Our wedding in September was a chance to reconnect with some extended family, including my cousin Sanjay, who lives in Georgia, who I had previously met only once when I was 15. He and his wife Grishma turned their trip into a mini-vacation in San Diego, and we got to know them better in the days following our wedding. We discovered that their upcoming trip to India for Grishma's brother's wedding would overlap with our time there as part of our honeymoon trip. Grishma suggested that we meet up with their family in Gujarat at the end of December and attend her brother Priyank's wedding, and encouraged my parents to do the same. This is what I love about Indian families: all family, no matter how tenuous the relationship, get matter-of-factly included, and with genuine sincerity. In the weeks following our wedding, as we settled the details of our India trip, we decided to take up Sanjay and Grishma on their generous offer to stay with them in Anand, Gujarat during the week of Grishma's brother Priyank's wedding. Since my parents would be joining, we would also have the chance to visit my father's family home in the Gujarati town of Changa. After touring the "fatherland" for a whole month, I would finally be visiting the part of India where I have actual blood ties.
After saying goodbye to Sachiyo in Kerala, Simon and I flew with my parents to Ahmedabad, the capital city of Gujarat, where we met Sanjay and the driver he had hired for the wedding week. After dealing with tour companies for the past two weeks, it was nice to be picked up from the airport by family. We drove an hour outside of Ahmedabad (Gujarat's capital and largest city) to the more modest town of Anand, where many Gujarati NRIs (non-resident Indians) maintain houses for their trips back to the motherland. There are entire subdivisions in Anand filled with modern stucco homes for this purpose. Most of them seem to be filled with Patels, the most common surname in Gujarat. The name Patel historically represented an entire class of landowners, merchants, and farmers rather than family relations. This province full of Patels, many of whom have immigrated to the U.S., is at the root of the zillion-times-asked question: "my doctor/friend/co-worker is named fill-in-the-blank Patel....do you know (or 'are you related to') him/her?" Though I do know several Patels at home, the answer has always been no, and no relation.
Sanjay and his father, my Uncle Rashmi, co-own a house in Anand, christened “Devam” after Sanjay's first child. During our week in Anand, Casa Devam was a full house, with Sanjay, Grishma, Devam (8 yrs), and Suhani (5 yrs) in bedroom #1; Grishma's sister Honey, her husband Brijesh, and their baby Vian in bedroom #2; and my parents in bedroom #3. Simon and I stored our luggage in my parents' room and slept on pallets on the living room floor. Groom-to-be Priyank also slept in the house on some of the nights, splitting time between his parents' house nearby and with us and his two sisters. I'm actually not sure where he slept.... It was a bit chaotic, especially with the bustle of wedding prep by the groom's family. Coming from a big noisy family, it felt like home, and hanging out with the kids, Suhani and Devam, was unexpectedly so much fun. I hadn't met them until that week in Anand, and I miss them already as much as family members I've known since birth.
Indian weddings are multi-day affairs, and we were honored to be included in all of the events on the groom's side (Indian brides and grooms typically participate in separate preparatory events with their respective families in the days leading up to the actual marriage ceremony). While Simon and my dad could get through the week with just two dress shirts each, my mom and I needed to do some shopping. The one sari I had acquired in Jaipur wouldn't be sufficient for the four formal events we'd be attending. Best of all, I would be able to send the new outfits home with my parents, and therefore shop unencumbered by the limitations of my tiny luggage.
Grishma knew exactly where to take us - local dress and sari merchants who know her family and gave us great prices. Indian formal saris and dresses are much more elaborate and colorful than my mostly neutral-toned wardrobe, and it was fun to reach for the brightest frocks as the owners laid dozens of technicolor options before us. The semi-bespoke quality of Indian formal wear makes the shopping experience feel very luxe, and watching Grishma try on sari after stunning sari was just the dose of lady time I needed after surviving three months without girlfriends (although I am very thankful that I married the best travel partner anyone could ever have).
The Wedding Events (pull up a chair....there are several)
Disclaimer: my phone camera broke around this time, which explains the terrible quality of some of the following photos....
December 31 (daytime): Mehndi Party
Four days before the marriage ceremony, my mom and I were truly privileged to be included in the mehndi party with all of the women on the groom's side of the family. Since we are related to Grishma through marriage, we were the farthest-removed family members at the party, which included only immediate family and first cousins. Even though the rest of the women had known each other their whole lives, we felt welcomed and included. The mehndi artist who had been hired to adorn all of our hands and arms with intricate henna paste designs was the fastest and most skillful I had ever seen. It took him just a few minutes to cover my entire forearm and hand with a detailed leaf and flower motif. The hardest part about having mehndi applied is waiting for the henna to dry, and then leaving the dried paste on your skin as long as possible to deepen the color of the stain left behind. During the mehndi party, Grishma and her cousins played Bollywood music, and everyone danced with their freshly henna'd arms in the air while they dried. When I flicked off the dried henna hours later, the design was bright orange, and deepened over the next 24 hours to dark reddish brown before slowly fading back to nothing over the next several days.
