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The Wedding Crashers

THE WEDDING CRASHERS
by Diana McLeod

      "“Stop the Car! Stop the car!”"

      David and I were in the back seat of Sudarshan’'s SUV, in Jaipur, India. Our host was courteously chauffeuring us back to our hotel, after a lovely dinner at his home.

      I planning to get back to our room and relax. Dave had other ideas. We were in Jaipur at the height of India’'s wedding season, and he was determined to photograph as many Indian wedding receptions as possible. He had just spotted a wedding palace by the road and it was all decked out, with a huge party taking place inside. This wedding even had two elephants greeting guests at the door. We had not been able to photograph elephants at a wedding yet. This was Dave’'s big chance. “"Stop the car!”" he yelled.

      Sudarshan couldn'’t believe that we were serious. He finally pulled over. "“How will you get back to your hotel?"” he asked anxiously." “And how are you going to get into that wedding? Do you know those people?”"

      Dave laughed. “"We'’ll get home on our own, Sudarshan-ji. As for the wedding, we’ll just invite ourselves. Why not? We’'ve already crashed two weddings, thanks to you, and another one on our own. Thanks so much for the dinner and the ride! We’ll see you at work tomorrow.”"

      Dave leaped out, ran across the street, and started taking pictures of the elephants. I followed with my video camera. The elephants were beautifully decorated with traditional colored chalk designs. The turbaned mahouts were happy to pose them for us as they greeted the guests.

      It did not take long for us to get noticed. A young man emerged from the fancy tent and introduced himself to me. He asked us what we were doing there. I told him, quite frankly, that we were doing a photo essay for our website in the U.S.

      "“Most Americans have no idea just how spectacular Indian weddings really are,"” I explained. “"We were driving by, and we saw the elephants. We haven'’t yet been to a reception that was fancy enough to have elephants. Your family must be quite important.”"

      That was Step One. Step Two was to mention that we were in the jewelry business. Everybody in Jaipur is in the gemstone and jewelry business. The young man I was talking to was also in the jewelry business. What a coincidence!

      We were suddenly V.I.P’s. We were whisked into the silken tent, down the red carpet, under the glittering chandeliers, and out onto the wedding pavilion'’s lawn. It didn''’t matter that we were not appropriately dressed for the occasion. We were rich foreign business prospects, and we were immediately welcomed by the entire family.

      We declined dinner, explaining that we had just come from another party. But our host insisted that we try a few dessert delicacies. He snapped his fingers and a waiter veered in our direction. He was carrying a tray of iced dessert drinks served in crystal stemware. Mine was deliciously strawberry. Dave tried mango. Our young escort saw to it that no other waiter passed us by. We were tempted with elegant pastries and Indian sweets. I had to try a few, even though I had already stuffed myself on Latta'’s delicious dinner!

      I met the family, while Dave quickly excused himself so that he could get better pictures. It was a very colorful scene! There was a very broad expanse of lawn, with tables scattered here and there. Most of them were packed with family and friends who were still finishing their dinners. There were other tents on the sidelines, where cooks and caterers were still preparing meals for latecomers.

      The centerpiece of the wedding reception was a raised stage with an amazing backdrop behind it. This thirty foot tall (mostly white) stage backdrop looked like a melange of Ancient Greek theater set and Mexican wedding cake. There were Greek columns, (Ionic, Doric and Corinthian) and little porticos and niches with oversized fake Greek vases in them, and fake Greek marble statues all over the place. Carved rococo flourishes (garlands, cupids,etc) adorned the layers of architectural excessiveness like icing on the cake. (We had already been to two other events, and the façade on their stages had similar themes. The classical Greek motif was apparently all the rage in Jaipur, and all the wedding pavilions were going for the “Greek chic” look).

      The stage in front of this grand façade is not where the actual wedding takes place. Unfortunately, we never got to see the actual ceremony of any of the weddings we crashed. The ceremonies took place much earlier, while we were still getting out of work each day. But the bride and groom were still there, sitting in throne-like chairs, posing for endless photographs. Dave happily joined the group of photographers, and was quickly invited right up on the stage itself for close-ups. The family was very proud to have an American photographer interested in documenting their family'’s event. The fathers of both the bride and the groom made sure that everyone noticed that he was there.

