LEWISTOWN - Lewistown caught a glimpse of just how Indian cultures celebrate marriage on Sept. 4 and 5 when Drs. Rajeshwar and Shashpal Malhotra hosted a wedding for their daughter Monica and her husband, Karthik Jayaraman.
Instead of taking place on just one day like many American weddings, the Indian traditions celebrate marriage for several days or a week with daily parties and ceremonies.
A rare sight in Lewistown, the Malhotra wedding joined together Indian, Sikh and American traditions, young and old, city and country, friends and family for the two-day celebration.
Sentinel photo by BUFFIE BOYER
Mifflin County native Monica Malhotra's hands are decorated with henna for the wedding parties. Henna is made from the powdered leaves of a tropical shrub and are used as a dye to temporarily color the hair and decorate the skin.
For the couple, their wedding celebration began in April when they traveled from their home in London to Karthik's hometown of Chennai, in southern India, to perform the traditional Brahmin wedding ceremony. Both of their immediate families gathered on April 30 to participate in the religious parts of the Hindu ceremony.
"I had a wonderful time growing up in a small town," Monica Malhotra said, of her reason for returning home for the wedding. "After being in the city for the past 10 years, it is very refreshing to visit home."
On Sept. 4, the couple kicked off the local celebration at the Lily Manor in Mifflin with a Mendhi and Sangeet Ceremony.
Around the brick manor hung photos of the couple in casual and traditional Indian dress. The rooms were decorated with vases full of peacock feathers, copper pots, a carved wooden elephant and glowing candles. Outside under a tent, musicians played big band music and Herb Alpert, while guests mingled around the garden lights or sat around the flower-decorated tables.
Inside, women dressed in colorful sari and cocktail dresses flocked to the mendhi, or henna, party where two specialists squeezed the ink from shiny tubes into flowing patterns across their hands.
Sitting on large, satiny blue pillows, specialist Sunny Sandhu worked the ink into vine, flower and peacock patterns across the guests' hands. After the ink sets into the skin, the henna is washed off to reveal the red, tattoo-like designs. Henna fades after several days.
While mendhi is not a tradition for all Indian cultures, those who practice the decoration consider it to be good luck for the wearers, said Sandhu, who works at a henna salon in Mechanicsburg.
For the bride, whose mendhi is applied prior to the party, the mendhi is fuller and more elaborate, Sandhu said, displaying the thin, viney patterns that covered Monica's hands and arms. Some brides have mendhi applied up to their shoulders and on their ankles, Sandhu said.
"They say the darker the henna, the more loving your husband is going to be," Sandhu said.
Later in the evening, Monica's father, Raj, called the guests onto the dance floor as haunting eastern-style music beat in the background. Monica's niece, Vidhi Kapoor, performed a dance for the couple, dressed in a red sari lined with gold sequins.
As the music tone changed to a modern, though still eastern, flair, the whole Malhotra family stepped out with hands raised high for a dance. With disco lights flashing, the outdoor dance floor filled with both young and old faces of family and friends as they surrounded the bride and her family in the Sangeet.
Traditionally, the Sangeet ceremony is where the women of the household gather around the bride to dance and sing, followed by more frolic and dance to Indian wedding songs. However, the Malhotras welcomed all their guests to join the dance.
On the next day, Monica Malhotra and her husband performed a civil ceremony in Lewistown, officiated by Judge Aaron Gingrich. Later in the evening, the family hosted an elaborate reception at Brookmere Winery for about 300 guests.
The reception kicked off with Raj Malhotra, who flew in a helicopter over the crowd and tossed flower petals on the lawn. Children shouted gleefully as they jumped into the air to catch the falling petals. After the helicopter landed, the father joined his family across the flower-covered grass in a processional dance accompanied by a drummer.
The couple showed a video from their Hindu wedding ceremony in India, which also included some Sikh traditions, as representative of Monica's side of the family.
The video showed Monica in a red sari and Karthik in white, both draped in garlands and jewels, sitting cross legged in a tent with a Hindu priest. Surrounded by their immediate family, the couple began the ceremonies of the Kasi Yatra and the Malai Mathal, where the bride's father advises the groom of the superiority of married life rather than an ascetic life and promises to give his daughter as companion to face the challenges of life.
Then, the bride and groom were lifted to the shoulders of their respective maternal uncles, and the two traded garlands in symbol of unification.
During the Oonchal ceremony, the couple sat on a swing strung with colorful fabrics and red and yellow flowers. The couple ate sweet milk and bananas while women in their families sang songs of praise. Colored balls of cooked rice were waved in a circular motion and thrown away to ward off evil spirits.
"The chains of the swing signify the eternal karmic link with God," Monica Malhotra said. The to and fro motion represents the waves of life that will move the couple in harmony through mind and body, she said.
Like the American tradition, the father also gives the bride away in Hindu ceremonies, but the groom's family also performs an act to welcome the bride by draping a red sari around her, Malhotra said.
For the final part of the ceremony, the Saptha Padhi, the bride and groom held hands and walked seven times around the holy fire to pay homage to Agni the God of Fire. Malhotra stepped on a grindstone representing the solid foundation for the union. The ceremony ended when she symbolically left her old life to enter the new home of her in-laws.
After the video and mingling with guests, the young couple walked onto the dance floor to perform their first waltz. The brides' parents also performed a special dance that they choreographed themselves in honor of the couple.
The evening continued with food, fireworks and more dancing.
Raj Malhotra came to the U.S. after graduating from medical school in India; and after writing to his then-girlfriend Shashpal every day, she joined him in the west. The couple married and moved to Lewistown where they began their family.
Monica Malhotra was raised in Lewistown, where she graduated from Indian Valley High School with honors. After college, she worked in New York City for JP Morgan Chase Investment Bank. In 2004, she met Karthik; and when his job transferred him to London, she found a job there, too.
This week, Monica and Karthik returned to their home in Notting Hill, England.
"... but we will definitely be moving back to the U.S. in the next few years," Monica said.