If you’re Indian or have friends who are, you may be headed to a large Indian/Hindu community dance event called Garba. Instead of writing out an explanation, hop over to youtube to watch short documentary by clicking below. Back in the day when I was an assistant to a film producer in Hollywood, I was getting a bit frustrated that I didn’t have a creative outlet, especially in the documentary field. It had been a focus of mine in college, and now I felt like I was ignoring that side of myself. So my best friend (Indian American with family from Gujarat), another friend willing to hold a camera, and I set off to make a $0 budget documentary with the UCLA competitive Garba/Raas team back in 2009 (?). I met some incredible people and had a great time. Of course, I would change a million things now if I still had the raw footage. The graphics make me cringe a bit, and I still beat myself up over the interview with Kaiwan – the footage from the A cam was corrupted somehow, so all we have is B cam footage with him completely off the mark. But I try to remind myself how young I was and that the fact that we completed it was a miracle in itself. So take a look if you’re interested 🙂
Everyone loves that sweet smell of coffee! Well honestly, I didn’t… until I started working 9am to 7pm in Hollywood, then I needed that caffeine to get me over the 3pm slump. Like many, I started with coffee strangled by too much sugar and milk. I’ve weaned myself off and have started to appreciate the flavor itself (though some say it’s just caffeine addiction helping me swallow a bitter taste). But no matter your personal feelings, you have to admit that coffee and tea crosses all cultures and societies. It brings people together. And much of the fun of loving something, especially food or drink, is knowing where it came from and how it got to you. If you’re looking to find the origin of coffee and tea from India, Chikmagalur in Karnataka is the perfect place to start!
Here are some tidbits on coffee production in India, to help put this all in context:
Coffee production in India is dominated in the hill tracts of South Indian states, with the state of Karnataka accounting 71% followed by Kerala 21% and Tamil Nadu 5% of production of 8,200 tonnes. Indian coffee is said to be the finest coffee grown in the shade rather than direct sunlight anywhere in the world. There are approximately 250,000 coffee growers in India; 98% of them are small growers.
Before we get to the plantations, let’s take a look at where you can stay…
The Serai Resort
Mugthihalli Post, K M Road, Chickmagaluru, Karnataka 577133, India
Inspired by coffee, owned by Coffee Day and designed to be a complete resort, this hotel has all the amenities you could want. Some room have private pools, though a large pool sits at the center of the resort. There is a game room, spa and restaurant. I enjoyed a 30 minute massage for a very responsible $20. We played ping pong in the game room and sipped a cup of coffee while enjoying the view. However, I warn you against the restaurant for meals. Ours took close to an hour to get and the appetizer arrived with the meal. And though they are striving to provide international dishes, they won’t be worth the wait or price by a long shot. Just stick with the Indian dishes – perhaps they’d arrive faster? Otherwise, we wished we could have spent more time in the magazine-worthy rooms and resort.
In our yard
Walkway to bungalows
Badra Estates Coffee Plantation
Through some family connections, we were lucky to have a behind-the-scenes tour at Badra Estates & Industries Ltd. A quick review of the process – When the red coffee cherries are ripe, they are hand-picked. They do through a “wet process” where they are de-pulped. Laid out, the beans then dry with workers turn them to prevent spoiling. Afterwards, the beans go through a hulling process that makes sure to remove the outer parchment before they are weighed, measured and graded. Then comes the best part – the taste test. Here are a few steps in the process:
A pleasant surprise was a short tour of the housing and schools for the workers and their families. Japanese investors insisted that 10% of their investment be spent on charitable causes for the workers.
The executives and workers were kind, welcoming and accomodating. Checking out a tea plantation was also an option, but keep in mind that the distance between destinations can often take 2-3 hour. After an hour or two, we had to head back to Bangalore (if I remember correctly, it was a 5-6 hour drive). I would say that these visits are worth it for the curious coffee drinker. However, they’re not a simply day trip from Bangalore, so make sure it’s an interest for everyone in your party before planning a detour.
Deepika Padukone serenaded us as we drove into Hassan, the upbeat songs of Bollywood hit movie Chennai Express playing on the DVD player in our van. Though a fan of Bollywood, I find this blockbuster hit to be grating (see my review here), but I have to admit it was getting a glimpse of a film-version of the south as we were driving through the reality. Also, I’ve loved Deepika since Om Shanti Om, a much more enjoyable Shahrukh Khan film. I suggest checking either film out if you ever have over 3 hours to spare.
From Mysore to Hassan to Halebidu to Belur to Chikmaglur, it was a long day peppered with stops along the way. Please trust your driver’s sense of drive times instead of google’s! In India, not all roads are created equal for all kinds of vehicles and drivers. From Mysore, it was a morning’s drive to…
Lunch – Jewel Rock Hotel (in HAssan)
This unassuming budget hotel was trusted by our driver as a good quick stop for lunch. They proved him right with an incredibly cheap, but delicious meal. We each had a Thaali – a large silver dish with many small bowls of food that make up a complete meal. It’s like a buffet on a plate. As usual, you choose between the veg and non-veg. I believe I had the non-veg and enjoyed; but as usual, I suggest you make an educated decision about choosing the meat option based on where you are located. The waiters and a few other patrons hovered and starred, but for 35 Rs a thaali (as in 60 cents!!!) how could you possibly go wrong?
