The pomp and splendor on display last month in London convinced millions around the world to not only watch the wedding ceremony of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, but also dub the extravaganza the "wedding of the century." But in India, where the typical upper-class wedding is expected to be an ostentatious spectacle, many well-heeled prospective brides and grooms might be tempted to point out that the century has only just begun.
"In India, they are like royal weddings every day, particularly at the high end," says Anita Patel, managing director of Tania-Tapel Events, a Mumbai-based international event-management company specializing in weddings. For the wealthiest Indian couples, the cachet of the royal seal may be out of reach, but little else is. "In India, it's more about glamour and glitz. There's more one-upmanship," says Patel. "People want something bigger and better than the last wedding they went to. They want something different every time."
And a booming Indian economy has left more Indian families flush with the cash required to mimic monarchical nuptials. The Indian wedding industry is awash with examples of trend-setting matrimonial excess: flying elephants from India to Monte Carlo to carry the groom on his grand entrance; inviting Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet to perform at a reception; and hiring a fleet of private jets with hourly departures, so guests can come and go as they please. "The budgets are astronomical," says Anaita Shroff Adajania, fashion director at Vogue India. "I'm sure there's [been] a wedding in India on the scale of the royal wedding, but not [with] the impact."
The spiraling matrimonial budgets of the country's wealthiest politicians, industrialists and celebrities have had a trickle-down effect. A wedding of any scale is an important event for a family in India, and the cost of financing a wedding decades down the road is well known. "Other than daily life, where individuals are pretty self-contained, a wedding is an opportunity to bring in everyone you've been associated with to show the culmination of 25 years of work," says Gourav Rakshit, business head of Shaadi.com, a matchmaking website. But the competitive pressure to keep up with, if not outdo, other families has a downside. "Most people are mortgaged to the hilt or take out very large loans," he says. Some lenders have even begun offering "auspicious" wedding loans to families looking to finance an impressive spectacle on the big day.
With guest lists that often stretch into the thousands for high-profile weddings, and with RSVPs still a rarity, hosts are forced to overcompensate, says Patel. "I organized a local wedding where we booked food for 500 people, and only 400 came."
The escalating extravagance and cost of India's weddings has left some unimpressed. "They should be smaller," says Rayapati Sambasiva Rao, a member of Parliament for the ruling Congress Party. "There are so many people lavishly spending $3 or $4 million. They can use the money for charity and reduce the expense."
Excessive wedding spending is increasingly common not only among the richest Indians but also among the poorest prompting official alarm. In April, Kuruppasserry Varkey Thomas, India's Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, floated the idea of curbing the waste with a government cap on the number of wedding guests, as well as the dishes that could be served. In a country where hundreds of millions of people live below the poverty line, food prices have become an explosive political issue. In politics, perceived indifference to the plight of those struggling to feed their families can be devastating. In late 2009, members of Parliament were rebuked by the Prime Minister for their appetite for first-class travel and five-star hotels, even if paid for out of their own pockets.
Still, increased spending on weddings is to be expected, says Ashish Abrol, founder and CEO of BigIndianWedding.com, a one-stop shop for all things matrimonial. "We're an older society, but our display of wealth shows we're very new to this kind of money," he says. "People haven't seen wealth like this before, so in the initial stages, you have ostentatious displays of wealth. There's this absolute need for display."
To make a splash that gets attention, families have turned over the reins to an army of wedding planners charged with making the big day memorable for guests, in addition to the bride and groom. "Traditionally, when you went to a wedding, you knew what to expect, but now everyone's trying to give you something you wouldn't expect," says Rakshit. "Given there are so many weddings, it's hard to be unique."
Gone are the days when it was enough to simply feed a thousand friends and relatives. When Indian politician Kanwar Singh Tanwar married off his son last month, 15,000 people attended the ceremony. Having a guest list that resembles the crowd at a sporting event is not all that unusual.
Bridal couples arriving by helicopter? Old news on the Indian wedding circuit. So is hiring a Bollywood actor to perform or just rub shoulders with guests. The practice of hiring celebrities is so common that there's even an industry price list for A listers. Shah Rukh Khan, India's biggest star, is quoted at $750,000, while movie heartthrob Salman Khan lists at about half that price.
Then, of course, India has royalty of its own. The Indian royal families of the British colonial period no longer wield power, but with family fortunes still intact, the royal weddings are well known for their opulence. In December, when a prince was married in the western Indian state of Gujarat, the couple rode through the streets on a white stallion while thousands of townspeople lined the streets and leaned over balconies showering them with applause and money.
While Indian weddings have grown in extravagance, it will be difficult to match the glamour of Britain's royal couple. But one potential wedding in India may give the British monarchy a run for its money: that of the dashing presumptive heir of Indian politics, Rahul Gandhi. "If he were to get married," says Rakshit, "it would be showcased all across the country."