Indian Wedding (facts, event timeline and attire)
Updated: Nov 16, 2019
Are you invited to your first Indian wedding? Maybe you’re wondering:
what to expect?
how to behave?
the types of food
fashion and what to wear
and how not to make a fool of yourself?
You’re in the right place!
In this post I’ll cover the following topics in an “Indian weddings for dummies” sort of way, as many first time guests have a million questions and don’t want to bother the couple too much with seemingly silly questions.
Indian Wedding Guide for the Non-Indian
Since this is a long post, to outline it, we’ll discuss:
RSVP and Invite Protocol
What kind of Wedding are You About to Attend?
The Main Events you see at most Indian Weddings in the USA, Canada or the UK
Do I need to Attend All Of it?
The Actual Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Mixed Wedding
What to Wear, Kurta, Leheng and Sherwani Basics.
The types of Food you can Expect
FAQ for First Timer Guests and Things not to Do
Should you give a gift or cash or nothing or look at the registry?
Sangeet or Garba Dancing Guide
And pretty much any other questions first time Indian wedding guests have!
I'm going to assume your a first time guest.
Your probably a colleague, acquaintance or similar relationship to the bride or groom.
I'll assume you don't have an Indian background and probably just have an Indian/Pakistani friend you know or work with, and this experience is new.
If you’re best friends or best man with the bride or groom then you’ll have to take some personal input from them to double check what is required of you!
Side Note: Many times we see an Indian person working in America for a few months, then give out invites to everybody in his office in Michigan for some wedding back in India. This is probably just a formality and unless you guys are super close...trust us, he's not expecting you to fly across the world.
Background on Indian Weddings
Indian weddings have gone on the world map in 2019, with folks like Priyanka Chopra marrying Nick Jonas in AMERICA AND INDIA and the billionaire Ambani family hiring Beyonce to play at their Sangeet (I'll explain what a Sangeet is below don't worry).
Just like with American weddings, you can have a small church wedding with a brunch buffet for 50 people and keep the costs down to a few thousand, or you can have massive celebrity weddings that go into the millions.
On average, however, most Indian weddings in the west go about two to maximum of 3 days, and first time guests are mainly required to attend the Sangeet, Wedding and Reception.
So don’t feel overwhelmed as every experience is unique and different!
First things first...what do you do about that invitation or email you got!
Don’t worry if you’re not EXACTLY sure if you’ll be able to attend the wedding.
Invitations will go out either in card form (for which the hosts will ask for your postal address, or even in some cases come over to hand deliver it) or via email.
These days invites are preferred to be digital so don’t take it personally if you don’t get a physical invite or feel it’s a “half-invite.”
It’s the same process across the board. In a small portion of real massive luxury weddings they do sit down dinners and need an exact headcount for meal preparation, but chances are you if you’re 80% sure you’re going to make it for some or all of the wedding events, go ahead and confirm.
There is always a 10-15% buffer in food and alcohol at big fat Indian weddings and guests pop-in/drop out ALL THE TIME. So don’t fret. They just want a yes/no to account for and later if things change it’s fine. I know it doesn't make sense but as a planner, it helps to just narrow down the planning decisions to at least have SOME answer.
ANY RSVP answer is better than no answer.
What Kind of South Asian Wedding Are You About to Attend?
Not all South Asian weddings will give you the same experience. 95% of Indian or Pakistani weddings will be in the following buckets:
Big Fat Indian Wedding Party:
Most weddings in places like America/Australia/Canada (e.g. the West) will have plenty of customs, tradition, alcohol, chicken/lamb/fish, and music/dancing. They can be a non stop party, especially destination Indian weddings.
Big Fat Indian Wedding (Traditional)
But many (30 percent I'd say) still opt for the strict religious/traditional customs of no meat and no alcohol, or one without the other. There will be dancing and games but don’t expect 4AM raging nights!
Big Fat Pakistani Weddings
You probably won’t see alcohol, but you will see plenty of meat, gorgeous decor and grand celebrations and speeches! Enjoy these and eat to your heart’s content!