Then it was another chance of driving to reach…
Halebidu, Hassan District, Karnataka
This temple built around 1120 CE is carved from a dark grey soapstone. Stepping inside where it’s dark and cool, you feel its age. For me, it was one of the moments when I was emotionally impacted by the amount of work and artistry that went into every inch of it, and the thought of generations of visitors who had been there before me. The outside is just as impressive, with entire battles being described in carvings around the temple. One tier even has a line of carved elephants being ridden by soldiers. Another by soldiers on fearsome rhino-like creature. But don’t touch! The soapstone is extremely soft – don’t be the jerk who leaves a mark.
These types of temples are emblematic of the Hoysala Empire, which ruled the area between the 10th and 14th centuries and contributed significantly to the area’s arts and architecture. The name Hoysala has more of an origin legend, than an origin story. ‘Hoy’, which means ‘strike’, may come from the story of a young man-turned warrior who saved his guru (or teacher) by striking a lion dead outside a temple. Historians don’t think it’s a coincidence that this story closely matches the empire’s emblem of the warrior Sala striking a tiger, the symbolic animal of the Cholas, an army defeated by King Vishnuvardhana. Also of note are the Jain influences on Hoysala society, another fascinating South Asian religion, which deserves its own post.
Layers of people and animal carvings
Then it’s 30-45 min ride to…
Belur, Hassan District, Karnataka
I won’t lie… I was pretty temple’d out. So was my husband. So the rest of the party went inside, while we wandered the perimeter of the wall, taking a few pictures and eating chips. We ran into some school kids, who I chatted with for a bit. They were a bit surprised when I told them my walking companion was my husband (see picture below). Inside is a complex of soapstone rooms, temples, shrines, etc. Definitely check it out if you haven’t been visiting temples for 1 1/2 weeks already. Here’s a few facts from Wikipedia to make up for my lack of knowledge:
Chennakesava (lit, “handsome Kesava”) is a form of the Hindu god Vishnu
Some scholars believe King Vishnuvardhana VIII commissioned the temple to surpass his overlord, King Vikramaditya VI of the Western Chalukya Empire (who ruled from Basavakalyan), after his initial military victories against the Chalukyas According to another theory, Vishnuvardhana was celebrating his famous victory against the Chola dynasty of Tamil country in the battle of Talakad (1116 AD).
Within the complex, the Chennakesava temple is at the centre, facing east, and is flanked by the Kappe Channigraya temple on its right, and a small Sowmyanayaki (form of the goddess Lakshmi) temple set slightly back. On its left, also set slightly back is the Ranganayaki temple.
Introducing my husband
I love the artistry in the local houses
Found this parade piece
By the water
Our guides took us a ghat (a series of steps that lead to a river, often a holy river) to show us a different side of the region. Approaching the river were some unattended stalls with snacks and toys. Few people were visiting, as you can see below. At first, I thought this would be a good education on the range of Indian landscape, but had a different lesson for us. As we walked up to the waters edge, I had a bit of a shock and pulled my family back in warning. Floating in the water, perhaps for days, was a dead man. Someone had covered his face with a newspaper. Our guides asked around and heard that the authorities had already been called. To our shock, no-one around us seemed disturbed. To our right, a family was performing a ceremony in which a son or brother releases their father/brother’s ashes into the river. Apparently, the dead body was too unremarkable or common to greatly affect anyone. They continued about their business, except to stay on the opposite side of the ghat. In addition to a comment about their familiarity with he circle of life and death, I wondered if it spoke to their sense of health concerns. Why was no-one too bothered about the health implications of bathing in a river with a dead body?
In the end, I processed the moment as a chance for my family to see the wide range of India – its highs and lows. It may have contributed to their comments at the end of the trip that India contains the whole experience of human existence.Everything is shown at its fullest and purest – life, death, joy, sorrow, wealth, poverty, progress, history, beauty and ugliness.
Ceremony by the river
Hassan does not land on most foreign traveler’s itineraries. The temples aren’t the oldest or biggest. But if you’re looking to do more than scratch the surface of the South and you have the time, stop by and see a different side of the country… beside it’s on the way to the coffee plantations!!!
Lights. Camera. Action. This vibrant metropolis is the home of Bollywood, but it would be a mistake to assume that it is its only attraction. I lived here for 6 weeks in 2007. The length of time and the freedom I had to wander meant I came across a number of unforgettable places and experiences that didn’t show up in the tour guide. There was the Jewish Synagogue taken care of by a barefooted Rabbi, the Anand Chaturdashi festival (in which Hindus flock to the beach to submerge Ganesh statues in the ocean) and the Dahi Handi festival (in which Hindus create a massive human pyramid to break a hanging clay pot). These incredible experiences highlighted the character, diversity and spiritual commitment of the city’s inhabitants.
Dahi Handi Festival
Dahi Handi Festival
Dahi Handi Festival
Anand Chaturdashi Festival
Anand Chaturdashi Festival
Anand Chaturdashi Festival
Pro Tip: September is a good time to visit – it is post-monsoon and you can try to catch the very visual and inclusive Anand Chaturdashi and Dahi Handi festivals.
Unfortunately, I can not give as thorough a review of this city re: this trip as I have the others. We were in Mumbai for one purpose only – a wedding reception for my In-Law’s closest friends and family. We landed in the afternoon, had the reception that night and left for Bangalore in the morning. However, the story is worth telling as a glimpse into a few cultural differences. So here goes.
