admit I have heard better chat-up lines: “Hello, I think you're beautiful, will you sleep with me?”
Mingled in with this procession are the baarati – the guests dancing in the street. We did join them for a spot of dancing this time.
The road from the Wedding Palace was a narrow, sandy lane, and our procession was causing absolute chaos with cars and motorbikes trying to pass.
This was definitely a grand affair, with firecrackers (which scared the horse every time one went off – I was sure Sabu was going to end up on the floor at one stage) and some pretty good fireworks.
Of course, this being India, there were no safety measures whatsoever – the pyrotechnics were being let off in the middle of the street, with no warning – a couple of time I almost walked straight into it!
Welcoming the Bridegroom - Vara satkaarah
The procession arrives at the entrance and Sabu rides into the Wedding Palace where he is handed a branch that he holds aloft with his sword.
As he gets off the horse and enters the main hall, a party popper is let off, with much smoke and colourful confetti.
He is greeted by a female member of the bride's family, carrying twigs on a jar on her head.
A tilak is placed on his forehead.
The rest of the bride's family are there to greet the groom and his procession.
By the time we get inside, a “love seat” has appeared on the stage and Sabu sits down.
The colourful procession featuring the bride and her entourage enters the room with rose petals scattered in front of Rena as she walks.
With those shoes, she would have to be walking so carefully anyway, and the dress itself weighs 15kg with all the gold and embroidery, so there will be no rushing around for her tonight that's for sure!
Reena arrives at the stage and Sabu reaches out for her hand, gently pulling her up to be by his side.
Exchange of flower garlands - Jaimala
The bride and groom exchange floral garlands to wear around their necks to symbolise their acceptance of each other and a pledge to respect one another as partners as well as their mutual approval to proceed with the ceremony. It is considered that, whoever puts the garland first on their partner, will have an upper hand in the marriage. That'll be Reena then (struggling to reach over the top of Sabu's turban with its feather sticking up)! You go girl!
There was this irritating little child - I have no idea who he belonged to - who was such a diva and wanted to be in every single photo, refusing to leave the stage. Even when the official photographer physically lifted him out of the frame, he was back there like a shot!
Flower petals are sprinkled over the couple to protect them from evil.
Next followed the official photographs – like most other weddings, the bride and groom were pictured with every combination of family and friends possible.
Touching the feet of the elders as a sign of respect.
Once the photo-shoot was over, Reena and Sabu headed for one of the smaller rooms in the Wedding Palace where Sabu's dad was. Despite his paralysis, dad had managed to come all the way to Sikar, and it was so good to see him being able to at least take part in a small section of the celebrations.
With the formal photos out of the way, the bride and groom could relax a little and have a meal. They need to get their strength back anyway, for the next part of the ceremony, the vows and associated rituals. Most guests had departed by now, and there was only around a dozen or so of us around the dining table.
By this stage it was past midnight, and I was severely dehydrated, with a pain in my stomach, but I didn't want to risk drinking the unfiltered water. After Jo's description of the toilets at the Wedding Palace, I was glad to say I still had no desire to pee. When Naryan returned from the railway station (the only place that was open at this time of night) with cold Mango Slice and Water, I felt I had died and gone to heaven!
Bride and groom feed each other - Anna praashan
The next ritual has the couple feed each other from a single plate which is supposed to increase the love manifold between the two and to express their mutual love and affection. They are still not actually legally married, that ceremony is yet to come.
Of course, everybody else then had to have a go at feeding them too. This is one of the reasons why Indian weddings take so long!
The next thing that happened was that a bowl of water with rose petals in it was brought to the table and the bride and groom both dipped their hands in it together.
Look at the jewellery on Reena's hand and wrist! If the wedding dressed weighed 15kg, then the bling must have been at least as heavy!
The Altar – Mandap
A specially constructed four poster 'pavilion' is traditionally used as al 'altar' for Hindu wedding ceremonies. This was set inside one of the smaller rooms off the main hallway in the Wedding Palace.
A small raised platform forms the centre of the mandap; this is to be used later for the ceremonial fire. Other paraphernalia related to the various rituals are scattered around.
This part of the ceremony is normally just witnessed by the very closest family and friends, and I feel extremely honoured to be here. In addition to the bride, groom, priest, photographer and staff, there are around a dozen or so people present. One thing that really struck me with every part of the Indian wedding, was how it is not as formal as the western equivalent – people are more relaxed, phone calls are taken and made, guests milling around randomly (which I found really annoying from a photography point of view) and chatting to each other, the couple and the priest seemed to be perfectly acceptable.
First the shoes come off.
The couple then take a seat on the floor inside the mandap where the ceremony will take place. I had been warned that this part of the wedding could in fact take in excess of two hours. And it did.
