*Carolyn, Novelist and Blogger & Bradford, Soon-to-be Teacher*
I knew when my boyfriend proposed that we would be having a Hindu-based wedding, even though neither of us is Indian or South Asian. When I was a little girl I would look at my mother’s white wedding dress in her closet and dream about wearing it for my own wedding. I pictured a simple New England church wedding. But that’s no longer who I am. Ten years ago I converted to Hinduism.
I know, I know, you’ve heard that it’s impossible to convert to Hinduism; that it doesn’t accept converts. The truth, as with many things, is much more complex and I’ve written a blog for the last four years about what it’s like to be a non-Indian convert to Hinduism (and I can reassure you that the vast majority of native Hindus I’ve met have been extremely welcoming).
So here I was, a non-Indian Hindu and her non-Hindu fiancé (he’s a Buddhist, so not too different!). It made sense for us to do an intercultural wedding to represent both my religion and our shared ancestral background. We began planning a wedding that was a blend of Hindu traditions and Scottish traditions.
People were skeptical of how those things would go together, but I had a plan and I knew it would work. We selected a friend who knew how to do handfasting as our officiant. I mostly needed someone who would let me run the show and not have too many ideas of what a wedding should look like. As much as our wedding was definitely a reflection of us, during planning I found myself uncomfortable with not having our marriage presided over by a Hindu priest. I realized that I wanted both to be able to do things my way and also to be connected to the traditions that are thousands of years old.
I thought there was nothing to be done about it, but then my cousin (the only other Hindu in my family) offered to set up a Vedic wedding ceremony at the temple near my parents’ house. That’s how we came to have two weddings in two weeks!
Our first wedding was truly ours. It is the one we planned and worked on. In order to blend the traditions we took the basic structure of a western ceremony and switched out individual pieces of it for individual bits of Hindu ceremonies. A bagpiper played our procession down the aisle to a mandap (very much like a chuppah). We exchanged both flower garlands and rings. He placed a managala sutra (Hindu wedding necklace) around my neck and our officiant did a handfasting. He wore a full kilt with “Prince Charlie” jacket and I wore a red lehenga. My father gave a reading from a Hindu guru. We wrote our own vows. We walked around a fire seven times.
Everything blended surprisingly well and our guests seemed to really enjoy the unique ceremony. We kept it brief, probably only twenty minutes, and then had a lunch buffet under a tent (with dancing to both American pop hits and Bollywood music).
Our top priority for our wedding was to spend as much time as possible with our out of town guests and so we structured our wedding weekend that way. The ceremony itself was mid-day on Sunday. Friday night I had dinner with family while Brad went on his bachelor party (mine had been earlier). Saturday morning was the rehearsal, then Saturday afternoon we had a mendhi party. This is when the bride gets her henna done. We invited anyone who wanted to come and packed our apartment full of people. The party atmosphere pretty much took care of itself as people brought wine and we had cheese, crackers, and fruit. Saturday night was a rehearsal dinner.
On Sunday, after the reception wrapped up, we had people come over again to hang out. We really maximized the amount of time we spent with our guests and that was the best part. Being surrounded by people we loved, everywhere we looked seeing people we care about and who care about us, was the most amazing feeling. Some people thought we would be too tired but we enjoyed having a laid-back get together in the evening after the wedding with Indian takeout food.
The weekend was a huge success in my eyes. I was so glad to get to share a touch of my religion and be true to myself without overwhelming or confusing family who are unfamiliar with it.
Wedding Two: The Vedic Ceremony
My parents and cousin took the lead on this one. Brad and I planned the first wedding, but we left the second in their hands. I was incredibly touched by the support that my parents gave me through this process. I couldn’t have done it without them, as the traditional Hindu ceremony involves both sets of parents with the couple, participating in the ceremony. My parents were there with me. We gave Brad surrogate Indian parents for the ritual, though he gave his actual ancestor names when it was called for.
The Vedic ceremony was two and half hours long and mostly in Sanskrit. Our priest spoke very little English, though my cousin was able to speak Kannada with him and Brad’s faux father had been through his actual son’s wedding recently too at the same temple. I was glad that only a handful of people were invited to that service because it requires a lot of patience! Particularly for westerners who are not comfortable with the idea that they can get up and wander around during the service (totally the norm for Hindu ceremonies).
Something about the length of it was nice for me. It gave it more time for the “we are actually getting married right now” to sink in. During the ceremony there was consecrating of a coconut, representing God. There was feeding each other sweets. Brad put the managala sutra on me again, but this time it was blessed by the priest and everyone in attendance. In fact, the priest placed it around the image of Laxshmi in the main temple! Brad also put rings on my toes while I held my foot on a rock to represent the stability of our marriage. We took the seven steps on rice this time and circled the fire three times.
All these things are part of Vedic rituals that have been going on for thousands of years. I felt connected to history in a way that I hadn’t at my first wedding. It felt like being welcomed into the fold of every marriage that went before me, into the community (as marriage is about families more than individuals in Hindu tradition). As my father said later, it felt like being part of The Mahabharata.
While our wedding was going on, life continued as normal for the rest of the temple. I went through the main area to pay my respect to all the Gods and people looked, but continued on with their own prayers. The wedding was just a natural part of life, existing along side all the other moments of life.
The coconut was sent home with us with the instruction to make something sweet out of it. (I have to wonder what TSA thought of our turmeric-covered coconut wrapped in a turban in my carry-on).
I’m really glad we did both ceremonies. The blended one allowed us to share the day with our friends and family without asking them to participate in something entirely unfamiliar. The Hindu elements to the intercultural ceremony allowed me to be true to myself and my chosen religion, but the western structure of it made it easy for the majority of people in my life who are not Hindu to feel comfortable and have a good time. Then to also have the purely Hindu ceremony, officiated by a Hindu priest, using traditions that stretch back thousands of years, was a very moving experience for me personally.
Two weddings in two weeks isn’t for everyone, but it was perfect for us!
The Info — Photographer: Shannon Bernadzikowski / Location: Mariottsville, Maryland / Venue: Waverly Mansion / Carolyn’s Lehenga: Cbazaar / Mendhi: Garvi Sheth / Makeup: Emily Does Makeup / Bagpiper: Bob Delp / Cake: Gottegris Bakery / Flowers: Fancy Florist
All vendors listed are for the first wedding. Pictures for the second wedding taken by the bride’s brother.