Indian Wedding, Varanasi

An Indian Wedding in Varanasi

Varanasi, India – RJ is engaged to a beautiful girl, but getting married is the last thing on his mind. “I’m only 26,” he said. “I’m so young to marry.”

It’s not unlike a conversation I’ve had with several of my American friends, but RJ is Indian and his wife has already been chosen. “She’s very nice girl,” he said. “But I don’t want to marry her.”

Indian WeddingI felt sympathy for him, but I had been in India long enough to garner an appreciation for arranged marriages, still the most common type in this culture-rich nation.

Despite its negative reputation in the West, arranged marriage tends to work quite well in India. Parents choose a partner for their son/daughter based on a variety of things we might call superficial – looks (including darkness of skin), family history, societal status (caste), financial background, etc. – and more often than not, the bond grows into a strong friendship, sometimes even love.

“I’m thinking different than most people,” said RJ, who recently moved to Varanasi at his father’s will to take over the family business there. Like other Indian males, his entire future, including his career, has already been decided, and he thinks he should at least have the freedom to choose his wife. “My thinking is different than others,” he told me, as if to say most others enter into arranged nuptials willingly.

But I don’t think it’s so. With the development of Western customs in India, and the success of Hollywood blockbusters, Indians know how it works in other countries and many of them vie to make their own choices. However, rebellion isn’t an option. Like any other Indian child who opposes his parents’ wishes, RJ knows he can only postpone the wedding date for a few years before he must succumb.

We chatted for a while under the dim streetlight, staring at the ever-burning fire of life on the burning ghat in Varanasi, where I went to get a second look at the public cremations, and RJ went to pray to his beloved Gods, and for his future.

I felt his pain as he talked, but tried to ease it with the notion that my country, as he often referred, doesn’t have a strong institution on marriage. That our divorce rate is over 50% and “my people” often marry more than once, or live unhappily because of decisions they’ve made.

In India, marriages tend to last. Each partner knows his/her role in the relationship, and they work together to make a home and a family without giving much thought to what else might be out there, because acting on those thoughts isn’t an option.

Indian Wedding“Have you ever been to Indian wedding?” he asked. “My friend will get married this weekend.”

“But I don’t have a sari,” I stammered, buying myself time to consider the opportunity. I will rarely say no in such exciting circumstances, but I wanted to be sure this wasn’t a date with expectations before I did.

“It’s no need,” he said, “but if you want to buy one I know a good shop for a nice one. You can see Indian style.”

I decided he was harmless and agreed to go. Weddings are usually the most colorful, jovial displays of cultural tradition one can be fortunate to encounter while traveling through a foreign country, and I expected the same in India.

I chose a purple silk sari, the most common textile to wear to a wedding, and purchased the 5 meter (6 yard) length of fabric that would later be tucked, folded, draped and pinned into a variety of styles before settling on this one.

Indian Wedding

Me in Rickshaw and Sari

It was already late when we arrived, and I worried we had missed it. “They are running a little late,” said RJ, as if 10pm were a perfectly normal time to start a wedding.

Most Indian traditions (there are many) involve an elaborate parade on the groom’s journey to the wedding quarters. He’s hoisted on a chariot or a decorated elephant, accompanied by a troop of his drunk and dancing friends, and followed by a loud band to announce his pending nuptials.

Indian Wedding Elephant

Eventually, the groom entered on the shoulders of his friends, yelling and dancing in good spirits. The bride arrived solemn in a bejeweled red sari, with enough gold jewelry to bury a king, including an oversize nose ring with a chain to her ear, a sign of a wife’s commitment to her husband (many women keep a small nose piercing after the wedding, as well as a bindi between her eyebrows and a ring on her left hand).

They quickly took their places on the golden thrones in the corner, without so much as an embrace.

Indian WeddingIndian Wedding Bride

Indian Wedding Groom ArrivalThere was a short ceremony where golden platters were exchanged and the bride walked in a circle around her new husband, but the majority of the night consisted of them posing for the cameras while the crowd shuffled in and out behind them.

