Glamorous India: Where Weddings and Temples Blossom

by Nadia Al-Shadhir
2005

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When the jet started roaring into the London skies, I did not think what I was about to embark on would enrich and transform my perceptions of the world as much as it did. Over the past few years, I had become so engaged with issues of conflict in the Arab World that nothing would have diverted my attention elsewhere. When the invitation to a wedding in India arrived, I decided to take it up and travel far away to a region I had always dreamt of visiting.

With only two weeks in India, I had to map out my journey carefully so that I could explore as much of its beauty and diversity as possible. My eventual route allowed me to visit four unique places, each of which offering new and exciting experiences. My journey began in New Delhi, where I got to feel its hustle and bustle and visit its old bazaars. I then traveled to Agra, where I was astounded by the sheer size and magnificence of the Taj Mahal. Then in Ahmedabad, I fulfilled a life long dream, while Goa, my final destination, was a haven of peace, tranquility and serenity.

I landed in New Delhi after a ten-hour flight. Its streets were filled with men and women dressed in saris and Punjabi outfits. Their colourful clothes decorated the streets and gave it character. I was most surprised by the animals that roamed freely on the roadsides: cows, elephants, buffaloes and camels. Delhi, as it is called by the locals, is a historic city with countless monuments, battle-scarred forts, abandoned buildings and ancient ruins, each with a tale to tell. The roads are constantly busy and the traffic reminded me of Cairo; the level of pollution so high that at times it was difficult to breathe. My first lesson came from a Delhi taxi driver who revealed to me the three secrets of successfully maneuvering through the streets of the city: “good steering, good horns and good luck!” Not too different from those I learned during my many visits to the Middle East. Delhi’s streets were often buzzing with wedding car convoys rushing past the animals, a task that seemed impossible without the taxi driver’s advice. Every turning brought with it new scenes: some were of homeless people, hungry children and begging mothers, and others were reminiscent of the rich and famous from Bollywood movies. This city left me with unforgettable images highlighting the stark contrast between the social classes of India. Those images were about to be both blurred and sharpened by what lay ahead as I continued to delve deeper into Indian culture.

My second stop was the city of Agra, a four-hour drive from Delhi. Agra is well known as the seat of the great Mughal Rulers as well as being famous for its handicraft products. Temples and mosques of stunning architecture are everywhere in the city, but none are as spectacular as the world famous Taj Mahal, the ‘Crown Palace’. The Taj is a gigantic monument inspired by love. Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan, built it in memory of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died after giving birth to her fourteenth child in 1631. It is said that Shah Jahan was so heartbroken when she died that he locked himself in his private chambers for a month, and when he finally emerged, his hair had turned white.

The love story helped me understand the motivation behind the Taj, but it was the fine detail and splendour of its structure that left me fully appreciating why it is considered one of the wonders of the world. The entrance to the Taj is astounding, not only because it is enormous but also because it is beautifully proportioned in design. The fine detail was produced using the ornate ‘pietra dura’ process, an Italian technique of inlaying furniture with precious stones. The carvings are of floral, calligraphic and geometric designs; as many as 40 tiny pieces of semi-precious stones would have been used in the petals of a single flower. The carvings were so fine that they almost had the texture of lace. The stones for the inlay came from as far away as Baghdad, Russia, China, Afghanistan, Persia and the Punjab

My time in Agra was filled with enlightening experiences, which included a visit to a marble factory, where I was amazed by the patience and skills of the hardworking craftsmen. They toiled endlessly to capture the intriguing and fine details of floral designs engraved into the marble. What was even more shocking was that they produced the meticulously designed marble for a wage of 20 pence a day, a tiny fraction of what it would sell for on the international art markets. I found Agra extremely educational. Its history, art, buildings and myths all combined to deepen my love for India. At my next destination, new perspectives were about to emerge, as I not only got to witness the Indian celebration of love, but also to appreciate the virtues and achievements of one of the greatest leaders in modern history, Gandhi.

Ahmedabad, located in the State of Gujarat, is considered a national pilgrimage site. The city, graced with splendid monuments, is associated with the Mahatma Gandhi, the ‘father of the nation’ whose birthplace is not too far away. Gandhi’s Ashram, a special complex where during his lifetime people came together to study his teachings, is set in a beautiful location with a small park overlooking the River Sabarmati. Visiting this place of meditation and seeing the beauty of its shady trees populated by hundreds of parakeets, birds and squirrels, was one of the most peaceful moments I have experienced on this journey.

