Indian weddings have always been special occasions, celebrated with zest, enthusiasm, and, in the case of the wealthy, elaborate settings and food. But as a growing economy pumps new wealth into the country, weddings have turned into veritable showpieces - and a $10 billion industry. Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi on how the fat Indian wedding has turned even fatter.
For centuries, friends and family chanted songs, youngsters danced, and cooks dished out traditional delicacies when Indian wedding festivities got under way.
But times have changed. The festive spirit has taken on a more ostentatious flavor as weddings become occasions for India's rapidly growing affluent classes to show off their new wealth.
The result: professional singers and entertainers have replaced the amateur melodies, elaborate parties at farmhouses and five-star hotels are now the norm, and exotic foreign cuisines are served along with traditional Indian fare.
Wealthy Indians have longed staged lavish weddings, as much to trumpet their wealth as to celebrate their children's marriages. But as the economy explodes, it is not just the super-wealthy who want to show off their spending power.
Neeta Raheja, runs a wedding planning company, Creative Explosions, that organizes weddings ranging in cost from $20,000 to $2 million.
"Being really extravagant and [going] over the top was something done by the very elite class, today it is spread more, people who are not that affluent want to get into very elaborate do's when it comes to weddings," she explained.
The newly rich are fast learning conspicuous consumption, and want to make their daughters' or sons' nuptials at least as lavish, if not more so, than the last one they attended.
Purnima Mehta, the wife of a retired senior corporate executive, recently hosted her daughter's wedding. She says organizing a show with style is important in a society where weddings have become statements.
"I may have personally liked a simple ceremony, but who wants it? Not the children, not the family - and you know everyone is sizing you up at the affair," she said.
And so, many now opt for several days of feasting and dancing. The parties might boast settings based on famously elaborate Bollywood films, fresh orchids flown in from Bangkok, perhaps a hired Mercedes instead of the traditional horse to carry the groom. Neeta Raheja describes the difference since she entered the business in the early 1990's.
"They hire helicopters, and they [the helicopters] are showering petals. When I used to do it [earlier], we used to have elephants standing in a row and showering petals, but I think this is the tech age, and you can go as bizarre as you want to," she said.
Such celebrations add up to big bucks: the wedding industry is now a $10 billion market that is swelling by 25 percent a year. These lavish affairs can wipe away years of savings for many families - but no one is complaining.
The booming business has prompted property developers to design one-stop wedding malls that provide everything from the wedding outfits to the honeymoon plans. The first one opened in Delhi this year. More are being built in other cities.
Shopkeepers selling items such as jewelry, which is traditionally given to the bride, say sales are roaring, even though soaring gold prices in the past year have made jewelry more expensive.
Suresh Garg, the manager of one prominent jewelry store in New Delhi, says he did brisk business ahead of the wedding season that runs from November to February.
"Income levels are also going up. There is plenty of money available, salaries are rising, share values have increased, people are flooded with money," he said.
The most talked-about wedding this year was hosted in India by Sant Singh Chatwal, a U.S.-based hotel magnate. For his son's marriage in February, Chatwal ferried 300 guests from across the world on three chartered planes for week-long celebrations spread over the cities of New Delhi, Mumbai and Udaipur. One of the guests likened the festivities to recreations of "ancient Indian royal courts."
Wedding planners like Raheja do not blink an eye at such a show of splendor.
"There is no really looking at costs where weddings are concerned for the super-rich in India," he said. " It is all about making a statement. Each one wants to be different from the other … It all depends on where you want to stop."
When Forbes Magazine recently looked around for the most extravagant wedding held so far in the 21st century, it specified the celebrations hosted by British-based Indian steel magnate Lakhsmi Mittal.
For his daughter's nuptials in 2004, Mittal organized an extravaganza at some of France's most famous locations, including the Palace of Versailles. The cost of the wedding: $60 million.