Monday, July 6, 2009

Rajput Wedding


I boarded a sweaty chartered bus at eight o’clock the morning of the wedding day. Like everywhere in Rajasthan where one spends an extended period of time, it lacked both a bathroom and air-conditioning. It did, however, have a Shiva motif painted on the wall, the young god bathing in a fantastic lagoon surrounded by peacocks and nymphs. With two seats in two rows split by an aisle, I was fortunate to score my own row next to a sticky, cracked window. The plan was to drive for ten hours at a northeastern bearing until we reached the bride’s home, a village outside of Mandawa, nearly five hundred kilometers from Jodhpur.

The wedding was to be a men’s affair; the women, remaining in the Sun City, would spend the day praying for the safety of Banu and his fraternal entourage. Traditionally, the group of Rajput men who accompanied the groom did so for his physical as well as honorable protection should a dispute between the respective families turn violent. A remnant of that tradition was manifested in the razor sharp, curved sabers that many of the men in our party carried.

Not everyone traveled in the bus – half rode in a fleet of cars that sped far ahead – the men who did were for the most part elderly, with indirect connections to the family. The ancient grandfather sitting across the aisle from me silently chain-smoked beedies inside of his cupped hands, inhaling the fragrant smoke through a space between his two withered thumbs. It wasn’t until five hours in the journey that I noticed that his left shoeless leg was made of a grotesquely pink plastic. However, it didn’t seem to bother him nearly as much as it did me.

By mid-afternoon the heat became unbearable. The outer panels of the bus, and the window facing side of my white linen shirt, dripped blood-red betel nut juice. The smell of that mildly intoxicating chew filled the oven-heated space with a rancid sour odor. As I nodded off into unconsciousness, my head inching towards the blow-drier air rush of the open window, I was jarred by the hair splitting screech of sideswiping metal; a narrow kind-of-miss with a head on Tata truck. I scowled accusingly at the Shiva mural before falling back asleep.

The sun was low in the sky when we at last arrived in the village. I’m not sure what it actually was, where we stayed that night. It could have been a dormitory or it might have been a hotel that was rented out for the occasion. In any case, we overran the place.
A brass band struck up a lively tune as we debarked the Shiva-forsaken bus. Chai-wallahs darted from one man to the next offering much needed refreshments.
After a pre-dinner tiffin of raj kachori and samosas, we retreated to our rooms to shower and change.

My three-week scruff, I determined, did not befit the occasion, and so I opted for a shave by the barber that had been hired. It is difficult to completely ignore the possible existence of colonial animosity when a nineteen-year-old Indian holds a glistening straight razor to your neck. Thankfully, I survived and, an hour later, wearing my iron-warmed metallic blue kortah, was bouncing down dark back alleys crammed into the cargo space of a Bolero (Land Rover-ish truck).

As we approached the party, the sound of a brass band gradually grew louder, eventually overtaking the repetitive ‘unce’ of the house music that our driver blasted. As we opened the doors and piled out, the shockwave of horribly distorted amplified music hit us; the band was accompanied by a recording of classical Indian vocal music, projected from absurdly large, Dr. Suess-like, steel cornucopia speakers. The ghetto-ness of the ridiculous sound system was only enhanced by the fact that it was powered by a generator that was fastened on a miserable platform, which had then been strapped to an even more miserable looking donkey.


I soon learned that we were not yet at the bride’s house but rather at the pre-wedding groom’s ceremony; I have found that in India it is best to follow without question…eventually you will discover where it is you’re being taken, or at the very least, where you’ve ended up.

In a dusty open area next to a bullock cart porte-cochere, Banu Pratap sat stoically on a red velvet cushion. Dressed in the same regal maharaja attire from the previous night, he was flanked and faced by one hundred suspicious men from the bride’s party. Twice as many eyes judged him by the rituals he performed with the Brahmin priest who sat cross-legged across from him. The golden embroidered tunic he wore was sequined with tiny semi-precious stones. Half a dozen freshwater pearl necklaces hung from his neck to his muscular chest. His usually emotive mustache stood at attention under an orange, feather-plumed turban. I was astonished by how composed he seemed to be. If I had been in his position – a twenty eight year old man being stared at by one hundred strangers, about to wed a woman he had never before met – I would be about as calm as a sugar-loaded kid in a toy store.


