A guide to a Sikh wedding

Last Sunday, @potoft and I had the honour of attending the wedding of a good friend of ours. Our friend, Kiran, is a Sikh, and despite some worries about rumours of ceremonies which last as long as watching Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy we thought sharing in this special day was something that we couldn’t miss out on. I should say that this a guide to *a* Sikh wedding, as I wouldn’t dream of assuming all weddings are alike!
When a wedding invite came through the door with the time-frame of 9am-6pm on a Sunday, I will confess that my heart sank a little. However, as we got in the taxi, it was a beautiful crisp autumn morning, and despite some fun navigating through Plaistow where a road was closed and someone thought it hilarious to move the diversion ends sign to the beginning of the diversion, we made it to the Gurdwara. One thing that did confuse me was having driven past one Iceland food store on Barking Road, we followed signs for the diversion off to the East for a couple of hundred metres only to be facing the Iceland we had just driven past. My stomach cramped with our entry into some horrific East London Labyrinth. In fact we had just discovered that there are actually two Icelands within 300m of each other on the same road.
Based on the advice of the bride we arrived at the Gurdwara at about 9.20, to discover…an empty car park, other than about five of my former colleagues and no one else.
Gradually a few more people turned up, some women in bright saris and shalwa-kameez congregated inside. Some men hung round furtively in the car park.
A few early arrivers lurking

Then a few cars pulled up together with even more resplendent looking ladies. It was only my agile reflexes that meant that I realised the bride had arrived with no fanfare. She entered the Gurdwara and straight up the stairs to be hidden away. There were still perhaps ‘only’ thirty guests on site.

The bride nipping in

The numbers started to grow and after a bit of nattering, I noticed a white man with a bleached blond mohawk and a trombone dressed in what looked like an Ikea uniform walk past the entrance to the car park. Soon, a distant drumming could be heard, the bass travelling from afar, with the treble of brass accompaniment. I don’t think there’s a happier sight than seeing a groom’s family process with such joy, rhythm and style on a sleepy Sunday morning.

As the groom’s family arrived in the car park, the music and dancing continued for a short while, until the bridge’s family emerged. The two families (excluding bride, who was still hidden away) were then formally introduced to each other in Punjabi – this went on for some time. Fortunately the sun was still shining!

These introductions are actually part of an engagement ceremony or kurmai, with gifts and garlands exchanged between the families.

Groom’s family arrive

Entering the car park

The groom is spotted

The groom
The bride’s family come out to meet the groom’s

Children don’t have to cover their head but this one did

With the introductions made, we headed into the Gurdwara canteen, or Langar as it is properly known. Part of the Sikh faith is that a free meal should be provided to anyone who wants one. As a result Gurdwaras have massive dining halls. The hall was laid out with trestle tables, laid with plates and tea cups, with plates of pakora, samosas and sweets. We stood and we shared a communal breakfast.

Entering the temple we donned head coverings which included hankies and napkins tied as a bandana. There was some difference in opinion from different Sikhs we asked on whether a head covering was needed everywhere (such as in the langar), or just in the main temple room. However, to avoid offence, it’s safest to wear one all the time when inside and removes any risk of forgetting later.

Bride’s colleague blending in

Communal dining where all are equal
Another colleague goes with the char lady look.
Tabard is under the jacket.

Having wolfed down our breakfast and some very spicy chai, we went upstairs, men and women entering via separate lobbies, where you remove your shoes. This is the point when you wish you’d thought about sock selection.

What a muppet
We entered the main hall (Darbar Sahib) from the back (men and women sit separately but enter via the same door but can cross into the other halves to speak to one another). At the front of the hall on a raised platform sits the guru granth sahib, the Sikh holy book. The Sikh guests formed a long queue on entering the hall, to bow before the book and place a token donation to the temple. We stepped to the side and took a seat at the back out of the way.

Inside the main hall – the queue continues

Now, a word of advice. There appears to be two techniques one can adopt in the temple. The first is to get in early when people first start moving up and prop yourself up against a wall, or to get in late and sit unaided, but be safe in the knowledge you haven’t been waiting round for long.

We succeeded in neither. We entered the hall and sat down, and for about 45 minutes all that happened was that more people arrived and queued to bow to the book before taking their seat. This wasn’t a 45 minute long queue, rather that each time it appeared everyone was in and sat down, another wave of people arrived.

Eventually the groom entered and sat down. There was some singing of what I think were hymns in Punjabi by a trio of musicians and then the bride entered.