Super Traditional/South Indian
Another sizeable chunk of Indian weddings in America are South Indian weddings, which are much less complex in their productions and don’t last as long. Many of them are also Christian so it might even be a small church wedding like you’re used to! But you get to wear a lungi (a long Indian sort of Scottish kilt) and they’re awesome!
All Weddings Bring Something Special
While you probably shouldn't ask "Hey will your wedding be fun or boring?" to the guests, you can probably figure out which one yours is based on if the word "cocktail hour" appears anywhere on the invitation and/or if you see events going until midnight or later.
If you’re the party type looking for a rager, the first and second weddings may give you that experience, and if you just want to experience the food and culture and warmth of the family I think you’ll get that from all the wedding types!
The beauty of Indian weddings is while everybody is required to attend the actual wedding, the rest is up to you! (I’ll also explain what most people attend as well).
The Main Events
LATEST TRENDS: Most Indian weddings in America, the UK or Canada/Australia follow a 2-3 day schedule. As of 2019 we're seeing this more often be 1.5-2 days as folks are busy and things can be expensive.
The standard sample Indian wedding schedule is:
Religious Ceremony for immediate families only (You're not Required).
Often called a Puja (look for this word on the invite).
Should you Attend: No
Attire: Indian for sure!
Mehendi. It's where the girls get the hands painted. Even some guys too! Generally includes brunch/booze and music.
Should you Attend: Yes, (If you can work it into the schedule). About 75% of guests will attend, those who have a schedule conflict and need to come late or leave early will likely choose to skip as this is the least formal of the events. This often serves as the kickoff party and happens during the day/afternoon.
ATTIRE: Indian Clothes for Women, Smart casual for Men or also Light Indian Clothes for Men.
Sangeet or Garba
It's a big dance party with performances, food, drinks (sometimes) and music.
Guests either hang around the hotel if they live locally after the mehndi, step out for drinks/catching up, or go back to their rooms and change/freshen up/relax. 90-95% of guests will attend.
Should you Attend: HECK Yes! This is where the party starts!
ATTIRE: Indian Formal Clothes for Everybody!
Saturday Late Afternoon
Baraat. A mini parade for the groom’s guests. More details here.
Should you Attend: HECK Yes if your friends with the Groom!
ATTIRE: Indian Formal Clothes for Everybody!
Saturday Early Evening
Overview:Wedding Ceremony. You sit and watch the wedding for 1-2 hours. 100% of guests will attend.
Should you Attend: HECK Yes! This is why you're here!
ATTIRE: Indian Formal Clothes for Everybody!
Saturday Night: Wedding Reception
Overview: Generally a black tie dinner affair. 95-100% of guests will attend.
Should you Attend: HECK Yes! Finish with a bang.
ATTIRE: Indian Formal or Suit/Tie/Tuxedo for Men, Indian formal or nice ballroom dresses for ladies.
The Actual Wedding
One of the great ironies of our weddings is that we are all there for this 45 to 90 minute wedding procession, yet sometimes everything AROUND the wedding occupies most of our time. The decorator, the food, the fashion, the guests ...but at the end of the day, it’s the 60 minutes at the altar that is really what the whole thing is all about.
But since technically it’s the most important event, here’s how you attend the wedding as a guest:
If you’re from the groom’s side, you’ll likely just take your seat once the baraat reaches the wedding area. Just follow the crowd.
If you’re from the bride’s side, just be at the venue of the wedding at the specified time, although you might wait 20 to 40 minutes as things always go late! (The wedding won't start until the baraat arrives).
Sit down, read the little pamphlet that explains the wedding ceremony, and just be polite.
Be mindful of sitting in front of small old ladies, they will happily tell you to get out of their way.
Don’t talk or look at your phone too much.
If you’re hot, you can use the pamphlet as a fan to cool yourself.
Even if you got there super early leave the first two rows of seats open for close family.
You should be wearing Indian clothes or a suit/blazer or at least a shirt and tie.
What to Wear to Your First South Asian Wedding
I know a lot of people are weird about wearing ethnic clothes, or spotting a turban on their head. To each his own I guess. You don't have to at all if it makes you uncomfortable and nobody will mind it. But I guarantee you will have way more fun if you do.
