Destination Wedding in India
Over Thanksgiving week, I was given the opportunity to document a destination wedding in India. I arrived at SFO with my Lowepro backpack full of gear, and my dust mask. I boarded a giant Emirates A380, bound for Dubai. From there, I flew into chaotic, noisy, smog-choked Delhi. My destination wedding in India began with a 3AM arrival at the airport. It was insanely busy, and noisy. Cars were honking for no apparent reason, and a band was playing at full volume to welcome another arriving groom. I booked an Uber through my phone. It took about 30 minutes to arrive, but eventually I made it to my hotel, and my home for the next few days – the Ashtan Sarovar Portico.
Getting My Bearings
I planned an extra day to acclimatize to my new environment. I spent some time traveling and exploring around Delhi, checking out potential photo spots, and getting used to the insanity of the city. I visited the iconic Red Fort, and the Jama Masjid Mosque. I quickly learned that anyone with a camera is immediately singled out by guards and told to pay extra money to take photos.
I also spent about 2 hours taking a pedi-cab tour around Old Delhi. My guide took me up on a residential rooftop, which was one of the most memorable moments of the journey. The noise and even some of the smog of the city faded away. It was quiet and tranquil up there. I also, of course, found the nearest CrossFit box, which happened to be CrossFit Robust in Defense Colony. It was pretty cool to be able to find a fitness home away from home. The box was air conditioned and had a couple of air purifiers, which made a huge difference.
Day One: Creative Photos Around Delhi and Mehandi Party (Mehndi Party)
The couple and I began our creative shoot in the afternoon. The initial plan was to take pictures in an architectural park in Noida, but we got a hard time from the security guards and weren’t able to get inside. Fortunately I had already gotten a sense of the most vibrant aspects of the city. To me, the color and bustling streets were the main draw. The contrast between the couple’s fancy outfits and the street scenes really inspired me.
We called “Plan B” and diverted a auto rickshaw, also known as a tuk-tuk. The bright green and yellow paint jobs of these little vehicles stood out in the grey Delhi fog. I knew I had to have the couple pose with one of these petite cars. After that, we traveled to a nearby market, where we encountered street kids, cows and food vendors.
In the evening, Shruti’s parents hosted a mehandi party at their home. They had an entire street closed off for the affair. There was henna, of course, but also dancing, drumming, singing and delicious food. It was a big, hearty dose of color and noise – the two elements that would be ubiquitous throughout Shruti and Akshay’s destination wedding in India.
Day Two: Sant and Sangeet
After lunch on day two, the groom’s family gathered in a room on the hotel’s rooftop for a series of religious rituals. A fire was lit, and a pandit (holy man/scholar/teacher) led the Goel family through a series of blessings and traditions. Akshay received a special bracelet on his wrist. It was tied during this ceremony, and would not be removed until Shruti untied it several days later.
In the evening, everyone got dressed to the nines and headed to the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi for the Sangeet. This was a boisterous celebration, where many groups of guests (including the bride and groom’s family members) performed dances. Many of the couple’s friends (including about two dozen that met Akshay at INSEAD in France) had traveled from all over the world to the destination wedding in India. They had spent the last few weeks rehearsing the dances, trading videos and conferencing on Skype. When the actual performances actually began, it was like being in a real-life Bollywood video.
Day Three: Haldi, Barat, Party and Wedding Pheras
The couple considered this their “main” wedding day, simply because of the sheer number of events that took place. First, I traveled back to Shruti’s parents’ home, to document the Haldi ceremony. One of the highlights of this ceremony is when five married women anoint the bride with special herbs, and then smear her with the iconic yellow turmeric paste. Shruti was wearing a yellow sari, and by the end of the ceremony she was covered in this bright color pretty much head to toe. After a shower, she changed into a red sari and went through another series of rituals.
Back at the Ashtan Sarovar Hotel later that evening, Akshay went through a turban-donning ceremony, and then it was time for the barat. Akshay mounted a white horse, a band began playing, and the party spilled out into the street. As I found out later, special roadblocks had been set up to protect the procession.
Eventually, all family and guests arrived at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Delhi, for a lavish reception hosted by Mr. and Mrs. Gupta, Shruti’s parents. The decor was off the charts. The couple sat in front of a giant backdrop of red flowers. The ballroom was opulence itself. There was a spirited exchange of garlands, lots of socializing, dancing, picture-taking, and of course, delicious food. The party lasted for hours.
Wedding Pheras Under the Mandap
Then it was time to head outside to the beautiful mandap, for the wedding pheras. Shruti, Akshay and their families were guided through another series of Hindu wedding rituals. Akshay placed a gold necklace around Shruti’s neck, signifying that they were “officially” married. By the time the pheras were over, we were into the wee hours of the morning. Everyone was in a state of joyous exhaustion.
The final ritual was the “departure” of the bride from her family. She and Akshay were finally wife and husband.
Day Four: Arrival at the Groom’s Parents’ Home
Shruti and Akshay’s destination wedding in India now transitioned to another destination. The following day, we traveled from Delhi to Pune, a large city in the state of Maharashtra, and Akshay’s hometown. By evening, we had arrived at Akshay’s parents’ home. The house was decked out in beautiful fabrics, lights and decorations to surprise and delight the new bride. A special, intimate ceremony welcomed her to the home.
Her mother-in-law, Suniti, beckoned her into the home by ringing a bell. Shruti then crossed the threshold of her in-laws’ home, and kicked over a carafe of rice to signify her arrival. She then dipped her hands in red paste, and planted her handprints forever on the wall of the living room. Afterwards, she repeated the process for her footprints in the kitchen. Finally, under Suniti’s supervision, Shruti had to heat up milk on the stove. This was a metaphor for her becoming a lady of the house, and showing that she knows her way around the kitchen.
This series of rituals was very beautiful and meaningful, and the intimacy of the Goels’ home was quite a contrast to the madness of the past few days. The bride and groom played some traditional wedding games (like finding the rings in a bowl of milk), and finally cut off one another’s bracelets.
Final Day: Reception at the Pune Sheraton
The final day of celebration had a more western flair to it. Akshay dressed in a black tux, and his parents hosted a lavish reception at the Sheraton Grand Pune Hotel. They welcome many of their friends and colleagues from their hometown, as well as from around the world. It was a beautiful reception, and I could see that they bride and groom were visibly relaxed, knowing that the wedding rituals were over. Now, it was purely party time.
This destination wedding in India was an incredible experience. Eclectic. Crazy. Hectic. Colorful. Enlightening. It truly indulged all the senses. I was most grateful for the hospitality that both the Gupta and Goel families extended to me. They eagerly invited me into their homes, and put their trust in me to capture some of the most intimate moments. I am eternally grateful to have had this opportunity, and I am thrilled to be able to share the chronicle of Akshay and Shruti’s destination wedding in India.