My Big Fat Punjabi Wedding
Updated: Jan 8
I never expected that when I walked down the aisle it would be at a Palace in India. I vividly recall as hundreds of people seated row upon row, most of which were strangers to me, gazed at me adorned in my heavily embellished Lehenga Choli and Dupatta. I tried to keep my head up from the sheer weight of the Dupatta, whilst holding my now husband's hand and carrying my Lehenga so that I wouldn't trip, we walked down the aisle towards the stage where we would be seated for most of our wedding day. Fans blasted hot air in our faces as we took our seat as husband and wife on a small stage to the side of the main stage. The air was musty and beads of perspiration were already forming on my face. Music was blaring loudly as traditional dancers entertained our guests on the stage next to us.
A Punjabi Wedding can be overwhelming for the foreign bride with all the customs and traditions. Whilst my partner had explained as many of the traditions as he could to prepare me, it was still unlike anything I imagined. If I had the perspective of a foreign Bride I would have known what to prepare for, such as where to buy a nice pair of stilettos in rural Punjab. Or wake up early for your Wedding Day and not the time your husband suggests as adorning a heavily embellished dupatta takes time!!!
If you have seen the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, multiply that by ten and you have My Big Fat Punjabi Wedding.
What's more, without any knowledge of the traditions I didn't participate in them all, which in hindsight I would have loved to have done, such as The Mehndi Ceremony or Vatna Ceremony. I just went along with the wishes of my husband's family. Since my family weren't participating we skipped all the ceremonies that would usually be hosted and paid for by the Brides family.
If you have seen the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, multiply that by ten and you have My Big Fat Punjabi Wedding. Weddings are an auspicious occasion to the Punjabi. It is a time for the community to come together and bless the newly married couple for their life together as husband and wife.
Wedding Ceremony's are held at Wedding Palace's which are not dissimilar to a palace in style. They are large venues given they need to cater for thousands of guests. In rural Punjab they aren't as glamorous as what you may see in Bollywood Movies and can be quite tacky as they are in high demand in wedding season.
From the moment I said 'yes' wedding preparations were already being made. Weddings are paid for by the parents of the bride and groom equally. In this case being a foreign bride meant that it was the responsibility of my in laws. The whole family are involved in planning a wedding leaving the bride to relax. Which I was not prepared for as I have always wanted to plan my own wedding.
However it is common for couples to print their invites in English if they should live abroad and return home for a wedding. Albeit none of their guests are able to read the invite and need to find someone to translate.
This was difficult for me to sit back and watch as everyone else went about planning my big day while I was more often than not left at home. Even my husband had more involvement than myself. My in laws are superstitious and kept me safe at home so that no harm could come to me before our big day. Traditionally the bride and groom wouldn't leave the house leading up to their wedding day. Though from the very minute I said yes, I was essentially left at home except for the occasional times that I was involved.
Inviting guests is an event in itself given as many people as possible are invited. Invitations are also hand delivered to each guest with a box of traditional Indian sweets. There were at least 800 guests in attendance at our Wedding so that meant hundreds of invitations and boxes of sweets. We printed our invitations in Punjabi given most locals do not read English. However it is common for couples to print their invites in English if they should live abroad and return home for a wedding. Albeit none of their guests are able to read the invite and need to find someone to translate. Punjabi's are very status conscious and printing an invitation in English is a way of validating status. Which I find perplexing as your guests then need to find an interpreter if they want to attend your wedding.
We did have a few people ask why we didn't print the invitations in English since I am a foreign bride and we both live abroad. Thankfully my family agreed with my husband and I that we would print the invitations in Punjabi since we are in Punjab and that is the language everyone speaks and reads. We did however have a few printed in English as keepsakes for me and my family.
Choosing my bridal lehenga was probably the easiest part of the entire wedding, even more so than finding matching heels. We hired my wedding attire including the jewellery as it was an inexpensive alternative to buying one, which can cost a lot for an ornately designed lehenga. All my female relatives came with me to the wedding hire store along with my husband. I had given him instructions to tell them all that I didn't need everyone's opinion as usually it was a case of everyone knows best. But they ended up following those instructions too well as they then wouldn't even comment if they liked an outfit or not.
