Contemporary Indian Desert Wedding
Avni & Pavan
My favorite moment of the wedding...
Seeing my husband for the first time before the pheras. It was the most chaotic time by far, with the baraat coming in and my family and his holding up a sheet between us. He had to place his foot on top of mine in a thali of milk, and then the sheet came down and we saw each other in our wedding clothes for the first time. The downside was that we didn’t get to take pictures together before the ceremony, but the energy of that moment was indescribable.
His favorite moment...
Hugging each other at the end of the ceremony as man and wife.
I had the most fun...
Leading up to the wedding, I really enjoyed the process of planning and designing the save-the-dates and cards for the wedding. I was lucky that my cousin is a really talented graphic designer and made custom designs that fit my vision. She also helped me with the programs, and little custom-made gifts and notes to put in the rooms each day. I loved picking out little gifts to spoil my friends, some of whom were coming to India for the first time. Gifts included maang tikkas and colorful Rajasthani ghagras to wear.
I am really into design, décor, and flowers so I had a lot of fun deciding the look of the wedding.
I planned a special photo shoot the morning of the wedding, after the Ganesh Puja, with all of my favorite girls. The concept was Safas & Cigars.
I also loved dancing at every party. At first we weren’t going to have dancing at the Welcome Dinner (which was the first night) because the band we wanted was having a hard time getting to Jaisalmer, but in the end, it worked out.
I cried when...
Just before the baraat came in, before the pheras, I suddenly got very emotional and was looking around for people to hold my hand. I’m glad all my closest cousins were around me. It was also nice having my brother nearby holding up the sheet. I felt very loved and protected.
I also cried when my aunts and cousins surprised me with a dance on the second night. I didn’t know they had been practicing so much, and they all threw me off the scent by telling me in the lead up that they hadn’t had time to practice anything. Seeing their performance was really special.
My wedding style...
The style of our wedding was dictated by the place, which we both fell in love with. Suryagarh in Jaisalmer is a really magical hotel that has its own unique beauty. We wanted to capture that, so we tried to mix the grandeur of Rajasthan with the ethnic essence of the Thar Desert. That meant using as much of the local Rajasthani handicrafts as we could – Rajasthani tents and umbrellas and bringing in Rajasthani dancers and musicians to welcome the guests. I also insisted that all the flowers and décor elements be sourced from within India. That meant lots of marigolds, jasmine, and diyas.
It was most important to me that...
I really wanted the décor, food, and music to be on point at every event. Throughout the day the hotel was serving up yummy goodies for guests to indulge in. We also wanted a DJ who would play music that everyone could enjoy. And of course, my clothes were really important to me!
Most valuable advice for brides-to-be...
Wedding planning is stressful and can be a nightmare, especially if you’re detail oriented. There are so many moving parts (and opinionated family members) and keeping everything together can be overwhelming. I think the most important thing every bride should remember (and the hardest thing) is to enjoy every moment that you can. Not just at the wedding, but in the time leading up. Self-care is really important – it’s easy to become excessive about dieting, exercise, and planning. Take time to do things that make you feel good every day. Go for a massage, have facials, take weekends away with your fiancé. It’s a really magical time, so try and enjoy it because it only happens once (hopefully).
I think it’s important to be the bride that you want to be. If that means being glamorous and over-the-top, then do it. I was pretty simple and pared down compared to most Indian brides, and in retrospect, I’m glad I went with my instincts. People will tell you that you must wear this or that, or that a bride should be one way or another. We’re lucky that we live at a time where people can express themselves. If I had dressed or behaved in a way that wasn’t me, I would be looking at my pictures and wondering "who is this person?". That’s the last thing you want.
Having said that, an Indian wedding is about the whole family, so know which battles mean the most to you before you go in. It might be a good idea to list what your priorities are. Do you want total control over the venue? Maybe you have always dreamed of wearing a certain color that isn’t conventional. Knowing what matters to you will help you avoid unnecessary arguments.
If you decide to do a destination wedding, be sure you are prepared for what that means. Not living near your venue means you may not have access to your vendors on a regular basis. In the end, I was thrilled with how our destination wedding turned out, but it definitely added some stress to the planning.
About The Couple
How we met...
Pavan and I met eight years ago but didn’t really hang out until 2014. He saw I had done a writing fellowship at a University in the UK and got in touch to say he was interested in writing himself but didn’t know if he should take a course or not. We stayed in touch and when he next came to New York in September we made plans to have lunch. Lunch turned into a whole afternoon, and since then we haven’t gone a day without speaking to each other. At first, I wasn’t sure how it could work – long distance between Dubai and New York is tough. But we took it seriously and made sure to meet every month, and in February 2015 he proposed in the desert outside of Dubai. Actually, our entire relationship has a desert theme: he proposed in the desert, we had our legal wedding at Burning Man in the Nevada Desert, our Indian wedding was in Jaisalmer with the Thar desert as a backdrop, and now we live in Dubai.