      We were still in time to catch some of the entertainment. Indian weddings usually hire uniformed brass bands. Their primary role is to play for the groom'’s procession. On the way to the wedding, the groom parades down the street on an elaborately caparisoned white horse. He is accompanied by the brass band, his entire family, and his friends. Sometimes the band is requested to play again at the reception, later on in the evening.

      In this case, the band was a surprise to us. They had a Scottish style bagpipe band, of all things! The Indian bagpipers were properly attired in full Scottish regalia, kilts and all! This was a remarkable throwback to the days of the Raj, when India was a British colony. Somebody'’s great grandfather must have been a Loyalist. The pipes blared out a proper Scottish marching song, and the drummers swung their sticks in Scottish style.

      I looked around the crowd. The generation gap was easy to see. The older people listened attentively to the band, but young people paid it almost no mind. Their musical taste was all Bollywood and Indian hip-hop, these days.

      Meanwhile, my young friend was delicately lobbying me to visit his jewelry showroom. I had been straight up front with him, ever since our first meeting, and I stuck to the facts. "“I would love to visit your showroom,"” I told him, "But tomorrow is my last day in Jaipur. I have to be on the Ajmeer Express train at 5 P.M., and I have to wrap up my business elsewhere, first. I will only be able to come if I finish my other business much earlier than expected. But I have your card, and I will try to come sometime in the future."” It was all true. This was my last night in Jaipur.

      At last, we said good night. We thanked our hosts profusely for inviting us in, and left via the long silken tent corridor. The elephants waved goodbye as we hopped in a motorized rickshaw to ride home.

MORE WEDDING PARTIES IN INDIA WITH SUDARSHAN AND LATTA

      Indian wedding season happens in late winter through early spring. When we arrived in Delhi, it was right at its peak. We had a three hour drive to get from Delhi to Jaipur. Our gem broker (and good friend) Sudarshan very generously sent his car to pick us up at the airport. Two of his workers greeted us and chauffeured us the whole way to Jaipur. As we drove along, we were stunned by the number of wedding parties we saw along the road. When we got into town, we discussed the weddings with Sudarshan.

      Apparently, it was one of the most astrologically auspicious wedding nights of the year. (Astrologers are consulted on every aspect of Hindu weddings). We asked Sudarshan if he knew anyone who was getting married, because we were dying to photograph these colorful events for our website. Sudarshan said that he had a stack of invitations at home, and that he would sort through them and pick a couple of good ones. He was a very good sport. He promised that he would come and pick us up at our hotel, and we would attend a couple of wedding parties.

      Several hours later, we arrived at the first event. We walked through a fancy archway, which was decorated with flowers, and onto the wedding grounds. This reception was huge. There must have been at least eight hundred people there.

      I immediately felt terribly underdressed. As travelers, we can carry very little personal luggage. I really should bring something for fancy events, but I simply don'’t have room for it. Business papers and equipment take up all the space. Luckily, being a foreigner, I am not expected to do as the locals do, and they are incredibly forgiving. My video camera gave me back a bit of respectability, though. There are not a lot of women in Jaipur with their own video cameras. If the family is rich enough to have one, the camera is almost always the exclusive property of the men.

      The women at this event were magnificently costumed. They wore their finest silk saris and amazing jewelry. Many of the saris were bedazzled with shimmering fabrics spun with gold or silver threads, or decorated with little rhinestones or tiny seed pearls. My eyes went from one spectacular outfit to the next, until I felt that I was lost in a sea of bejeweled princesses.

      Sudarshan'’s wife Latta was no exception. Latta looked resplendent in her fancy dress sari. She is a charming lady, who always has a ready smile and a well honed sense of humor. She was a wonderful hostess. Latta patiently introduced me to people, despite the damage my casual appearance was probably doing to her reputation in town.

