Friday, 16 March 2012

The Fairytale of Mumbai

Mumbai can be summed up in one word: trying. I say with certainty that this was without doubt the most challenging stretch of our travels to date. Previously, we had been basking in the serenity and peace of Pushkar, blissed out and in love with the nonpareils we had collected during our Rajasthan jaunt. Our arrival in ‘The Bay’ brought us  back to earth with a bump – and with it came bad news, ill health, corruption and claustrophobia. Ah beautiful India, how you give and take in equal measure… 

The dancing posture in front of the Trimurti
But perhaps we asked for it. Our devotion to Lord Shiva was ongoing and again we found ourselves worshipping at his altar in the stunning caves of Elephanta, a 10km boat ride out of the Mumbai harbour. We had reunited with the Argentinean couple Fa and so and spent some wonderful time with them marvelling at the natural caves and the Shiva temples within. I have talked in previous blogs how it that was in Hampi when I realised that Shiva seemed to follow me through India and I had started to feel his presence everywhere. He is an incredibly powerful force - one of the 3 aspects of the divine Trimurti which consists of Brahma (creation) , Vishnu (protection) and Shiva (destruction). At Elephanta we did yoga asanas in front of the stunning 20ft stone Trimurti. I could not stop worshipping Shiva - it had become almost an addiction for me and I had even started to believe that a wish that I had made at his statue in Bangalore had come true (we will still have to wait and see on that one...) But in order to create and preserve, Shiva must destroy. Landing back in the incessant city smog of cosmopolitan Mumbai, staying in an apartment with a music producer friend of Liz's (to whom we were behest and therefore not completely in control of our situation), I felt that the spiritual preserve of the north had been shattered and I was once again plunged into the secularity of Western life. Add to this the challenges of the Indian city, the uncertainty of our living situation, some professional difficulties for Liz, illness and the resulting fractiousness between the two of us, I felt my patience and tolerance under threat. Shiva was teaching us many lessons. 

Relatives of the groom dance in celebration
However, the glittering jewel in the Bombay crown was the epic Indian wedding at which we were privileged to be guests - the wedding of my friend Shally's cousin Vinit to his bride Manali. We arrived just in time for one of the pre-celebrations at the house of the groom to find the high-rise building drizzled in fairy lights and a tent swathed in various colourful fabrics pitched outside. This sight is not unusual at this time in India when it is wedding season. Indeed, wherever we had been on our travels previously we could see them and hear the unmistakable sound of the wedding drums practically every night - not conducive to a good night's sleep! 

Having our mendhi painted with heena 

Once the tent has been pitched for the duration of the celebrations it becomes a hub for singing, drumming (special musicians are drafted in for the occasion), and of course, fabulous Indian food. On this night (one of three pre-wedding celebrations) we were entertained with dancing, and the family sat around, singing songs and laughing together. One very theatrical uncle led the celebrations, making people laugh with his impressions. It struck me that I could be at any wedding in any culture - there seemed to be the typical cast of characters from any family in any part of the globe. The aunties swirled ten rupee notes around the heads of the men (for good fortune) and we had our ‘mendhi’ – ladies hired for the job painted our hands with heena, staining them with motifs as delicate as if they were wrought in lace. The mendhi would linger long after the nuptials were over - a nostalgic reminder, stained into our skin.  

Our wedding gift: a statue of Ganesha
We had asked what gift might be appropriate to take to a Brahmin caste wedding, the warrior caste from the north of India (Vinit's family originate from Punjab) and had been told to take a statue of Ganesha. We picked up a colorful little number in Elephanta (appropriately) - white marble tinted in pinks and golds and wreathed in miniature stone flowers and were proud of our choice. However, later on, one of the guests kindly decided to tell us that our choice might have been a bit too garish and that when it comes to religious statury 'less is more'... Ooops. Oh well, I still liked it...

Me in my wedding clothes, tailor made in Rajasthan
The big day itself dawned and despite  having had no running water in the flat for 2 x days (Shiva was dancing his dance of destruction once more) Liz and I enjoyed dolling ourself up in our Rajasthani finery - outfits we had had made especially for us. Although we had desperately wanted saris, we decided against them due to practicality: it is impossible to tie a sari and there is a good chance that if not done properly, it will come undone. So we had had sari tops and skirts made for us in Jodhpur - Liz fuschia pink and me in aqua marine. We felt so spangly in all of our sequins and drew many stares as we walked through the (relatively Western) streets of Mumbai to hail a rickshaw.