We all sat lined up in a row in the narrow store while we were shown different lehengas. There weren't many that fitted our requirements so it was a matter of selecting my favourite out of five. That was easy as there was only one that was embellished with lots of sparkles and stones, so I chose it. Luckily there was matching jewellery that went with it perfectly. Even selecting my bridal chooda was easy done, until it came to finding heels; that was an event in itself!
We walked up and down the entire markets but there just wasn't any stilettos to be found. I had to just go for what I could find. If I had known to plan in advance I would have shopped online for a pair. But at the time everyone was against online shopping and I didn't bother investigating it further until my second stay in India.
There are numerous traditions pre and post wedding which make it feel as though you are celebrating your wedding for months on end. Weddings commence about a week prior to your big day celebrating different customs. Depending on your family's beliefs and origins traditions will vary slightly although hold the same meaning. A week prior to My Big Fat Punjabi Wedding we gave thanks to god for our good fortune.
We invited the local priest to my husband's home where he brought the Sikh Holy Book with him, which is known as The Guru Granth Sahib locally. The house was cleared of all furniture so that rugs could be placed for seating. People came from near and far. We sat barefooted as the priest read scriptures from the Holy Book. Afterwards we fed guests traditional food.
The Mehndi Ceremony takes place a couple of days before the wedding at the brides home. Professional Mehndi Artists will come to the home and apply intricate designs to the hands, arms, feet and legs of the bride and her sister's. The groom also partakes although he usually will only have a small token design applied. The application itself is quite tedious so you will need some patience while you sit still for hours. The mehndi is then left to dry before applying lemon and sugar water to enhance the colour. Then you scrape the dried mehndi off to reveal the beautiful design. Mustard oil is applied and you must not wash your hands that evening as the colour develops with time.
Guests specifically carry wads of cash that is frequently thrown in the air and will then be quickly snapped up by loiterers. These loiterers actually attend weddings for the sole purpose of collecting the cash from the floor. Many are usually beggars or people that are considered low caste.
The Mehndi Ceremony is usually a much anticipated event for most bride's to be with loud music, lots of dancing to the beat of the dhol, traditional food and entertainment. Given this is an event that the Bride's family typically host and pay for, our Mehndi Ceremony essentially involved a couple of artists visiting our home. I then sat still for hours as I had my bridal henna applied by a Henna Artist while my female relatives fed me food for dinner. All while another artist applied simple designs to the rest of my female relatives who would be attending the wedding.
It eventually came time for Jaago which is held the night before the wedding. Such awful timing in my personal opinion as a bride needs her beauty sleep for her big day. Which you will have none of with Jaago celebrations. The celebration is most certainly a loud and joyous occasion full of dancing, singing, food and fireworks.
Officially your wedding celebrations commence the morning of Jaago which is when all the preparations take place. The house was buzzing with activity on Jaago morning with all our female relatives preparing loads of food to feed the entire neighbourhood. Our entire street was sectioned off, while men erected marquees in preparation for the festivities.
Our two next door neighbours just so happened to be my father in law's brothers, so we also utilised their front courtyards for the celebrations. The house two doors down was used to cook and prepare food, whilst the house next door was used for setting tables and chairs for the men to eat and drink. Under the marquee on the street was a large buffet table splayed with lots of food to feed the masses of guests. Our courtyard was set up with a DJ who was in his van that easily converted into a turntable. The rest of the courtyard was to be used as a massive dancefloor.
Centuries ago invitations didn't exist and so relatives of the bride and groom would go around the village the night before with pots and candles on their head, singing and dancing as open invitation to attend the wedding. The candles were merely used for light. The brides aunt will wear a large decorated brass vessel called khadaa on her head. They are welcomed with sweets and drinks. I went to bed by this time as I wanted to make sure I looked half decent for my wedding day. With the amount of customs and traditions on the day I knew it was going to be a tiring day.
The morning of our wedding day I awoke tired and in dire need of coffee. Whilst ladies do not drink alcohol, all the dancing and loud music to the wee hours of the morning is enough to wear anyone out. Not to mention it was impossible to get any sleep with the DJ blasting music out the front of our house! I had been offered to sleep at a friends though I knew I wouldn't get any sleep in someone else's bed either.
