Celebrating a Parsi Wedding in Mumbai

I mentioned recently that we have just returned from a trip to India for our niece’s wedding.  I can save a lot of time by simply saying that if you’ve ever seen a Bollywood movie, you will know that Indians like to do things with lots of color, extravagance and action.  And we had all of those things!

The bride and groom are both Parsi Zoroastrians.  I could do a year’s worth of posts on the subject of Parsees alone.  Quick background:   Zoroastrians are followers of Zoroaster, or Zarathustra, who founded one of the first monotheistic religions in Persia sometime around 1500 BC.  Persian kings Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes, among others, were Zoroastrians. 

Sometime between the 8th and 10th centuries AD, a sizable group of Persian Zoroastrians came to India to escape Muslim persecution and were allowed to settle in Gujarat state, north of Mumbai  (formerly Bombay), providing they did not take up arms or attempt to convert any local people to Zoroastrianism.

Over the years, the Parsis have treasured and maintained  their Persian rituals and traditions, but have also adopted a number of local Hindu customs.  As a result, a Parsi wedding is an interesting multicultural experience.

Both the bride and groom live in New Zealand but they wanted a traditional Parsi wedding ceremony so they decided to have it in Mumbai where the groom’s family, as well as number of the bride’s relatives, live.

The wedding ceremonies took place over three days.  The first day was the formal engagement.  It started with the groom’s family coming to the bride’s house with an engagement trousseau for the bride.  The groom’s mother, sister and aunt dressed the bride in the engagement sari and presented her with gifts.

Although there was a lot of variety in the rituals and ceremonies, there was one constant—eating!  After a snack, the groom’s family took the bride to their home.

An hour later, representatives from the bride’s family (including me!) went over to the groom’s home with engagement clothes and gifts for the groom.

At this ceremony the bride and groom were together and they exchanged engagement rings. 

The extended family also presented the bride and groom gifts and the two families also gave gifts to each other.  And then we had more refreshments.

Shortly afterward, the bride’s family returned to the bride’s home for a formal lunch.

In the evening, there was a big engagement party at a local hotel.  With lots of eating.  I went native for the event:

They don’t have a wedding cake at the actual wedding so they had one at the engagement dinner:

The next day there were some very interesting ceremonies.

There is the Madhavsaro ceremony where the families of the bride and groom each plant a young mango tree in a pot and place it at the entrance of their homes to symbolize growth and fertility.  The bride’s maternal uncle, in this case my brother in law, was chosen to do the ceremony.  There is a lot of praying and chanting over the tree and lots of incense is burned. After the wedding the tree is transplanted in the garden.

After the tree planting, there was a ceremony called Supra nu Murat, an adopted Hindu ritual where four married women each take a woven basket with some symbolic items in it (turmeric root, betel nut, dates, coconut, etc.) and pass them around while singing traditional songs.   They then grind the turmeric root into a paste in a mortar.

Then it comes time to cleanse the bride!  Turmeric, which has antiseptic qualities, but which stains everything yellow, is used.  The ground turmeric paste is applied liberally to the bride’s body (in this case, just arms, legs and face), while she sits on a wooden platform.

To complete the ritual, the men of the family pick her up on the platform and turn her around seven times.

 It was a lot of fun. The groom had the similar ceremonies and rituals performed at his home that morning and apparently he was stripped down to his underwear and liberally coated with turmeric paste.

 After the bride showered the family had another formal luncheon and later in the afternoon we all went to the groom’s house.

This was the Adarni ceremony. The bride’s family presented the groom with  clothes and gifts, and similarly the groom’s family presented the bride with clothes and jewellery.

And guess what?  There were refreshments at the groom’s house followed by dinner at the bride’s home.

We then had three days off before the actual wedding.  The wedding date had been selected based on an auspicious day in the Parsi calendar, which happened to be Thursday.  Normally the ceremonies described above would have been held on four separate days prior to the wedding.  That would have been fine if all we’d had to do was walk across the village square, but because we had to deal with Mumbai traffic and drive across town between the bride and groom’s houses, the families decided to consolidate all the ceremonies over the previous weekend.

When the Parsis originally arrived in India, one of the dictates of the local king was that they always conduct their celebrations very early in the morning or after dark so that they would not attract undue attention from the locals.  As a result, the wedding was to start when the first star appeared in the sky.  Which is a difficult thing to determine in Mumbai with the present pollution levels.

On the wedding day, the bride and groom’s families arrived at the wedding venue by late afternoon.  The wedding was held at a place called Albless Baug and is one of the most popular venues for Parsi celebrations in Bombay.  It is an enclosed compound with halls and a big courtyard.  The bride and groom had a hall each to themselves to get ready before the wedding.

The bride had her hair and makeup done by one of her cousins.