Indian Wedding

Indian Wedding CeremonyThe bride never once smiled.

When I asked my friend, Swati, why, she said it was because she has so much to do. But to an outsider, it looked like this woman had shared feelings with my date, RJ, and getting married was the last thing she had wanted to do.

Unfortunately, I thought the best part about this Indian wedding was wearing my sari and taking photos. I didn’t get the cheerful feeling I have at friends’ weddings in The States; a feeling that stems from the obvious joy beaming from the newly married couple; from their closest family and friends joining them in well wishes and sharing excitement for their future; from everybody eating cake, imbibing and sharing the moment. Instead it felt routine and forced, but I suppose that should have been expected from an arranged marriage. The man and wife barely knew each other before this night, and they suddenly had a lot of expectations ahead.

The photo shoot continued long after RJ and I left, but I wished the new couple a happy future filled with laughter, happiness and, hopefully one day, love.

Indian Bride

Have you ever been to a wedding in another country? Where? How was it?


An Indian Wedding in Varanasi
Written by:Jessica J. Hill

23 Comments

  1. Hmmmm. Interesting take on arranged weddings. My Cambodian students always initially favored arranged marriages saying that their parents had more experience and would choose wisely for them. That said, they said they all preferred marrying for love…

    • jessicajhill says:

      I think it’s the same in India, James. If given the choice, they will choose to marry for love. But for many who don’t have that luxury, they tend to see it as a “parents know best” kind of mentality, and eventually give in to their parents’ wishes. I’ve even heard of Indians who come to The States to study/work and go back to marry someone their parents have chosen. It’s all very fascinating for someone who didn’t grow up in this kind of culture!

      On another note – how did you like teaching in Cambodia?

      • I liked it. My school was the best – Australian owned and managed. I was the ADoS so didn’t teach much. But Cambodian students were quite motivated and respectful. I enjoyed my 10 years there!

        • jessicajhill says:

          10 years – wow! I was curious because from what I’ve seen of Cambodia, it seems like the students would be very motivated. I’m impressed with the amount of English spoken there, and after seeing some of the conditions where students study, it’s amazing how dedicated they are. I was a sucker for all the kids selling things “to help pay for my schooling.” Have you taught in Vietnam as well? If so, how does it compare?

      • I’ve only taught corporate English in Vietnam. I think the Vietnamese are more studious at the very top levels (lots qualify for scholarships) but the average kid who learns English in public school is hopeless. I see their homework and it’s quite advanced grammar but they can’t speak a word or understand spoken English at reasonably fast rates of speech.

  2. cansouplover says:

    OMG! Amazing! Such an incredible culture

  3. Jenna@Webjet says:

    Wow Jessica! It seems like you had an amazing opportunity to attend such an event. Weddings are already such a special moment but to experience one in another culture sounds like a chance of a life time. Indian weddings are so different as well and the purple was an excellent choice! This post really allow me to appreciate the freedom we have to marry who we choose in the U.S. Thank you so much for sharing 🙂

  4. bhuwanchand says:

    Okay, few clarifications are in order – first of all, arranged marriages are not necessarily forced marriages. Times have changed, even in India. The bride and the groom do get opportunity to interact with each other before the wedding. In most cases they do have the right veto the whole thing if they do not like the prospective partner.

    The process of arranged marriage is mostly similar to the dating services that are so common in western culture, only the difference here being not just the individuals but the whole families are also involved. And it is not just about a few dates but about spending their whole life together.

    Marriages, as a ceremony, are very much family/social affair here in India, and I am sure it is also true for western cultures. It is a celebration.

    Sorry for another long comment, you may have to bear with me as I need to describe the types of marriages and the process to make it more clear.

    There are basically 4 major scenarios:

    1. Love marriage : Against the wishes of the family – the number is still small but it also happens.
    2. Love-Arranged marriage : Happiness all around. Growing type of marriage,
    3. Arranged-Love marriage :The most common type of marriage, where everyone is happy.
    4. Arranged-forced marriage – Everyone knows that its a disaster from the word go. Not very common, almost extinct in urban India/ metro cities. The chances of occurrence almost same as as option 1.

