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gursev's wedding
By Dennis Batchelder 17 October 2005

Gursev's family members are Sikhs, and the particular branch of Sikhs they belong to wear all white clothes and turbans. They are pure vegetarians (no eggs), and do not drink coffee, tea, soda, or alcohol. Their headquarters is at Sri Bhaini Sahib, which is 25 kilometers southeast of Ludhiana.

Today is a very special day for Gursev. He's going to get married to Harprit. They have been engaged for two years. Gursev works with us in Hyderabad, and Harprit lives at home in Punjab, close to the border of Pakistan. They spend two hours a day on the phone, talking to each other about their future.

Today is a special day for all Sikhs. This is the last day of the holy month, and families have been camping out at Sri Bhaini Sahib for the last four weeks, celebrating. Today is also a full moon (just a coincidence; Sikhs follow the solar calendar), and there is going to be a lunar eclipse. It is a very auspicious day that deserves to be celebrated. So at sunrise, several couples will be getting married in Sri Bhaini Sahib.

A special pavilion was assembled for the wedding ceremony. It is small and cozy, and it has enough room to hold 10,000 people. Up front on the stage, the guru of the group sits under a little pavilion, and a band is playing on the right hand side.

The wedding ceremony is scheduled for 5:30 this morning. The number of couples getting married depends on how many groups get both parties here, though. There are still some brides waiting on the side, and some grooms without anybody next to them, but it's still early.

Irina and I were invited by Gursev to attend his wedding, and we asked Arunabh and Sree to accompany us. We spent a day in the Himalayas, and then drove through Chandigarh to Ludhiana, and we checked into our hotel at 11pm.

We have been sitting on a sheet on the ground under the pavilion since 3:45 this morning, waiting. Gursev's father and friends met us at the hotel at 2:45, brought us to their house, and introduced us to the family. Then the party drove the 25 kilometers to Sri Bhaini Sahib (stopping for gas along the way), parked, and went into the pavilion. There is a rule that your head must be covered, so Gursev was kind enough to give us four white handkerchiefs, and we've put them on our heads.

We are celebrities here. Other than our head coverings, the four of us are not wearing white, and we really stand out. The video cameras are trained on us, following every move we make, and we can see our images projected on the large screens assembled throughout the crowd. We have to remember to not pick our noses, and to pay attention, and to stay awake while we sit cross-legged on the hard ground.

Since we have this celebrity status, we were allowed to sit together, close to the brides and grooms. If we belonged to the religion, Irina and Sree would have had to sit on the other side of the couples, along with the rest of the ladies.

It's now 4:30, and we're watching the couples filter in. Here's what happens: the groom sits down first, cross-legged. He bows his head in the direction of the guru (from their position, the guru is hidden behind a screen, but we can see around the screen, and we see the guru either meditating or praying with his head down). An attendant ties a silk harness around the groom's chest and waist. Then the groom waits for the bride and her mother to arrive.

When the bride comes to the waiting groom, she puts a new set of prayer beads (they're made from wool – 108 beads in all) around his neck, bows to him, and touches his feet. This foot thing is a sign of respect – I've seen younger people touching old men's feet when they meet. The bride then sits down on the groom's left hand side. The mother hands the bride some papers, and then she leaves. A priest comes by, chants something in the groom's right ear, then his left. He repeats this with the bride, and moves on to another couple. The bride and groom remain sitting cross-legged, facing forward, and not communicating. Their job is to meditate and reflect on spiritual things. Some do their job well; others look like they're dozing.

An attendant and priest come by with holy water, and the groom takes several sips of the water that is dribbled into his hands. The priest sprinkles the groom's head with the water, chanting, and then flicks some more water onto the groom's forehead. The groom waits until the priest moves on, and then wipes his face on his sleeve. The attendant pours some water onto the groom's hands to rinse them off. This procedure is repeated for the bride.

In the meantime, on the stage there is a band of musicians, and the guru is still under his pavilion. There's a whole lot of music and chanting going on. Many men are walking in a procession around the right side of the pavilion, and many women are on the left. They are in line to get close to the stage to say a prayer in front of the guru.

It's now 5:00, and we are still waiting for Gursev to arrive. He came with us to the pavilion, but then he stayed outside, waiting for others, I guess, while his dad brought us to our seats. Harprit must be worried, but she's not alone: there are still eight or nine other brides waiting for their grooms to arrive.

