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Mon Dec 9, 2013, 03:25 AM

My big, fancy, fish-filled, blingy, smokey, loud, crowded Indian wedding ceremony (pics) [View all]

Last edited Mon Dec 9, 2013, 06:01 AM - Edit history (3)

OK, that was interesting.

Though we were married in the US in July (there's a thread somewhere in the lounge of those pictures), most of her family couldn't make it there from Calcutta, so we just had our Bengali ceremony in Calcutta this weekend.

Some of the customs we couldn't really do because
A: my family wasn't here, and
B: we didn't have 7 days

So this was the abbreviated version.

The morning started early for my wife, who woke at sunrise and had turmeric and ghee spread all over her face and arms by all the married women in her family:

Being a male in the patriarchy has its advantages, and I woke at my leisure and ate a breakfast of luchi (a kind of fried flatbread, like puri if you know that), eggplant, okra, papaya, mango chutney, lentils, and cauliflower. Fish, rice, meat, and onions are bad luck to eat before the ceremony.

(I have no idea who those people I'm eating with are; I think distant cousins of my wife. The younger girl painted the sandalwood design on my forehead that you'll see later, and advised me on my hair style, which in this picture was apparently unacceptable -- Calcutta is a land of Brill Cream.)

None of them are very devout Hindus in a religious sense, but a neat moment happened when a honeybee came into the apartment. They live on the 27th floor, so they don't fly that high very often. I had been talking about my grandfather who passed away this summer earlier, and mentioned he was a passionate beekeeper. "You never know", Uncle said, and hummed the "twilight zone" song...

Another interesting tradition is that the families exchange fish the day of the ceremony (this is just in Bengal, not all of India). Once upon a time the fish were dressed up in little fish-sized saree's, but nowadays they just put glitter on them.

Here's the fish we sent to my wife's family:

And here's the fish they sent back:

It was delicious (we ate it the next day).

After breakfast and a little bit of turmeric being put on my face, I changed into my first outfit, a sherwani (the shirt) with dhoti (the pants). These pants are probably the least practical garment ever designed, but they do look kind of cool. The hat is unfortunate, but part of the package. (The hat tried to kill me later in the ceremony.)

Since my family isn't here, we had to appoint an impromptu bor jathri (groom's team) to get me ready, take me to the wedding, and make sure none of the kids on the bride's side steal my shoes (if they do, I have to ransom them with some sweets). Here's me, my mesho (uncle on the mother's side -- the taller guy with the mustache) and his friend whose name I didn't catch, who were an excellent bor jathri. (For the duration of the ceremony, I called him "babaji", father.)

And here are me and the three mashis ("aunt", though a much broader term that includes basically any female of your parents' generation). The turmeric-smearing I mentioned has to be done by three married women.

Meanwhile, at my wife's family's house, they were preparing the tents for the ceremony and the dinner, plus the receiving line in the anteroom and veranda. You'll see these thrones again...

When we show up, my wife is in a back room being fawned over by the mashis, and the men and older women of the family come to greet me and the bor jathri, so there's a quick receiving line. Here's me and Dadu (maternal grandfather, though not literally in this case; like "mashi" it's more of a generational term). This guy was really funny. He points to my hat (you'll see more of it later) and says "Son, this hat is very light, yes? But beware! Every year, it gets a little heavier. I've had mine for 40 years..." There's a Bengali saying, "over time, pith (what the hat is made of) turns into iron."

I don't like the look on my face here (this was a pro photographer who kept demanding I look at the camera, which I hate -- it's a wedding, people want to see you interacting, not staring at the camera...) but I'm including it because the teenage girl who advised me on my hair did a great job of painting the sandalwood design on me, so I wanted to show off her work.

Then I have a costume change, and put on a white shawl and white dhoti. In theory I shouldn't wear an undershirt, but I'm so pale I'm afraid people might be blinded...

So, upstairs, in the ceremony tent on the roof, this is me receiving the blessings of my father-in-law (he passed away years ago, so his brother, my "kaku", stands in).

Then begins a long series of introductions of our ancestors to one another, in Sanskrit. I actually took Sanskrit in college, so I could follow a little, but this was said with a Bengali accent which made it difficult (the vowels are rounder and all the s's are sh's). I was applauded after for my patience but around the sixth or seventh time I heard "shri Sholomon" (my great-grandfather's name was Solomon, so that was how every repetition of the list started) I was starting to lose it. But, finally, after sitting cross-legged on a concrete roof for about 45 minutes, I could get up and go "meet" my wife.

This is the famous "seven steps" ceremony, where she walks around me seven times with a betel leaf fan in front of her face, and I hold up that little mirror so that if she "peeks" she'll see her own reflection instead of me.

The kids of the family count the steps, and being kids, jump back to five after six to mess with her, but she was not fooled. After the seven circumgroomigations, she stands in front of me and lowers the fan and I lower the mirror.

Then we go back to the roof tent for the final part of the ceremony. (We also exchange those garlands, she passes hers through mine three times, but apparently nobody got a picture of that. The garlands are amazing; roses and lilies, and surprisingly heavy.)

The priest has me light the fire, which represents the god Agni (or, in some schools of Hinduism, physically is the god Agni). Agni is the witness to the ceremony:

I then pour some ghee on the fire to keep it going (it's an offering, apparently). I had to repeat what the priest said; the parts I understood were "Om in the name of Shiva I give; Om in the name of Krishna I give; Om in the name of Kali I give; Om in the name of Vishnu I give; Om in the name of Holy Mother Durga I give thrice. Om peace Om peace Om peace.", for a total of seven ghee-pourings.

A ghee and bamboo fire makes a lot of smoke:

(Tattoos, incidentally, are unusual enough in India that everybody was really interested in mine. the USMC you can see above, this one I got in grad school, and is Maxwell's Equations in differential form)

We then placed our hands together over the flowers, and had them tied together by my wife's oldest female relative.

And then we have our clothes tied together.(our hands have been untied at this point).

Then we move a stone together with our feet around the fire

And walk around the fire seven times (for some reason again nobody got pictures of this...).

And we offer rice to the fire together

Now comes the climax of the ceremony: I put vermillion on her forehead

And, finally, it's over, I could change back into my sherwani, and we could go eat.

Ah, the food: goat, fish, shrimp, biryani, lentils, luchi, and sweets. The deserts in particular are amazing; basically all based on sweetened condensed milk, and often fried. (As you can see, there may have been some shenanigans with the vermillion at some point. The black marks are a blessing the priest gave us with soot from Agni.)

Even this uninvited guest was given a few goat bones to eat (traditionally you take one-eigth of the wedding feast and give it to hungry people and animals; nowadays you do a cash donation to a food bank in lieu, but it's unlucky to turn away a dog, particularly such a handsome one. )

Finally, there was another receiving line where all the relatives came, hugged us, and gave us gifts. If they were older than us (and that was most of them) we'd get up out of the chair, kneel, touch their feet, and then touch our heads and chests, while they put their hands on our heads and blessed us

Mostly the gifts were money (interesting tidbit: Bengalis and I think Indians in general consider it unlucky to give even amounts of money, so people would give us 501 rupees, or 1001 rupees, or whatever). But some people (especially the closer relatives) gave us actual stuff that they thought we might like, in particular, I'm fond of this drum my kakima (wife of father's younger brother) gave me:

So, there it is. My big, fancy, fish-filled, blingy, smokey, loud, crowded Bengali wedding.

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