Modern Monsoon Wedding Guest: A How-To

By Carey Reed Zamarriego

Bride at Grah Shanti in saree.

So, you’ve been invited to a traditional Indian Hindu wedding. You are in for a treat, and also some work. What is rarely witnessed at these elaborate celebrations is all the effort, energy, and preparation that go into orchestrating the 3+ days of events, which marry colorful fabrics, robust, rich food flavors and pulsating rhythms. Then again, masters of any craft have the incredible ability of making the most difficult tasks look effortless.

All that is required to breeze through and bask in the glow that is this stunning series of ceremonies is an open mind, the willingness to learn, and lots of (fun) practice. While it may be work, the fruit of your labor, getting an intimate glimpse into one of the richest cultures of the world, is well worth it.

Rule #1: During a first encounter with an elder (you can gauge age by comparing them to other folks around you, usually 70 yrs. + is elder status), greet him/her by saying “kem cho” (How are you in Gujarati) and reach down to touch their toes. This is done as a sign of respect.

Event and Attire Shortlist

*Don’t wear red (one of the bride’s colors), or white (a color worn for Hindu funerals).
*Dressing up a Western look with a sparkly scarf (dupatta) or Indian jewelry (you can get Indian-esque bangles, earrings and necklaces at Forever 21 and event Walmart) goes a long way, and will definitely be flattering to the Hindu wedding hosts. 

Mehndi (bride’s family) (very casual)
women traditional-salwar kameez with sandals.
women western-maxi dress or comfortable pants/jeans and top.
men traditional/western-jeans or shorts and shirts and casual shoes.
Raas-Garba (bride and groom’s families and friends) (business casual)
women traditional- chaniya cholis and comfortable dancing shoes.
women western- nice/casual dress (long, flowy skirts with sequins or embellishments work well) and comfortable dancing shoes.
men traditional-kurta pyjama (also known jabho langho) and sandals or slippers.
men western-nice slacks and button down shirts and comfortable shoes for dancing.
Grah Shanti (bride’s family) (very casual)
women traditional-salwar kameez.
women western-casual pants or skirt and a top, or a casual dress.
men traditional-kurta pyjama/jabho langho or pants and polo shirts. Shoes can be sandals or flats.
Wedding Ceremony (bride and groom’s families and friends) (formal attire)
women traditional-saree and sandals.
women western-elegant dress (accent with sparkly scarf draped across the neck and going down the back, or Indian jewelry) and heels.
men traditional-sherwani and pointed slippers.
men western-suits and dress shoes.
Reception (bride and groom’s families and friends) (business casual)
women traditional- chaniya choli or saree (whichever will be most comfortable).
women western-nice dresses (accent with sparkly scarf draped across the neck and going down the back, or Indian jewelry) and sandals, flats or heels.
men traditional-kurta pyjama/jabho langho or sherwani and dancing shoes.
men western-nice pants and button down shirts or suits.
*a list of traditional Indian attire vendors (online and in the NY/NJ area) appears at the end of this post* 

Mehndi party.

Mehndi (bride’s family) (very casual): This is a henna (tattoos made with special plant-based dye) party for the females, which happens the night before the Raas-Garba. The men usually hang out in a space next to where the women are getting henna-fied. They meet up with the women to help them eat (since they cannot use their hands for several hours) at the buffet-style dinner later in the evening.

Mehndi Clothing: Dress is very casual. Women wear traditional salwar kameez (skinny cloth pants and long sleeveless, cap-sleeved or long sleeved tops, a dupatta or scarf is optional). Choose clothing that will be comfortable while you sit for several hours. Maxi dresses or comfortable jeans and tops are options. Sandals are the typical footwear, although these are always left at the entryway in Indian homes. Men wear jeans or shorts and shirts. Menhndiquette: India

Raas-Garba (bride and groom’s families and friends) (business casual): This event is similar to a Western reception. The night before the wedding, guests eat; drink, unless they happen to be in a dry state (which we were in when attending a wedding in Gujarat, India) or prefer not to for religious reasons, and dance Raas (male folk dance) and Garba (traditional Gujarat state dance). Let’s Do Garba Instructional Video

Candle lighting at Raas-Garba.

The Raas-Garba begins with a prayer and lighting of a candle by the bride and groom. Guests form different circles (the goal is to dance in the largest circle, as people congregate to the best dancer’s circle) throughout the night and dance to non-stop music. Waiters usually walk around with trays of water to keep everyone hydrated. There is a buffet-style dinner of traditional vegetarian Indian fare, including dal (lentils and spices).