A cloth was secured to the side of Reena's head that faced the groom; which I think was meant to represent the antarpat - an auspicious cloth separating the bride and groom as a symbol of their separate existence prior to the marriage. I cannot be sure of this, however, it is mostly guesswork. I had done a lot of research into what happens at Indian weddings prior to leaving the UK in order to make sense of each and every stage of the ceremony. Although it did help some, there were still so many details that went straight over my head. I apologise if I have any facts wrong or have misinterpreted anything.
As well as the bride and groom, inside the mandap was Reena's aunt and uncle and the priest. A couple of facilitators helped with the ceremony. One aspect of Indian weddings that is very unusual to us is that mothers are not present. I cannot imagine a mother in the UK not wanting to see her son or daughter getting wed!
This is where I would love to say it all got very exciting and riveting, but the truth is, it dragged on and on and on. And on. And then some. It was hot (despite the fan in the corner of the room), it was late (or rather early morning), I was dehydrated and I didn't understand what was going on. Some of the guests went upstairs to sleep but I was determined to sit it out! I kept nodding off and David would nudge me when something appeared to be happening. I was impressed that David managed to stay awake all through the proceedings; I am out of practice with partying all night - these days to me an “all-nighter” means not having to get out of bed and pee.
I will try and explain some of the rituals that I did notice and that may be significant, as I saw them.
Lighting of the Sacred Fire – Havan or Vivah homa
The couple light the fire and invokes Agni, the god of Fire who symbolises light, power and knowledge, to witness their commitment to each other. Crushed sandalwood, herbs, sugar rice and oil are offered to the ceremonial fire. The words "Id na mama" meaning "it is not for me" are repeated after the offerings. This teaches the virtue of selflessness required to run a family.
It seems that every part of every ritual involves handing over some money. Mostly the ten rupee note is involved which is about 10p in English money. There must have been a mountain of these notes at the Wedding Palace!
Holding hand ritual - Panigrahana
The groom holds the bride's hand while reciting a vedic mantra. This is the ceremony of vows. The groom accepts the bride as his lawfully wedded wife by taking her right hand in his left hand saying "I hold your hand in the spirit of Dharma, we are both husband and wife".
Unlike in a Christian wedding, the bride and groom marry each other and the priest only facilitates the marriage by reciting mantras or holy hymns, but doesn’t have the authority to declare them married.
Offering puffed rice to the fire - Laja homa
Offering of puffed rice as oblations to the sacred fire by the bride are made while keeping the palms of her hands over those of her life-long partner.
Tying of the Nuptial Knot - Gath Bandhan
The scarves placed around the bride and groom are tied together symbolising their eternal bond. This signifies their pledge before God to love each other and remain faithful. The marriage knot represents nourishment, strength, prosperity, happiness, progeny, long life and harmony, and understanding.
Stepping on a stone - Shilarohan
Shilarohan is climbing over a stone by the bride which symbolises her willingness and strength to overcome difficulties in pursuit of her duties.
Walk around the fire - Mangalphera
The couple walk four circles (pheras) around the fire in a clockwise direction representing four goals in life: Dharma, religious and moral duties; Artha, prosperity; Kama, earthly pleasures; Moksha, spiritual salvation and liberation. The bride leads the Pheras the first three times, signifying her determination to stand first beside her husband in all happiness and sorrow. The fourth time the groom leads and is reminded of his responsibilities.
Forehead mark - Sindoor
Finally, the groom will apply a red powder to the centre of the bride’s forehead as a symbol of a desire for a long and happy marriage as well as long life for her husband. It is an elongated mark and placed in a straight line in the parting of the hair, directly in the middle. It is applied for the first time to a woman during the marriage ceremony when the bridegroom himself adorns her with it.
The story behind the sindoor goes back to a goddess whose husband had died. She was unable to accept his death and instead decided to follow him into the afterlife to bring him back with her to this life. During this effort, she was branded with a red flame in her hair. The sindoor is therefore applied daily to the hair of a married woman to represent her willingness to defend her marriage.
More jewellery is brought out.
Which Sabu carefully places over Reena's head and around her neck, struggling a little to get it over her headdress.
This is now (thankfully) the end of the marriage ceremony, and Sabu and Reena are husband and wife. Many congratulations!
Now please can we go home? It is 03:30 and we've been celebrating all day and night. If I am exhausted, how must the bride and groom feel? I know they are younger than me and more used to the heat, but they had the added stress of the marriage ceremonies and the weight of the clothing.
Farewell to the bride – Vidaai
Just one more thing to do before we can leave for Dagri: we need to visit Reena's family home and perform one last puja.
Reena's place is a comfortable middle class house not far from the Wedding Palace. After the puja, we are offered a cool drink while we wait for Reena to adjust her clothing and gather up a few things for her journey, not just to Dagri, but to her new life. I spot a nice, clean western style toilet, and realise that it is 17 hours since I last peed. I think you can most certainly say that I am well and truly dehydrated! We say our goodbyes and make our way back to the Wedding Palace, where we have to wake the drivers who have been sleeping upstairs before we can start on the three-hour journey back to the farm. It is 05:15 before we actually leave, and it has been one heck of a long day!