The union of two people has been a universal tradition dating back tens of thousands of years—we have always been a race that accomplishes the most through compromise and cooperation, though these things are never easy.
Still, every day multitudes of us choose to spend our lives officially bonded to another, and around the globe ceremonies of every variety bring meaning and festivity to the observance of marriage. Some are filled with color and costumery, others with solemn dress, even military honors. Many involve odd and history-filled symbols or rituals, and still others are little more than a subtle legal acknowledgement of a bond that the concerned parties prefer to keep private and personal.
Some of the most intriguing weddings are those that bring two cultures together, blending the best features of two traditions in a new and unique form of customized celebration. Even marriage, it seems, is not globalization-proof.
Such was the case at the September 2006 wedding of Raja Rajesh Khanna and Kristen Lynn Harding. To honor the customs of both families, the first half of their ceremony was a traditional Hindu ceremony and the second half a Christian, American wedding. Since Christian ceremonies are likely familiar to many readers, we decided to explore the details of the Hindu part of their wedding.
Not unlike other trappings of Hinduism, the wedding ceremony is a very complicated and detailed one. It is considered the 13th of 16 ceremonies in a person’s life, and is accorded the respect required by the Vedas (Hindu sacred texts), which date back thousands of years.
Though it contains some familiar elements (there’s still a “Best Man;” the Ganthibandhan, a priest-performed ritual, is a “tying of the knot;” the “Misri” ceremony is an exchange of gold wedding rings; and the Mandap canopy under which the vows are performed is reminiscent of the Jewish Chupah), it also includes many unique aspects: prayers (to Ganesh, and to the nine planets), symbols (fresh flowers for beauty, a coconut for fertility, rice for sustenance, ghee or purified butter to feed the sacred fire, kumkum or vermilion powder to mark the bride’s forehead for luck), and staged actions to rival a Russian ballerina’s.
One thing that stands out about a Hindu wedding in contrast to more Western ceremonies is that it seems to involve almost all one’s family members. One young female relative of the groom is supposed to “keep him awake” as he heads for the wedding, shaking a pot filled with a few coins and a betel nut over his head. Other young female relatives must be patronized with gifts for the groom to proceed further, while the bride’s mother welcomes the groom with a garland and leads him to the Mandap.
The bride is actually escorted by her maternal uncle, while the bride’s father is usually responsible for washing the groom’s right foot with milk and honey. Asked if Kristen’s father actually did this, Raja replies “No, but her sisters hid my shoes.” The refererence is to a tradition wherein, after the ceremony, the groom is required to bargain with the bride’s sister (or sisters) for the return of his shoes, which symbolizes the “playful” relationship he will have with his sister(s)-in-law. Also, all the bride’s female relatives are customarily painted with ornate patterns in henna, though this usually takes place at a separate event for the bride’s family called a Mehndi party. Mehndi, the body art created by the application of henna, signifies the strength of love in a marriage, so brides try to leave it on for as long as possible.
Ceremonial dress typically equals a red and white sari for the bride, heavily embroidered with gold thread, and for the groom a long, embroidered tunic known as a sherwani. Sometimes the bride will wear two saris, the simpler one (given by her “mama, ” or maternal uncle) to cover her head. The more ornate one is traditionally gifted to the bride by the groom’s family.
Despite the complications of combining Christian and Hindu ceremonies, Raja and Kristen managed to hold the event to not much more than three hours. “The actual Hindu ceremony was about forty-five minutes, pre-ceremony events added another two hours, and the Christian ceremony took about twenty to twenty-five minutes,” Raja recounts. The Kashmir Restaurant of Boston provided Indian food in the afternoon, and photographer Helena Sullivan (whose pictures are shown here) documented the event for posterity.