Chaniya choli for Raas-Garba.

Raas-Garba Clothing: Women wear chaniya (also known as lehenga) cholis
(3-piece traditional Indian dance outfit, which includes a cap sleeved blouse, skirt and dupatta, long piece of fabric, wrapped diagonally around the front to cover the exposed midriff, it is shorter than the dupatta used for sarees).  Dancing can be done barefoot, or with comfortable dancing shoes that won’t slip off throughout all the turns and jumps. Closed-toed flats are usually best. Men wear kurta pyjama (also known jabho langho) (skinny pants and a long shirt with a slit neck). On their feet they can choose sandals or slippers. For Western clothing, women can wear nice dresses and nice slacks and button down shirts are appropriate for the men. Again, shoes accompanying the outfits should be appropriate for dancing.

Raas-Garba Accessories:Women wear an abundance of bungdi (bangles). Ladies select about a dozen for each arm in colors that will complement their chaniya choli. The bangles are arranged into a pattern, which must be the same on both arms. This can take up to 30 minutes to do. A ‘set’ (earrings, usually elaborate dangly ones, ring and necklace) is also worn.

Chaniya choli and bungdi slid onto and tied to the dupatta (in order to hold the pattern).

Left: Men’s kurta pyjama/jabho langho. Right: Chaniya choli and example of braided hair extension.

Raas-Garba Hair and Makeup: These are usually done at a salon, similar to the process for Western weddings. Guests ask for a variety of up-dos or down-dos. In India, they also supply hair extensions or braid extensions (as shown in photo). Colorful flowers or similar hair adornments are worn. Makeup is done with a lot of heavy eyeliner, to accentuate the eyes and a sparkly bindi (gem pressed between the eyebrows) is worn to protect the wearer from bad spirits.

Grah Shanti (bride’s family) (very casual): This is a type of puja (prayer) ceremony done the morning of the wedding. The family of the bride and those closest to her gather to make different offerings to the Hindu Gods to ensure a blessed ceremony and union. A priest blesses the fruits, nuts and small item offerings, which the bride’s family will give to the groom’s family later in the day.

There is also a ‘grab the sweet’ game. To play, a small mound of what looks to be clay, but is actually a grey-colored sweet called kuler, is placed in the center of a circle. The eldest male protects the sweet clay-like substance from capture by the eldest aunt by swatting at the her with a large, knotted cloth as she lounges for the treat. There is drumming, impromptu Garba dancing and a buffet-style meal.

Grah Shanti offering ceremony.

Grah Shanti Clothing: Women wear the salwar kameez or casual Western clothing and men wear kurta pyjama/jabho langho or pants and polo shirts. Shoes can be sandals or flats.

Examples of different salwar kameez at Grah Shanti.

Wedding Ceremony (bride and groom’s families and friends) (formal attire): The traditional wedding colors are green, red and white. Don’t wear red, or white (a color worn for Hindu funerals).

The three-hour ceremony takes place on a circular stage adorned with flowers and crystals.

Wedding ceremony stage.

The groom arrives at the venue with a group of dancers and small parade. In India, he will ride into the venue parking lot on a horse. He and his family are the first to take the stage. Once there, the bride’s family comes to them to present the offerings, which were blessed earlier in the day at the Grah Shanti. Guests mill around, chat, and eat at the International buffet-style dinner, which serves dishes like Waldorf salad, pastas, and even Mexican fare. The bride and groom’s immediate families do not eat until the end of the ceremony.

Groom’s arrival at wedding, accompanied by dancers and drummers.

A cloth is placed in front of the groom to block his view as the male members of the bride’s family carry her to the stage. On the stage, the females in her family shake small, decorated cans filled with metal to ward off bad spirits. A bit of black eyeliner has also been marked behind her ear to keep the evil spirits at a distance.

Everyone pays attention to the sapta padi (walking of seven steps/vows) around a sacred fire:

  1. Plentitude of food.
  2. Mental and physical strength and a healthy life free from ailments.
  3. For the successful performance of their spiritual duties.
  4. Happiness in all walks of life.
  5. Prayer for the welfare of all living beings.
  6. Bountiful seasons all over the world.
  7. Prayer and sacrifice for universal peace.

    The sapta padi.

As in other ceremonies, there are small games to keep guests entertained. One of which is the groom’s shoe hide-and-seek. The groom’s shoe is hidden at the beginning of the wedding ceremony. Whoever finds it, presents it to him and asks for money as a reward. The groom, if he wishes that his marriage goes well, is obligated to give the cash reward.