First of all, the Mumbai International Airport is gorgeous. The terminal we landed in was an airport/art museum hybrid with much care, attention and space given to design elements. An hour long ride away from the heart of the city brought us to Thane, a city considered part of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. Immediately, you can tell the difference from the North. It is lush, green and waterlogged with dark stains indicating the flow of water on the city’s forest of high rise apartments.
Hotel – Satkay residency
We chose this luxury hotel so we could hold a larger event, as well as be close to family. This hotel is not in the heart of the city, so make sure to Google! The rooms were large and clean. The hotel has an impressive feel, but Trip Advisor reviews complain about service. From the 20 minutes it took for us to get some tea when we arrived, I’ll believe them.
The indian wedding reception
Weddings and family are extremely important in Indian culture, therefore a reception for the family that wasn’t able to make it to America for the wedding is a requirement (a very fun requirement).
When I arrived, we discovered that the gold jewelry had not made its way from New Delhi to Mumbai. I was very go-with-the-flow, but for my MIL this was a 5 alarm fire. My mom, MIL and one very early guest grabbed our driver and were dropped of at the local mall. I could have spent days in the mall with a mixture of Indian and European stores; but we had a mission – necklace, bangles and clip earrings, the latter being the ultimate challenge. Rushing, running, buying and we were back out front… with no driver in sight. Time was ticking, and I had 30 minutes to get ready. We ditched the driver who wasn’t answering his phone and the 4 of us adult women squeezed into a rickshaw. Sitting on her lap, I made friends very quickly with our guest. Back at the hotel, I changed into my lengha with impressive speed (if I may say so myself).
Family and Friends
The reception room
Sri and I entered the banquet hall to the cheers of 130 of my In-Laws friends, family and colleagues. After numerous intros, we were seated on a couch at the front of the room and the pictures began! The group photos only lasted about an hour and half, much shorter than I’ve heard about other receptions where the couple can be taking pictures for 3-4 hours. The vegetarian buffet was delicious, and my father and FIL made quick speeches. What Indian party is complete without some dancing? We decided to play the wedding video of the Indian dance, but it would not satisfy the enthusiastic masses. So, we decided to dance our American Wedding dance to Thinking Out Loud, which we had practiced until muscle memory had set in. The dance included a lift, a dip,… you name it. Not good enough. It was Bollywood dance or bust! So we made an announcement lowering expectations, and went for it. It fell apart at the end, but I think we passed the test since the dance floor open and everyone boogied down. Somewhere there is incriminating video of this; but for now, you’ll just have to live with this:
The next morning we were up and out… on our way to Bangalore!
I love the smell of air pollution in the morning! I kid, I kid…
November is the best weather of the year, but without significant winds, the pollution lingers heavy over the city. When I mentioned how surprised I was that the air was SO polluted, an Indian American friend of mine said, “Of course, it’s insane. Everything in New Delhi is insane.”
Sprawling and crowded, both modern and historic, Delhi is the seat of India’s government, an international hub, and arguably its most famous city. Old Dehli was founded in 1639 and was the center of the Mughal Dynasty until its collapse, which is why we have incredible forts and monuments to look at hundreds of years later. New Dehli was built from 1911 – 1931 by George V, Emperor of India. A good visit includes sites in both.
Here are some of the highlights of our day in New Delhi, in case it can help you plan your travels. If you have any specific questions, feel free to email me at samosasandsunshine[at]gmail.com
HOTEL: The lalit Hotel
Barakhamba Avenue, Connaught Place, Near Modern School, New Delhi, Delhi 110001, India
Clean and modern. A perfect choice for an international traveler who isn’t looking to “rough it.” The breakfast buffet was mediocre by my measure, but did include international food. For my family’s first trip, I think it was a good transition for them. The formal doorman is always a nice touch.
My favorite part of this World Heritage Site is imagining what it must have been like day-to-day. The fort includes the public audience hall where the local farmer brought his grievances to the emperor. The wives and concubines would watch the proceedings through grills carved into the the marble and sandstone because they weren’t allowed to be seen by the general public. There is an entire carved building just for dancers to perform for the royal family. There are the Emperor and his wives private quarters, including what must have been a very luxurious bathroom. Just take a moment to let the other visitors disappear and see the fort in its heyday. These pictures don’t do the sprawling fort justice. If you’re a fan of WWI history, there is also a military museum dedicated to the period in the entrance archway that once housed the musicians that played the emperors entrance music.
Open: Tue-Sun; Mondays closed Timings: Sunrise to Sunset Entry Fee: 10 (Indians), 250 (foreigners) Photography: Nil (25 for video filming) Sound & Light Shows: 6pm onwards in English and Hindi Ticket: 80 (adults), 30 (children)
A Royal bath
Mathura Road, Nizamuddin, New Delhi, Delhi 110013, India
Look a tad familiar? Humayun’s tomb is the predecessor to the Taj Mahal. Humayun, the second Mughal Emperor earned his place in Delhi. After his army was driven out to India to Persia, he made his triumphant return in 1555, only to die falling down a flight of stairs shortly after. It definitely leaves an stunning first impression. There is a steep set of stairs to enter the tomb. It is not handicap accessible.
