So, I finally packed up my bags, slung my Canon SLR over my shoulder and bid farewell to Britain. It was time to really discover what the depths of photography meant to me and there was no better way than doing it traveling around the world. It couldn’t really have started better than with a breath-taking visit to a Sikh Wedding known as the Anand Karaj between my friend Harpreet (or Harps) and his wife Bavia, in Ludhiana, part of the region of Punjab, Northern India.
The Anand Karaj literally means the blissful union or joining of two souls as equals. The variety of celebrations that lasted a full week before the ceremony itself served up an incredible combination of colours, intense energy, succulent food and tons of dancing. It was a perfect opportunity to put the camera to work.
Most of the time, to be honest, I didn’t really know what was going on, but Harps’ family and friends welcomed me in with open arms, together with my friends Hannah, Jon and Roberto, often throwing us into the middle of the party for their own amusement. I say their own amusement, but really it was to make us feel welcome and part of the family, especially having traveled the distance from London.
An engagement ceremony known as the Kurmai normally starts off the celebrations, but we unfortunately arrived a day late and missed it. So, the first couple of days let us acclimatise ourselves to the surroundings and get to know Harps’ close family, his Mum and Dad full of fun and energy, constantly showing us so much warmth and comfort. This was often hand in hand with some of the finest cuisine – Indian curries full of authenticity and distinctive to the British Curry we all know. Harps’ Mum’s homemade secret chicken curry dish sent me into a frenzy, begging for seconds and thirds and more!
On the 3rd day after pottering around town for the first couple, Harps’ family and close friends gathered at the family house to celebrate the important Vatna ritual after a tasty traditional parantha breakfast. Again, I really didn’t know what was going on, but was guided through the ceremony by Harps’ dad. In this tradition, the female side of the family pass on their blessings to the groom whilst cleansing the skin with a scented powder consisting of turmeric, barley flour and rose water. Harps’ Mum set the scene beautifully by painting the floor in traditional symbols where Harps would then sit.This was quite an intense affair for Harps, his face unsurprisingly a picture of discomfort the whole way through. But, who could blame him when he had to sit there like a sitting duck to the gazing eyes and the onslaught of intruding hands, smearing an unattractive yellow mixture all over him. Above his head, a veil would be spread across him, into which the women would later pour hazelnuts as a sign of future prosperity. Hannah was welcomed into the family like one of their own, also having the opportunity to rub some of the muck into his skin, her dimples showing with delight. We all also had red friendship bands tied around our wrists, I believe as a symbol of the Ghana, a tradition normally undertaken by the bride and groom, where they are tied together for a period of time to ward off bad omens.
That evening, we then all moved to a hotel to celebrate the Ladies Sangeet. This is usually a celebration for the bride’s side of the family, but can also be a chance for everybody on the groom’s side to come together and get to know each other before the wedding whilst eating, drinking and dancing. Again, this was full of energy, with Harps’ dad (an important music producer for Premi) being instrumental in conducting proceedings.In amongst the singing and dancing, a cushion full of candles was also passed around between the women whilst dancing to bhangra music. One of the moments of the night, however, was the chance for the four Europeans to get up and split up the bhangra tunes with a rendition of the “Macarena” – a cheesy Euro pop fusion of the 90s. It was a chance this time for the Indians to not know what the hell was going on as we paraded the stage swinging our hips. One particular touching moment was when one of Harps’ family came up to us and insisted on us shaking the hand of her child for the second or third time. A lot of prosperity is seen in Westerners, and the simple acknowledgement by a westerner by handshake is seen as another positive omen.
There was then just one more day and night full of dancing and celebrations in the streets around Harps’ neighbourhood before the wedding. This party was mainly to announce the wedding to their neighbours, a chance for us to parade around the streets knocking on people’s doors to get their blessings whilst singing and dancing to more bhangra music. One of the symbols of celebration was always the throwing of money or the holding of money above people’s heads, again, one of prosperity for the future.Then, it was time for the main Anand Karaj ceremony on the Saturday. Up at the crack of dawn to put on our traditional wedding attire, the Bana for us guys and the Salwar Kameez for Hannah, we then headed over to Harps’ house to kick off the day with the departure of the Baraat – or the departure of the groom. Harps and his best man, Harvey were sat centre stage in the middle of his front room awaiting the final blessings by his friends and family before leaving for the first Holy Temple. The room was full of action, the women of the family busy scurrying off preparing for the departure, with others simply battling to get a chance to see the groom. I had to just try and find a spot to blend in somehow and it all in whilst snapping away. At the first stop, traditional prayer readings took place solely for Harps before we headed off to a ridiculously huge palace for the celebration of the Milni. Normally, the groom turns up on horseback, but Harps chose the less amusing option of arriving in a car. The Milni is a tradition where both sides of the family greet each other before the wedding ritual itself. Holy shabads were sung out, which are hymns of the holy book of the Guru Granth Sahib, and gifts and embraces were shared amongst them. From there, we then moved on to the Gurudwara, the temple that held the Guru Granth Sahib and the only official place for Sikh matrimony. This was quite an emotionally intense experience. Members of the groom’s family sat to the right, with the bride’s to the left.
Harp’s sat patiently in front of the Guru Granth Sahib whilst the singing of holy hymns (called the Kirtan) echoed around us.
His face was full of concentration whilst he awaited the arrival of his wife to be. Around twenty minutes or so later, Bavia then arrived. She was dressed in a beautifully decorated green Sari, her head covered by a chunni. The Sari weighed a few kilos with all the glistening jewels that embraced it and she didn’t seem to flinch under the pressure.
Then, the local Granthi began proceedings asking the bride and groom to stand to the pronunciation of the Ardaas, the blessing of Waheguru or the Wonderous Giver of Knowledge. This asks for consent for the bride and groom to be married, with the Granthi blessing their heads on various occasions. Once agreement had been met, the Lavan hymn of Guru Ram Das was then read out. This is composed of four stanzas, which draws out the marriage vows whilst the couple walk around the Guru Granth Sahib. Bavia’s family would also help her round the book, also a sign of support for her to join Harps’ family. The couple then sat for some more lectures and kirtan, followed by the singing of the Anand, before another random hymn was sung out to conclude the ceremony.It was quite an amazing experience to go through as there was so much emotion flowing throughout the temple, especially from Bavia’s family with the seriousness of the marriage felt by all. It was a life changing moment for both families, but especially for Bavia who was about to be welcomed into Harps’ family and move away from her family for the first time to the UK. But for her, apart from the importance of marriage, the excitement of the opportunities in London awaited.
After the ceremony, we celebrated the marriage in style by heading back to the palace for an afternoon of dancing, eating and drinking with what must have been a thousand people. It was like a University ball, with a huge band stand host to an amazing bhangra band, “Ricky Noodles” being the unlikely celebrity to headline the show.Then, a quite emotional ending to the day ended back at Harps’ family home. A car pulled up outside the front with a crowd gathered to see the arrival of Bavia with her cousins. She was officially greeted into the family with one final centre stage full of blessings before drinks continued long into the night…
Further Reading on the Anand Karaj
More Photography :
“The India Collection” by Antematters