From sexist traditions to mammoth costs, why it’s time we modernised Asian wedding ceremonies

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Sejal Kapadia Pocha
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Add this article to your list of favourites writer Sejal Kapadia challenges the tried and tested formula for big fat Indian weddings 

My wedding is currently consuming three rooms in my parent's house. It's a bit like the Hulk, but prettier. 

We're four weeks away from the big day(s) and we've stocked up on clothes (seven brilliantly embellished Indian outfits each), decor (faux flowers, fabric and pots for the house and two evening venues), gifts, religious bits and bobs, booze and more that only my mother can explain. Yes, Asians weddings are one of the biggest and fattest out there.

In fact, while the average British wedding costs £21,000, Asian weddings in the UK top £50,000. For those who have never attended a Sikh, Hindu or Muslim nuptial, it's typically made up of pre-wedding events such as religious rituals, henna nights and dinner parties, followed by the wedding day and a large reception party to finish it off. They're beautiful spectacles that celebrate marriage in the grandest way possible. It's the only way I can imagine getting married.

But when my boyfriend (who is also Hindu Gujarati) proposed in November 2013, the thought of planning it filled me with dread. Not least because I'm hopeless at executing even a birthday dinner, but because deep down I knew the cost was going to loom over my head, dark and Dementor-like. As months of preparations went by, I also became acutely aware that our centuries-old marital traditions challenged my feminist ideals.

I reached out to my Asian friends who got married in the last few years and it appears my concerns are ubiquitous. As we struggle to get our foot on the housing ladder, our extravagant weddings increasingly seem reckless, self indulgent and unrealistic. And as independent working professionals who champion equal rights, some rituals feel narrow minded, outdated and discriminatory. 

When I questioned family members about these concerns, five words became the typical response: "It's just what we do."

I'm generally never one to throw away my logic to that answer, which is why I'm writing this piece. The western world has made leaps and bounds in modernising and harbouring equality in marriages, be it husbands taking their wives' names or the legalisation of same-sex marriages. It's time we British South Asians (Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians) make our share of changes too.

Here are the issues I most struggled accepting when planning my wedding. Do you agree? I'd love to read your thoughts in our comments section below.

The enormous guest list

There will be 330 people at my wedding. I've made my colleagues' eyes pop with that number, but the truth is that's small compared to the 520 that attended my older sister's wedding five years ago and the 800 that frequently fill Grosvenor House, one of the few high-end venues that can accommodate large wedding parties in London.

It's not that us South Asians are abnormally sociable or popular. A Sikh friend who got married two years ago said, "I tried to say no to those I didn't want to invite. That didn't go down too well, with my parents saying the whole 'They looked after you when you were a baby, they invited us to their daughter's wedding', etc. My family are much older and very stuck in their ways of how things have been done before. Changing that mindset is difficult and I felt my wedding was not about me, but about what my mum wanted to do. She even invited people without telling me! I wasn't a happy bride-to-be."

Looking at my own spreadsheet of guests, there are at least 60 people whom I don't know well. That's enough to fill a double-decker bus. 

Naturally frustrated, I quizzed my mum on why she felt she had to invite guests that she's not particularly close to. She explained that she would feel bad for attending another person's wedding and not extending an invite to them. For my parents, it's about returning the gesture.

It's a very generous and open-hearted way of looking at it. But I can't help think they're feeding into a never-ending cycle of politeness. At some point someone has to stop saying thank you. Just this weekend I attended the wedding of a couple whom I'd never met (my family were invited and, as you can guess, we reciprocated an invitation to the groom's parents to attend my wedding). Awkwardly, I didn't even know the newlyweds' names. 

It riles me that it is customary to invite distant acquaintances to one of the most personal and expensive events we'll ever throw. A friend of mine says she repeatedly declines wedding invitations if she's not close to the couple.

I know one bride who fought her way to a guest list of 200 close family and friends for her ceremony in May. It was peaceful, intimate and entirely about the couple.