Our first date...
We didn’t know our first date was a date – at the time we were just meeting for lunch. We couldn’t stop talking about books and writing, and how much we love to travel. After that, we got caught in the rain and ended up at a little bar where we hung out for the rest of the evening.
When I knew he was the one...
In January 2015, we planned a two-week trip to Myanmar. It was the longest time we had spent together, and it felt so easy and natural like we had known each other forever.
We had discussed rings, so I knew he was thinking about it, but when he proposed at a beautiful hotel in the desert outside of Dubai only three months into our relationship, I was completely shocked.
Marriage to us means...
We discussed what marriage would mean to us as a couple, we even read about it. We are bookworms, what can I say? I think we accept that life has its ups and downs, and marriage is about weathering the good and the bad together, and about wanting to experience every part of life with each other. For couples who want to get deeper into what this means, we highly recommend reading what Alain de Botton has written about relationships. Also, check out http://www.thebookoflife.org
WEDDING VISION: In terms of our vision for a wedding, I think neither of us knew what we wanted until we were faced with planning it. We were just so happy to be engaged and together. We had to narrow down what we wanted pretty quickly.
In the end, we decided we wanted something beautiful, intimate and minimal. Keep in mind this was an Indian wedding, so minimal was a relative term. But those are the values and aesthetics we wanted to bring to our home and our future life, so we decided they would work well for our wedding too.
LOCATION: Our wedding planning took a few twists and turns. In terms of location, we had a difficult time picking a place because we lived on opposite sides of the world. We looked at Dubai but couldn’t find a space that was intimate enough. We then looked at Mumbai, a city that was meaningful to both of us. We even began planning the wedding there, printing Save the Dates and meeting florists, but in the end that didn’t feel right. Finally, only two and half months before the wedding, we finalized on Suryagarh, a beautiful hotel in Jaisalmer. In the end, I think the location helped to clarify what the wedding would look like. Planning a wedding in such a short time is definitely not ideal, but it can be done!
WEDDING PLANNING: Planning a wedding in India can be tricky, particularly if you’re a micromanager like me. I found that details were often lost in translation and that I had to repeat things many, many, many times if I wanted them to get done. Suryagarh, however, was a really wonderful hotel to work with, and the management took a personal interest in making sure everything was done to our satisfaction – especially in terms of the décor, which was a tall order!
I had very specific ideas for how everything should look and they really made sure it was done. They invited us to come for a few days leading up to the wedding to taste all the food and finalize the venue details. We had a very short time to plan our wedding, only two and a half months, so we were lucky to work with a hotel that had so much experience.
IF I COULD DO IT AGAIN:
- I wish we had traveled a little bit to look at locations early on in our engagement. We would probably have decided on Suryagarh right in the beginning and wouldn’t have had to plan the wedding in such a short time. Luckily everyone was very professional and helpful, but it could have been a disaster.
- I would go minimal on the mehendi. I went through a lot of trouble to organize a mehendi artist who has been doing mehendi for my family for years. She did the mehendi for my aunts at their weddings years ago. But in the end, doing all that mehndi ate up into how much I could be a part of the mehndi function.
- I wish I had done full trials for all my hair and make-up before the wedding. I know it’s a pain, but it’s worth it, especially if you’re like me and never wear makeup in your everyday life.
BRIDE: I found the early stages of shopping particularly agonizing because I wanted customized outfits but found some of the bridal designers in India were unwilling to do them. I remember trying on one outfit in a bridal boutique and being told that no changes could be made to the order except on the sleeve length of the blouse. This was frustrating and a little sad. No matter what, a bride wants to feel a little pampered when she’s picking out her clothes.
I had actually selected two of my outfits when we were still planning the wedding in Mumbai, and so I had a city/ballroom wedding in mind when I made the choices. Those two outfits had clean lines and a more modern effect. Once we decided on Jaisalmer, I added some other ethnic lehengas to go with the desert location.
For the day events, I went for colorful Rajasthani looks from Anita Dongre. These had a lot of thread and gota-work. For the evenings, I went a little sleeker, playing with statement colors like red or black, with a hint of shimmer. Overall, I kept in mind that I wanted my clothes to be timeless. I’m hoping I look at these pictures in twenty years and still like the outfits.