The marriage is confirmed after the tying of the manga sutra (sacred thread) or with the sapta padi. After that, a receiving line forms and the guests congratulate the couple and gift them envelopes filled with cash (the standard Hindu wedding gift). At the end of the night there is an emotional farewell between the bride and her family, accompanied by sad, traditional songs. The luggage she has packed to take to her new family’s home (the groom’s family) is blessed and she is pulled away from her parents’ embraces and whisked off to her in-laws.

Wedding Ceremony Clothing (Accessories, Hair and Makeup similar to Raas-Garba): Men wear sherwani (a long coat, which can be paired with a sleeveless under-vest and pants). Pointed slippers are the shoes of choice. The groom wears this, in addition to a safo (also known as a turban) (head wrap). Ladies wear saree (petticoat in same color as the dupatta scarf, with the dupatta wrapped around the waist, tucked into the petticoat and pinned and pleated across the chest and midriff, a capped sleeve half blouse is also worn). Women wear sandals for footwear. If opting for Western clothes, men may wear suits and dress shoes. Ladies should put on elegant dresses and heels. How to Wrap a Saree Instructional Video

Examples of men’s sherwani and women’s saree.

Reception (bride and groom’s families and friends) (business casual): This is the last of the events and is hosted by the groom’s family. In India, the reception is literally just a receiving line. The bride and groom, along with the groom’s family, spend several hours on a stage greeting congratulatory guests armed with envelopes of cash. All of this is filmed and broadcast on a giant screen near the buffet tables. Again, International fare is served for dinner.

In the United States, Hindu wedding receptions tend to be more Western-esque, consisting of eating, drinking and dancing.

Reception Clothing (Accessories, Hair and Makeup similar to Raas-Garba): Women can wear either chaniya choli or saree whichever will be most comfortable. For a western style, a nice dress and shoes will suffice. Men too can decide between kurta pyjama/jabho langho and sherwani. And for a western look, nice pants and button downs or a suit are appropriate. Shoes, especially for receptions in the U.S., should be made for dancing.

Examples of sarees.

Clothing Stores

Online: *only downfall to purchasing online is not having the opportunity to feel the quality of the fabric*

Aso Palav (in India, allow 21 days for shipping)

Gyans (made to order from India, allow a month for shipping)

India Showroom (online and store in Massachusetts)

Luxemi (buy or rent)

Meena Bazaar (online and store in Edison New Jersey- THE MALL at 1710, Oak Tree Road, Edison, NJ-08820)

NYC and surrounding:

India Sari Palace (ISP, 37-70 74th St., Queens NY11372
Nr. 37th Av. 718-426-2700) *37th Ave and & 74th st in Jackson Heights. There are also two good restaurants on the left going down the block— Jackson Diner and Indian Taj ($10 buffet place)*

Lipi Fashion Inc (37-11 74th street, Jackson Heights, NY 718-507-8120) Great for discount Indian jewelry – with an unbelievable selection of bangles – and clothing.

Bangle wall in Lipi Fashion Inc.

Lexington Saree Palace (131 Lexington Ave, between 28th St & 29th St, Manhattan, NY 10016, 212-481-0325)

Shehnaai (couture) (303 Fifth Ave, Suite 1211, New York, NY 10016 | Fifth Ave – Between 31st and 32nd street | Tel – 917-519-5456 / 212-684-3161)

Virtues (Shehnaai. 420-A South Broadway, Hicksville, NY 11801, 516-822-1022) (Shehnaai, 28th street, Between Park & Lexington Avenue, Manhattan, NY)

NJ and surrounding:  *Edison and Iselin, NJ overlap*

Meena Bazaar (THE MALL at 1710, Oak Tree Road, Edison, NJ-08820)

Aaina Exclusive Fashion Boutique (1700 Oaktree Rd, Edison, NJ)

Chandani Silk and Saris (1329 Oak Tree Road Iselin NJ, 732-283-5522)

Fashion of India (1326 Oak Tree Rd, Iselin, NJ 08830, 732-283-0636)

Kala Niketan (1395 Oak Tree Road, Iselin NJ)

Lashkara Exclusive Fashions (1392 Oak Tree Road, Iselin, NJ)

Libaas (1391 Oak Tree Road Iselin, NJ, 732-283-3441)


Creative Crafts

Burda Style

Additional Links:

Indian Wedding Site

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