As one Stylist reader - who had 700 guests at her Indian Christian wedding - aptly put it: "What stops this [smaller weddings] from happening is an innate desire (perhaps not necessarily an overly enthusiastic one!) to please your parents. Until the relationships between those getting married and their parents changes, the ceremonies will continue to fit the "families" rather than what modern Indian women and their partners actually want."

The bride's parents footing the bill

The last time I asked my parents for financial support was in secondary school when I needed lunch money. Independent Woman by Destiny's Child wholeheartedly became my anthem ever since I got my first pay check.

So it saddens, bemuses and even angers me that my parents are paying for the entire cost of the wedding day (that's the religious ceremony and a buffet dinner for 300 guests). They themselves are insisting on it.

It's part of the well-known and longstanding tradition that the bride's father pays for the wedding. My parents have no genuine understanding for the reason behind it, other than that's what their parents and the generations before them have done. It's difficult to source exactly where it originates from, but the custom more than likely derives from the dowry. At a time when women didn't have their own earnings or independence in India, parents traditionally gifted money or real estate to their daughter to provide her security and wealth when she left her home to go to live with her husband and in-laws. But it eventually turned into an opportunity for families with sons to secure fortunes by exploiting the bride's parents in exchange for housing their daughter.

While India is still fighting this dreadful practice which was outlawed in the 1960s, we are, thankfully, far from it in Britain. So then I can't help feel that in a modern age it doesn't make much sense, and that there is no grounding for the bride's parents to cover the entire cost of the wedding.

"The girl's side paying for the ceremony is something I can't comprehend, regardless of the traditions," said a friend who divided the wedding bill exactly by half between both her and her husband's parents. "Brides should no longer be seen as the responsibility of the groom's family. These days most brides and grooms should be able to look after themselves without the need of the groom's side to support them through life. There should therefore not be an expectation that the bride's side pay for the wedding."

If both families invite the same number of guests, enjoy the same luxuries on the day and are truly equals, then the wedding bill should be split equally too. It's basic maths.

The sexist traditions

Hindu weddings are filled with fun little quirks and moments of humour which I love. For example, when the mother of the bride welcomes the groom at the top of the aisle by placing a chandlo (red dot) on his forehead, he is playfully lifted up so that she can't reach him. There's also the well-known operation of stealing the groom's shoes and my personal favourite - an impromptu competition between the bride and groom when the priest announces that whoever sits on their seats first, once the vows are made (seven steps), will be the leader in the relationship. It's all taken with a pinch of salt and makes for great fun during a two-hour ceremony.

But then there are some traditions that leave a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. One aspect I've battled with takes place after the religious rituals, when lunch or dinner is served. Ten years ago in Britain and even today in the small Indian town where my family originate from, the bride's family serve the groom's immediate and extended family food. It stems from the discomforting idea that the wedding is an event hosted by the bride's parents and the groom is their guest. When I let my thoughts get the better of myself, I wonder if it has undertones of the hierarchy established by India's patriarchal dowry system, although I firmly believe that any association with this has largely fallen away in western countries. So I look forward to seeing my in laws and my family sit side by side, be served dinner by the catering waiters and watch them dig into a meal in unison.

One bride I spoke to said she did away with her family's tradition of feeding the groom's uncles on arrival in the morning. "The breakfast is a part of the day that symbolises the distance the uncles had to travel in the past to get to the girl's town where the marriage is taking place. In India they would have arrived hungry and in need of some energy. Today this isn't the case and only feeding the men isn't really fair."

In some communities there's also a debate surrounding the bride's aisle walk, where elders believe she should be carried in a doli (carriage) by the men in her family rather than walking by foot. A couple I approached, who were keen to separate religion from the traditions that have been merely added to rituals by people throughout the ages, insisted on not doing this. "[My fiancée] wanted to walk in to represent her equal standing with me, however her grandmother wanted her to be carried in by her family," said the groom.

The extravagant gifting

We will wrap more presents in the next fortnight than we will over the next five Christmases. Far from the bride and groom receiving congratulatory presents, our pre-wedding rituals are peppered with moments where gifts such as sarees, small ornaments and money envelopes are presented to our family relations (first and second cousins of my parents, their partners and their children). It's a huge added cost that I'm having trouble comprehending.