The wedding process started with the Nahan ceremony. This is a ritual purification ceremony where the priest says prayers and blesses the bride.  The bride then went for an actual bath when she returned there were additional prayers with the priest.  While this was going on the groom was having a similar ceremony with his family. 

After the Nahan ceremony, the bride was dressed in her bridal sari and jewellery by her mother and aunts. Then she had to wait alone and was not supposed to be touched by anyone or eat or drink anything until after the wedding ceremony later that evening.

  Plus once again I went native for the occasion:

The actual wedding took place on a stage decorated with flowers.  The bride and groom sat on specially made chairs, which will usually become family heirlooms.  The groom and then the bride were brought to the platform by their families and there were lots of blessings and little rituals.  For example, a coconut and raw eggs were rotated over their heads and broken before they came on to the stage.  This is to take away any negativity or bad luck.

Once the rituals are finished, the two priests conducted the wedding ceremony which lasted about an hour. Close married relatives of the bride and groom stood behind the couple and the priests stood in front. The priests recited the prayers and blessings in Avesta, an ancient language, and continually showered the bride and groom with rice. 

Immediately after the ceremony, the bride and groom went with their parents to a Parsi fire temple nearby for a quick prayer and then returned to the stage so that the guests could greet them and congratulate them.

There was dancing and music all evening long while waiters circulated with drinks and appetizers. With over 500 guests, the dinner was served in three seatings. It was a very traditional Parsi wedding meal served on banana leaves!

It was a fun and memorable event and I wish the bride and groom a very happy married life.

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30 responses to “Celebrating a Parsi Wedding in Mumbai

  1. Ah, the banana leaves again.

    It all sounds rather complicated. If I ever get married—big if—I just want to go down to City Hall, sign a form, and be done with it.

    Even better, do it online.

  2. Wow, four days of ceremony and eating! I couldn’t wait to leave town after several hours at our wedding. That was enough for me. We should have eloped.

    It was interesting to learn about another culture and their traditions. I loved to see you go “local” for your attire for the occasion. What exactly were you eating off the banana leaves?

    • Yes, I don’t know how the bride and groom kept smiling!

      As far as the meal, it tasted better than it looks in the picture. There was chicken, a potato dish and rice (which came later). I’m holding a chapati, which is a thin bread sort of thing.

  3. This is a magnificent account of a magnificent occasion. No kidding about the colour. It must have been fun to dress up in local finery. I guess it would be like putting on a tux for a western wedding (not something you do every day).

  4. Thank you for all the beautiful photos, Tom! Some of the books I’ve read about India have mentioned Parsis, but I didn’t really know much about their religion until now! You looked very handsome in your “native dress”…you have a wonderful smile!

    Wendy

  5. What a great story. A bit overwhelming but very interesting

  6. Wow I thought Catholic mass ceremonies were long. Looks like it was a damn good time though.

  7. I love a wedding. This one looks awesome. I enjoyed reading about it.

  8. Hi Tom,
    Thanks a lot for that I enjoyed it very much. I would’ve loved to experience such an occasion. Everything was quite beautiful and so many happy faces. And, you’re looking very well, too!

  9. I love these pictures. It looks like a great wedding, and it’s plain to see that your family is very close. It sounds like a wonderful trip!

  10. Wow, wow and again WOW! I really envy you now Thomas! What a wonderful reportage and direct contact with a great and ancient ritual. When I was in Bombay in the 70s I had some contact with Parsi Zoroastrians, though very superficial and in particular I never participated in a wedding like that.

    I had noticed that the Parsi had left a deep mark in Bombay, their strange Towers of Silence where dead bodies were (and probably still are) taken to be eaten by vultures etc.

    This is why I adore India. Ancient and modern coexisting, with big managers going to the Mumbay Stock Exhange wearing swords and turbans.

    I’m sure you know the Tata family is Parsee too, there including Ratan Naval Tata, present chairman of the Tata Group, who btw really reminds me of a Greek hero. Fiat helped Tata at its beginnings. Now they are returning the favour.

  11. Gee, a little on the somber side, don’t you think? Kind of lacking in drama and color? These folks really should get together with the Pennsylvania Amish and pick up a few tips.

  12. I’ve been meaning to visit your blog, having seen your comments elsewhere. I’m so glad to have happened along on this post. How fascinating — lovely pictures and so informative. Best wishes to the bride and groom and thank you for sharing this experience.

  13. how absolutely wonderful!! how blessed we are in this world to have so many different cultures to enjoy. sounds like a wonderful ceremony and I am just a tiny bit envious! only a tiny bit. I love that there are so many traditions that are upheld even today in our tumultous world where so much of what holds families and civilizations together appear to be coming apart at the seams. thanks Thomas for the wonderful story and photos. so colourful.

  14. Thomas, its quite interesting to read from your perspective. Having read through, I´ve learned a bit more than I knew about a Parsi wedding. Thanks :)

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