By Diana Kanter
Our son Tom was born, raised and became Bar Mitzvah here in Brussels. He lives in LA where he met his beautiful Indian (now) wife. His wedding in Chennai in June to Sharanya was an assault on all five senses.
Firstly sight – the explosion of colours in the six yards of silk simply wrapped around each woman – the sari. Sharanya goes from one stunning sari to the next, while Tom starts with a sherwani (an elegant off-white knee-length coat buttoned to the neck) and moves to a three-piece suit for the evening reception on Day 1. Day 2, the official wedding day, Sharanya’s saris become more elaborate as does her headgear with gold jewelry and garlands woven into her long black hair. Tom wears a panjagajam (loose trousers) with a sash (the angavastram) and his tallit.
The god Ganesha welcomes us, draped in garlands of jasmine and red roses,a bowl of cut flowers placed before him and intricate flower patterns all around. Ganesha is a favoured God of Sharanya’s family. He clears obstacles and paves the way for us to move forward in life.
Smell. The spices and burning wood (to keep the bad spirits away) are countered, if not overwhelmed by, the smell of flowers. Individual jasmine buds have been painstakingly threaded into garlands, placed around necks and pinned into hair; garlands of white roses line the entrance to the reception (changed to red roses the following morning); red roses hang down from the simple square structure where the priests administer the rituals; the swing where the couple are honoured by guests is bedecked with marguerites and more jasmine – and I could go on. 200—300 kilos of flowers are used in these 24 hours. There are also the intermittent smells of curry, dal, idlis and dosas wafting up from under the building and served throughout both days.
The music assaults you. A small band consists of a vocalist, two rhythm instruments and two nadaswaram – a traditional classical reed instrument from South India and apparently one of the loudest non-brass acoustic instruments. They are playing Carnatic music, famous in South India. In the relatively small wedding space, in hot and sultry conditions with uneven a/c, the music takes on a life of its own.
Taste. All the foods we have smelled taste fantastic. Refreshments are served at long tables where we eat off banana leaves with our hands. The official reception’s buffet is exquisite, down to the mango ice cream. Everything is washed down with water. The best drink is a cold fresh mango juice.
Touch is not so common in this culture. But by the end of the wedding day, Sharanya’s mother and I have hugged several times. Touch comes in other ways. The raw silk of a sari is soft and slightly uneven to the touch as they are all handwoven. Being dressed in a sari for the first time feels both strange and reassuring as the silk quickly envelopes you; we place garlands around the bride and groom’s neck noting the texture and heaviness of the flowers. As the ceremony reaches its climax, the bride’s father washes the groom’s feet as a sign of respect and acceptance that his daughter is now the grooms’ responsibility. And throughout the two days of rituals, spices are crushed and placed in hands and on foreheads.
Of course, pictures speak a thousand words and a photographer and videographer are present throughout the two days to immortalise the occasion. It is a tradition in Sharanya's family that when relatives visit, the wedding albums always come out! So words are probably a poor means to express such a visual and sensual feast. But I promised myself that I would try.