On more than one occasion, traveler friends I have made along the way have been comparing my journey with Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat Pray Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. Her memoir tells her story of being recently divorced and 32 years old and then choosing to travel around the world in search of recovery and her raison d’être. Each place she visits holds a symbolic theme, hence the Eat, the Pray, and the Love. As a 32-year old man who is on a parallel journey, it seems appropriate to keep with the fashion of themes – India was my first destination on this trip, and for me, it was about diversity, energy, and rich experience.
I continue to believe that four things that are central to the entrepreneurial mind are having fun, problem-solving, learning about others, and relaxing and letting the mind wander. This, and the occasion of a close friend’s wedding, was why I decided to spend a month traveling the East, as part of my transition from consulting life to entrepreneurial adventure. And India did not disappoint.
Nikhil and Chandani’s wedding was to be held in Mumbai, and in tandem with the celebration, I planned to explore this great city and continue to on to New Delhi and Agra, which would include the quintessential visit to the Taj Mahal. To sweeten the experience, I would be in the company of my closest friends from Notre Dame.
I’m not sure what I could have been told or what I could have read that would have fully prepared me for what I was going to experience. I had heard about Indian weddings and some of the more iconic destinations in India from Indian friends and colleagues as well as fellow travelers. I had heard that Indian weddings were usually well attended, multi-day, and extravagant. As for India itself, I knew about the country’s generalities, such as it being a very large populous country that is part of the industrialized developing world, but I knew very little about the culture.
But while those tidbits hold some truth, the experience is so much grander than I was prepared for. Indian weddings are known to host hundreds and in some cases as many as 10,000 attendees. The average length of a conventional Indian wedding is three days, but it is not uncommon for festivities to last seven days or more. As for extravagance – the wedding events are meticulously planned, elaborately decorated, deeply rooted in Indian tradition, and full of a wide selection of amazing food and drink.
With regard to India itself, it is estimated that the country’s population is 1.32 billion people who live within 1.1 million square miles. Compare that to the United States, which is home to approximately 320 million people spread across 3.5 million square miles. Big takeaway – when compared to the United States, India has more than 4 times as many people living on less than 1/3 of the land. But you can’t imagine what that’s like until you’re standing in the middle of Mumbai, surrounded by thousands of people. Regardless, the truth is that these stats don’t even scratch the surface of what this country is all about.
Additionally, I fear that there is little justice that I can do to comprehensively capture the diversity of this amazing country and the rich tradition of the Indian weddings at large. Between my limited experience and the limit on blog word counts, it would be more prudent to share some memorable moments from my time in Incredible India. So here goes:
By Horse and Sword
Nikhil and Chandani’s Wedding was an endless celebration. Aside from my novice ability to compare Indian Weddings, this was first in class. The bride and groom’s family went out of their way to make this a remarkable experience. At a length of 3-days and upwards of 500+ attendees, the most memorable experience was donning a turban and participating in the procession of the groom to the Sikh Temple where he would meet his bride and undergo the formal marriage ceremony. There is something supernatural about a chivalrous man riding on a white horse under heavy drum percussion, while wearing a traditional sword by his side. The symbolism here was out of this world. There was circle dancing and cheering all the way to the entrance of the temple where the groom’s friends and family were united with the bride, her family, and guests. We were well received, to say the least!
Upon entering the Temple, we all enjoyed breakfast followed by an incredible Sikh ceremony. We sat cross-legged or kneeled with our attention facing forward to an alter-like center area where a Sikh spiritual leader formally wed Nikhil and Chandani. Their union was a rich celebration that I know they will enjoy for years to come, and it was a something I will never forget.
Take a peek at this professional short-form wedding film to satiate your curiosity.
Pinpointing Peace in Mumbai and New Delhi
It is my estimation that major Indian cities tend to be very crowded, experience bouts of heavy air and noise pollution, and demonstrate staggering wealth gap amongst the visible population. Despite this seemingly shocking expression, there is a certain beauty and elegance in the chaos. Surprises can be found everywhere.
- Spiritual Experience at Mahalakshmi Temple
Nestled in the southwest peninsula of Mumbai sits the Mahalakshmi Temple. It is a sacred place for Hindus where Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of material and spiritual wealth, fortune, and prosperity, gives blessings to all who visit.
