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India: A guide to traditional North Indian weddings

By Kriti Gandhi 22 March 2022

Header image courtesy of Amish Thakkar (via Unsplash)

Known for its penchant for lavish and culturally prosperous weddings, North India is home to a profusion of wedding rituals, ceremonies, and festivities. In India, weddings are sacrosanct and serve as symbols of prosperity and successful parenting. Each wedding is filled with hundreds of guests, abundant rituals and ceremonies, and Bollywood-style dinner dances. With so many ceremonies taking place, North Indian weddings can be overwhelming and confusing for a first-timer. Here is a quick guide to all the important events that occur during a traditional Hindu wedding.

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Photo: Vaibhav Nagare (via Unsplash)

Roka and mangni

Before the official festivities can begin, two important ceremonies must take place to initiate the wedding celebrations. The roka (रोका) is the first ritual and is often performed months before the actual wedding. The event solidifies the wedding by taking the word of the man and woman to confirm their willingness to get married in the future making it official. Families may no longer look for other prospective brides or grooms after the roka.

The mangni (मंगनी), also known as the engagement, is a special ceremony that marks the beginning of the couple’s journey together. Both parties exchange rings and hold a small celebration for their close friends and family. From here, the official wedding preparations begin.

Through months of hectic planning and coordination, the official wedding finally commences. Often finalised based on kundlis (कुंडली; birth chart) and muhurats (मुहूर्त; auspicious timing), astrology plays a huge role in determining the dates and timings of Indian weddings. After an auspicious time is appointed, wedding invitations are sent out. Although it is common for families to gather a week in advance for festivities at home, a typical North Indian wedding spans officially over three days.

Photo: Viresh Studio (via Pixabay)

Ganesh puja (Vinayak Sthapana)

If you are getting married according to Hindu traditions, it is essential for the wedding ceremony to start with invoking Lord Ganesh. The Ganesh Puja (Vinayak Sthapana) must take place before any other Hindu god or goddess is worshipped. The deity is the harbinger of prosperity and good luck and thus, every wedding starts with his worship; it is believed that the puja (पूजा; prayer) is necessary for obstacle-free marriage celebrations. 

The puja is usually done a day before or the day of the wedding and is limited to close family members. The couple presents Lord Ganesh with many offerings and prayers in hopes to please the god. This ritual signals the start of the extravagant three-day wedding festivities.

Photo: Natalye Ruiz (via Pixabay)

Haldi

Believed to ward off evil spirits, the haldi ceremony is a pre-wedding traditional holy bath often performed to spiritually cleanse the bride and groom. During the ritual, the couple is smeared with turmeric. The tradition is considered extremely auspicious in North Indian communities and often signifies purity and protection.

To match the striking colour of turmeric, family members dress up in vibrant yellows and oranges for the event. Like any other Indian ritual, the haldi ceremony is too filled with laughter, colour, and happiness. With that being said, the ceremony also leaves the bride and groom with bright and radiant skin—perfect for their big day ahead.

Tilak

The tilak ceremony, also recognised as the groom acceptance ceremony, revolves around bringing families of the bride and groom together. The event is celebrated with a puja, exchange of gifts, food, and laughter unifying the bond between the two families. The puja and tilak (तिलक) are completed with the groom and his family; in many parts of India, the bride and her mother are not allowed to attend this ceremony. Wishing for the fulfilling upcoming lives of the soon to be married couple, the tilak ceremony is an integral part of the pre-wedding festivities in North India.

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Mehendi

Mehendi (मेहंदी; henna) is a form of ancient body art and temporary skin decoration very commonly used in India during wedding festivities. As one of the main events, the mehendi ceremony is a pre-marriage tradition that takes place in almost every wedding. It is a women-centric event where family and friends of the couple gather to apply henna on their hands for shagun (शगुन; good luck). The bride in specific has beautifully intricate designs drawn on her palms, back of the hands, and feet. Typically held a day before the actual wedding, guests are encouraged to dress vibrantly and also apply henna to accompany the bride!

Mehendi is not simply applied for aesthetic purposes; the tradition carries a much deeper meaning. The delicate designs often symbolise health, love, and luck. Scientifically, mehendi also has a cooling effect that helps soothe stress, headaches, and fever—an essential to relive the wedding blues! Traditionally, the groom’s name is hidden somewhere in the bride’s mehendi, and if he can find his name, the couple is blessed with good luck. Legend suggests that the darkness of the mehendi coincides with their marital harmony.