It is 5:30, and we can stop worrying. Gursev is here, and since he is late, he is in the back row. But he is sitting down, his bride has arrived, and the rituals have been performed. We are ready to proceed - all 34 brides are seated with their respective grooms, and nobody looks mad, so the seating must be right.

Up front the musicians are still playing, and the screen is down so everybody can see the guru. Somebody has a bunch of strings on a long stick, and they're either fanning him, or brushing away the flies, or warding off evil. The drummer is the most excited person up front: he is rocking back and forth as he plays, smiling, and moving his head like Stevie Wonder.

Various people are taking pictures of the couples, and one guy is walking around taking video. There is a fire burning in front of the couples with a man spooning ghee onto it every few seconds - during the ceremony, the couples will circle the flames, as the fire bears witness to the marriage.

The guru has left the stage, and some others are arranging another podium. Then everybody shouts "Jo Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal!", and we all stand up to see the holy books. They are placed in the new podium. Then the couples stand up, and we can see that each groom's robes are tied to his respective bride's robes. The couples are in a big circle around the fire.

We are so crowded! Now the cameramen are squeezed in around us, and it has become very difficult to move. Especially now that we are sitting back down - we didn't know what was happening, and we didn't sit fast enough, and our space got squeezed. It's harder on the girls, as they are being pressed on all sides by the men. Fortunately, a really nice man next to me asked a passing priest if the cameramen could be kicked out so we could have more room. That has helped a lot.

The couples are walking counter clockwise around the fire, and they make four loops. They sit back down, and the people up front chant mantras from the holy books. At the end of each mantra, the crowd joins in for the last couple of phrases – either they are well known mantras, or the last verse is repeated.

And now it's over. The Sri Bhaini Sahib branch of Sikhs have 34 new families in their midst. We have the opportunity to stand up and spread out and stretch our aching bodies. And the city of Ludhiana has the chance to brace itself for 34 loud Punjabi wedding parties this evening.

During the wedding ceremony, one of the men sitting next to me asked me, "Do you know that these people are all getting married?" I smiled, and told him that yes, that was why we were there – we were the guests of one of the couples. I was surprised by the seemingly silly question, but on that day we were asked many more similar questions. Swarup calls this style of questioning "loud thinking". It happened a lot, and it was a lot of fun to laugh about later. Here are some other funny questions we received that day:

On the way to the first reception, Gursev's grandmother rode with us in our car. She was trying to communicate to Irina and me, and Sree jumped in as translator. Sree explained that we were all coworkers of Gursev, and had flown up for the wedding. Grandma pointed at us, and her first question was for Sree: "Are you their daughter?"

Then we went to the wedding party that evening. It was a wild affair, with loud music and crazy dancing. One of Harprit's relatives asked me, "Were you able to notice the difference between this morning's service and the party tonight?" I shot back my own question: "Are they really different?" I paid for that little bit of sarcasm with his twenty minute description of each event's style of music, dress, and seating arrangements.

By far the most bizarre set of questions we got were from a local newspaper reporter who saw our images projected on the screens, and apparently decided that an interview with us would be just what his paper needed to increase circulation. He came over at the end of the ceremony and pulled out a pen and a piece of paper.

First question: "Where are you from?" I explained that Irina and I lived outside of Washington, DC, but were currently residing in Hyderabad with our son and Irina's mother. The reporter wrote this down.

Second question: "Where do you work?" I told him that all four of us worked at the same company, and he wrote that down, after getting help in spelling our company name. I then explained that the four of us were Gursev's coworkers, and that Gursev was one of the grooms. He wrote this down, too.

Third question: "Why did you come to this wedding?" Hmm. I re-introduced him to the company we worked for, and to Gursev, and that we were his guests.

Fourth question: "We have a unique way of holding weddings. Did you read about this wedding ceremony in the paper, and decide to come experience it for yourself?" No, we came to watch Gursev get married, and only knew about it because he invited us.

Fifth question: "What is the company you all work for?" Instead of answering, I pointed to the name he had already written on his piece of paper, and then helped him read his own writing, as he asked me again how to spell it.

Sixth question was directed at Arunabh. He pointed to Irina and me, and asked "Are they related to each other?" Arunabh said we were married, and worked together with Gursev.

Last question: "I would also like to interview Gursev. Can you introduce him to me?" I said that Gursev shouldn't be too hard to find - just look for a guy wearing a white turban. I gestured at the sea of white turbans, and the reporter set off. He reached the first person, and asked "Is your good name Gursev? No? Do you know where he would be? I heard he's wearing a white turban…"

gursev's wedding - india