Vatna/Haldi is performed the morning of the wedding at the respective couples houses. The bride or groom is seated on a wooden plank called a patri and a red cloth is held above them by four female relatives. Female relatives of the bride or groom then take turn in applying a turmeric, flour and mustard oil mixture called vatna/haldi over their body. Many brides tend to incorporate the Vatna Ceremony with their Mehndi Ceremony. My husband partook in the tradition with close family only.
I did not get to participate in vatna as I was running out of time to get ready. Never listen to your husband who tells you that it only takes an hour to get ready for your Punjabi Wedding! As the Lehenga Choli and Dupatta together weigh a good 15kg, they take time to apply. A large bun is styled so that the Dupatta can rest easily over the head and be pinned down safely.
The Lehenga is basically a skirt with straps attached to help balance the weight. A blouse known as the choli is then worn over the top and the dupatta pinned into place. It is a difficult feat walking and moving. Approximately 21 red and ivory bangles called chooda are also worn, along with as much bridal jewellery as possible. Learn more about The Attire Of A Punjabi Bride.
Anand Karaj being the Sikh form of marriage is then performed at the local temple. The bride and groom perform Lavaan where they walk in tow around The Guru Granth Sahib four times signifying that they accept each other as one soul in two bodies with the Guru at the centre of the marriage. This is the Punjabi version of walking down the aisle. To enter the Gurudwara you must remove your shoes, even the bride must remove her heels.
Everyone is then seated on the floor with the bride and groom at centre front. After each scripture is read from The Guru Granth Sahib we had to bow our heads to the floor just touching ever so slightly. Now try doing that without disturbing your 5kg dupatta that is neatly pinned to your bun. Then we walked in tow around The Guru Granth Sahib, taking our seat in preparation to do it three more times.
Afterwards we made our way to the reception Palace a couple of hours later than anticipated. We walked down the aisle of rows and rows of seated guests. The men were seated to one area while the women and children were seated in another area. Which is customary as the men tend to drink and women are not permitted to do so. Traditionally a procession of drummers along with friends and family of the couple would precede the bride and groom as they enter the reception. Though we only had a few friends and family walk with us down the aisle.
It is also tradition to enter the reception palace with men lined to each side, firing guns into the air as you walk into the venue. I told my husband I was strictly against that as anything could go wrong particularly if the men yielding the guns aren't trained. Not to mention our Jaago celebrations involved someone accidentally misfiring a gun into the floor, shooting someone's foot.
At centre front was the entertainment stage where we had traditional Punjabi Dancers entertaining our guests. To the left was the bride and grooms stage where we took our seat. We sat on an old worn yellow couch that had definitely seen its time, which was placed strategically in front of colourful curtains adorned with plastic flowers. Just below the stage the photographer and videographer were set up to take photos of us with each of our guests.
We were seated for many hours on the bride & grooms stage accepting cash gifts and blessings from our 800 plus guests, followed by a photo. Smiling for hundreds of photos became a tedious chore that my cheeks were wobbly if I even tried to smile. Each guest would place the cash in our lap where we had nets placed. The nets would fill rather quickly and needed to be emptied frequently. The giving of cash, known as shagun, is customary to help the newly wedded couple start their life together as husband and wife. In this instance it helped my in laws pay for the wedding.
Guests specifically carry wads of cash that is frequently thrown in the air and will then be quickly snapped up by loiterers. These loiterers actually attend weddings for the sole purpose of collecting the cash from the floor. Many are usually beggers or people that are considered low caste. They would also keep an eye on the dancefloor as it is tradition to throw lots of money around at a Punjabi Wedding. It is seen as badluck to pick up the money from the floor as I abruptly found out when I attempted to catch a falling note. The looks on my family's face said it all as I quickly sat back and let the note drop to the floor.
After we had finally taken photos with all our guests it was time to indulge in the buffet. Although that lasted only a brief moment as it then was shortly time to take some more photos in our own personal photoshoot. Our photoshoot was merely down the front walkway of the reception palace. Which meant many photos had guests, or pot plants, or other random items lurking in the backdrop of our photos. I had wanted nicely staged photos like you would see in wedding magazines. The photographer had us doing all these embarrassing poses that just weren't what I was hoping for.