Location: Opp. Dargah Nizamuddin, Mathura Road Metro Station: JLN Stadium Open: Daily Timings: Sunrise to sunset Entry Fee: 10 (Indians), 250 (foreigners) Photography Charges: None (`25 for video filming)
Parliament & India Gate
Big, impressive and covered in monkeys. They can’t fit their parliament into one building, so they have three. I’m not sure if a tour is possible, but the traffic was nonexistent on the weekend, so we were able to pull up in front, get out and take pictures. The India Gate is a straight shot from the parliament building through a long park, very similar to
View from parliament to India Gate
On the job
LUNCH: The imperial
Janpath Lane, Connaught Place, New Delhi, 110001
Have you ever wanted to live at Downton Abbey? Have you ever wanted to live in Downton Abbey and then take a trip to India? The Imperial Hotel makes you feel like you’re walking into a novel or Masterpiece’s Indian Summers. We had the impeccably presented lunch buffet. If you ask the concierge, you may get a tour of the other restaurants and bars in the hotel – each have their own story and history.
After a quick walk through of the small museum earlier in the day, we came back for the light show (after dark, about $30-40 pp). About 80 folding chairs are set up facing one of the only crumbling, yet standing walls left of the Old Fort. For about 30 minutes brilliant colors and loud music guides through the history of the six Mughal emperors that ruled Delhi. If I was quizzed, I’d say I remember Babur, Human, Akbar and Sha-Jahan…4 out of 6 ain’t bad! I’d say the content was a bit dense and the program overall a bit long, but it was certainly a unique experience. However, if you’re a history buff and can’t make it, you will hear their stories many times in your travels across the North. The Mughal emperors’ lives rival soap operas, with wars, romance, family betrayal and more. For example, the emperor who built the Taj Mahal was arrested and locked away before he could build the black mausoleum that would have mirrored the Taj and been his own resting place. Or there’s Akbar who had one Hindu wife, one Muslim wife, one Christian wife, and 50 concubines. While there may have been drama in his personal life, his open and accepting love life reflected his political beliefs, and the region enjoyed tolerance, peace and prosperity.
Location: Near Delhi Zoo, Mathura Road Nearest Metro Station: Pragati Maidan Open: All days Entry Fee: 5 (Indians), 100 (foreigners) Days Closed: None Photography Charges: Free (still camera); 25 (video camera)
Diplomatic Enclave, Sardar Patel Marg, Chankyapuri, New Delhi – 110021
I saved the best for last! Bukhara – a “frontier”, rustic themed restaurant with the best grilled meat (tandoori) I’ve ever had. I’ll admit I didn’t have the average experience. Our dinner was a wedding reception of around 35 people, so our menu was set. Dish after dish of meat kept rolling out: prawns, lamb, chicken, fish… It was all dowsed in Indian spices, predominately a coriander mixture – my favorite! They serve exclusively North Indian cuisine, but that seems to let them perfect the food they feature. The online reviews are over the top and for good reason. You can view the chefs as they cook from behind a class wall (probably to keep the smell of the grill from overwhelming). This is not a cheap date… but if you’re OK with the price, then you’ll thoroughly enjoy it. Trip Advisor has some pictures of the menu, if you’re curious about the price. Note: The restaurant is located inside a hotel.
Contact: Bukhara, ITC Maurya, A Luxury Collection Hotel
Pongal is the Tamil Harvest Festival (think American’s Thanksgiving). Wikipedia says it’s called Thai Pongal, with Thai indicating the Tamil calendar. But perhaps it is like French Fries or Belgium waffles – don’t you wonder what they call them in their namesake countries? Well, Tamils seem to drop the Thai. While the general feeling conveyed by my FIL is giving thanks to the earth for its bounty, further research indicates that the festival specifically thanks the Sun God for providing energy to the plants to grow.
Pongal also means overflow and a type of sweet rice, both of which now come in to play.
Celebrating the festival abroad includes:
Wash up! You must be clean to conduct a ceremony.
Don’t eat meat the entire day. Skip the eggs while you’re at it.
Cook/boil the following in a pot that has never touched meat:
The froth may boil over… that’s ok – it’s part of the symbolism and celebration.
Play a piece of raw tumeric and ginger on the top of the pot, though it can also be tied around. Tumeric is auspicious. Ginger gives you good health – it is both sweet and not sweet, which will help you get through the good and bad times in life. It will make you resilient. We all need that, right?
Turn the heat off
Add jaggery, a state of molasses/sugar, and cardamom seeds.
Bring the food to your family alter and perform a pooja
There you go. You’ve celebrated pongal abroad.
My next step included dashing off to work. But I can’t wait to celebrate this in its home state where I’m sure the multi-day festival will include much more.
Lastly, I’d like to share a bit of wisdom my FIL imparted on me on this rainy Friday morning at daybreak…
Hinduism involves a lot of ritual because the religion comes from a time when people did not read or write. Therefore, the consistency and repetition of the rituals helped people remember and pass down their traditions. It becomes a natural reaction, subconscious and automatic; all of the individual things blend together. “Like Ctrl-Alt-Delete,” he laughed.
So there you have it folks, Hindu rituals are like “Ctril-Alt-Delete.”
I wrote these tips while we were in the trenches (a.k.a. on the trip), so this advice is pure. These are the things we couldn’t do without. Note: this is specific to a family trip (I had my parents, an aunt, a MIL, a family friend, a sister and Brother-in-law). If you want to backpack and rough it in your early 20s, I’ll write a different post about that (cause I did it in 2006 & 2007).