I did a lot of research online before going to India to do my shopping. This was helpful because I had planned which designers I wanted to visit in Mumbai. However, everything changed once I saw the clothes in person. Indian garments are so much about the quality of embroidery, and when I was finally in the shops I realized that what looked fine and delicate in pictures seemed messy or gaudy in person. For this reason, I would be careful about shopping online unless you are very familiar with the designer’s work. If I had had more time, I would have made trips to Delhi and Kolkata to satisfy my curiosity but overall, I was happy with the selection in Mumbai. I knew that I wanted things I could wear again, and so I picked pieces that I thought were versatile, timeless and not over the top.
The designers I ended up going with were Shantanu & Nikhil, Anita Dongre, Manish Malhotra and Rahul Mishra. I had great experiences with all of these designers – the staff really went out of their way to accommodate my requests. Shantanu & Nikhil even gifted me an extra dupatta for my wedding outfit. I ended up wearing flats to all my functions, which meant my feet were pain-free.
My advice to a bride choosing her trousseau would be to go for what looks good on you rather than what is trendy.
GROOM: He wanted clothes that were simple and elegant. Cut and fit were really important when we shopped for his clothes.
BRIDAL PARTY: We didn’t have an official bridal party or groomsman, but the groom’s brothers coordinated their clothes for the wedding, and the bride gifted maang tikkas to all of her closest girlfriends to wear at the Garba
Our wedding events were held over a few days at the end of November 2015 in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. All the events were held at Suryagarh and 220 guests joined us for the ocassion:
- Welcome Dinner - Wednesday PM, Suryagarh Courtyard and Terrace.
- Mehendi Lunch - Thursday PM, Suryagarh.
- Garba Raas & Sangeet - Thursday PM, Suryagarh Celebration Gardens.
- Wedding Day Pujas & Lunch - Friday AM, Suryagarh.
- Wedding & Reception: Friday PM, Suryagarh.
DECOR & THEME: I am really into design, décor, and flowers so I had a lot of fun deciding the look of the wedding. Once we knew we were doing the wedding in Rajasthan, I looked for images and inspiration shots wherever I could. I’m a total Pinterest junkie, so that was my go-to place for ideas.
We didn’t want discreet themes for each event, but instead an overall mood that would carry over throughout the three days with variations on the theme. We made sure to use marigolds, jasmine, lanterns, tealights, Rajasthani handicrafts and textile, and the color orange throughout the wedding.
HIGHLIGHTS: This was a controversial point when we were planning our wedding. I had a huge list of things I didn’t want. This included big entrances, first dances, fireworks, cake cuttings, signature cocktails, arriving on animal-back, sitting on thrones, etc… Nothing that screamed WEDDING. I know this is probably the opposite of what most brides wish for but we were so much more comfortable this way. I felt we were already going to be the center of attention so why create more drama? In a way, I think this made the events flow more smoothly, and music, food, and the conversations weren't constantly interrupted. We did have a couple of beautiful speeches from our friends, though.
The Welcome Dinner was the most informal event with guests arriving after their long journeys. Guests were welcomed with Rajasthani dancers and saluted by guards on camelback. We knew that many of our friends had traveled a long distance and so we wanted them to be immersed in the hotel. The evening treated them to some local Rajasthani fair and music, followed by a performance by The Other People. Everyone forgot they were tired and were dancing until the wee hours of the morning.
DECOR: By team at Suryagarh. The grounds were decorated with orange marigolds and lanterns were dotted around. The courtyard is covered in a beautiful orange fabric that the hotel hangs for special occasions. This remained there for the entirety of the wedding.
AVNI'S OUTFIT: Manish Malhotra.
JEWELRY: Designed by Samir Mehta.
SHOES: Chanel sandals.
PAVAN'S OUTFIT: Custom made in India.
The venue for the Mehendi Lunch was the open desert at the side of the hotel, and the details for this event were truly amazing. The lunch included a large chaat selection. The DJ played a combination of Bollywood and 90s Hip Hop favorites.
DECOR: By team at Suryagarh. Raj style tents were put up, and clay objects made my local artisans were dotted around. We had piles of rangoli as part of the décor, and the food was beautifully presented in colorful stalls. Flowers included jasmine and marigold.
AVNI'S OUTFIT: A pink Anita Dongre lehenga.
JEWELRY: Tresor Jewels at the Oberoi.
SHOES: Kolapuri sandals by Joy Shoes.
PAVAN'S OUTFIT: A pink Shantanu & Nikhil kurta set.
SHOES: Joy Shoes.
Garba Raas & Sangeet
This event was important for me because my family is Gujarati and I wanted to include something to honor a tradition which brings all ages together. Even my grandmother was teaching us the steps she used to do. A Kutchi Garba band played music, followed by the DJ, and Garba dancers from Gujarat taught everyone the steps.
