Attending a Kashmiri wedding - as a foreign guest

Sometimes you receive an invitation, which you just can’t turn down. So when I was invited to a Kashmiri wedding - I SAID YES!

Wow, that kinda feels like I was the one who got married.

Weddings in my country, The Netherlands, are usually quite small. It will last one day, in which there is the official ceremony, a dinner and a party.

In Kashmir a wedding is not just a party. It’s a gathering. A three-day event, in which hundreds of people are invited. Exquisite decorations, unreasonable amounts of food, live music, dancing, henna tattooing, sparkling dresses. You name it and it’s there.

The gorgeous bride to this wedding was half-Japanese, half-Kashmiri - but this was a full-blown traditional Kashmiri wedding. Although living in Delhi, the large part of her Kashmiri family lives in Kashmir. It was decided to have the wedding in Kashmir and not in Delhi.

I’m glad they did!

Kashmiri Food

A huge, huge, huge, part of a Kashmiri wedding revolves around food. The day before the start of the wedding, a large tent was set up. Fires were build and gigantic pots were placed on top of the fires.

There was an army of “meat-beaters” (or, well, that’s what I liked to call them). At least 10 men were constantly beating lamb meat with large, wooden hammers. The beating would start around 6 o’clock in the morning and would continue until deep into the night.

I bluntly asked them: “so why don’t you just use a mincing machine?

They shook their head disapprovingly. The beating released and spread all the good juice and flavour of the lamb’s meat. That was the secret behind the incredibly tasty kebabs they made from it. A mincing machine would obviously destroy that, you stupid girl!

The cooking went on continuously for 4 days. Like a well-oiled machine they produced a “wazwan” (wedding feast) consisting of 63 different courses!

The main ingredient to every dish was lamb, cooked in a dozen different ways. I never ate so much lamb in my entire life.

Besides lamb, there was chicken, paneer (type of cheese) and spinach cooked into different dishes as well. But the lamb, and especially the different types of meatballs they made from its meat, was the ultimate star of the Kashmiri food.

Meal traditions

Men and women ate separately every meal. They would be divided either into separate tents, or the women would be on one end of the tent, and the men on the other. Paper cloth was rolled out over the nice carpets that we were sitting on - and then the washing began.

A man would come to you with -what looked like- an enormous teapot, and a collection bowl. He’d pore water over your right hand above the collection bowl. Only the right hand was being washed, as you were only allowed to eat with your right hand.

Eating rice and meat with your hands is challenging if you’re not used to it. Only using one single hand is rightout impossible. I was spilling food everywhere and my mouth turned bright yellow as I was smearing the curry all over my face.

I literally looked like a 3-year old playing with its food.

Throughout the meals I did improve my technique by using my thumb to scoop the rice into my mouth. It still looked pretty pathetic though.

One plate was shared with 4 people, and the original serving would look like the picture below. This plate alone was a huge meal for only 4 people. But this was only the start. Every few minutes, new courses would be handed out.

They were being piled up on the plate and it was a rush against time to try and keep up.

The last course of each meal would always be the “gushtaba”, also known as the giant meatball. Later I learned that you can ask for this unit earlier during the meal if you are completely stuffed. It’s a polite way to end the meal without wasting a lot of food.

That would have been nice to know while battling those gigantic meals.

Regularly, I would turn into a fire spitting dragon when I innocently sampled an extremely spicy dish. But overall, the food was incredibly delicious.

Day of the Henna

Traditionally, the second day of the wedding revolves around henna tattooing. For reasons of time and/or planning, it was moved to the first day of this wedding. Two henna artists started working on the arms, hands and feet of the bride early in the morning. They finished late in the afternoon.

The bride had chosen the design herself beforehand, but the artists looked like they were working free-style. They didn’t use any picture or template. Finally the name of the groom in Arabic was written in henna on the palm of her right hand.

After applying the henna, it took more than an hour to fully dry. It was then rubbed off, leaving behind an orange looking tattoo. I was amused to see that they apply ‘Vicks’ on the skin, which turns the henna into a darker brown colour the next day.

I’d always used “Vicks” when I was having a cold but apparently this is some serious multi-purpose stuff. Awesome!

What to wear on a Kashmiri wedding

As soon as I got the invitation for the wedding, I bought a nice Kashmiri dress for the occasion. Little did I know that the women change dresses twice a day. That means that attending a three-day wedding, you’d need at least six dresses. Oh.

The guests and the bride worn their dresses in a particular order of sparkly-ness. Each dress being more beautifully decorated and bling-bling than the previous. All leading up to that final stunning dress for the last evening of the wedding.

Obviously the bride was wearing the most exquisite dresses, jewellery and make-up. Every time she changed to the next dress, she looked more beautiful. She could well have been a Maharaja’s queen - It was stunning.

Handing of gifts

Long before the wedding, the families of both groom and bride already talked about the gifts. It’s important that nobody gets embarrassed during the event. To avoid one family giving 1 kilogram of gold to the newly weds, and the other family given 5 kilograms of gold - these things are discussed upfront.