1. An Open Mind
Ya, it’s cheesy, but you won’t know what this means until you get there. India is the ultimate juxtaposition of the extremes of humanity. Wealth and poverty. Beauty and trash. Ancient and modern. Fast and slow. Frenetic and calm. Lush and dry… I could go on and on. So be ready to get dirty and be ready to get uncomfortable (just wait until I get to the story of our flat tire at midnight in the middle of nowhere), but also be ready to know that you’re in the middle of a perspective-changing, once-in-a-lifetime experience. You’ll be out of your element – rejoice in it.
2. The Usual
Follow all the general advice you see online: don’t drink anything but bottled water, don’t eat raw vegetables, bring lots of wet wipes and toilet paper, leave your jewelry… Go to a travel clinic and get your malaria and diarrhea medication. Mentally prepare for possibly using a hole in the ground as a toilet (learn how to squat!).
3. A tour guide/driver you trust
We used Thomas Cook to book the first week of our tour. I have to say that we really lucked out with the tour guide they booked. The guide/driver should be experienced, especially if you have no native Indians in your group. We had two hired people with us – an experienced driver who knew English, and an assistant, whose sole job it was to guard the van (and often us) at all times. Later in the trip with a different driver and no assistant, we caught him out of sight of the van and the doors unlocked… when you’re in a foreign country, you can lose trust fast. Peace of mind is priceless.
So, if you can, try to book our guide, Sanjay!
Sanjay Yadav – L.A.K. Tourist Taxi Service
Based in New Delhi, Sanjay is originally from the Jaipur area and very knowledgable of the city. One particular thing we appreciated was that while we were brought to conventional “tourist trap” type stores, he would step inside first and ask them to tone it down. The result was english-speaking store owners who treated us relatively fairly. He would warn us where and when to buy things so that we weren’t ripped off (too much… you can’t change that they know you’re foreigners). Also, he was extremely flexible – if we wanted to change the plan, he would know a different location or restaurant to fit the new plan. For example, we had planned on a trip to Pushkar, but he knew that the weekend we were traveling was a significant religious festival. If we had gone, the crowds would have been bordering on dangerous. We adjusted accordingly.
4. A MIL
ok… so this isn’t always possible. But my amazing MIL was our life-saver. She spoke up when she thought we were being treated unfairly (just wait until my story at Fatepur Sikri). She haggled, grouping our purchases together and demanding a group discount. When we ended the trip, noone could express the magnitude of their gratitude for her guidance and positive spirit.
But in more manageable terms – someone knowing even the most basic of Hindi will be an asset.
5. A Working ATM card
Let your bank know you’re traveling! You’ll be making many cash withdrawals. And never get too low, there’s no guarantee any particular ATM will accept your card to withdraw money. I however had no issue with stores.
6. A Neck Pillow
No joke. With jet lag, you’ll be sleeping in the tour van. You’ll need the sleep and down time, so upgrade to the memory foam!
7. Antibacterial Gel
Besides the fact that the chance a bathroom will have soap is iffy, you’ll need to disinfect your hands often if you plan to eat like the locals do: with your hands. Though you are given many passes as a tourist, there’s one custom I suggest you follow: Don’t eat with your left hand. It’s an unspoken “truth” that you use your left hand to wipe, so only your right hand is appropriate for eating.
8. A Bargaining Backbone
Bargaining/haggling is expected. It will feel very uncomfortable at first, but practice makes perfect. It is more important to know how much something is worth to you, than it is to know what it actually costs. Even after haggling and threatening to walk away, you still may end up paying more than a local would pay. Don’t beat yourself up – as long as you feel comfortable paying it, go for it. But also, don’t be afraid to say no. They’ll be pushier than you can imagine and follow you around the store. Don’t make eye contact with street vendors or children selling trinkets – they’ll become relentless if you even acknowledge them. A good trick in a larger group is to bargain for the whole group at once. See if you can get a discount for larger volume. If they’re not bringing the price down, grab something and ask for it to be thrown in for free. It’s worked for me!
Got these down? Great, let’s get started with where you’re going. First stop, New Delhi…
Part 1 of this post describes how we got from engagement to deciding to have two weddings (one American and one Indian) over labor day weekend in central Massachusetts. Now, let’s talk about the specific layout of the weekend.
Division of labor:
Anyone who has gone through the process knows how hard planning a wedding is. The fact that there is an entire profession of Wedding Planners is a sign that it can be hard for the average person to juggle their life while planning a massive, emotionally-impactful event. So how do you do two? We decided to leave the American Wedding planning to me and my family, and the Indian Wedding planning to my In-Laws. It was his parents who had the vision of what they wanted for the Indian Wedding. I was happy to go with the flow, show up and enjoy whatever they put together. My Husband had the tricky position of helping both of us. We did our best to assign him tasks and consult with him when we thought he’d like to have a say. But it didn’t turn out to be a perfect system…
I had a dream that my Husband and I would work seamlessly together, creating a wedding that was a true blending of our taste. But I was a bit naive. Not only are we both stubborn and opinionated, but we both have extremely different tastes. It took a few fights and mistakes before I just caved to his request to create the wedding of my dreams. My fear was that he wouldn’t feel emotionally attached to the American Wedding if it was only my dream come to life, not his or ours. And that fear came from a real place, but I just had to embrace that perhaps he didn’t have as many visions of his wedding as I did and that the napkin color didn’t affect him the way it affected me. Eventually, it was his mother who told me the wedding was about the bride and to forget the groom. Completely equal, custom-blended weddings seem to be a more modern concept.