Vinit sits with his mother & family & is instructed by the priest
The wedding was wonderous, colourful, epic. It began at 4pm at the family house and finished at 8am the following morning, by which point I was hallucinating with tiredness. Firstly we sat with many other relatives in the house, whilst the family bustled around and got into their bridal togs. In typical Indian style, we were being plied with wonderful home made food - rajma, poppdams, sweets and chai. An official ‘turban tier’ was present to adorn the men with matching red and white turbans to signify the warrior status of the Punjabi family. Then we all went down to the tent, to sit and watch as the groom sat with the priest and was given instruction. Vinit's mother and aunties adorned him in wreaths consisting of many tens of rupee notes. There were emotional moments – much weeping as the groom was dressed in his ostentatious gold turban with fringes that hid his face and his mother and aunties crying as they placed them around his neck. I must admit I sobbed too - I'm such a softie at weddings! 

The wedding procession dances through the streets
We followed the musicians with the drums into the streets and what a crowd we were - women looking fabulous in colourful saris and smartly dressed men in turbans dancing funky Indian moves. Vinit was placed on a white horse that had been draped in colourful gold, red and green crepe decorations and was accompanied by a small boy on the saddle. I wondered if this was some sort of lucky talisman but was told that it was a tradition dating back to the days when the groom had to go to win his bride and he always took a younger male from the clan to succeed him if he died in the fight. This tradition is continued today in India. We led the way with Vinit on horseback behind and every few yards some of the men would lay fireworks right in front of us which exploded all around.  My Romany blood was rising in my head as I swirled and swathed and jangled and bangled in the night air while crowds lined the streets. 

Trumpets herald the arrival of the groom
Next the party clamboured aboard a private bus for more songs and merriment and when we landed at the event…..WOW. Trumpets blared and little men in red coats carried illuminated candelabras and we danced outside amongst hundreds of trees hung with fairylights. This was a very boisterous part of the celebration - the arrival of the groom's family to the 'house' of the bride and we danced our hearts out. The wedding itself consisted of the menfolk from each family greeting one another with hugs and exchanging flower garlands as the priest watched over and blessed preceedings. Once this symbolic act has been undertaken, the bride and groom are officially married.

The beautiful Minty looks out from the 300 strong wedding crowd
When this was over we walked into the event itself and were overwhelmed with what we found. Think: Willy Wonka curating the marriage of Jordan and Peter Andre…pink, Disney-esque, magical, strangely romantic. I can only compare it to a festival site - with marquees, swimming pools, chairs, tables, couches, several bars serving food from almost every country imaginable, illuminated fountains, a stage! The whole thing was an exercise in excess with Sky cams broadcasting the event live on big screens and 80s tunes piped through the night air. Sitting together on one of the many upholstered cream sofas under the night sky, visions in turquoise and magenta, Liz and I felt very romantic, princesses in a fairytale. 

The bride is taken onstage to meet her husband
We had settled ourselves in front of the stage for the arrival of the bride. And when she did she looked terrified, weighed down with saris and thousands of jewels, a rabbit in the headlights. Manali was led onto the stage in a procession of relatives, carrying fabric over her head, then Vinit was also lifted onto the stage and they were able to look each other in the eyes for the first time - already married after the symbolic exchange of garlands between the menfolk outside. Many photographs and celebrations between both sides of the family followed.

Vinit & Mali undertaking the ceremony
It was way after midnight when the religious ceremony took place, lasting over 3 hours. The bride and groom sat with the priest under decorated archways in a separate area, whilst beautiful hypnotic rounds of vows were conducted in Sanskrit in which Vinit and Manali honoured their commitments to themselves, to friendship, to their parents and families. There were many offerings of rice, crushed flowers, incense and fruits - we were given fresh jasmine to pluck, scrunch and throw over the couple and the night air was filled with scent. One of the central motifs of a Hindu wedding is the presence of the sacred fire or agni, which bears witness to the vows and must be circumambulated 3 times.  

Fruit, flowers, incense and agni, the holy fire
The wedding celebration finally drew to a close around 6am, when the guests piled back again to Vinit's house. At this point Manali had to say tearful goodbyes to her family as she left them for the last time to start her new life. There was not a dry eye in the house. I was reeling with exhaustion but we had to gather around the newly weds in the living room while they played games, swirling their hands in milk to fish out their wedding rings.. then Manali was sent off to be derobed and dressed for her first night with her future husband by all of his aunties. It is moments like these that you really recognise the cultural differences - Imagine all of my aunties gathered around me, doing the same on my wedding night.. God forbid! 

For a number of reasons, I decided to leave Mumbai earlier than planned and on the day before my departure the city celebrated Mahashivrati - the anniversary of Shiva's marriage to Parvati. This is an important day not only for Shaivites (Shiva devotees like me) but for all Hindus and is celebrated with zeal throughout the whole of India. Women rise early to ritually bathe and then pay tribute to Shiva, annointing lingums with milk and honey and celebrations last well into the night. Shiva was appeased. I left Mumbai. All was well. 
Posing in my veil 

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