I finally got a full night’s sleep last night — the first in many days. I’m going to try to get as much of yesterday documented as I can before it escapes my memory:
It began with an early flight, a short hour or so, to Jammu.
Upon arrival, we were met with Sheetal’s family waiting for us. As we left the terminal and made our way outside, they were there waiting with vehicles to take us to our destinations. The happiness on their faces was incredible. I could not help but to smile myself — mostly because of the joy surrounding me, but partly because we would be done traveling for a few days. A quick taxi ride brought us to my temporary home for our stay in Jammu — the Circuit House.
The Circuit House seems to be a state run short-stay hotel of sorts for visitors, as well as a semi-permanent housing arrangement for government officials. That’s my best guess from what I’ve seen and been told. My room here is simple, but adequate. Room 214 features pale blue walls with two single beds, an ironing board, a few chairs and a small end table. There is a bathroom attached as well. The view outside the south-facing window reveals ample green space adorned with palms, other unidentifiable trees, and a quaint little road. There is a window in the bathroom that a group of pigeons has claimed as their home. Their cooing compliments the sound of what I can only assume are monkeys somewhere nearby. Many horns honking can be heard in the near distance. I don’t believe you can ever escape that here.
After check in and brief goodbyes, I had a few hours to myself. I was still very tired, but the new experiences and excitement kept me going for some time. I wandered to the market down the road approximately 100 meters to get a feel for the neighborhood. A simple, two story building housed a cinema, department store, and various food vendors and restaurants, including a Domino’s Pizza. I can assure you that I will not be buying Domino’s Pizza while I’m here.
Security guards manned the entrance to the small parking lot. This theme — security — is beyond common. It seems every non-vendor business, apartment complex, parking lot and school have their own security. In fact, there is a guard, armed with what I assume is some sort of automatic assault rifle sitting outside the gate to the Circuit House right now. In fact, he’s the one who gave me directions to the market.
I didn’t spend long at the market. The goal was the acquire a kurta for the wedding, but the store didn’t carry men’s formal wear. Not long after I returned to my room, Sheetal and family arrived to pick me up and go visit the groom’s family at a rented residence in preparation for the wedding. Along the way to the residence, I got to see my first taste of Jammu. Vendors lined both sides of the street. Anything you could possibly think to purchase was available. Fruits and vegetables, peanuts, raw textiles, drug stores, shoes, clothes, cell phones, backpacks, motorcycle and scooters, prepared food — it was all there. Brightly colored and available to anyone with a few hundred rupees (current exchange rate is about $1 for 66 rupees). For approximately 5 kilometers, we passed nothing but various vendors and streets full of traffic and people. Finally, we arrived at our destination.
The house was very large, very white, and very open inside. People were everywhere. Everyone was someone’s cousin or uncle or aunt or son or daughter. This would be the first of many times this trip I would meet far too many people in far too short of time. Everyone was very friendly and very curious about the purpose of my trip to India — another emerging theme that I would address approximately 50 or 60 times before the day’s end. A delicious lunch of paneer and roti was served. Once again, my stomach was full well before lunch was over. I am trying hard to believe I am not offending people when I refuse food, but it is very difficult. Various details of the wedding were discussed and a plan to acquire a kurta for me was hatched. We were to go to a local street vendor.
The first vendor we stopped by only had a black one that was deemed too dark for a wedding. Another vendor shortly down the street had a much greater selection. I must have tried on five or six different garments before we (Sheetal and her mother Veena really made the decision here) settled on a pale blue kurta with ornate stitching around the collar. I really enjoyed how comfortable it was. It might also be the longest piece of clothing I’ve ever worn; extending down past my knees. With the garment situation covered, it was back to the Circuit House for me to rest for a bit while Sheetal attended a salon appointment to prepare for the wedding. We assumed it would be a quick trip, as the journey from the Circuit House to the residence only took about 10 minutes previously. We were wrong. Very wrong.
The five or six kilometer drive took an hour. We spent most of the time not moving and getting honked at. Traffic was at an absolute stand still. On top of that, we were very low on gas and the nearest station was near the Circuit House.
Somehow, we made it — and only an hour late. With Sheetal off to her appointment, I laid down for an hour to get some rest for what would surely be a late night with the wedding.
After a quick nap, I changed into my kurta, grabbed my camera and headed out to the wedding. Our first stop was the grooms’s residence, where the entire family was gathered to sing and perform traditional rituals for the groom — none of which I have any understanding of. The bride was nowhere to be found (more on this later). I was introduced to approximately 100 more very generous people here. Over the course of our time here, I was instructed to take some pictures with various groups of people and the groom, culminating in a few pictures with just myself and groom. Note that we had not met at this point. The procession moved out from the apartment (3rd floor) and downstairs to the common area. At this point, more rituals were performed, including a situation where the groom stood on a chalk-drawn circle while a gold umbrella was held over his head and various family members placed some sort of decorative necklaces on him while others sang happy songs and fed him. This went on for a while. I can’t be sure, but I would guess 15 or 20 minutes. A slow movement began toward the vehicles and we proceeded to drive the short distance to the actual wedding ceremony.