But perhaps the most unpractical gifting is gold jewellery for the bride and groom. South Asians typically regard gold as the most valuable gift they can offer a couple, because its worth only appreciates with time. But as one bride put it, "Who sells their wedding gold to realise the gains and also how many people wear elaborate, chunky gold jewellery these days? I knew it would just sit there at the back of my wardrobe or a bank safe, so I asked to be given something that would be valuable to us today."

The mandap

"I really just wanted something simple and minimalist," I said to an Asian wedding decor founder, as he clicked through slide after slide of his latest mandaps (a decorated four pillar porch that Hindu ceremonies take place in). Each one was more ornate and larger than the previous. He couldn't quite understand what I meant.

The truth is "simple" and "minimalist" are two words that are yet to be understood by the Asian wedding industry. Let's add "affordable" while I'm at it, because currently in the UK, the costs of mandaps (a necessary part of the religious nuptials) cost anything from £1,700 to £4,500. It's easy to see how the price of our weddings quickly accelerate.

As a customer, I'd like to make an official request to all Asian decor suppliers: please create modest alternatives to your mandaps and please offer ones for a more affordable range. If Ikea have made a fortune on their simplistic and cheap designs, I bet you you'll strike gold if you do too. Just remember you read it here first.

The priests

My fiancé and I struggle to speak our second language, Gujarati - a problem that many young British Asians will resonate with - so it seemed only natural to find a wedding priest (maharaj) who can translate the rituals into English. We found five priests in the UK, and guess what, they're the equivalent of hiring Elton John (maybe with a few less zeros).

These priests charge £1,000 for their services, work exclusively with a wedding DJ who costs an additional £900 and conduct ceremonies that are close to dramatic theatre shows. There was no way we could afford this and it's not a problem confined to Hindu ceremonies. High profile Imams charge high prices to conduct Muslim weddings.

What saddens me is that an English speaking priest feels like an elite luxury in this country. Perhaps in time we'll see an increase in such ceremony leaders, making them more accessible and affordable. After all, it's quite an important thing to understand your wedding vows, isn't it?

The crying part

Unfortunately, it always ends in tears - literally. Once the ceremony is complete and a meal is eaten, the wedding party re-congregate for the vidai (or Rukhsati in Pakistani weddings), which translates to "farewell" or "send-off" for the bride. 

Based on my experience of attending on average two to three weddings per year, this is when the mood of an upbeat and joyous event suddenly plummets. Dramatic and melancholy Bollywood songs are often played in the background as the bride hugs and bids goodbye to her family. (Lyrics include "May you never remember your parents' home; may you receive that much love from your in-laws" In this particular song the father of the bride distractingly sobs throughout). Even the stoniest heart would well up in the thick of it, because often (as will be the case for me), the bride is moving out of her home for the first time to live with her partner. Meanwhile, the poor groom helplessly watches on. 

Now here's the problem. A wedding should be a happy occasion celebrating a union rather than separation. Yes, I will be heartbroken to leave the home I've grown up in and the comforts of having my parents close by. But by moving out I am not leaving them behind. They will still be a massive part of my life.

In India, if a bride moved a long distance from her family it was likely that she wouldn't see them for months at a time because most families in small towns and villages, certainly even five years ago, didn't have their own cars. But for us in the western world distance can be filled with good public transport, our own cars and if not that, FaceTime and Skype. 

A friend of mine summarised it brilliantly. "My belief is that you are not leaving your family and 'old life' behind to become part of your husband's family, you're marrying the man you love and bringing together two families, that should be celebrated." At her wedding, she and her husband exited the event to an applause, confetti, smiles and celebratory music. Not a tear was shed. That's how it should be. 

Do you feel Asian weddings need to change? Did you tweak or cut out traditions to your big day or wish you did? Please do share your comments and opinions in the section below.


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Sejal Kapadia Pocha

Sejal Kapadia Pocha covers stories about everything from women’s issues to cult foods. She describes herself as a balance between Hermione and Luna Lovegood.