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Tying The Knot: East Meets West in the Deep South

Posted: Jun 02, 2008

This weekend I attended the wedding of two young friends at the Von Braun Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The wedding (or more accurately the weddings) involved both a traditional Hindu ceremony and a Christian (Presbyterian) ceremony. The Saturday festivities took place over a period of about twelve glorious hours during which we were wined and dined until we could hold no more. (pictured is the bride)

The celebration began on Friday night when the groom’s family hosted the rehearsal dinner at Huntsville Botanical Gardens. No venue could have been more appropriate as flowers are an important part of Indian weddings. In that lush garden setting, guests enjoyed a banquet of southern specialties including spareribs, chicken, sweet potato fries, barbecued beans, banana pudding, and peach cobbler. Now you can’t get any more southern than that!

But back to the wedding day. Twelve hours of celebration is a far cry from the four or five days generally allotted to a proper Hindu wedding. This particular ceremony lasted less than an hour, but in that brief time we were permitted a glimpse into a world rooted in tradition, sustained by ritual, nourished by deep family ties, and supported by the profound understanding that a knowledge of and a reverence for the past is the key to a successful future.

For years I taught a course at Athens State University called Myth, Ritual, and Culture in which I examined a variety of religious beliefs and practices. Being certified in Integrative Yoga Therapy and having taken the first level of training in what is called Healing Breath, I considered myself to have at least a nodding acquaintance with Indian culture, the Vedic scriptures, the primary Hindu deities, certain ayurvedic practices, and Indian cuisine.

I quickly realized that being able to chant a short hymn or repeat a mantra in Sanksrit did not enable me to recognize more than three words uttered by the priest in nearly an hour of sonorous chanting. Fortunately, the bride’s family had provided us with a program that detailed the events taking place under the canopy (mandap) made of fresh greenery and flanked by huge bouquets of flowers. We were able follow each step of the sacred ritual and even participate in the blessing of the couple at the end. As grains of rice play an large part in the ceremony, we had to negotiate our way carefully to and from the rice covered platform that, even though we were barefoot, could have proved hazardous. 

Prior to and even during the ceremony, I was mesmerized by the exquisite saris worn by the Indian women. As soon as I saw them, all I could think of was the opening lines of a Randall Jarrell’s poem: “The saris go by me from the embassies./ Cloth from the moon. Cloth from another planet….” (“The Woman at the Washington Zoo”) The exotic silks glimmered under the light from the chandeliers—shades of magenta, purple, lavender and citrus, rich red, electric blue, all shot through with threads and even bands of gold. Even the Presbyterian mother of the groom wore a sari in a scrumptious shade of fushia. And the men were magnificent in their pijamos (loose,soft pants fitted at the ankle) and kafni or kurta (long tunic). As I entered the hall, one of the men folded his hands in front of his chest in prayer position and nodded his head to me, a silent greeting of namaste. I knew that I was an honored guest.

Following the morning ceremony, we lunched on delicious vegetarian dishes: a curry dish, vegetable soup, dahi vada (small soft dal flour cakes with cilantro in a warm yoghurt sauce), two kinds of bread,  a variety of sweets both American and Indian, and of course, always an abundance of fruit. There were also individual vegetable quiches for those less adventurous souls. This was but the prelude for the delicacies yet to come.

Following the Presbyterian ceremony at five pm, we were treated to an assortment of tasty Indian appetizers---platters of crisp pakora, vegetable samosas, and assorted condiments---prior to being seated at a dinner buffet where the offerings staggered the mind as well as the eye. I piled my plate high with fragrant curries (I was particularly fond of the lamb), aromatic basmati rice, savory vegetables dishes, and the wonderful flat breads as well as wafer thin crackers (pappadums, I think). The food was so outstanding that I must mention Sitar, the restaurant that catered the affair.

I would like to digress at this point to say a word about contemporary weddings. I love it when the bride and groom put up a website, and one can go there and not only send them congratulatory notes but also see a glance what they are in need of to set up housekeeping. Since the giving of money is not so much a tradition in the south as it is in India, we southerners need to know where the bride (and in this case the groom, also) is registered. Well, it turned out that the groom was registered at Lowe’s and had selected a small chain saw as one of his choices. I clicked on “add to my cart” and the next thing I knew I had given my first chain saw for a wedding present. This was just one of many delightful firsts regarding this very special wedding.

The toasting, feasting, and dancing lasted well into the night. When the band played its final note and the beautiful little dark haired girl and her adorable brother with whom I had been dancing drifted off to join their parents, I walked to my car overcome with the feeling that I had been privy to something rare and wonderful and truly divine—the veritable incarnation of my vision for the world. From east and west as well as north and south, people of different beliefs and different cultures and different experiences had come together to celebrate the oneness of us all. We had gathered together to commemorate the renewal of life, to affirm the importance of family and tradition, and to transcend all obstacles (praise to Lord Ganesha) in the name of love. Shanti, shanti, shanti.

---Penne J. Laubenthal

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CAFIELD says...

Perhaps I have finally figured out how to leave a comment. It's good to know how to push buttons in a positive way. Much gratitude for all of your interesting articles, Penne.

CAFIELD says...

Great article, Penne!

PenneElk says...

This is not PenneElk. This is CAFIELD, trying to leave a comment about the fabulous wedding, Penne wrote about. My computer will not let me leave a message, or perhaps this site won't, ha-ha. Penne, I will keep trying to leave a comment. Maybe one of these days it will work. CF

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