What to Expect at an Indian Wedding

What to Expect as an Indian Wedding Guest

Growing up in the US, I’ve made many non-Indian friends. So it was important for me to help my friends understand wedding traditions and rituals, and know what to expect at an Indian wedding. The best part was that all of them were so excited to be a part of the celebrations and they wanted to learn and understand the meaning of everything that was being done.

That’s why I think it’s so important to spend a few minutes with them to understand the basics of what Indian weddings (of any religion) are all about and what to expect at an Indian wedding. I refer to mostly the Hindu wedding in this post, but much of the information is applicable to other religions too.

I encourage you to pass this along to any of your guests who haven’t experienced Indian weddings- or even those who have – they might learn a thing or two. You can even use this as your guide to explain wedding traditions to your friends or simply – what to expect as an Indian wedding guest.

How long are Indian weddings? I heard they can last up to 5 days..
Indian wedding traditionally lasted about 5 days back in India and still often do. That’s why many people in the US think that. The groom’s family traditionally traveled to where the bride’s family was, and celebrations would average 5-7 days.  Fast forward to the 21st century.  

The traveling still happens, but nowadays, celebrations last about 3 days, if that (aka the equivalent of a long weekend). Usually there are a few pre-wedding events.

The bride’s family and groom’s family have their own ceremonies at home (the Ganesh Puja), and then after that, many couples usually have a “fun” night called a Sangeet or Raas-Garba (many couples now call them Welcome Nights), where there’s lots of food and music – essentially, dinner and dancing – with some possible dance performances and mehndi (henna).

The length of time might vary if the wedding couple decides on a destination wedding. In that case, it’s however long you want to vacation past the wedding events!  

I heard Indian wedding ceremonies are reeeeally long and I have no idea what happens during the ceremony.  Is that true?
The length depends.  Nowadays many families ask priests to reduce the length of the ceremony since there are so many steps involved.  You can expect the ceremony to be about an hour long.  Even before the ceremony, the groom’s side gathers outside the wedding venue for a procession (called the baraat).  

He’ll be in his transportation of choice (usually a horse, horse carriage, sometimes a sports car, and many times even an elephant).  The procession is fun – you’ll be dancing alongside other family and friends to the beat of the dhol (Indian drum) and sometimes even to the DJ’s portable sound system.  

If you’re invited as part of the bride’s side – you can definitely dance too. Once the procession reaches the entrance of the wedding venue, the groom is greeted by the bride’s family. From there, you’ll head towards the ceremony area. Note that there are many versions of the ceremony.

The real beauty is the meaning of the steps. Chances are, there will be a wedding program that explains the ceremony step by step, but just in case, you can read more here for details on the wedding ceremony.  

And while you’re trying to pay attention to the ceremony, you might notice people get up and leave and come back, and people might start talking (despite the priest’s attempt to settle them down to listen.) Oh, and FYI, you might get a snack (like ice cream) during the wedding ceremony – and that’s perfectly normal!

What should I wear?
With Indian dresses now mimicking Bollywood, you don’t have to super conservatively (except I don’t recommend exposed cleavage). If you’re feeling conservative, a nice dress that you’d wear to a wedding will suffice. Bright colors go a long way at an Indian wedding.

You’ll notice most people wearing creative patterns and colors and their finest jewelry and clothes.

Don’t be afraid to do the same – actually I encourage you to wear BRIGHT colors. Black is generally acceptable at the reception. But avoid black or white for the ceremony since they’re not seen as “good” colors to wear.

And as far as jewelry goes, bling out – but that doesn’t mean you need to wear expensive jewelry – you don’t want to look like Mr. T. You’ll fit right in with some jewelry, especially bangles. Also – it’s not uncommon to see non-Indian friends of the bride and groom wearing Indian outfits. But don’t feel like you have to.

Guys – a suit is great for the wedding ceremony and reception. And if there is a pre-ceremony event, you’re safe with a nice button down shirt and slacks (business casual).If the wedding and reception are on the same day, you’ll notice many people changing from one outfit to another.

More opportunity to wear bright clothing!  If you want to do that too, feel free to (but it’s ok to wear the same outfit to both the ceremony and the reception).  Oh, and one more thing – be comfortable!  Wear sensible shoes since you’ll likely be outside at some point dancing, and don’t forget your sunglasses if it’s sunny outside.  If you’re part of the baraat, you’ll be dancing for awhile!

