When the opportunity came up to attend an Indian wedding in Kolkatta, India, it was hard to say no. Indian weddings can last for several days and often feature a lot of dancing, beautiful attires, horses, palanquins and fireworks.
This particular wedding was in the county of Howra, where Olena from Ukraine and Ankit from India would say their vows. The venue, Lake Land Country Club, represented a walled mini-town that contained several beautifully fairy lit buildings (for several weddings) as well as the apartments that would serve as our accommodation.
Outside of those gates, the India I had imagined with its unmatched mixture of people, traffic, colours, scents and relentless activity was waiting to be unraveled. I couldn’t wait to attend the wedding, but I also couldn’t wait to start exploring the world beyond those gates.
However, before I could attend anything, I had to go shopping to buy a kurta, the traditional Indian shirt worn at ceremonies and other formal events.
A Hindu Wedding in Kolkata
The sangeet is traditionally the “warm up” party that is held on the first night. Live, mostly dance, performances from friends and family were stitched together by mc’s and there was a large buffet serving a variety of Indian dishes and non-alcoholic drinks. Towards the end of the night, I discovered that there was actually an alcohol table too, but it was hidden and largely occupied by chitchatting elderly men.
The second night started off with a procession party (baraat). In this party, the groom makes his way to the venue while mounted on a horse and being surrounded by family members and friends dancing to the music from a marching band, or baja.
Arriving to the venue in a palanquin, Olena meets Ankit for the jai mala, an exchange of garlands (or mala). While both the bride and the groom were lifted in the air by their relatives, one after the other reached out to place the string of flowers over their heads.
The exchange of these flowers, also known as varmala, represents acceptance and union.
After Varmala, the couple went onto a stage to accept blessings and gifts from their guests. And that was it, or at least that’s what we thought. As we were about to leave the building we were told that they weren’t actually married yet. That would happen after midnight in the mandap, a wooden stage surrounded by four pillars, in which the actual ceremony takes place.
By the time I took my last photo I could barely keep my eyes open. As much as this was a golden opportunity to learn more about a Hindu wedding and to document it in pictures from up close, the jetlag was taking its inevitable toll. The night marked the end of the wedding and the time had come to kickstart the rest of the India adventure. If you’re interested in seeing more images of the wedding, I’ve placed them in the Ankit & Olena wedding post.
We had one more day to explore the city of Kolkata, India’s third largest city and located in the far east of this enormous country. It kept true to the usual expected nuisances of high density cities, such as traffic moving at glacier speeds and chaotic and continuous movement of people, but there was a gentler feel to it than I had feared (coming to India for the first time). Kolkata used to be the former capital of British India, with the colossal Victoria Memorial being one of the extravagant remnants of this era. The city also has a colourful flower market and it has some interesting zebra crossings.
Picture being welcomed by a continuous flow of festival sized crowds making their way through narrow streets, with motorbikes, tuk-tuks and trucks swarming through, while not being able to stand still as either you’d be in someone’s way or you’d have to respond to why you don’t really need a tuk-tuk right now. Now add to the soundtrack that some of these trucks have stacked up towers of speakers and lights that play deafening trance-like music to an enthusiastic group of dancers who are following closely behind these portable al fresco discos. Then also add some random punches in the face of truck drivers by other truck drivers for some extra flare. Welcome to Varanasi, the religious capital of India. It is on many levels, truly another level.
As the lanes towards the banks of the Ganges river become smaller and narrower, the loud traffic noises become quieter and the bins become holier. The long stretch of walkway alongside of the river is divided into sections or ghats. Ghat literally means “stairs” and each of these leads down to the water of the Ganges river that is considered sacred in Hindu culture. Hindus believe that bathing in this river helps the remission of sins and that dying and getting cremated along the banks facilitates Moksha, which is the liberation from the cycle of life and death..
The ghats are a world of its own, where getting lost in the art of people watching quickly becomes as essential as the breathing of the hazy air. The sheer history of the place becomes a mere abstract evocation next to the history that can be witnessed directly off people’s faces. Near every person looks like a character summoned from a book that I’d be desperate to read.
Along some of these ghats, daily aarti are held which are the offerings of prayers to the Ganges river by local priests. They are held either at dawn or at dusk and can attract crowds of hundreds of people.
Walking alongside the ghats, the amount of touts offering boat rides (by means of one simple but affective word in question form: “boat?”) might give the impression that this industry pretty much is the local Ganges economy. Touts hassle anyone suspected of being able to pay for them and services can range from scenic rides to ferrying passengers across to the other side.
Compared to Varanasi, tumbleweed roams the streets of Khajuraho. It is known for the many erotic stone sculptures carved out of the walls of World Heritage listed temples scattered around the town. It is also near the Panna Tiger Reserve.
Okay fine, you probably don’t care about those vultures. So what you are probably really wondering is what kind of sculptures were carved out on those temples already.
The carvings are renowned for displaying mostly women dressed in wet sarees and virile men in the most imaginative positions in pairs, threesomes and many moresomes otherwise known as mithunas. The majority of carvings are actually of mundane activities of life, but apparently these don’t attract as much fame.
Only 25 of the originally 85 temples remain today and were built by the Chandela dynasty between AD 930 and 1050. Many were destroyed after the Chandelas were defeated by the Delhi Sultanate in the 13th century.
In the rest of the small Khajuraho town, maze like streets with photogenic opportunities in every corner were patiently waiting to be revealed.
Visiting the last of the four places and for one day only. Mumbai is India’s financial powerhouse, home to Asia’s biggest slums as well as the world’s most expensive house. Looking for a specific gift shop (one that returns profits to local communities, similar to Fair Photo) brought me to a few small and hidden lanes along the coast.
In short, the time I had in India was.. too short. India is a massive country that deserves a proper visit. Just these 12 days and four cities merely scratch the surface and could barely do it justice.
India had always been on the bottom of my list of places where I wanted to go. I was afraid of the Delhi belly, the chaos, the safety, the intensity, the culture shock and so on. If it wasn’t for the wedding opportunity, it would have probably stayed this way.
I did get the Delhi belly in the end, and I was shocked by the chaos and the intensity. But the reward of crossing paths with those hidden beautiful strangers who had carried such a distinctively and visibly different history than me, had become a risk worthwhile taking. No longer is India at the bottom of my list, it had eagerly crawled itself up to be amongst the top, and rightly so.