      We missed the actual wedding itself, but the bride and groom were still seated on the enormous stage, posing for photos. Wedding stages in Jaipur are amazing. They have incredible backdrops that are as elaborate as they can be. The backdrop for this one was at least thirty feet high. It looked like one side of a gigantic white parade float, with lots of shallow, three-dimensional architecture, all done in mock classical Greek style. The wedding planners had decorated it with sprays of fresh flowers, which added to the "“Tournamant of Roses”" effect.

      This was a society wedding, and some of Jaipur’'s most important people were there. We were introduced to one of Jaipur’'s biggest gem dealers. This gentleman was famous for importing, cutting, and selling Columbian emeralds. Some of the richest emeralds in the world pass through his hands. His family imports the rough stone, and then they employ an army of cutters and polishers to produce the product. Earlier that day, we were at the office haggling over some emeralds, and they were probably his. (Of course, we hadn'’t met the actual owner of the stones at the office. We only met a trusted employee who had some authority to haggle over prices.)

      After an hour, we left, to go to the second event. This one was a somewhat more modest affair. We met the family and we were invited to have some vegetarian dinner. There was rice, and dahl (lentil soup) chappatis (flat bread) and cooked vegetables of various kinds. They were all very aromatically spiced and delicious. There was fresh fruit and ice cream for dessert.

      As we ate, I realized what really set these receptions apart from American ones. Booze. The lack of it. Jaipur is still mostly a dry state. You can buy alcohol, but only in a special store. It is not served at restaurants or at wedding receptions. Oh, I'’m sure there was some tucked away somewhere out of sight, but it was not offered to the regular guests. Too bad, I would have loved a beer right about then. (Travel tip: sometimes, in India, where the sale of beer is restricted, you can try going into a restaurant and ordering “milk.” Sometimes, the restaurant can “find” some for you. They usually have to send a kitchen boy out for it, and they serve it in coffee cups.)

      The festivities were winding down at the second reception, when we heard music out on the street. Another wedding party! We hadn'’t yet had a chance to film a wedding procession. Dave and I literally fled the second reception, and ran out to the street to catch the scene.

      The procession usually begins with family members carrying offerings and oil lamps. The family of the groom and all of his friends march down the street, accompanied by a brass marching band. The music is brash, with lots of trumpet solos and elaborate drumming. The band uniforms could have been peeled right off the “Sergeant Pepper” Beatles album cover!

      It is customary for the band to also provide light-bearers, who illuminate the procession with lamps. This must have been a throwback to the days before electricity, when the streets would have been very dark at night. Nowadays, they no longer use torchbearers. Today, the torches have become electric chandeliers, which are all wired together. The wires lead back to a pickup truck in the rear, which has a generator in it. Porters carry these gaudy chandeliers on their heads or shoulders. A really cheap wedding may use fluorescent tube lights. The guys with the single tubes in their hands look like characters from “Star Wars”

      The band follows the family, just ahead of the groom himself. He always rides a caparisoned white mare. The family dresses him after the fashion of the Maharajahs. He wears a turban decorated with peacock feathers, and a fancy tunic and traditional trousers. Some grooms wear heavy jewelry, and others get garlands of flowers, or even decorations made with currency. It is traditional for the groom to carry a sword. In this case, the groom was sharing his ride with his excited young nephew. He was delighted to see our cameras, and he was happy to pose for pictures.

      The rest of the family was also thrilled to have attracted the attention of two foreigners. They literally pushed us closer, so we could get close-up shots, The young women in the group were really attractive and friendly. They gave us radiant smiles. Their bejeweled wedding saris were absolutely beautiful.

      As the procession moved further down the street, we went back to the other reception. It was beginning to wind down, and Sudarshan and Latta were ready to go home. It had been a great evening!

      Thank you, Sudarshan and Latta, for taking us out wedding-crashing!

      (TO SEE PICTURES OF WEDDINGS IN INDIA, Return to the "travel fun" page, and enter the current photo gallery. Inside the gallery, open up "The Wedding Crashers - Bollywood style.")

      Thanks for reading! Diana


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