Photo: Amish Thakkar (via Unsplash)

Sangeet

The sangeet (संगीत) is a full-blown Bollywood-style party that celebrates music and culture. The musical night honours the union of the couple and their families. As we know, dressing up is a huge part of Indian weddings; in true Bollywood fashion, guests attend the party in extravagant lehengas (लेहंगा; traditional Indian dresses for women) and expensive suits. 

Family members and friends are expected to perform at the lavish event by dancing or singing for the couple. The bride and groom also share their first dance together to commemorate their wedding. Arguably the most exciting and energy-loaded celebration of the wedding, attending a sangeet party is an experience of a lifetime.

Photo: Vijaya Narasimha (via Pixabay)

Mandap puja

In a North Indian wedding ceremony, the mandap (मंडप) is essentially what an altar is for Western weddings. The mandap is an elaborately decorative structure where the bride and groom make things official. Often adorned with ornate lights, flowers, and fabrics, the mandap plays a significant role in the celebration. Thus, the mandap puja is an important spiritual ceremony that purifies and prepares the mandap for the wedding.

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Photo: Raj Rana (via Unsplash)

Baraat

Before the traditional vow exchange can happen, the baraat (बारात) is a celebratory wedding procession that welcomes the groom’s side of the family to the mandap. Filled with lively music and a lot of dancing, the baraat is one of the most exciting events of the wedding frenzy. The baraat is notoriously known for its lasting hours. Usually seated on a ceremonial horse (or elephant, chariot, or vintage car), the groom, decked in traditional Indian garments, is the main man of the event. The groom’s guests lead the way to the wedding mandap where they are greeted by the bride’s family.

Once the baraat has arrived, the bride’s mother applies a tilak (ceremonial red dot) on the groom’s forehead and performs an aarti to ward off any evil. Although the procession does not hold any religious significance, it is a customary tradition in North Indian weddings.

After the baarat has arrived, the kanya aagaman (कन्या अभिमान; “arrival of the bride”) takes place; this ceremony is the bride’s first appearance at the wedding. The bride is escorted to the mandap by her family to start the wedding rituals.

Photo: Amish Thakkar (via Unsplash)

Varmala and phere

Once the couple are united, the Varmala ceremony begins. A varmala (वरमाला) or jaimala is an Indian wedding garland made of flowers. During the ceremony the bride and groom exchange garlands to celebrate the start of their marriage.

After the varmala, the bride and groom partake in the saath phere (सथ फेरे) where they take seven circles around the sacred fire under the mandap. Each round around the sacred fire binds the couple in a matrimonial bond where they vow to be by each other’s side through health and sickness. Each phera (फेरा; circle around the fire) signifies a different promise that the bride and groom make to each other for a blissful married life. As the priest recites the promises in Sanskrit, he explains the meaning of each vow to the couple. This ceremony officially names the couple as husband and wife.

Photo: Amish Thakkar (via Unsplash)

Kanyadaan

Kanyadaan (कन्यादान) is a symbolic marriage ritual that takes place after the saath phere. Essentially, kanyadaan means to “give the daughter away” where the father of the bride hands his precious daughter away. The kanyadaan ceremony is an important ritual because it helps the bride live a prosperous and equal life with her groom. The tradition signifies the official acceptance of the bride into the groom’s family.

Sindoor and magalsutra

After the couple is officially together, the groom applies sindoor (सिंदूर; a religious red-orange powder), to his bride’s hair. The sindoor symbolises the bride’s new status as a married woman. This ceremony takes place after the woman receives blessings from her new in-laws. Following the sindoor ceremony, the groom places the mangalsutra (मंगलसूत्र) on the bride’s neck. A mangalsutra is a delicately handcrafted necklace made of black and gold beads that represents well-being and fortune.

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Photo: Hiren Sojitra (via Unsplash)

Vidai

The vidai is the final ceremony of the wedding where the bride is given away. The newlyweds are accompanied by the bride’s family and friends to the doorstep of the house. Before leaving her house, the bride throws back three handfuls of rice over her head symbolising gratefulness towards her parents for everything they had done for her. The vidai marks the end of the chaotic wedding festivities!

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Kriti Gandhi

Former editorial intern

Kriti was born in Mumbai but raised in Hong Kong and shares a strong bond with both places. As a current journalism student, she is keen on writing, sharing stories, and has a growing interest in photography. When she is not reading (Harry Potter, or anything really), you’ll find her exploring the city, attempting to skateboard, and finding new dumpling places.

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