I mean, imagine only giving 1 kilogram of gold. Unacceptable!

The gifts from the closest family members were opened straight away, the other gifts were kept for a later moment. I have to admit I let out a sigh of relief when I heard she would not open my gift in front of all guests. She was receiving sparkling, golden necklaces and bracelets. Beautiful handbags, fabrics and expensive perfumes.

I had given her a teaset. Everybody was assuring me this was an excellent gift and she would love it. But I felt like my gift-giving was not up to this Kashmiri family’s standards!

In a last attempt to step it up, I added an envelop with money and a hand-written note. Luckily someone informed me in the very last moment you should always add a 1 rupee coin. The amount of money needs to be an auspicious number. Like 101 rupees, or 2001 rupees. Fiew.

Turned out that the hand-written note was appreciated the most. There were even pictures taken of my note as inspiration for future weddings. So I guess I did do something right!

Cutting of the cake

The cutting of the cake was an important phase of the wedding. The bride was sitting on a stage, accompanied by her mother, sister and other women from the family. She cut the first piece of the cake after which her mother fed her a small bit of the cake.

It was quite amusing for me as a westerner to see the size of the cake. Everything on this wedding was big. The location, the number of guests, the food, the dresses and jewellery. I was expecting a 20-layered cake reaching to the ceiling. Each layer with a different flavour. Each layer decorated even more beautiful.

But it was a one-layered fruit cake. And I’ve got to admit it wasn’t even that tasty..

I guess going all-out on the wedding cake is more of a Western thing. Ah well, you can’t have it all.

In any case, after cutting of the cake, the guests burst out into wild dancing and singing. By this time, the number of guests had swollen with new arrivals. Dozens of phones were held up in the air everywhere to record all the happenings.

Arrival of the groom

So far, the wedding was entering Day 3 - and I still hadn’t seen the groom. I was a guest of the bride’s side of the family. All the rituals, meals, dancing and singing had only been in the company bride’s guests and family.

Simultaneously, there had been similar celebrations at the groom’s house. With his hundreds of guests.

The entire wedding was being celebrated separately so far. Around 80 women of the groom’s family did visit on the second day to bring their gifts, but after that, they’d left again.

The groom finally arrived on the evening of the last day of the wedding. Around 9 o’clock at night, he made his entrance with his entire entourage. The route from the road to the ceremonial tent was fully decorated. Red carpets were draped on the floor and the sides and ceilings were covered with beautiful fabrics.

Dressed as a true Kashmiri prince, and flanked by men of his family, he slowly made his way to ceremonial tent.

A Kashmiri wedding ceremony

Then the wedding ceremony started. They would finally get married!

The tent in which it took place was absolutely gorgeous. Small lights decorated the ceiling and the floor was covered in Kashmiri carpets. The wedding was taking place in a park - and they smartly used that to create a small courtyard within the tent.

The women were not allowed to attend the ceremony though. They all had to stay in another tent. Even the mother of the bride could not see her daughter give her “yes”. Surprisingly perhaps, but because of being a foreigner, I was allowed in. Amazing!

The ceremony itself took around half an hour. The groom and his father were sitting on the stage. The bride was in the room too, but she was hidden on the other side of a curtain. She was invisible.

The priest first read the marriage contract out loud - in Arabic. Then he asked the groom three times if he wanted to marry the bride. The groom answered with ‘yes’ three times in response. Next he asked the bride the same. I could hear her three yes’s coming softly from the other side of the curtain.

The priest then continued with singing verses from the Quran and talking about various things I couldn’t understand.

And that was it. They were married. By now, you shouldn’t be surprised that there was no ‘kissing of the bride’ happening here.

Departure of the bride

Now came the time for the bride to go - the saddest part of the wedding. The families, of both bride and groom, left together to the house of the groom’s family. The family of the bride then returned home. Leaving their daughter behind.

And that summarised the actual atmosphere that was present during all three days that I spend with the bride’s family. Surely they were happy that she was getting married. But they were giving away their daughter.

She would leave her house she’d been living in with her family. And move into the house of the family of her new husband. Their daughter was now be part of another family.

The bride’s family was singing sad songs and tears were flowing as she left. It was a very emotional goodbye.

Not a permanent goodbye just yet though. The bride will return to her family a week after the wedding. She will stay with her family for a week of final goodbyes, and then go back to her husband’s family again. This time for good.

Back to reality

It took some time for me to realise, that the bride and groom had not seen each other during the entire 3-day event. That was something I found truly baffling.

All the celebrations had been separate. Even the ceremony itself, was separate. There was no such thing as celebrating together. Or dancing together. Or eating cake together. Or admiring each others beautiful clothes.

And it’s not like they’d never seen each other. This was a love marriage. They’d been together for many years. Engaged for three years. Some parts of this traditional wedding did not fit their love story at all - it seemed to me.

But this is Kashmir, and I feel incredibly lucky to have seen and experienced such an important family occasion and to feel part of that!

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