The groom mounted a Marwari stallion as the priest concluded the pre-wedding ceremony, and we all fell into a processional march, led by the brass band and its mascot, a dancing horse. The trained colt, in time with the music and to the amusement of the crowd, pranced and reared on its hind legs as we dance-walked through the village towards the bride’s home.


I decided to put away my camera and watch where I was going after stepping and sinking shin-deep into a pile of stinking raw sewage. I was less bothered by the filth that dripped down my leg than by the peculiar realization that I wasn’t very bothered by it. This country seems to be altering my perception of acceptable personal cleanliness in ways that I could not have foreseen; as it stands I have yet to decide if that is a good thing or bad.

Banu finally dismounted in front what seemed to be the most sumptuous house in the village. After wiping away the beads of sweat that cascaded from his brow, he ambled towards the front entrance of the khana. Thirty or so women packed themselves into the interior foyer to lavish the groom with offerings of spice, food, and gifts. Elevated on a dais, a small stepping stool, to give each lady equal opportunity to view their eye-candy, Banu performed amicably, smiling, laughing, and joking with each of them individually.



We left him there to get acquainted with his new family and continued into the backyard where a cavernous, pink, wedding tent had been erected.

The ‘no girls allowed’ beer garden sat two hundred men at circular tables of eight. In an ‘L’ formation that wrapped around one corner of the tent were extended buffet tables covered by gold tasseled awnings. Exquisitely polished, brass tureens and silver platters sat empty for the moment, but would soon be filled with rogan josh, dhal pekora, creamy cucumber raita, cumin spiced basmati rice, and three different stews of mutton; all of which were being prepared tantalizingly nearby, in huge cast-iron ghanis, wider across the middle than the arm spans of the teenage boys who stirred their sizzling contents.

A drumming ensemble played uplifting songs to the beat of barefoot dancing women and their clapping audience. I was passed around from one table to the next, insistently offered whiskey after gin after beer. We toasted to love, to India, and to the defeat (God willing) of the Pakistani cricket team. I was about to move on to a new table of prospective drinking buddies when I felt a gentle, but firm, hand grasp my shoulder. Banu’s father, a starry-eyed man who towered over me even in his shrunken old age, smiled down intently.
“You dance now, like Rajput,” he said, blasting me with over ripened whiskey breath.
I glanced over at Govind, my dependable Indian intermediary, for a way out. Laughing at me, he raised his palms to his shoulders in a gesture that told me I was on my own.
“What the hell…” I said, taking the elderly man’s hand as he guided me to the elevated stage. I took up my position next to the traditionally dressed Rajput dancer who smiled at me seductively from the corner of her gorgeous, jeweled face. Her jet-black dress shimmered reflective mirrored patchwork. Her tigress’ hair, smoothed to a dark sheen with coconut oil, was woven with a gold braid that encircled her head like a crown. Her bell-adorned anklets waited, silently, for the music to begin. One of the seated musicians began wailing a beautiful unaccompanied vocal solo. The harmonium player joined in followed by an army of tables that dripped their tribal sound into the medley like a thousand monsoon raindrops piercing the surface of a stagnant pond. We danced and danced, the two of us. To her delight, I pantomimed the movements of her hands – blossoming lotuses snapping at invisible honeybees. I laughed when she did. When she didn’t, I tried harder. When she reached out for me, I held her delicate, henna painted hands as we spun in an opposing circle, my world a blur except for her smiling face. Then, too soon, the song was over and, as quickly as they had dissolved into nothing but a memory, two hundred men filled the tent with a thunderous applause.


After second helpings of sheep stew, a new round of toasts, and many more beers, those of us who were still mobile stumbled, shoulder-locked for support, back into the house for the wedding ceremony. A twig fire smoldered atop a mound of earth on which a pentagram had been painstakingly created from sprinkled spices.


The Brahmin priest who had conducted the groom’s ceremony sat on one side of the canopy-covered fire. Facing him were Banu and his bride, hands pressed together in mutual prayer. I was beginning to falsely convince myself that I understood the foreign matrimonial ceremony when Govind stooped down and whispered in my ear.
“We should get going. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow.”
Unsuccessfully hiding my disappointment in our ‘early’ departure (it was, by then, 1:00am), I walked with him and three other turban-wrapped, sword-wielding Rajputs back to the Bolero. Had I known what the following day had in store for me, I would have followed with even less resistance.

Video of a band similar to that which performed at the wedding. Watch the whole thing...Their music is truly extraordinary.

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