All of the festive anticipation we witnessed on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday paled in comparison to Veena and Alex’s actual wedding day. On October 7th, we arrived at the Renaissance Esmeralda resort hotel in Rancho Mirage, CA, eager to tackle the many vibrant challenges of capturing an Indian wedding day.
Even with an early arrival, we found the resort already bustling with the first stages of wedding day prep. Alex and his groomsmen enjoyed time relaxing in his suite while in another suite on the other side of the resort, Veena and the ladies primped frantically. It seems that some things never change, regardless of what traditions are celebrated. Nevertheless, tradition was bound to be a bright theme all day long, and it began with the attire. Alex was a picture of regal joy, wrapped in burgundy and gold with a fantastic headdress and a huge smile. But no one would deny that Veena stole the show from moment one. She was absolutely gorgeous in her coral and gold sari. The beautiful fabric and embellishments made for a truly amazing dress, but even the dress paled in comparison to Veena herself.
When they were both perfectly resplendent and ready, it was time for the much-anticipated first look. And If we thought that Alex’s smile couldn’t get any bigger, we soon discovered otherwise. When he turned to see his beautiful bride, he was obviously the happiest man on earth. After they had a few minutes to enjoy seeing each other for the first time, the two of them shared a meaningful private moment, exchanging their own vows. The public ceremony they were to experience later would feature many meaningful rituals, but this was a special moment just for the two of them to promise their lives to each other. We were so honored to preserve the memory for them. We were also happy to give them a few more private moments together while we took couples’ portraits before the commotion of the day really set in.
Historically, an Indian groom and his entourage would all parade with great pomp and circumstance from his village to meet his bride in hers. The modern Baraat tradition has preserved the spirit of this procession. Unfortunately, Alex didn’t have many in his entourage, but this being a family affair, all of Veena’s family, friends, and guests were more than happy to help out! Alex mounted a white horse and rode into the venue, preceded by a multitude of dancing and cheering attendants. Then he hopped down and joined in on the dancing himself. Finally, when they had all reached the ceremony site, Alex and his mom and brother exchanged greetings and floral necklaces with Veena’s parents in a symbolic ritual of acceptance called the Milni.
Once everyone had paraded to the ceremony site, the guests all took their seats and the wedding party lined up in anticipation of the big moment. Similar to Western tradition, the wedding party filed in, followed by Veena and her parents, but unlike most Western weddings, the bridal party took their seats while the parents joined the bride and groom on the covered and decorated stage, known as a mandap. In our own wedding, we also chose to have our parents stand with us, believing strongly that parents should be highlighted and thanked in the midst of such a transitional life moment. So it was especially meaningful to us to see how involved the parents were in the Indian ceremony and all of its many rituals.
Those rituals were guided by an Indian holy man known as a Pundit. With great detail and a little bit of humor, he led those involved in the ceremony through everything step-by-step, explaining the significance of the practices as they went. The entire ceremony took place on the lavishly-decorated mandap around a holy flame called the Vivaah Havan. They hung flower garlands known as varmala around each other’s necks and together took the seven steps, or Saptapadi, in which they encircle the fire seven times, each lap signifying a different deepening aspect of their bond. They literally ‘tied the knot’ as they were wrapped by a cord called the Mangalsutra and tied together. The Mangalsutra would be the Indian equivalent of the Western ring exchange, but in Alex and Veena’s case, they also chose to give each other rings. They were blessed by their parents with rose water, and Alex painted bright vermillion Sindoor powder on Veena’s forehead, which basically means he has dibs.
These were just a few of the most noteworthy customs they included. Some may be called by different names, but most Indian ceremonies feature these rich traditions in some form. Though he was new to it all, Alex grinned from ear to ear the entire time. After the ceremony, one of the most fun customs he discovered was the Jutti Chupai. A young bridesmaid had stolen his shoes, and he was going to have to pay for them if he wanted them back! After some heated bartering, he finally got his shoes back at a steep price. But that didn’t diminish his smile. It had been plastered on his face since we began the day, and Veena had an un-concealable glow as well. Joy like theirs always makes for great family portraits.
As all the guests began transitioning to cocktail hour and then into the beautifully-decorated grand ballroom, Veena and Alex hid away for a quick wardrobe change. Their parents and bridal party kicked off an exciting grand entrance, and then the newlyweds reappeared to thunderous applause. Alex donned a classy tuxedo, and Veena wrapped herself in a new burgundy and gold sari, just as dazzling as the first. They took to the dance floor for a romantic first dance, which then developed into a full choreographed routine! Everyone whooped and cheered as another Bollywood performance unfolded, and the two stars finished it off the right way with a lift like the famous one from Dirty Dancing.
Still a little breathless, Veena and Alex slid into a luxurious couch center stage—surrounded by beautiful floral arrangements—and sat back to soak in the scene. They had already experienced the day of their lives, but it wasn’t over yet! Their guests filled the giant room and all the love and joy was focused on the stage. A few very special people had opportunities to put that love and joy into words. Veena’s parents, Alex’s mom and brother, and their best men and maids of honor toasted the newlyweds, reliving many happy memories, sharing many funny quirks, and wishing many years of joy.
After some heartfelt toasts, touching father-daughter and mother-son dances, and a colorful cake-cutting, all 250 guests got busy dancing. They didn’t leave the dance floor empty all night. We managed to pull Veena and Alex away for one last romantic portrait under the stars and surrounded by the colors of the resort. When all was said and done, we were so excited and honored to have had a chance to photograph such a beautiful event. Yet for all of the vibrant culture we witnessed, what we will remember most are the bright smiles and caring hearts of these two amazing people.