December 31 (evening): Garba
Garba is a dancing event that typically occurs before the wedding ceremony (Indians do all of the partying before the marriage ceremony, which is the very last event). I've been to a few Garbas, and they vary in form, but there are usually dance performances by family members, as well as an all-inclusive traditional circle dance with repetitive steps that are easy to pick up and join in, even for someone as uncoordinated as I am. Priyank and his fiancee Babisha's Garba was intended to become a DJ'd New Year's Eve dance party following the traditional dances and speeches, but the event was unfortunately rained in by 10:00pm. Luckily, the official Garba program ended before the rain, and we got to enjoy some very impressive routines. Even Devam participated with a troupe of 8-to-12-year-old boys. Later that night, we relaxed back at the house and watched Mumbai's version of the ball dropping at midnight, 15 hours before California would ring in 2015. We needed that head start to pack in all of our new year's travel resolutions.
January 2 (morning): Water Carrying Ceremony
This ceremony is a tradition based on what used to be the practical event of gathering enough water from the village well for the coming wedding party. Since water was collected in clay vessels carried on one's head, all of the women in the family would go to the well together, in order to gather enough. Modern plumbing and wedding catering have eliminated the practical need for this task, which makes the modern ceremony much less laborious! We proceeded through the streets of Grishma's family's ancestral village led by the women of the groom's family, and followed by nearly every woman in the entire village.
An open-backed truck outfitted with speakers provided a platform for a band (the Dinkar Band, which Sanjay says is the most famous wedding band in northern India) that led the procession and facilitated multiple stops throughout the village, during which Grishma, Honey, and all of their aunts, children, and cousins twirled and clapped in spontaneous dance routines. The procession ended at a Hindu temple, where all of the women filed in to pay respects before joining in more dancing in the temple courtyard. Finally, small decorative water vessels were placed on the heads of immediate family members for a symbolic procession to the family home. Soon after, all of the men joined us for a catered lunch (that the women did not have to prepare with the water they did not have to carry).
January 2 (evening): Party in the Streets!
After leading all of the women through the streets for the water carrying ceremony in the morning, the Dinkar Band set a much more raucous tone later that evening as they led us all (women, men, children, babies, family, villagers, whoever happened to be in the vicinity....) in a wild dance party through the village streets. The groom presided over the crowd in a horse-drawn carriage bringing up the rear of a blocks-long parade of kurta and sari-wearing revelers, all moving to the rhythm set by the band that played from its truck bed slowly leading the way via a bedazzling of colored lights. Some members of the fuchsia-and-white suited band played, sang, danced, and set off fireworks in front of the truck, while others climbed onto rooftops to rally the crowds from above. The band's truck contained an electricity generator that powered a light show being carried along by several individuals on either side of the road, flanking the first several yards of the procession. Men carrying coolers passed out cups of ice cream, and it was impossible to not feel festive.
January 3: Marriage Ceremony
The actual marriage ceremony took place in Vadodara, a cosmopolitan city about an hour's drive from Anand. Before the ceremony began, we spent some time in a hotel courtyard near the venue, munching on catered samosas and snacks while the family took photos in front of the hotel's pretty foliage. Suhani ran up to me between takes to try on my lip gloss and sunglasses.
When it was time to proceed to the wedding venue, all of the early guests who had accumulated in the courtyard were herded to the street, where we were met by a garlanded white limousine idling behind yet another truck-bed mobile wedding band. By this time, we knew what to expect: hands in the air, twirling, and fireworks all the way up the street to the wedding venue entrance, where all of the guests filtered through a red carpeted passageway before spilling out into an open-air courtyard where the marriage ceremony would be held.
Upon entering the courtyard, our dazzled eyesight readjusted to behold lanterned trees, rows of food stations, a mocktail bar that looked like a legitimate cocktail bar, and a raised golden platform where the ceremony would take place over the next three hours. The couple's immediate families joined them on the stage for much of the ceremony, and wedding guests intermittently wandered among the catering stations or watched the proceedings, which were not very audible beyond the immediate vicinity of the stage.
There were two key times to pay attention: when the bride was comported onto the platform on a golden chaise carried on the shoulders of her male relatives; and during the final 30 minutes of the ceremony, when the couple walked together seven times around a small fire to signify their everlasting bond of matrimony. In Indian marriage ceremonies, the bride's and groom's souls become intertwined.
Farewell, India (but not forever)
After the wedding, we bade farewell to Casa Devam and boarded a plane from Ahmedabad to Bangkok to begin our nine-week tour of southeast Asia, and for the first time on this entire trip, I felt my heart wrench. Something inside me was clinging to India with both hands, not quite ready to leave, fingers slipping slowly as our plane lifted off. I am certain that I will return, and I already have a mental list of places to go that we didn't see this time - particularly Mumbai, where my father grew up. Additionally, I am so happy to have connected with Sanjay and Grishma in San Diego and Anand last year. Georgia is now high on our list of U.S. destinations for the near future, where I look forward to reconnecting with them as well as the rest of my extended family there. In the space of four months, two very different weddings on two different continents created more bonds than just two marriages, and I am thankful.