Learning more about Gandhi was one of my journey’s primary objectives, but the main reason for traveling to India was to attend a friend’s wedding in Ahmedabad. Upon arrival at my hotel, I found my room filled with massive bouquets of flowers with a little card explaining the rituals and timings of the three-day ceremony. This warm reception left me feeling excited about the celebrations that lay ahead. Every morning, I sat down alongside other guests to a traditional Indian breakfast, which included Jelabi, (a sweet), Gathia (savoury crunchy sticks), Paratha (buttered stuffed Indian bread), and various exotic fruits.

Before witnessing the traditional Indian rituals of marriage, I attended the Mehendi henna ceremony, not too different from the henna parties of Arab women. The wedding celebrations start with the Puja ritual, where a link is sought with ‘the Divine’ through songs and prayers. The link is established through an element of nature, (fire or wind) and a sculpture or painting, and is intended to neutralise any evil spirits, which might cause harm to the bride and groom. The Elephant God, known as Lord Ganesh, is considered the remover of obstacles and is always the first deity to be worshipped at any significant event.

The most interesting ritual I observed is the Griha Shanti in which harmony is invoked within the planets for peace in the household. This religious tradition shed some light as to why the date and timing of Hindu weddings are so important. When a child is born, the priest reads his or her future, which is inscribed in the Janmagsher, a report that is specific to the timing of the child’s birth. The priest then matches the groom’s report with that of the bride’s, to ensure compatibility and sets the most auspicious time to have the ceremony. Most fascinating was that the bride and groom did not take part in their wedding celebrations until the third day. The first two days focused on integrating the two families.

The wedding procession, known as the Barat, took about 45 minutes. It involved singing and dancing in the streets to the beats of Indian instruments, similar to an Arabic zaffa. Indian Rupees were brushed across our foreheads signifying a sincere wish for wealth and happiness. The ceremony, accompanied by hymns and offerings, took place before a specially arranged flame. The beautifully dressed bride and groom took seven steps around the sacred flame and with each step, they took a vow to abide by the principles of married life. The three-day celebration then ended when family and friends showered the couple with rice as a form of blessing.

The whole experience was one of the most exciting of my life. I felt I was part of an Indian movie. It was like a dream to meet all these people and learn about their culture and way of life. I had never expected to be a part of such a colourful occasion, one that I have only ever watched on the big screen.

Sadly, my journey was coming to an end, but I was happy that my final stop, Goa, was one that would allow me to relax, reflect and consolidate all that I had seen on my visit to India. Goa is a haven with a rich blend of Indian, Western and Portuguese influences. The scenic beauty of its architectural splendours left me overwhelmed. The streets were sprinkled with fascinating temples, churches and old houses. Most intriguing were the coconut and banyan trees that decorated each street.

I met up with some family friends that I had not seen for over 15 years. It is amazing how even after 15 years, I felt like we had never said goodbye. We spent the first few days by the pool catching up and reminiscing about old times. I also made time to immerse myself into the Goan local communities, which I found both warm and hospitable. I enjoyed watching the sunset, taking part in sporting activities and riding motorbikes and rickshaws with the local people. My haggling techniques, developed in the souks of the Middle East, came in very handy, especially as I spent the final hours of my trip doing some last minute shopping.

On my last day in India, I switched on the TV to watch the news, as I had been out of touch with world events. I was reminded of the conflicts and injustices that dominate our lives. The time I spent in India helped me put those conflicts into perspective. While I acknowledge that my short visit could, at best, have only given me a glimpse into all the complexities and realities of India, I left the country feeling great admiration for its people.

© Copyright by Nadia Al-Shadhir and INEAS, 2005

Nadia Al-Shadhir was born and raised in the UK to Iraqi parents. Her secondary education was at the King Fahad Academy in Acton, London. She then went on to achieve a bachelor’s degree and MSc in Mathematics and Information Systems from the London School of Economics. For over seven years, Nadia has been working in the investment banking technology sector. She has been very active with the Arab community in London.