Knowing very little of this at the time, the Temple was just another TripAdvisor destination to check out while in the area, but after climbing the steps and gazing around the shrines, the walls, and the lookout facing the Arabian Sea, I noticed a cozy sitting area at the top of the entrance steps. There were people facing the larger shrine, many of whom were not talking and just seemed to be meditating or praying quietly. I looked up and saw a light breeze tapping canvas sheets that covered the area from the sun and suddenly I felt compelled to sit cross-legged, close my eyes and assume a meditative pose.
I’m not sure why or how, but I felt a certain calm and a peaceful chill ran from the back of my head to the top of my forehead, similar to that of a runners high. I smiled, and enjoyed the moment, as I felt that there was good energy to be embraced and shared at this location. I’m not Hindu, nor do I know much of the religion, but I felt something strong here.
- Tuk-tuk Flow
Tuk-tuks are three-wheeled auto rickshaws, housed by a thin metal, covered by a canvas rooftop. Aside from defying the laws of physics many of these engineering miracles are powered by natural gas and assume speeds upwards of 50 kph (31 mph). More often than not, they are the only realistic way to get around Indian cities.
From the back seat of a tuk-tuk, speeding around the crowded streets of New Delhi, I gazed out at architectural marvels and pedestrians living their daily lives. But after a while, my focus shifted, and I zeroed in on my driver and the surrounding driving environment. Indian traffic was a completely new experience and not for the faint of heart. The horn honking was incessant and perils were near at every movement of the wheel. Anything can happen at any time regardless of the turn, intersection, or moment of stillness in the swaths of traffic. I felt like an electron in a sea of high-velocity particulate matter.
Somehow in all of this chaos, the driver was in his state of Flow. He knew his craft, his tools, and his environment. Many say you need three things to drive in India, good brakes, a good horn, and good luck! If you had to lose two of them, I’m convinced 9 out of 10 drivers would keep the horn. And so when sitting in traffic at a dead stop, a motorcycle hit the side of the tuk-tuk with a fair blow. The driver and the motorcyclist exchanged slow motion shrugs and traffic started to move again. We both transited back into the ether as if nothing had just happened. Clearly, everyone can find peace in the chaos.
The Taj: Yes, It Really is that Big
My friends and I left early in the morning to catch sunrise and beat the crowds. After navigating a short security line and marveling at some mischievous monkeys on some nearby rooftops, we were in. We traveled by foot from the East Gate, and slowly the Taj uncovered itself to us…
In Persian, Taj Mahal means the Crown of Palaces. It stands at a height of 240 feet and rests plot of 42 acres. Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan commissioned the building in 1632 as a tomb for his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal. There is a mosque, a guest house, and formal gardens as far as the eye can see. In short it is nothing short of jaw-dropping.
The sun rose slowly for us, and we caught magic in motion. It took some time to cover the grounds. The details of the compound are incredible from the detail in the stone and marble inlays to the precision of the garden grounds.
Great Memories and Flat Champagne
It just so happens that my friends and I were visiting the Taj Mahal around New Year’s Eve 2016. As Agra is not well-known for its nightlife, we decided to ring in the New Year at our hotel. And while a world-famous DJ and coordinated smoke machines didn’t light up our night, we had some of the best company we could ever ask for.
As the clock neared 12, we decided we’d all like a glass of ceremonial champagne to share a toast. To our chagrin, any affordable, fresh champagne was hard to come by. All that was left was flat champagne, which the bar hand was not keen on parting with. But after a bit of negotiation, a close friend and I secured us the finest bottles of free, flat champagne the hotel could offer. Score! My friends and I had a lot to reflect on over the year past. We all cherished our time together and held our glasses high.
India has a lot to offer this world, and I am so happy to have been able to capture of a piece of it in my life. In a short time, I was able to share in an incredible union of two beautiful souls, discover amazing Indian cities, experience one of the 7 Wonders of the World and bring in the New Year with the closest of friends. It was truly a diverse and rich experience. My entrepreneurial mind was nourished by the fun experienced at the wedding, the problem solving of navigating Indian cities, learning about others through Indian culture, and feeling a powerful soothing energy at a Hindu Temple.