I still struggled, until I admitted to myself that my greatest fear was that the Indian Wedding might mean more to him in the long run than the American one. I wanted to share our most precious moment, not each having our own. I decided to accept that my fears may be well-founded, but that is the situation I chose.If I wanted someone whose desires and traditions completely align with mine, I would have had to marry someone completely different. I love my Husband and the excitement our differences bring. So I sucked it up and took control of the American wedding. In the end, the guests appreciated the two clear visions of two diverse people, rather than one perfectly in-sync event.
Choosing the Indian Venue:
I can’t speak for my In-Laws, but I believe this decision boiled down to two things.
Will they let us use an outside Indian caterer?
Surprisingly few venues can handle more that 250 guests. And there are even fewer that don’t require you to use their services or a short list of caterers for food. After searching in vain in Worcester, MA, they narrowed it to the Devens Common Center, which is reasonably priced, familiar with Indian weddings and sandwiched by two hotels.
As a side note, Boston has many venues of the right size with experience in Indian Weddings. While most do not allow outside caterers, there are a surprising number of hotels with complete Indian menus just for this purpose. Warning – you’ll pay for it!
SATURDAY EVENING- American Wedding
SUNDAY ALL DAY- Mehndi, Baraat & Sangeet
MONDAY MORNING – Hindu Ceremony
SATURDAY – The American Wedding
Saturday was already set for the American Wedding. We’d let it play out like the average Christian wedding in 2015 – bride prep, ceremony, cocktail hour/photos and reception. My photographer was a great help in nailing down the exact times. The bridal party got our hair and make-up done at my childhood home, and we headed over to the venue a bit early for bridal party photos. My Husband wanted the impact of seeing me for the first time as I walked down the aisle, so two photographers coordinated to prevent the groom and I from crossing paths.
The ceremony was beautiful. As we left, we were surprised by an Acapella group from our Alma Mater, all set up by my incredible sister and brother-in-law. After about 45 minutes of photos, we spent a brief time chatting with guests before being introduced. A choreographed first dance, a blessing from my grandfather and the father/daughter dance all followed. We danced like crazy until 10:30pm and left the mansion with a sparkler exit. We tried to have an after party at the grill across from the hotels, but they closed promptly at 1am. Noone was too disappointed; there were another 2 days to go!
SUNDAY – Mehndi, Baraat and Sangheet
A day of rest for the guests and the groom… and a day of sitting still for me.
10 am – Mehndi
The bridal mehndi (fingertips to elbows and toes to a few inches above the ankles) started at 10am in a room above the hall. I asked my friends to drop by to keep me company and feed me (no free hands!). Guest mehndi started at about 2pm. A small design on one hand only took a few minutes for each person. I’ll be honest, I was at the end of my rope by 5pm. The sugar/lemon mixture applied to the mehndi left me sticky and immobile. Let’s not talk about how I went to the bathroom…
Meanwhile, the wedding guests had the freedom to do whatever they wished in the area. About a month before the wedding, I sent out a travel guide I created to all the guests. It included restaurants, attractions, wineries, golf courses, etc. A few of my friend groups merged after meeting the night before and sent me some jealousy-inducing photos of them lounging and playing board games as I sat getting my mehndi done.
After scraping off my mehndi, I was plopped into a chair for hair and make-up and sent out to do couples pictures with my Husband around 5:30pm.
6pm – Baraat
Wikipedia Definition: Baraat (Hindi: बरात) (Urdu: برات) is a bridegroom’s wedding procession in North India and Pakistan. In North Indian communities, it is customary for the bridegroom to travel to the wedding venue (often the bride’s house) on a mare, accompanied by his family members.
Firstly, we did look into it, and it costs $7,500 a day to rent an elephant. Luckily for my hubby, it was elephant or nothing… so he walked/danced to the venue.
The bride and grooms side separated at different hotel lobbies, so we could each parade to the venue. These parades are called the baarat. In most movies, the groom comes to the wedding on a horse or elephant. Tamil weddings don’t usually include them, and in the North, this happens before the ceremony. But what the hell – my Husband had always wanted a baarat like the Bollywood movies, and the ceremony was too early the next day. So before the sangheet it would have to be.
Wedding Tip: Get a live dholi! A dholi is a drummer who will lead the parade. Ours helped my side loosen up by teaching them the classic lightblub twist and coaching them in yelling “Hey!” It made all the difference in helping my New England family feel comfortable in letting loose.
Bride’s side first. (Rumor is we won the award for loudest parade!)
Then the Groom’s side.
The Bride’s parents and relatives meet the Groom at the door of the venue to give him their blessings. I have to say the photos of my Dad and Husband hugging leave me misty-eyed.
6:30pm – Sangeet
Sangeet – Another Northern tradition we borrowed for the fun of it is the Sangeet. Once is was a kind of bachelorette for the bride’s side, now it is often just a large party for both sides to get to know each other better. If there’s any American equivalent, it would be an American wedding reception.
The Bride’s Entrance involved my uncles holding a red canopy over me as my friends and family entered the hall to may favorite Bollywood songs and a little Taylor Swift.
The Groom’s Entrance would normally go next, but we both felt there was enough arriving and entering already. So we scrapped it to get the appetizers out and the drinks flowing.
This may feel like an unusual start to the American Bride – dancing first – but I think it’s something all weddings should adopt. Get the energy up immediately and get people comfortable with throwing their arms up, all before the first bite.
