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!
Excuse me? You want to invite who? His dentist from 3rd grade? His father’s dry cleaner? His 3rd cousin 5 times removed who he’s never met?
I’m not being dismissive to disrespect any of these wonderful people… I’m letting future MIL’s and FIL’s know what it sounds like to an American bride when she’s reviewing the Indian in-laws’ guest list. For American brides and grooms, the guest list can be the greatest subject of contention. Mostly, it involves many awkward conversations with people who want to go, but you have no room for. Luckily, it’s generally understood as the norm and doesn’t hurt too many feelings. In fact, it’s frowned upon to cause a (public) stink if you’re not invited. But for Indians… it’s not so simple. Before I get into why, let me breakdown an American couple’s mindset to make it as understandable as possible.
Why are American Brides & Grooms forgiven if they cut the guest list? Why is it acceptable for American Brides & Grooms to stick to a number between 50 – 200 guests?*
The American Wedding is allowed to be “intimate.” This is the Bride and Groom’s day! You’re told that this is the most special day of your life, and you really only want the people you care about most to surround you. You don’t want a near-stranger messing up your dream day!
It’s EXPENSIVE! Food, favors, transportation… the cost per guest adds up quickly. You don’t want to be paying for any-ol’-person, who may or may not be in your life 5 years down the line.
The venue has a limit. For every bride that lies and says, “The venue doesn’t allow too many people, so we have to keep the guest list down,” there is a bride telling the truth. The increasingly diverse and unique wedding venues on the market often have a cap at 100, 150, 200, 250, etc, simply because of space, number of bathrooms or the fire code. (They also have a minimum for specific nights, but that’s no help at the moment).
* There are many, many exceptions to this. For example, I know some religious communities have a very large ceremony and a smaller reception. But this has been my experience and the internet wedding industry seems to support this.
I would like to note that I never thought I’d be writing this. All of my adult life, I always said, “When I get married, the most important thing to me is people. I will sacrifice other places in the budget to have everyone I love there.” However, after the initial month of meeting with vendors, I understood what I was truly up against. It helped that I didn’t get married until I was 29. By that age, you realize you’re not as close with your freshman college roommates or you know that your first boss won’t keep in touch 5 years later. I was able to reduce my list without more than a sleepless night or two. Seeing how many actually accepted is drama for another post…
Indian families follow one saying: the more, the merrier! Or more accurately: the more, the more blessed! Indian families feel very strongly that EVERYONE should be invited. To not be invited is an insult. Imagine a rural village in India. When a wedding comes around, you invite the entire village! It’s not uncommon even today to jump open the doors of the wedding hall and let anyone come in for a meal. For my husband, parring down the list was heart-wrenching. For my in-laws it was nearly impossible. They were positive they would need a hall for at least 350 people.
From what I can tell, this perspective is based on at least three principles:
The more guests, the more blessings! There’s no cap! And who doesn’t want good luck and blessings?
The wedding is a merging of two families and two communities, not two people. This is a day for the families. The wedding is very much a platform for the parents, much like America many decades ago, I might add.
What goes around comes around. If everyone invites everyone, you will be repaid for your investment with many, many wedding parties in the future.
There are probably more philosophies behind this, but these are what I’ve devised so far.
So, how do you have an Indian wedding in America without going bankrupt? Do you have the wedding in India? Is it even cheaper there? How many relatives would have to travel? Can they even get visas?
How do you have an American bride’s dream wedding in a small barn or chapel with 300+ guests? How does an American bride still feel like it’s “her” day, when she sees a sea of unfamiliar faces?
The answers aren’t just about the numbers or even about culture. They’re about feelings too. My next post will tackle the many combinations of weddings for an American/Indian couple. And I’ll let you know what we chose to do… including the regrets.