DECOR: By team at Suryagarh. The guests were welcomed with over 10,000 tealights dotting the entire grounds. This was the primary decorative element, besides several globe-shaped candle stands that stood over 6 feet high, and marigold arrangements on the tables.
AVNI'S OUTFIT: Red Shantanu & Nikhil lehenga.
JEWELRY: Custom made chandan haar and matching earrings and bangles, a gift from my grandmother.
SHOES: Sandals by Chanel.
PAVAN'S OUTFIT: Sherwani by Shantanu & Nikhil.
SHOES: Shantanu & Nikhil.
Wedding Day Pujas & Lunch
The bride and groom side held some pujas in the morning to start of the wedding day celebrations followed by some lunch.
I also planned a special photo shoot the morning of the wedding, after the Ganesh Puja, with all of my favorite girls. The concept was Safas & Cigars. I bought colorful safas in the market in Jodhpur and we had our own little girly baraat in the hotel courtyard. I think I must be one of the only brides ever who was dancing and laughing with her friends the morning of her wedding – it made the entire lead up stress-free. Those are also some of my favorite pictures.
DECOR: By team at Suryagarh. Suryagarh did a wonderful job using flowers and fabric to decorate the Puja areas, and they did flower rangoli in the courtyard during lunch.
AVNI'S OUTFIT: Orange and off-white Anita Dongre lehenga.
JEWELRY: Gifted by my aunt.
SHOES: Kolapuri sandals by Joy Shoes.
SAFAS: Sourced from local markets in Jodhpur.
The Wedding Ceremony was held in the Suryagarh amphitheatre style courtyard. I wanted to have a classical Indian violin playing as we came to the mandap and throughout the wedding. We weren’t able to find a musician, though, so we had a ravanhatha (a Rajasthani string instrument) player instead which worked out nicely.
DECOR: By team at Suryagarh. The mandap was made of marigolds and tealights, and people sat on colorful chairs and cushions to watch the ceremony.
AVNI'S OUTFIT: A pearl white and gold Shantanu & Nikhil lehenga.
JEWELRY: Amrapali Jewels.
SHOES: Custom made sandals from Di San Giacomo, Rome.
PAVAN'S OUTFIT: Blue and white Tarun Tahiliani sherwani.
SHOES: Joy Shoes.
The Wedding Ceremony continued right into the Reception, and the path was decorated with underlit Rajasthani umbrellas. The groom’s friends performed a dance medley, and the groom jumped in for a surprise cameo.
DECOR: By team at Suryagarh. The tables during the Reception were decorated with tuberose and tall crystal candelabras, and the chairs were hung with strings of Mogra.
AVNI'S OUTFIT: Rahul Mishra lehenga.
JEWELRY: Gifted by the groom.
SHOES: Chanel sandals.
PAVAN'S OUTFIT: Tarun Tahiliani.
SHOES: Joy Shoes.
Tips for Brides-to-Be
- Delegate what you can and focus on the two or three things that are most important to you. I let other people think about the room allocation, the transport/flight information, and the alcohol. That left me time to worry about things like décor, music and clothes/hair/make-up.
- Set the scene. I’m into astrology, so I checked out the wedding date with both a Western and a Vedic astrologer. We had a beautiful full moon at our wedding, which in the desert really added to the mood – look into this if it interests you.
- Educate yourself about the ceremony. I didn’t really know what was going on, and now I wish I did!
- Don’t overindulge in food and drink at your wedding. Your stomach won’t be able to handle it. I ate toast and rice with yogurt for three days. At the time I felt sad to be missing out on all the yummy food but now I realize I made the right choice.
- Don’t make shopping decisions when you’re emotional (or in a fight with your mother).
- Try to take time out before the wedding. This one might be hard for most brides who are rushing around the weekend before their weddings, but it's worthwhile. My husband and I went to Jaisalmer three days before everyone else and spent a blissful weekend glamping at a hotel called the Serai. We treated ourselves to massages and went on sunset desert drives. It was a nice time to reconnect before the madness began.
- Have civil wedding that's just for you. If you are doing a big Indian wedding, but have an urge to do something more alternative, I recommend a civil/registry wedding. My husband and I did our civil ceremony at Burning Man in Nevada a few months before we did the religious wedding in India. It was dusty, crazy fun – something we will never forget. We read vows (which doesn’t happen in Indian weddings), invoked the goddess of love, and shared a piece of simple twine with the dozen people in attendance.
- Don’t forget to check in on the groom. My husband seemed so relaxed leading up to the wedding. I couldn’t believe how calm he was. But it turns out he was actually repressing all the stress, and the day before the wedding he came down with a fever.