    In scenario 1, which is mostly a Urban India/Metro city phenomenon (but it does happen in other parts of the country as well) The two individual fall in love and decide to get married even though one or both the families are not in favor of their marriage. This kind of scenario can exist even in western culture. Why family oppose the individual choice? Well there could be a number of reasons – think about the past, a white marrying a colored person in the western cultures. This scenario is generally avoided.

    A majority of individual in India, when in love, would like to make it the scenario no.2 rather than scenario 1. This is also the most common form in metro cities and among the educated/professionally qualified population of India. It is very similar to the western culture. Individual fall in love, they decide to get married, inform their families and everybody joins in the celebration. I myself can vouch for it as my wife and me also walked on this very path.

    Scenario 3 is still the way majority of marriages happen in India. Families work like the informal dating services and search for the right bride/groom for the unmarried members. The pictures and resume’s are exchanged along with the birth charts (yes this is prevalent and very normal, it may sound strange to those who are not exposed to it, but there is traditional Indian knowledge and astrological science involved in it). If there are positive response from both sides, the families meet, the individual meet and see if they are compatible with each other. The boy and girl get the opportunity to interact. They also have the veto power to say no if they do not find the prospective partner non-compatible. Of-course it is hard to judge the other person just based on few formal interaction – but what do you say about love at first sight :-). In majority of these cases, the people do fall in love with each other and live happily ever after, if there is such a thing called happily ever after :-).

    I would not say that scenario 4 does not exist, but it is as rare as scenario 1. Forced arranged marriage lead to unhappy families. Even leading to break-ups. So nobody in their right mind actually does that. Why would parents who love their children force them into an unhappy life. Isn’t that sound very illogical. And yes it is illogical. Sure it happens, but the such numbers are not really very big. If this would have been the case then there would have been a huge number of break-ups and unhappy families living in India. The high percentage of happy and positive people in India as indicated by some of the global benchmark survey indicate that this is not really as big a problem as it seems from a distance.

    Well this has been a topic of some intense discussion recently with some of my unmarried colleagues. Professionally educated and working in stable jobs, many of them wants to get married through the Option 2. Arranged marriage is the preferred choice for them. some of them have been into relationships and suffered break-up, some in the relationship and having no opposition from their families to marry the love of their life but still not sure about their commitment level, some are just too lazy to take any personal initiative and would like the easy traditional way.

    Like the online dating sites so popular in the western culture, there are some very popular online matrimonial sites in India, and their number is growing.

    I think the relationship between a man and woman is still considered a very sacred one in India. It is much more than just the physical expression of it. People take love and marriage very seriously. Therefore there is this urge to make it right the first time.

    • jessicajhill says:

      Thank you very much for breaking it all down. I didn’t mean to imply that arranged marriages are forced marriages, but you do bring up another question: In RJ’s case, at 26 years old, he wasn’t ready to marry at all, however, from what I witnessed, he’s considered to be at the right age to marry, and if he waits much longer the family will worry he might never find a partner, so they strongly encourage him to do it soon. Is this correct?

      I’ve read about many Indians preferring arranged marriages, and even many living abroad who return to India for their parents to help them find a match. I find it all very intriguing!

      Thanks again for your input!

      • bhuwanchand says:

        Hmmm its correct in a way but not 100% accurate or applicable across India.

        See early twenties is the preferred age of marriage for a large number of people in India. Though its changing with time. One historical reason for very early marriage (even before 20s) was the fear of aggressor from outside India attacking and snatching the kids away between the 10th and 20th century. That is why the age of normal marriage age is slightly lower in North & Western part of India (most of the invaders breached the north-western border) in comparison with South or East.

        Generally speaking, you are right that ~ 26 years is the considered as ideal age of marriage by most of the Indian families. And there is a logic behind it.

        Firstly I will tell you the logic from traditional Hindu point of view.

