At its core, a wedding is about nothing more than two people deciding that they want to spend the rest of their lives together—that they want to wake up and make breakfast, pick out furniture and take a walk after dinner until death do them apart. There’s a predictable path most Indian-American couples take. They meet, whether by chance introduction or online. They spend time with each other, trying to imagine a life together. A surprise proposal is planned—a wedding tradition not associated with Indian weddings but eagerly adopted by couples who are finding each other outside the arrangements of their parents. And after some time, whether it be months or years, they marry.
And the wedding day that celebrates this union is celebrated with great fanfare. Part of the immigrant experience is the inevitable combination of traditions; a reality that can give families anxiety as they watch their children choose what they will keep and discard. Wedding traditions are no different—the hyphenated identity is on full display during the celebrations. The bride walks down the aisle with bridesmaids—she walks up to the mandap—and if it is a Hindu ceremony, there is a fire around which the bride and groom sit while the priest begins the rituals. And, then, in a nod to Western culture, they exchange vows in English, and end up exchanging rings too sometimes. Right there in the space of two to three hours you have two wedding traditions rolled into one.
There are portions our great grandparents would have recognized, and parts they may not. Take apart the grand, long ceremonies we know so well and we find at the core, every wedding tradition has a few vows exchanged in solemnity between the couple with families in attendance. Many choose to keep the old traditions with just a few tweaks, while others create their own rituals, only including the few traditions they find personally meaningful.
In this story, we include the stories of four modern South Asian couples that represent the intersections between groups, be they religious, sexuality, regional, or ethnic. As we continue to live, work and marry away from the places our parents come from, these marriages are proof of our infinite possibilities—concepts of tradition and modernity are nothing more than labels we choose to stamp on ourselves.
Shilpi Verma Weds Maneesh Singh
Without knowing, Shilpi and Maneesh had been circling each other peripherally for years before their first meeting at a bar in New York, a city where neither of them lived and which they happened to be visiting.
“Within ten minutes of our conversation we realized that our younger brothers were actually best friends,” Shilpi said. “We met without knowing that connection, but that made our meeting surreal.” Beyond the happy coincidence, each of them knew early on in that first conversation that the other was someone special. They quickly took a selfie to send to their brothers and made plans to meet again. For the next few months, separated by a continent, the couple resorted to technology to keep in touch. “Even before I moved to San Francisco, things felt effortless,” Maneesh said. “We had to put a lot of time into the logistics of visiting each other but making it work didn’t feel like too much of an effort.”
Unlike the ease of their relationship, Maneesh’s proposal was complicated, full of everything he knew was important to his future fiancee. Her brother helped Maneesh draft an invitation to a fake medical event held at a space Maneesh rented out. A few colleagues from work came to make the event more believable before Maneesh took Shilpi to the rooftop to look at one of her favorite views, the Bay Bridge, as all of her friends reconstructed the space below into a private romantic spot for his proposal.
With the “Oh, yes of course!” taken care of in style, the wedding planning brought new challenges in the form of their contrasting cultures: Maneesh is Sikh while Shilpi is Hindu, which meant they needed to have two wedding ceremonies at the venue. The one tradition they insisted on making their own was the vows before each circle around the fire in the Hindu ceremony. Rather than reciting the traditional Sanskrit lines they decided to say their own vows in English, about how the other had made them better along with promises for the future.
As she recalled her vows, Shilpi said, “One thing I emphasized is that he’ll be a stable force in my life and my parents’ lives, and that his kindness makes me want to be a better person.” “I talked about how we pushed each other forward and some of the things I looked forward to in our marriage,” Maneesh said, “The little things I’ve come to enjoy—making chai on Sunday mornings and making kichadi together”
Common threads between the two weddings like the tradition of giving the bride away in both and the pheras or circles around the Sikh sacred book the Guru Granth Sahib and the fire in Hinduism gave a sense of unity to the event as a whole. “Eventually when we did them back-to-back; it felt like incorporating not only two families but two cultures together,” Maneesh said.