From the point the bride entered, the actual ceremony only lasted for about 30 minutes. It involves the priest reading a passage out, before the bride is processed around the book and the priest and this is repeated three further times. Each ambulation is preceded by a reading of a different laav, or hymn from the text. Walking around the text represents the couple making a bond with God.

(From wikipedia…)

In the first round, the Guru asks the partners to: 

Commit to righteousness.
Renounce sinful actions.
Remember, mediate and embrace Naam.
Only by good fortune, is real peace obtained and Lord seems sweet to the mind.
Worship the one Waheguru and all your sins will vanish.

In the second round, the Guru asks the partners to: 

advance further towards meeting the True Guru – God:
The Lord leads you to meet the True Guru, the Primal Being – the enlightener
Have fear of fearless God and your ego will disappear
Sing God’s praises and feel His presence before you.
God is everywhere, outside and within, sing in Joy

In the third round, the Guru says that: 

the partners mind is filled with “Divine Love”:
Meeting the Sadh Sangat (Holy Congregation)
Speak the Word of the Lord’s Bani.
Which is only obtained by good fortune
Recite Gurbani and sing the Glorious Praises of the Lord
The Naam will vibrates and resounds within your heart
And you will know your future destiny.

In the final round, the Guru says that 

the partners mind become peaceful and they will have found the Lord:
God’s Will seems sweet to these Gurmukhs.
You will lovingly focus your consciousness on the Lord, day and night
All your desires will be fulfilled
The Souls will blend with Waheguru and only Naam will occupy your heart.

Groom leading, bride escorted by brother

Once this has occurred the couple are married. The men in the congregation then walked to the front of the hall and made donations to the priest, who is otherwise unpaid. There is no obligation or cajoling to make you make a donation.

Men at the front making a donation

After this another few short words are said. Confusingly you stand up, and then as you think you should be sitting down and your arse is on the floor you discover this was actually meant to be a low bow, so you have to uncross your legs and get back up again to join everyone else standing up.

As everything is in Punjabi, it is a case of doing what everyone else does and playing follow my leader. When I spoke to the bride’s cousin, he admitted he couldn’t understand the particular form of Punjabi used and wasn’t quite sure how many rounds of standing up/sitting down/bowing we would be playing.

After this servers come out carrying bowls of Karah Pashad, a halva – a semolina, butter and sugar paste. This is received whilst sitting down and holding your hands up with head bowed. It shouldn’t be turned down, but you can gesture for a small amount. It is however rather tasty.

Finally, the bride and groom remain seated and again, a queue is formed to present them with gifts of money. You lean over them (they are facing away) and put money in a bag that each has on their lap. As part of this, you can also place your hand on their head to bless them. As I didn’t know what I was doing I thought there was no point messing up their headdresses.

Next we hot footed it over to Ilford to a cinema converted to a banqueting hall. On arrival we had a choice of a glass of orange juice or a pint of Fosters. Basically – beer for the man, fruit based drink for the ladies.

All the tables were laid out with a bottle of coke, some mineral water and a jug of fruit juice. The bar at some point opened with a full range of spirits, and was free. Although there were 300 or so chairs in the banqueting hall, only a small number of tables had allocated seating. Basically a wedding reception is an event for the community. As the seats at tables were filled there remained a strong contingent of men stood at the bar for most of the rest of the evening.

An hour or so later, the bride and groom arrived, with more music and immediately cut the cake. Before going through the permutations and combinations of every family member force feeding another some cake.

Eat the f’ing cake

After we were all settled down, we began the meal with out starters. It was a nice communal experience as six or so bowls of food were passed and shared around the table. The food was excellent Indian fare and unlike the Gurdwara had meat in it. I particularly enjoyed the fish pakora.

Having finished the starters, the MC announced the bride and groom would have their first dance to a traditional sounding Indian song (acknowledging that my own knowledge extends only to Asha Bhosle).

Then began the disco, with the MC declaring he would be playing *all* the hits. This continued for an hour and a half. After the first disco set, the main course was served, a selection of curries with rice and breads. During our meal we were treated to some bhangra dancers, who had performed in the Olympic closing ceremony and have appeared on various TV shows. After, the disco continued, and ice cream and Indian sweets were brought to those remaining at their seats. Then, the big announcement, that Jay Status, an up and coming Bhangra singer would be performing and the thronging crowd went wild.

All in all a wonderful day, topped off on our return to Wapping to discover a US cop car outside the Prospect of Whitby.

(Apologies for some typos on the videos!)

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