Intermingled among courses of food, family and friends perform for everyone. From speeches to singing and dancing to riddles, the entertainment is varied. I wish I had given my friends and family a bit more of a heads up. I assumed they wouldn’t be comfortable with performing, but perhaps that was a mistake! My husband and I performed a choreographed dance to Chaiyya Chaiyya. For many that night, the dance was more than a highlight, it was a sign that I had truly embraced their culture. Even my own friends told me: “It all felt right. You’ve been Indian inside all along.”
Towards 11pm, the DJ transitioned from fun dance night to wild party. By 12pm, I was barely standing and dragged myself to bed. I think they wrapped up around 1am.
MONDAY – Southern Hindu Ceremony
4am – My poor husband had to wake up at 4am to start a series of family specfic rituals that needed to be complete before the wedding ceremony could start.
6am – My wake up time.
Notice no breakfast… while the guests could eat their complimentary breakfast at the hotel. My In-law’s religious practices called for fasting before the ceremony.
8:30 am – Religious Ceremonies – Kashi Yatra, Oonjal & Vara
I’ll go over these in another post, but they are shorter ceremonies that need to happen to start the main ceremony at the auspicious time chosen by the priest.
Swing or Jhula
Served banana and milk
9am -11am – Main Ceremony
This includes: Kanyadanam, Mangalya Dharanam, Paani Grahanam, Saptha Padhi, Pradhaana Homam, and Treading the Grindstone. The timing is based on the Hindu religious calendar.
Make sure to remind guests that you’re not expected to sit quietly through this ceremony! Indians will be mingling, eating and chatting so the American guests should too!
Since this ceremony will be in sanskrit, I suggest either a written explanation of what is going on or have the DJ explain over a mic. We did both.
Treading the Grindstone
Seven Circles around the firs
Main Hindu Ceremony
11am – Greetings and Napka (Blessings)
You’re going to be tired, and you’re going to hungry, but you’ve got a few hundred people that traveled from afar to share this day with you and show their love. You’ll take pitcures and accept gifts, but most importantly, you’ll perform Napka. Napka (forgive me if this is a horrible translation) is when you bow before your elders, so that they can give you their blessings. The bride stands to the groom’s right and bows to the ground as they throw rice on you. Honestly, this was really fun for my family!
12pm – South Indian Lunch Buffet
Self-explanatory. I still get compliments on the food months later.
By 2pm, my Husband and I were able to escape. He crashed on the bed and slept for hours. Not wanting it all to end, my close family and I headed off to Friendly’s to grab an ice cream. As we sat enjoying our desserts, we all affirmed that we were ready to do it all again next weekend 🙂
Specifics on vendors, details on the Indian traditions and tidbits on what I learned will roll out in future posts. The next batch will be about my first family trip to India. Talk about out of your element!
And don’t forget to shake it up! Even though there are lots of traditions, stick to the ones that really matter to both your families. As long as everyone has fun (and you actually get married), it’s a success!
This week, I’m swapping one symbol of marriage for another as I head on a whirlwind trip to show my family the sights of Northern India and meet family in South India. Worried about losing my ring while traveling, my thaali (தாலி) and a bindi will be the only indicators that I’m a married woman. On the thaali, a gold necklace, one pendant represents my family, and one represents his. The bindi, the small dot in between the eyes, has become a fun fashion statement, but was originally a sign that you were married.
To be completely honest, it’s not that I need it to be known that I’m “taken.” I’ve traveled to India twice by myself as a single woman in her early twenties without any issues. My Husband doesn’t mind either. He doesn’t have his wedding band yet. I jokingly remind him to keep the hordes single ladies at bay as best he can when he leaves the house.
Instead of wearing them for me or him, I’ll be wearing them to show respect to my new family. It’s an important sign of compromise and openness to their culture. Plus, I think it will make them feel that my Husband is in good hands. It’s a beautiful piece of jewelry, so I’m not complaining!
For more info on the thaali, here’s what wikipedia says under its other name – mangala sutra.
“A mangala sutra (from Sanskritmangala, meaning “holy, auspicious”, and sutra, meaning “thread”) is a necklace that a Hindu groom ties around the bride’s neck in a ceremony called Mangalya Dharanam (Sanskrit for “adorning the pious thread”), which is the main ritual of Hindu marriage ceremony. The woman continues to wear the mangala sutra as a sign of her marital status.
This practice is an integral part of a marriage ceremony as prescribed by Manusmriti, the traditional law governing Hindu marriage.”
Upcoming posts include the conclusion to One Wedding or Two? and the adventures of 9 family members in a van touring India. Reviews of the restaurants and hotels will also be included incase any readers need some recommendations!
Great! You’re engaged! And your fiance is Indian. Now it’s time to plan a multi-cultural wedding.
You’ve worked through so many cultural difference in your relationship, this one can’t be that different, right? Maybe. But more likely, this will be the most complicated and fraught merging of cultures so far. Just to start, it involves the complexities of culture, religion, emotions, social pressure and In-Laws! I’m going to walk you through our process (or more like my process, because as much as I love my Husband – we haven’t mind melded just yet.)
First thing first, I took some time and asked myself, “What do you want?” A lot of people will ask you: “What has your dream been since you were a child?” But I think this is more harmful than helpful. There is no guarantee your image has stayed the same or that you even have one. The question is: What will make you happy? What will you not regret (regret doing or not doing)?
Second, what do your two families want and how much do you care? It’s a fair question – you can disregard their opinion all together. But when you’re in the moment, that may be harder than you think. I know I would have regretted not at least asking my parents opinion on certain things.