Will there be Indian food all weekend? I can’t eat that spicy – my digestive system is going to go whack!
It’s true that there will be a lot of Indian food at your friends’ wedding. That doesn’t mean there won’t be any other type of food. Today, Indian weddings feature Indian food and a lot of non-Indian food.

I encourage you to try it all! Ok I will say that you should try small quantities first. Some food might be spicy and it won’t ‘look’ like it should be spicy. So try a little first.

Also, the thing about Indian food is that some dishes don’t always look appetizing but they are. Spinach paneer (which is mashed cooked spinach and cheese cubes) looks like green mush with tofu cubes. It doesn’t look great but it’s so yummy!

Also, don’t hesitate to ask an Indian guest about the food if the food labels don’t clearly describe the food. Indian people LOVE to talk to non-Indians about food, culture and the like, especially at weddings. So when in doubt, just ask. Another thing you NEED to know is that there will be so much food.

You won’t know where to dig in, and when you do, you’ll likely not have enough room on your plate to put all of the food. Speaking of plate – expect food to be buffet style, and for a reception, often family style. Plated dinners are rare, but you might see them every now and then.  My advice – pace yourself!

I heard Indian weddings are big. Will there be 1000 people there?
These days, you won’t see as many weddings with 1000 people. That’s not to say people don’t have weddings that big. But generally speaking, your friends will have a guest count of at least 200 people.

That’s huge to non-Indians but that’s actually small for Indians. A large wedding however doesn’t mean you won’t have fun. In fact, you can easily make friends with other guests – Indian guests – who want to show you to good time. They want to make you feel like you’re a part of the celebrations (especially the family members and close friends of the bride and groom).

One word of advice I will give you is that if people push you at some point during the wedding weekend, don’t feel bad or get mad. It’s perfectly normal for Indians to push their way to where they want to go (especially with grandmas!).  

I only know my friend and her family. Will I get bored?
Trust me when I say you won’t get bored! Indian weddings (in my opinion) are the most fun of any type of wedding (obvi). Dinner, dancing, music, food, happy people who want to dance and eat… And drink! Like I said before, you might make a new friend or two….or three!

What type of gift should I bring?
Like any other wedding, gifts are acceptable. Many couples appreciate cash gifts instead of boxed gifts, especially for the wedding itself.  I would save the boxed gifts for the bridal shower, or if you’re planning on getting a boxed gift, have it sent to the couple.

Oh, and if you’re writing a check, add a “1” to the end of it.  So if you’re planning to give $100, make that $101.  Why? .  But don’t ask why – because nobody knows – we just know that it’s auspicious in our culture. If you ask anyone, they’ll say “because it is.”  

Will I get to do henna/mehndi? And can you explain what that even is?
The most fun part of being a female guest is henna. Henna powder comes from a plant. The powder is turned into a paste, and squeezed out of plastic cones to create intricate designs on hands and feet. Once the paste dries, you take it off, and a nice red design appears. Depending on how long you keep the paste on, henna can last up to 2 weeks.

There will usually be an opportunity for guests to do mehndi at some point during a wedding weekend.   The bride might have a casual mehndi night at her parents house, or there might be mehndi artists that apply it for guests at a pre-wedding event the night before the wedding. Ask the bride. Sometimes it’s not explicitly written as part of the invitation. 

Will it be a dry wedding? Aka no alcohol.
It depends.  Most Indian weddings today have alcohol at least at one or more events. However, there are some exceptions. If any of the wedding events are hosted in a temple of any kind, there won’t be alcohol there.  

That said, you’ll usually only find alcohol at a pre-wedding event and/or a reception anyway.  Other times, families of the bride and/or the groom could have religious reasons not to have alcohol at the events. If you’re curious, ask the wedding couple, otherwise wait and see!

Is there anything else I need to know?
Yeah, so there might be some stealing of the groom’s shoes going on. During the ceremony, traditionally, the bride’s family will try to steal the groom’s shoes (he has to take them off when he enters the altar).  

If the bride’s side does manage to steal his shoes, they’ll demand money from the groom’s family (usually from brothers or cousins).  It’s not uncommon for people to pretend that this is a real battle and start (literally) jumping on each other. It’s supposed to be fun, but sometimes it goes too far…

The most important thing is to HAVE FUN! 

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