Philip Frost And Arun Rangaswami
Phil and Arun managed to find each other on Chemistry.com almost at the last moment—Phil had just signed up for the dating website while Arun was just about to leave.
“I had a lot of not really inspiring experiences and was probably a little more jaded than he was when we met,” Arun said. “But Phil had sent me a message and I thought he was very handsome and responded.” Still, it took Arun some persuasion—the prospect of a potential long distance relationship (Phil lived in Arizona) and previous experiences gave him pause leaving him skeptical, but that initial attraction led to phone calls between the two. “The magical thing is that after we first exchanged contacts, we then spoke every night for over a month without meeting each other,” Phil said. “There were definite common interests—you know when you’re talking to someone and it’s just easy conversation.” They quickly knew that their relationship was meant to last and decided to spend their first holiday together, when Phil came to San Francisco after Christmas.
“It was so easy, because I got to see many wonderful things about Phil—he’s very good with people and honest—things you can’t see over the telephone, you just have to be with the person to see it,” says Arun.
Three years later Phil proposed to Arun during their trip to Sicily with friends and Arun’s mother to commemorate Arun’s 50th birthday. The recent election of Donald Trump and its ramifications on the Supreme Court has caused enough doubt that Phil and Arun have sped up their timeframe for the wedding—they’re planning a small wedding in October, followed by a larger event in a year or two. While they haven’t decided all the details of the later celebration, currently they plan on including aspects of both Hindu and Christian ceremonies.
“If anything I’d like for some nod to circling the fire,” Arun said. “I think my mother would like to see that aspect of the ceremony, and of course the symbolism of being bound together for seven lifetimes is very appealing.” Phil similarly highlights the portions of the Christian wedding ceremony that focus on the commitment of the couple as opposed to the more religious aspects. “It’s more about the shell of the ceremony,” he said, “which I believe in because of the strength of that commitment and the exchange of rings symbolizing that.”
Neha Mathew Weds Shalin Shah
Neha and Shalin see themselves as having an unconventional relationship, never having an official date when they began dating. “I wish I remember when that day was,” Neha said. “We both have thought about this many times, and we never celebrated anniversaries or anything. It’s just this vague timeframe—we started hanging out with each other and that was it.”
As part of Project RISHI while at UC Berkeley, Neha and Shalin knew of each other, but didn’t become close friends until they went on a 3-week trip on behalf of the organization. Afterwards, they spent a lot of time together and were friends for about two years before transitioning into a romantic relationship. Five years after meeting Neha, Shalin proposed in London, a city Neha loved but had never visited. He planned the trip in secret, surprising Neha at the airport with two roundtrip tickets to her dream location without mentioning the ring in his bag.
Making sure that their wedding was meaningful both to them as a couple as well as their community was important, so Neha and Shalin chose to eschew some of the typical wedding traditions of their respective family backgrounds. Shalin’s family are Gujarati Jains from Chennai but he is agnostic, while Neha comes from a Malayalee Protestant Christian/Telugu Hindu family from Hyderabad and was raised within the church.
Both families were fully supportive, and so the couple was free to create the type of wedding they would find most meaningful. At the start Barnali Ghosh and Anirvan Chatterjee, friends of Neha and Shalin, who officiated the legal ceremony asked each attendee to close their eyes and to think about the ceremony’s meaning for the couple and also about some of their favorite memories involving the couple. Then, they began to speak about the backgrounds of first Neha and then Shalin. They continued by speaking about the parents, describing their backgrounds and reading a note of gratitude from the bride and the groom before highlighting the other friends and family who had traveled from all over the world to see the couple married while acknowledging the absence of those who couldn’t. They asked the attendees to participate in community vows, and to promise to stand with them in times of difficulty—to help as they built their own loving community.
