How the big fat Punjabi wedding became the template for all Indian weddings

From north to south, and east to west, India has a wide variety of nuptials — but it is the big, fat Punjabi wedding that has become the boisterous template for Indian weddings.

Some ascribe the increasingly pan-Indian popularity of the Punjabi wedding to Bollywood’s depictions, while others say it is because Punjabi weddings are inherently parties. “Punjabi as a culture is extravagant and out there…these weddings are a lot less conservative, and so the element of fun takes over any wedding,” says Karan Torani, founder and creative director of Indian clothing label Torani.

Most Indian weddings are held in a place of worship — a Hindu temple, a gurdwara, mosque, or church. Social and religious customs often prohibit things like alcohol and meat at such places, and the ceremony itself is more focused on religious scripture than an Instagram-worthy celebration.

But a Punjabi wedding offers a bridge.

The song-and-dance evening known as a sangeet, for example, has morphed into a cocktail and dance party that was once largely alien in southern India — but no longer. Fireworks, choreographed performances, a song for the bride’s entry to the venue, some old school Punjabi dhol (drums), and an entire night dedicated to families feeling like celebrities on the stage are also fast being incorporated into regional traditions in Indian weddings beyond those in the north.

“There is celebration after celebration, including a night dedicated to alcohol which may not otherwise be allowed in a traditional ceremony,” Torani says. “Plus, how else will the bride wear a gown if not on a cocktail night? This becomes a reason to fulfill your dreams both in terms of fashion and aspiration.”

The Punjabification of weddings across India — and even the world (remember Liz Hurley’s fort palace extravaganza?) — is great for the industry, too.

How the Punjabi wedding benefits the industry

Weddings tend to be a three to four-day affair, to which family and friends from farflung parts of India and world travel to celebrate together. “Culturally, Bollywood, cricket, and weddings bring Indians together,” says Mehak Sagar, co-founder of wedding planning app WedMeGood.

While the covid-19 pandemic may have temporarily trimmed wedding guest lists, days of Punjabi-style festivity remain the aspiration. A large shift may be in the fact that the bride and groom have a greater say in what their big day looks like. “Weddings were originally tradition-driven, but now they are driven by what’s trending,” says Vinay Aravind, a photographer based in Chennai.

And isn’t simply about what’s trending on social media. “Even before social media, trends would pick up because you see something fun at a wedding and want it for yours,” he says. And because of the large number of guests attending any given wedding event, virality is built into such weddings, he says. So things like mehendi (the henna ceremony, a bridal shower equivalent that now often includes mixed company), sangeet, cutting a cake, the groom arriving in a luxury car instead of on horseback, or even making toasts make their way into even the more conservative nuptials.

One of the most visible recent examples of this was the wedding of Indian actor Priyanka Chopra and American pop star Nick Jonas in December 2018. The wedding had elements of both Hindu and western wedding traditions, including the ritual where the bride’s sisters hold the groom’s shoes ransom. All of this choice allows the wedding industry to step in to make dreams of a gala wedding come true.

“Since north India doesn’t want to stop partying, the industry sees it as an opportunity to capitalise on that,” says designer Torani.

The visual elements of a mehendi ceremony with friends, the yellow hues of the haldi (turmeric slathering ceremony), and the glitz of a cocktail party all come together to form a specific aesthetic. “Wedding planners then upsell it and it becomes a concept. And for it to become even more larger-than-life, there are more events, songs, dances, which means there are more things to do for the guests and more things to organise for the planners,” Torani says.

Attending a larger-than-life Indian wedding is increasingly on the wish list of many tourists, especially from western countries, and an invitation can provide the spark for that first trip to India. Meanwhile, some couples have experimented with selling tickets to their weddings to offset some of their mega spending.

While elements of the Punjabi wedding may have become mainstream, Indians still like to pay homage to their cultural roots during weddings.

The different kinds of Indian weddings

Much like language and dialects in India, customs associated with Indian weddings change with each state, community, and caste. Even within Hindu weddings, there are large variations in how and where the actual nuptials take place.

Here is a brief introduction into the various kinds of weddings in India, which is not exhaustive but offers an overview of distinct traditions.

North India: Though the Punjabi wedding takes centrestage, a Hindu, vedic wedding in states like Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and Kashmir can look vastly different from what one sees in Bollywood. These skew towards tradition, many of them similar — such as the mangalsutra necklace the groom ties around the neck of the bride to signify their union — but with small differences. For instance, in a Kashmiri Hindu wedding, the bride wears a dijhoor (earrings with a long red thread that is later replaced by a gold chain) in her ears, in place of the mangalsutra. And the tradition of four guests eating from the same plate at the wazwan, or wedding feast, a feature of the Kashmiri Muslim wedding, has had to adapt to covid. Across north India, Muslim weddings are solemnized by a cleric in a short and simple ceremony. And Sikh weddings are held at the gurdwara and officiated in front of the holy book.

East and Northeast India: Weddings in the east, especially in non-Hindu and tribal communities, also share very little in common with the mainstream weddings. In a Bengali wedding ceremony, a bride is carried on a little stool by her brothers, while she shields her face with betel leaves, while the groom wears a white cone-shaped crown. Some tribes in the northeastern states, such as Meghalaya, follow a matrilineal system and the groom moves in with the bride’s family after the wedding, while others follow Christian traditions.

South India: Weddings within the southern region can often be very unique to their respective castes and communities. A Tamil brahmin wedding is centred around the chanting of scriptures, long rituals that often begin at the crack of dawn, and a strictly vegetarian food spread. In contrast, weddings in Kerala are often simpler, shorter, and have fewer restrictions on the consumption of meat. In Syrian Christian weddings in Kerala, the priest puts the rings on the fingers of the bride and the groom, and the mother-in-law places a bright sari over the bride’s shoulder to symbolise that the union is complete.

West India: A Maharashtrian wedding is largely similar to a Hindu vedic ceremony, but the bride wears a sari in a dhoti style characteristic of the region, and both the bride and groom wear a slim headband with white hangings. Weddings for the Parsi community are stripped down to the bare minimum, the groom and the bride sign papers in the presence of the family, both dressed in white. The bride’s Parsi gara is an intricately woven sari that may look simple but is made painstakingly by the few communities that make this weave.

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