The banquet hall was beautiful. Bright red drapes hung over everything. There were small fill lights projecting bold colors onto every surface. A grand entryway was carpeted with bright red felt. It was explained to me that this was the entrance for the procession that would follow soon. The crowd, possibly 300 strong at this point, gathered outside the hall and waited for the groom to prepare for the walk into the facility. Once the walk began, it moved at a crawl. People were everywhere, surrounding the groom as he slowly made his way inside. Singing and joyous laughter filled the air. There were video cameras, still cameras, and a drone documenting every step. Along the way, people offered what I assume were various congratulations and other niceties to the groom and each other.
At last, the groom finished crossing not only the entrance but the large courtyard that lay behind it, pausing briefly in the courtyard for a barrage of pictures with various people. He looked majestic at this point. Well lit by a handful of white flood lights in the otherwise dark landscape (it was approximately 8pm at this point and the sun had gone down more than an hour before), he wore a white and gold turban as well colorful garments adorned with gold accents as well as his many gold necklaces acquired throughout the night. Finally done with his approach he sat down on a cushioned bench on the slightly raised stage at the front of a great hall.
The hall was a long room, not narrow by any stretch of the imagination. One side was completely glass, overlooking the well-decorated courtyard. Two rows of cushioned benches, perhaps 20 or 30 deep, faced the stage where the groom was now sitting. Screens sat on either side of the stage, broadcasting the many people taking pictures with the groom while he sat on his bench. There must have been 200 different people that took pictures in varying sized groups. Once again, I was instructed to sit in on several of these pictures, including another picture of just myself and the groom. At this point, I introduced myself and proclaimed my congratulations to him. He nodded solemnly as I said it looked like a great deal of work to be a groom. I’m still not sure if that comment was appreciated or not.
Venturing out into the courtyard, I saw that it was almost twice the size I initially thought. It was L-shaped and spanned quite a bit of room rearward. Lined along each side were tables serving various foods — starters as I later learned. Several large silken tents with tables underneath provided room for guests to sit and eat while the various activities were happening inside. More screens sat near these tables, so the guests would not miss the action happening inside. We claimed a table to rest our legs while we still could, as guests were pouring in at a steady rate. I was later told there would be somewhere between 1000 and 1200 people when all was said and done.
I can’t go any further without talking about the food again. It was delectable. The starters were amazing. We dined on manchurian, spring rolls, friend and seared paneer, and various other vegetarian dishes. Everything served was vegetarian. Keep in mind, this food wasn’t the meal, just the starters. I didn’t have a lot of room for the main meal, but I did manage to try some sweet rice — made with coconut milk and raisins — and lotus stems in a kind of curry sauce. I have never seen, much less consumed, lotus stems. They, like everything else I have had here, were incredible. I wish I had a bigger stomach. There were several things I didn’t not have room to try.
Maybe two or three hours had passed at this point and the bride had yet to arrive. We got word she was on the way and made our way out front to greet her. She was beautiful. Wearing the same shades of white and gold as the groom, she made her way along the same path that he had walked hours before — except there was almost no fanfare. A small crowd of maybe 20 people accompanied her to the bench where the groom still sat — a far cry from the several hundred that accompanied the groom. He had not moved the entire time we were there, whether by choice or by tradition, I do not know. Once the bride entered the building though, the family and guests worked their way into a joyful crowd, surrounding them both on the stage. There was an exchange of various items, but I was too far away to see exactly what transpired. Eventually, the bride and groom stood up and slowly left the stage together to a glorious round of applause. It was not until later that I learned that this was the very beginning of the ceremony. I was told the next day it ended at nearly 4am.
Perhaps another hour passed as we browsed some more food offerings and made conversation. Again, I spoke with several family members about my trip and other various topics. At this point, I began to get very tired. A quick glance at Sheetal suggested she was feeling tired as well. Although the ceremony was just getting started, we had to get some rest. After a few goodbyes, we travelled to our respective accommodations — me the Circuit House, and her to home.
I cannot express how glad I was to be present at this wedding. It was a unique experience I will never forget. So much family gathered in a one space: singing, dancing, conversing, eating, and enjoying life. The smile didn’t leave my face until I had gone to bed.
Back in my room, I realized I had forgot to bring bottled water with me. That meant having to brush my teeth without water and having no means of drinking until morning. I survived, but will not make that mistake again. Fortunately, the time difference allowed me to talk to Anya for a while before bed. It was the most pleasant way to prepare myself for sleep. I even got to say hello to our cats.
Drifting off, I kept thinking how pleasant the day had been. I cannot wait to see what tomorrow brings.