Side Note: One factor in our decision was that my in-laws pleaded that we not move in together before we got married. We already lived separately, but we were so ready to start the next phase of our lives and be together that this was a big concession. However, it did mean our wedding planning would not linger. We got engaged Jan 1. And we wanted a wedding August – October of that year. Good news – it can be done!
This is what we netted out with after some soul-searching:
I want: A modern American ceremony (loosely structured on Christian traditions) in central Massachusetts where several generations of both sides of my family have lived.
He wants: To go to Court tomorrow, move in together immediately and save a bunch of money
My family wants: Whatever I want as long as they’re there
His family wants: A traditional South Indian Hindu Ceremony with as many of their family members involved as possible – close to 300 invites
Everyone wants: A really fun party
Conclusion: Since my Husband respects and loves his parents dearly, he was inclined to do what it took to make them happy. **Note: This decision was debated and fought over on at least one destroyed date night. We almost decided to not have the wedding and save the money. But only minutes later, I caved. Life is short. What if one of us died young? I wanted the memories. I wanted my family to feel involved in creating our new family unit. As they say, “You can’t take it[money] with you!” So, Court was out and at least one wedding was in…
But it was then that a running theme emerged from the discussion: equality. If we had an American wedding and not an Indian wedding, it would be difficult socially and emotionally for his parents. So it was either court or two weddings.
Now, how do you make it work? The easy answer might seem like – have two ceremonies and one reception in a day! But this is easier said then done. We had friends, a North Indian and Chinese couple, get married this way. It worked because the North Indian ceremony is relatively short and the Chinese tea ceremony was even shorter. However, the Tamil ceremony can run 2-4 hours.
Here’s how it broke down for us:
My Worry #1: Could we find a space that holds that many people that would also give me the ceremony I dreamed of? I’m a fan of nature, historic buildings, gardens… I would need a hotel ballroom to hold 300.
Answer: I would do the American ceremony elsewhere and then end up at a ballroom for the reception. No problem!
In-Law Worry #1: If I feel strongly about Massachusetts, can we get the Indian family there?
Answer: “It might be too difficult, so let’s do a completely separate Indian wedding. Sunshine, be free and go plan your American Wedding. We will plan separately, that way we won’t interfere with your dream.” This was difficult for me as I wanted everyone to feel involved, but I was overwhelmed and trusted it was the right course.
In Law Worry #2: If not Mass., Where? And how much would it cost?
My husband’s parents live in D.C. – wouldn’t it be easier to orchestrate something there? The prices would be higher than India, but fewer people would attend since price and visas would be an issue for international visitors. Most of the extended family lives in India – wouldn’t it be better to have a full Hindu wedding in India? Their family would be closer, but amongst their peers, his parents would have to fully embrace the traditions, making it much larger and more expensive than holding it in America.
Flash to me on the venue hunt for the American wedding. I was trying to balance atmosphere, price & convenience. I was torn between the Colonial Inn and Chocksett Inn – the pros and cons were not the same but seemed to balance themselves out. I would wake up at 3am unable to sleep and tortured by the choice. My time was running out. Each venue had only one Saturday or Friday date left that year, and it was going to go fast.
That is until my mom insisted that we check out The Harding Allen Estate in Barre, MA. The historic mansion was built to be a replica of the Newport Mansion by an eccentric, wealthy New Yorker. It had the exact “Jane Austen” feel I wanted, with immaculate gardens and a real historic flair. Plus, the ballroom was built to look like an elegant tent, but with climate controlled. The owner was the caterer, making the packages extremely well-priced. I made sure to read between the lines and found a few hidden charges/rules, but felt I could comply. They could fit 225, way above the 180 that my Husband and I felt was the maximum we wanted to attend. The one major con… it was 30 minutes from any hotels. I felt guilty for giving on the convenience category, but promised myself that we would hire transportation. There was one Saturday left – Labor Day weekend. Crap… that means some people would be upset that they had to spend the vacation at the wedding. My parents insisted that anyone I truly want to be there, would make the effort to come. After a quick call to my Fiance, who wasn’t able to make this trip up North (we made a venue trip up 2 weeks prior), I wrote a check for the deposit on the spot.
My parents, sister and brother-in-law sat with me at an Au Bon Pain to digest what had just happened. I was slowly letting myself accept that I committed and get excited. I called my future MIL to tell her the good news. But right after I told her, she replied, “Good. We decided that we’re going to have the Indian wedding following right after the American wedding. That way our closest relative traveling from India only have to travel once. We’re heading up to MA to check out venues that can accommodate our number next weekend.”
Then I did something unexpected: I burst into tears. I had just made a commitment on a venue catering solely to my dreams based on one set of information. Now, I was being told my base information was incorrect, and there was a whole other set of variables. I couldn’t handle the pressure or the guilt. His entire family would be traveling from far and wide to the middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts and go to an American Wedding 30-50 minutes from their hotel and 2 hours from Logan airport. Both sides of my family worked to calm me down. They emphasized that at some point you have to make a decision and move forward and told me everything would be perfect.
And they were right. Everything did turn out perfect, but it was a long road to get there. Part Two of this post will include how we determined the location of the Indian Wedding and exactly how we would schedule two weddings in one three-day holiday weekend.
Thanks for reading!
Please email me at samosasandsunshine@gmail[dot]com if you have any questions about this post or want me to elaborate further.