Wedding in the Himalayan Foothills

Trip Start Aug 08, 2006
Trip End Oct 11, 2006

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Friday, October 6, 2006

Dehra Dun, Uttaranchal, INDIA
October 5, 2006

After having experienced two wonderfully distinctive weddings: one in the medieval hill country of Umbria, Italy and the other in the mountainous province of Navarre, Spain, I found myself once again preparing for a third wedding in the foothills of the Himalayas. In the past, I had a chance to attend three of my very good medical friends' Indian-American weddings. To a great extent, I was still eager in experiencing the picturesque pageantry and sublime ceremony incarnated in a Hindu wedding.

Ajanta Hotel, the site of the ceremony and reception, was but a 10-minute walk from the hotel. I arrived with the bride's relatives in an SUV at around 8PM to the main entrance. We found ourselves relaxing in the courtyard while last minute preparations were being made for the mandala - the florally decorated canopy or wedding altar. As the guests began arriving in earnest at around 8:30PM, I could feel the excitement pulsating in the air. Then, there was word that the bride had quietly slipped through the front door with her bridesmaids. They had gone to a special area to finish the elaborate final touches to her dress.

By 9:30PM, there was some intelligence leaking about the groom's arrival. Without questioning the source of the information, I rushed out to the front lobby just in time to see the groom exiting the car. At that point, the successive events happened to whirl by in full, lavish pomp and circumstance.

One of the most poignant moments was the official introduction of the families. A beautiful wooden arch, standing in the creamy moonlight, served as a common ground for the warm encounter. On one side stood the bride's family and friends; on the other was the groom's. Daria's parents were a little confused about the details of the protocol, so I had to translate from English to Italian the significance and rituals that were conveyed to me. Amid thunderous applause and jubilant smiles, the members of each family came forward and embraced each other, beginning with the fathers, mothers, then all the way down to the cousins and friends. With a tinge of foreshadowing, this coadunation of two families was a prélude to the religious union of the couple.

Then the groom was escorted by the bride's two male cousins, Fabrizio and Francesco, into the reception hall, where he sat on the stage to await her arrival. During this time, I had a chance to socialize with not only members of the bride's family but also family and friends of the groom. Everybody seemed very excited and anxious to see the bride. Her uncle Fulvio from Rome even told me that she already looked stunningly magnificent in white at the first wedding ceremony in Turin one week earlier. Now curiosity was mounting in the hall about how she would look in a Hindu wedding dress.

At that moment, I was tapped on the shoulder by an informant about the bride's appearance outside. With my finger on the camera button, I raced through the front door, ready to get the first prized shot of the night. There were professional photographers following right behind me. As soon as we reached the terrace, I could see a procession slowly advancing toward the Reception Gate. Escorted by a multitude of bridesmaids, the bride herself, with her veil flowing in the autumn wind, was bedecked in a golden Hindu dress that scintillated with the endless pulsating camera flashes. It seemed like everyone was moving in slow motion as the camera flashes cast a rapid blinking illumination.

As the bride marched inside, I could hear many people admiring her dress. One local woman even stated that she looked just like an authentic, beautiful Indian woman. The couple then placed floral necklaces on each other, as a symbol of the union. Afterwards, the religious ceremony took place outside under the mandala, where the Brahmin (Hindu priest) was waiting. Full of metaphysical symbolism and religious chants, the ceremony began when garlands of sandalwood chips were placed around the necks of the bride and groom. Next, the bride's father presented his daughter to the groom for the spiritual exaltation, or upliftment of Dharma (or duty). In Hindu beliefs, from what I remember studying, Dharma was the term used to describe the "right conduct" or "duty," and it was this that determined what was morally right. In order to pursue a meaningful existence on this earth, it was believed in Hinduism that people should perform their part in society with the fulfillment of virtue, good work, duties, responsibilities, restraints, and observances.

During the ceremony, the fire was a metaphysical symbol for radiance, wisdom, truth, and justice. The Hindu priest officiated the exchange of the wedding vows in front of the fire since it was this eternal, immemorial element of life that would burn and seal the unbreakable union. He also removed the darkness with this fire by chanting more mantras, or blessings. Into the fire was added some aromatic bark and powder to produce a fragrant smoke, which was believed to purify and cleanse the environment. Throughout the ceremony, mantras were chanted to invoke the Gods to bless the fiancés. The unique component of a traditional Hindu ceremony, I thought, was the blending of the different senses to create a tapestry of colorful imageries, fragrant aromas, and rhythmic chants.

Then, the groom took the bride's hand and led her around the fire while chanting more mantras, which included the acceptance of the responsibilities of love, fidelity, mutual respect, and procreation. They walked around the fire seven times, symbolic of the seven commitments on their common journey through life together: to earn a living for their family, to respect abundance, to be concerned for each other's welfare, happiness, and friendship, to share joys and pains together, to desire children to whom they would devote and love, and to adapt to the other person at any time and place. After the seven steps, the couple was pronounced husband and wife. They were embraced by both families, and the celebration could now begin.

Just like in the Italian and Spanish weddings I had a chance to experience, no celebration was complete without an abundance of music, dancing, food, laughter, and festive spirit. Despite the fact I was now 3,500 miles from Europe and an even longer distance culturally from those Mediterranean countries, I was still able to find a strong recurrent theme in these wedding ceremonies: the celebration of love and union of two families. In the crisp autumn evening with the harvest moon illuminating the terrace, I stared up at the starry firmament and realized that humanity, despite cultural and linguistic variations, was bound together by the strong power of love, tolerance, and acceptance for one another. This was what just happened tonight - the union of the Indian and Italian families as one.

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