        According to Hindu philosophy, the life can be divided into 4 quarters – lets consider a person’s will life upto 100 years of life, the first quarter 0-25 is the Brahmcharya ashram/ the age of celibacy or student years – during these years she/he is supposed to learn and get into some profession. The next 25 years are of Grahasth Ashram or the Family years when she/he should get married, earn money, generally enjoy his life to the fullest, have kids, ensure they have a good childhood.

        The next state is Vanprashta ashram or the period to prepare for retreat, from 50 to 75 years during this period the person is suppose to see that his children are settled and it is considered their duty to ensure that. The definition of being settled is having a stable source of income, marriage and having few kids (mostly in the same order). So the she/he would ideally pass on the baton of family to the next generation, become a grandparent during this period and start closing up her/his affairs to be ready for the final phase of life which is Sanyas Ashram, or becoming a Recluse, this is the time to exit out of children/ grandchildren’s life,prepare for the final journey, get ready for the end of life.

        Now there is another logic which is from the practical standpoint. Indian kids start the going to playschool around 3, the formal schooling which is of 12 years starts at 5 and ends around 17, then the graduation + post graduation (or if the kids would choose some professional course) would take 5 to 7 years. So by 23-24 an average boy/girl gets into a job/start earning. The next natural/ logical progression, as per the Indian tradition, is to start her/his own family and which means getting married and having kids. The logic being that you get to spend the best years of your life with your partner for life, produce healthy off-springs and have enough time to see your kids grow up, so that by the time of your retirement, they have completed their education and ready to start their own family life.

        This is how the unending circle of life keeps revolving from one generation to another.

        The age of marriage is slowly getting higher because of social changes, children (both boys and girls) opting for higher education and stabilizing their career before getting married. I think it is normal urban Indian cities to marry by 30’s. I would say its tough to get married in late 30’s of beyond 40’s. Not getting married/ live-in relationships/ homosexuality is still not openly accepted in the society and not considered a normal behavior. But there has been exceptions to this. Some of the great leaders/ political stalwarts (e.g. Ex. President of Indian Mr. APJ Abdul Kalam/ Ex Prime Minister of Indian Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpai) have decided to remain unmarried, it is, in a way, considered a great sacrifice, to dedicated your life to society rather than focusing on your very own personal life.

        Like everything else about India this answer to your simple question might sound very complicated. But as they say, it is only in India that you will find contradiction co-existing peacefully. So if one says something, and it is 100% true for them, 180 degree opposite of the same could also be true under different circumstances.

        • jessicajhill says:

          That sounds pretty typical to the way it works in the U.S., although we don’t usually put the spirituality twist on it. And, the same is happening here – people are opting for later marriages and families to accommodate either more education or experience (ie traveling the world) while we’re young, saving time for family in our later years. It’s interesting how entire cultures change in ways that are actually only individual decisions – but societal pressures are huge in the U.S., and I’m willing to guess India too.

          However, even though it might be easy to classify the norm of a majority, it’s never going to be all inclusive, no matter which country or culture we’re talking about.

          Thanks for clarifying your points!

  5. bhuwanchand says:

    By the way the reason for absence of smile on Bride’s face is not because she is unhappy, generally the tradition marriage ceremony is long and tiring, so much action is happening all around that it is really difficult to enjoy one’s own wedding ceremony.

  6. Edna says:

    What a great experience, that must have been so memorable to be able to be a part of such an important cultural tradition!

  7. I went to an Indian wedding back in 1982 or so for a friend from Bombay who was a dormmate of mine at Texas A&M University in 1974. The wedding, including his wife, had been arranged. He didn’t want to get married; he was enjoying the American way of life. The marriage didn’t even last five years before he dumped her, came back to America, and broke all relations with his family. I lost track of him when I moved to San Diego in 1993.

    • That’s quite a story! Do you think that is still quite common for Indians who’ve become accustomed to the American culture? Perhaps we’re spreading infidelity and short-term relationships around the globe, thanks to our high influence.

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