Indian weddings are traditionally a really sad occasion for the bride’s family,” says Sim Sama, twin sister of the bride-to-be, Harkeet Sandhu, as she pours Champagne for the chattering assembly of Harkeet’s girlfriends cramming into her tiny, inner-Sydney apartment. “The mehndi [henna] night is equivalent to a hen’s night. It’s usually meant to involve the older women, who sing traditional folk songs mourning the departure of the bride, but Harkeet wanted to put a more modern spin on it,” says Sim.
Tonight, at Harkeet’s mehndi night – just one of seven events that make up her Punjabi wedding – the traditional folk songs are replaced with Bollywood music and a flurry of colourful saris and jangling bracelets, creating a vibrant atmosphere that’s anything but sorrowful. Her guests perch on a spectrum of coloured silk pillows on the floor sipping bubbles, gossiping and admiring Harkeet’s expert mehndi; the heart and soul of the evening. “Henna is applied to decorate the bride, just like we’d get our make-up done or put on jewellery,” says Sim.
Harkeet’s sister-in-law, Taz, feeds her bites of samosas and helps her to sip a cocktail while Harkeet sits glued to a chair for a bottom-numbing 90 minutes, as a professional henna artist creates an intricate lace-like pattern on her hands and feet. The name of Harkeet’s fiancé, Rupinder, is hidden somewhere in the unique design. “In India, in the past, the bride and groom wouldn’t know each other that well, so the ice-breaker would be the groom trying to find his name in the henna,” explains Sim.
In the kitchen, Harkeet’s mother, Raj, is finishing off the feast she’s spent all day preparing. It’s the first time Raj and most of Harkeet’s family have made the journey from London to Sydney since Harkeet moved to Australia in 2010. After meeting Rupinder in 2009 while travelling in Goa, Harkeet moved to Brisbane for work before settling in Rupinder’s hometown of Sydney. Sim watches on as her mother deftly flattens the chapattis that are quickly puffing up on the hotplate, while onion bhajis (fritters) are thrown into a pot of bubbling oil and fried until crisp and golden. Besan flour is mixed with ghee and condensed milk to make sweet squares of chickpea fudge, a sweet often found at Indian celebrations. Raj is in charge of feeding the guests tonight, but as both families are of Sikh faith, it’s tradition that Sikh caterers cook the vegetarian morning tea and lunch banquets at the wedding ceremony held in Glenwood’s Sikh temple, or Gurdwara, the following Saturday. There, guests will be fed twice in three hours, feasting on a variety of Indian snacks and dishes like fresh vegetable samosas, palak paneer, carrot halva and chai tea.
Religion and rituals aside, Punjabi weddings are about having fun. Punjab is among the most affluent states in India and families are not shy in spending a lot of money to host a spectacular event. Entertaining, almost theatrical, games are played between both families. “Games at Indian weddings are to break the ice and bring joy into the occasion,” says Harkeet. Before the baraat (groom’s party) can enter the Gurdwara, the bridesmaids hold up a red ribbon and barter the men’s entry. The games are in jest, but the bridesmaids mean business, demanding cash, diamonds, and even upgrades for their flight home. “I only got $20!” exclaims a disappointed Taz, as the bridesmaids let the ribbon fall and allow the baraat to pass. But there’s still a chance to score. Once the baraat have entered the Gurdwara and removed their shoes, the bridesmaids steal their footwear and hold them for a hefty ransom that the groomsmen will have to pay if they want them back.
The official ceremony begins in the Gurdwara’s main hall. Guests are seated on the floor and Rupinder and Harkeet, dressed in beautifully embellished red and gold, kneel in front of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh holy book). Food is an intrinsic part of the day, not just to feed the guests between rituals, but also within the ceremony itself. The Granthi (priest) hands out balls of karah parshad, a sacred wheat, sugar and ghee mixture, which is accepted by the seated guests with hands raised and cupped as a sign of humility and respect. Whether at the mehndi night, the wedding banquet or one of the many other wedding rituals, food plays a symbolic part in celebrating with family and friends. “Food is such a huge part of Indian celebrations because it brings people together and allows us to share,” reflects Harkeet. “It’s the centrepiece of all celebrations.”
The anand karaj (blissful union) forms the central part of a Sikh marriage ceremony and takes place in the main hall of the Gurdwara. Once the bride and groom take their place in front of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh holy book), Harkeet’s father, Sukhwinder, takes the end of a red scarf (palla) that Rupinder has draped around his shoulders and places it in Harkeet’s hand, symbolising that she is leaving her father’s care to join her husband. The Granthi (priest)reads out four lavans (marriage hymns) that are both teachings and vows, and describe the progression of love between a husband and wife.
To formally introduce each male family member to their corresponding relative on the other side, the milni (meeting) is performed before entering the Gurdwara. After a prayer, the Granthi (priest) calls the names of the men from each side of the family, beginning with the eldest. They meet in the middle and place a haar (flower garland) around each other. The wedding games continue during this ritual as the men hug, pose for a photo and often try to pick each other up to prove who is the strongest of the families.
Besan flour is made of ground, dried chickpeas and is a staple ingredient in Indian cooking. Raj uses it in the mixture that coats the onion bhajis (fritters) before deep-frying them to add a light, earthy flavour but it is often a common addition to homemade beauty products as well. For the maiyan ceremony, a pre-wedding cleansing ritual held separately for the bride and groom two days before the ceremony, besan flour is mixed with turmeric and mustard oil and applied to Harkeet’s face by her family members. The besan flour absorbs oil on the skin while the turmeric is said to be a natural anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. The paste is thought to give the bride a radiant and golden glow for her wedding day.
Photography Chris Chen.
As seen in Feast magazine, September 2014, Issue 35.