As we posed for photos out the front of the reception palace, many guests stood by onlooking and having a chuckle at us posing. By the time we finished taking photos I was exhausted and I had missed our entire wedding. Typically weddings go through to the evening dancing the night away. Though our wedding was short lived due to a fight between a few guests on the dancefloor which drew the celebrations to a halting close during our photoshoot. Not only did I miss out on many traditional celebrations that are usually hosted by the brides family. I then also missed out on participating in my own wedding which I wasn't expecting.
We departed our wedding reception as husband and wife and headed to my husband's family home. Traditionally the Milni Ceremony is a way for the bride to say goodbye to her family as she departs to live with her husband and his family. I already lived with my family therefore it was another tradition that we bypassed. Back home the celebrations continued despite having come to an end at our reception. I headed straight to bed but my husband and family continued to party through the night with more food, music, dancing and fireworks.
The following day to break the ice between the newly wedded couple fun games are played, as traditionally many marriages were arranged and the bride & groom in most cases had only met on a couple of occasions. One commonly played tradition is to place the couples rings in a large plate of milky water and rose petals. The couple then have to find both rings without removing their hand from the water. Another game is to tightly hold your ring in your fist and have your partner try to remove it. It is said that the winner is the superior partner of the marriage, so it makes for a fun time trying to beat your partner.
Once married, hijra people will pay the newly wedded couples house a visit usually uninvited. Given everyone knows everyone's business in the community the Hijra people will know who has been recently married. Hijra people are legally recognised as third gender in India as they don't associate themselves as neither male nor female. Hijra people will perform religious ceremonies involving music, singing and sexually suggestive dancing at a cost to the host. As they are feared for their ability to curse of childlessness, many people oblige. However these ceremonies are intended to bring good luck and fertility to the newlyweds. We thankfully received a blessing and were told we would bear many children. Learn more about The Hijra People and my experience when they visited our home!
After a wedding in the western world you would normally be relaxing on your honeymoon. However in Punjab the bride and groom will spend their time visiting all their relatives who attended the wedding as a way of thank you. Each weekend after the wedding we spent driving across the countryside to visit our relatives. It is tradition for a host to gift their guest rupees for paying a visit. Every family was warm and welcoming to me; I was always given the most comfortable bedroom to sleep in and they always made sure they had my favourite food and beverages. As you can imagine if you have hundreds of wedding guests then there will be numerous family's to pay a visit to afterwards. Therefore it felt as though our wedding was celebrated for a good six months which was the extent of my stay in India.
Once everything is all done and dusted you will receive a mammoth sized wedding album of the thousands of photos. I was particularly disappointed with the photos we received, and had greater expectations given we paid quite a substantial amount for the photographer. He used no different techniques as you would expect from a professional photographer, such as depth of field. When it came to our personal photoshoot he squatted down in front of us so that he ensured to capture our double chins. Then again our double chins were captured with all the guests photos taken on the bride and grooms stage. As the photographer was set up below the stage on the ground floor.
After all that he didn't even bother to edit our photos for the price we paid as apparently that costs even more! Most of the decent photos I managed to take on my phone I snuck in my clutch bag. Our Jaago photos were probably the best photos he took as he wasn't able to squat down below to take any of them! There simply wasn't enough room for him to even try to do that thankfully. You can read about How The Wedding Photographer Ruined Our Day.
The wedding album style is quite different to the elegant and simple designs of a western wedding album. The cover is holographic and the very front page in large font is the photography studios details rather than our names. I'd expect this to be on the last page of my album if at all. Photos are splayed across pages with no real coherence and word art is squeezed into every possible space. There are no captions as reference for those with a terrible memory. Every minute of our wedding was also captured on DVD which was edited just as poorly as the photos to my dismay. Though it serves as good memory for years to come.
All in all My Big Fat Punjabi Wedding was an experience I will never forget. It was a lot more stressful than attending someone else's wedding which I truly enjoy. You can read more about Behind The Scenes Of A Real Punjabi Wedding. I am truly grateful to have met my husband and we are happily married. I just hope that one day we can recreate our Punjabi Wedding so that we may celebrate with my friends & family and we can hire a decent photographer.
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