That being said if you do want to go all about Indian for your boy, please don't spend $1000 on an outfit or dress that you're going to wear once. Especially if you don't know what you're buying or how much you're paying relative to other Indian clothes.
PRO TIP: Ask the groom or bride (or close friends of theirs) if they can get you an outfit in the $50 to $100 price range you can wear at the events.
Men’s Wedding Fashion
Depending on the number of events you attend, you will at the bare minimum need a Kurta.
Groomsmen often get a Kurta from the groom, or are told what colors to wear, but if you're just a normal guest then you can simply buy one online.
What is a Kurta?
It’s just a long shirt and cotton pants. It’s the Indian wedding equivalent of slacks and a button up shirt.
How much is a Kurta in America? You can find stuff that suits you easily for $40 to $80. You can also find insanely awesome ones for like $200 but I would keep it down to the first range.
If you know someone going or coming from India, simply say "Hey I'm 6'2 and a jacket size of 40" and they'll find you something like this:
You can get stuff like this for $80 in India (USD) or $140 or less in America. Perfect for the ceremony or Sangeet.
Ladies Wedding Fashion
We have a full fashion guide at the links above, but ladies, especially first time lady guests should just opt for a Lehenga. A sari will be much more complicated for you to wear, but a Lehenga is more than enough to handle!
You can ask your girlfriend or guy friend who invited you for help, or send them links of things you’re trying to buy. But you will need to wear a Lehenga at least once to one event.
If you don’t want to spend money on an outfit just for this wedding, a nice cocktail dress or evening dress/gown is more than enough for any event.
Try to not be too clubby/hip as it’s still a traditional and religious function (both guys and gals).
What else would you like to know about for attending your first Indian wedding in 2019? Ping us in the comments below or simply contact us and we'll happily answer any questions you have!
If the family has a last name like Patel, Shah or Subramanyan, there is a 50% chance all food items throughout the entire wedding will be vegetarian. If the last name is Singh/Kaur/Gupta then maybe that's a 25% chance.
I love Tandoori chicken so if that's your jam I'm rooting for you too!
Regardless, Indian food is delicious and although it can look intimidating, trust us...it's just all veggies and lamb/chicken/fish. There is no risk of eating intestines or anything icky. Indians also love Mexican food because we find it very similar in contents.
Beans, tortillas, breads, rice and stir fried meats and vegetables is the name of the game! And a curry is nothing more than tomato paste or yogurt and water...with spices of course! So take risks bro!
The worst thing that might happen is you eat something a little too sweet.
These days it's also quite normal for big fat Indian weddings to have things like Pizza and pasta for the kids and sushi/kebabs/Mexican/middle eastern so don't fear...you will definitely find plenty of delicious things to eat.
We've more or less explained food, fashion and attendance requirements...below I'll answer some final not-to-do's and a few remaining FAQ's I hear a lot.
FAQ For First Time Indian Wedding Guest
(And also a few things not to do)
1. Do I give a Gift or Cash? It doesn't really say?
If the invites say something like "No gifts please" you can bring $100 or so in a gift envelope, and if you see a box for gifts/cards go ahead and drop it in there (and please write a note in your envelope so they know who it's from a nice one paragraph message).
If there are no gifts and no place for gift envelopes then don't worry about it and hang on to your cash.
The last thing a bride wants while wearing her elaborate outfit is to carry around a toaster or new dress so please respect this aspect. The thought is appreciated however. Generally most will take envelopes and in America we do see registries often for Indian weddings, but it's less a custom for Indian's to ask for gifts.
2. It doesn't really specify the food and Alcohol? Should I drive? What If I want to drink?
If the Indian wedding you're attending doesn't have the food you like or an open bar, it would be considered rude if you step outside of the ballroom into the hotel restaurant and eat/grab a beer there instead.
If it's not clear, please ask so you can plan your cab or transport.
Try to be respectful and sit through any long procedures and if you see people getting up or getting bored or going out for a smoke or something, feel free to also.