“Something we were particular about was to make sure that everybody who was coming for the wedding was a part of it and actually knew what was happening,” Shalin said. After Shalin and Neha signed the documents and Ghosh and Chatterjee declared them legally married under California law, Rev. George Oomen, Neha’s pastor from the Los Angeles’ St. Peter’s Church of South India blessed the couple and led them in an exchange of three symbols of commitment they kept from traditional ceremonies. They exchanged rings, a minnu and a manthrakodi. The minnu, a pendant with a cross made of seven small globules of gold is tied by the groom around the bride’s neck. The manthrakodi is a special wedding sari gifted to the bride by the groom’s family, which the groom puts over the bride’s head before tying the minnu. Seven strands from the manthrakodi are taken to hang the minnu, which represents a long and happy married life.
“I felt a lot of emotion,” Neha said about the ceremonies. “Between the two of us there were moments when we were crying, moments when we were laughing hysterically, and you could see that in everyone there.”
“I think the biggest difference in at least the way we approached it is that you don’t live your life based solely on identity,” Shalin added. “You don’t live your life based on whether you’re Jain or Christian. How you live your life is based on your value system and that’s not always based on those identities.”
Anu Oza Weds Maneesh Sharma
Anu had to warn Maneesh that the frequency of their first few dates was too good to last. He’d caught her, a teacher, at the end of July and early August—right before the start of the new school year.
“I remember saying—this is summer me, I’m not going to be like this all the time,” she says laughing. “I wasn’t going to be able to go out for dinner regularly on weekdays, and he was flexible with that.”
Introduced by a mutual family friend, they both knew from the beginning that what they had was something special, different from any of their past relationships. Anu and Maneesh are both Indian-Americans who were born and grew up in California and found themselves having a lot in common in their personal backgrounds and experiences. Their relationship was always a comfortable, easy thing in which both had the liberty to be themselves.
Going on hikes had become a monthly tradition for the couple after Anu made a resolution to be outdoors more that year. They dated for under a year before Maneesh proposed at Immigrant Point in the Presidio of San Francisco in May of 2016. Anu, who was not usually one to make New Year’s resolutions, had decided that she would take up hiking at least once a month with Maneesh. “I had my phone and was taking all the pictures and was wearing Maneesh’s backpack at that point and he needed something from the backpack,” she said. “I was completely oblivious and blissfully unaware, and then he had a ring and proposed.”
Anu’s family is originally from Rajasthan while Maneesh’s family is from Uttar Pradesh so when it came to their wedding each group brought a few particular traditions though the basics of the Hindu ceremony—two hours in total—stayed the same. In particular, the wedding followed the Rajasthani tradition of eight pheras with Anu leading for three and Maneesh for five. Throughout the circles Maneesh wore a pink cloth around his neck, as members of his family had done for generations.
“I led the first three rounds and then Maneesh led the fourth one,” Anu said. “And then after that we did four more where Maneesh actually lifted me and then walked around the fire. Altogether eight pheras.” They also had a Rajasthani ceremony between the mothers after the Ganesh puja at the altar, where their mothers exchanged water, sweets and garlands in a mini ceremony to symbolize two families uniting into one.
For Anu and Maneesh, writing the wedding program became a project to understand exactly what each part of the wedding meant-—translating the ancient rituals into something their guests could understand and also they themselves could be wholly part of while at the mandap. Anu discussed each part of the ceremony with both sets of parents, delving deep into each ritual’s meaning so as to make sure they corresponded with the couple’s values. Then Anu and Maneesh used progressive feminist language to turn the ancient Hindu ceremony into something less patriarchal and far more personal.
“It felt like we were writing our vows together,” Anu said. “We didn’t do traditional Western vows but talking about the ceremony and understanding exactly what was happening on the day of was very meaningful.”
Maya Murthy is a student at the University of Toronto majoring in Equity Studies and Religion. She is currently spending the summer as an intern in the offices of Vice Mayor of San Jose Magdalena Carrasco and Assemblymember Evan Low. In her spare time she enjoys rewriting movie scripts and reading translations of medieval Indian love poetry.