But if you see everybody paying attention quietly go ahead and follow the crowd.
I've also been to boring weddings and then grabbed Taco Bell on the way home, but for your first wedding try to absorb it for what it is.
3. Can I Talk to the Bride and Groom?
Of course, just not when they're doing their actual ceremony in the altar. That's for close families only. When they're calling guests for pictures and socializing then feel free. Use common sense here...don’t take too much of the bride and grooms time and even if you’ve drank/smoked with them in the past at parties, let them roam around as they can and be mindful of their relatives and elders.
4. Is it Ok to Smoke at an Indian Wedding?
You might see all the uncles by the parking lot...or basically, wherever you see an old Indian man smoking, that's the designated smoking area. If you're in college though or under 30, try to avoid the eyes of parents. (Yes it's oddly taboo because for Indian's adulthood begins at 30 LOL). Generally smokers will be out of sight of the main festivities.
5. Can I leave early?
Of course. Indian weddings are so big that unless you’re giving a speech or part of one of the programs, as soon as dinner is served or the night just moves into dancing, feel free and bounce.
6. What if I’m late to the wedding?
That’s 100% fine. Just grab a seat in the back or stand around as the other folks are (in case a lot of seats are taken).
7. I never RSVP’d but I want to go. Is it too late?
Don’t overthink it.
We’re a LOT more chill about our bigger events, and again, unless it’s strict table seating with pre-fixed meals, bride and groom are used to last minute questions.
It doesn’t hurt at all to message them and say “Hey I can come now, I know it’s a week away but is it alright? If it’s more trouble no worries, please ignore.” And if they ignore, you got your answer!
8. Is He or She Flirting, what do I do?!?
If somebody is giving you the eye, that’s fine, but they might just be being nice.
Generally at Indian weddings especially if you don’t want to be caught trying to be too touchy/feely with someone’s daughter or sister or just read kindness the wrong way.
Do people hook up occasionally at weddings? Oh we have some stories.
But again, be on your best behavior because insane hospitality can turn to the darkside head real quick!
The Sangeet is a function that occurs in a lot of weddings. These days it can sometimes be as big as a wedding reception. In a nutshell, it’s a massive hotel party where everyone drinks and eats and dances.
We have massive everything you want to know about Sangeet articles here.
The main angle of the sangeet however is that the friends and family of the groom will spend a few weeks before preparing a dance, between a minute and four minutes. The sangeet program usually goes an hour.
Imagine a talent show of friends and family, and after the 8th or 9th dance, the bride and groom get on the stage and dance for everybody else.
You definitely don’t want to miss the sangeet. It’s often the biggest party of the wedding.
If you’re invited to a wedding and the bride or groom’s last name is Patel or Shah or Mehta, there is a good chance they may have a Garba instead of a Sangeet, or even in addition to it.
For simplified purposes, a Garba is a tradition where hundreds of people dance in a circle, one inner circle and one outer circle. They use sticks to tap as they dance and then rotate the circle so everybody gets to dance with everybody else, sort of like a dancing speed-dating.
Children and parents, strangers and colleagues will all interact with each other.
It’s one of the coolest customs and filled with music and sweet food, so if you REALLY want to immerse yourself in tradition you should try and make it a point to attend!
Alright, you all set to attend your first wedding?!?
Remember, as a friend, colleague, or acquaintance all you really have to do is not draw too much attention to yourself and be open to new cultures, and you’re good!
Wear a Kurta
Experiment with an open mind on trying our breads, curries, desserts and spices.
Drink modestly, or don’t drink at all and wait till you get home.
Smile and have a good time!
Questions or comments specific to the wedding you’re about to attend? Do let us know! We spent a week putting it together and would love to know if it was helpful for you!
Ajay Manaktala is a New York born, California raised Indian DJ and expert on South Asian wedding customs, culture, nuances and entertainment. He’s also a Quora recognized most viewed writer on weddings. Having grown up in an all Caucasian-Mexican neighborhood, he’s also a pro on explaining Indian wedding details to first timers and will do so for you here!