Two high priests and an Indian wedding

14 May

The girl with arms covered in bangles was still holding my hand when two elderly men wearing turbans and white clothes approached us.

“Where are you from?”

“Norway.”

“We are the high priests of the temple. You can come inside, because you are from Norway. Your prince and princess were with me before”.

And that, my friends, is the gist of how it happened that we joined an Indian wedding yesterday.

Here is the longer story of what happened on this particular lucky Saturday (part one was the motorcycle temple):

Minutes before, we had been seated in our driver Balu's white TATA Indigo. He was trying hard to push through a small village that had appeared suddenly on the highway between Jodhpur and Udaipur. While he would normally have sent a tidal wave of people off the road with his horn, the music and drumming taking place in front kept him in check.

Ahead, we could spot the members of the groom's party making their way to the entrance of a house. I remembered the scene from when I attended an Indian friend's wedding in London. Behind the dancing crowd appeared a slim-built man on top of a horse, sporting an orange turban with a pink feather. Even with his face downcast, it was easy to make out that he looked unbelievably handsome and utterly overwhelmed.

With his car not going anywhere for quite some time, Balu encouraged us to go and have a look. If we had known how to, we would have wobbled our heads back at him in excitement.

Although our intention was to keep a discreet distance, it was only a matter of time before the two pale Europeans were spotted. With loud cheers, the crowd instantly backtracked from the entrance. Suddenly we found ourselves in the midst of giggling and dancing people, who all beckoned us to join. There was little time to reply, because soon my hands were held high in the air by bangle-covered arms and my Norwegian stiffness gave way to awkward improvised Indian-dance moves. Together we pushed (or they pushed us) onwards to the entrance of the house.

And that is when the two high priests approached. After happily accepting the invitation, one of them led us through a garden and into a cheery party tent, where he would leave us, he said, for a few minutes. As we settled ourselves down on the chairs, one of the girls who had taken my hand just before pushed through the labyrinthine of giggling children surrounding us.

“You married?”, she asked, appearing now just in front of me.

“Yes, this is my husband”, I said, pointing to my fiance.

“Love marriage?”, she quickly replied.

“Yes, love marriage”.

For a few seconds, thirty heads wobbled around us. Nods of approval all around. The girl with the bangles put her thumb up and gave me a high-five.

“Love marriage good”, she summed up.

“And you?” I asked.

“Arranged marriage”, she replied before she disappeared again, leaving me speculating about the qualities of her husband.

The high priest walked into the crowd. Everyone turned towards him. His name was Jai Prakash Sharma, he said. “We are now in the village Sadri, nearby the Jain temple. We are all priest caste, on both sides. This is arranged marriage”.

Before I had time to even ask about the name of his temple, he continued and made my eyes widen even further.

“I am the 16th generation of high priests of the Ranakpur temple, nine kilometres from here. Since 610 years, we have been high priests there”.

I felt rather like I had stumbled into the temple itself. The Ranakpur temple deep in the Araveli Hills is said to be the most spectacular Jain temple in India. A major destination for both tourists and pilgrims. And where we were on our way when an Indian wedding procession made different plans for us. Now we were at a wedding with its high priests?

Half an hour later, we were seated at the main table together with the high priests. As we sat eating vegetarian delicacies, the high priest told us excitedly about the wedding. It was his sister's daughter that was getting married, 22 year old Varsha. Her soon to be husband, Ashish, was a year older.

“When did they meet for the first time?”, I asked.

“Yesterday they saw each other for the first time.”

“What did they say?”

“When we asked them, they said they liked each other. They were happy”.

I would have liked to ask more questions about this, but at the time his phone suddenly rang. And by the time the call had ended, I had a stronger and more childish urge to ask if we were getting more than a royal treatment.

“Did the Norwegian prince and princess see a wedding?”, I heard myself ask without even a hint of shame in my voice.

“No, at that time it was not wedding season. We were just in the temple. I took them around; prince and princess, and small kids, like these girls”, he pointed to the two small grandchildren that were on his lap. “They were on private holiday, and then they went to Goa”.

I wish I could said that we then continued quizzing him on the Jain religion. But my boyfriend and I were rather busy whispering between ourselves until we finally told the high priest:

“We think you look like an older version of George Clooney”.

The high priest giggled, then turned to his son with a big grin.

“They think I look like a movie star!”

Facing us again, he told us excitedly that he had starred in one film, Darjeeling Limited.

And, so obviously I googled this afterwards. It's a 2007 film of three brothers – one of them Owen Wilson – who one year after their father's funeral travel by train through India to try to bond with each other. I checked it out on IMBD, and the high priest – Jai Prakash Sharma – stars as “Man on Bus”. Fantastic – I am so seeing this film as soon as I get a chance.

Eventually – after dal with chickpeas, cashew nut sweets and a myriad other vegetarian delights, we found ourselves seated by a small ‘temple’ set up for the wedding. The high priest, who had ushered us over and insisted we take our seats two metres from the bridal couple, pointed to the four generations present at the wedding. When the turn came to point out his mother, a woman who looked about 90 with her face half-hidden under a pink sari, he lowered his voice.

“I won't join you. I will sit over there”, he winked at us and moved his head slightly to the right. “Because I can't smoke in front of my father and mother”, he said, brightly.

“How long have you been hiding it?”, I asked.

“40 years. Since I began!”, he said and left with a cheery wave.

Opposite the bride's parents, who were tending the holy fire, sat an elderly Hindu priest with thick black glasses and a remarkably strong singing voice. I was seated on a plastic chair at the edge of the temple, observing just how many confusing things I could absorb in one afternoon. As the priest guided the bride and groom through the rituals, they kept their stares mainly on the flames in front. They both looked utterly overwhelmed. The flames flickered higher and higher as the bride's father and mother struggled to pour liquid ghee and rice onto the fire at the rapid pacing demanded by the priest's chanting.

Nodding towards the bride and groom, my boyfriend whispered, “I wonder what they think. Two random white people turning up at their wedding”. I was about to reply when I spotted the transvestite that had also magically appeared. I must have been staring, because the newcomer caught my eye and flickered long, fake eyelashes at me. I could barely repress a laugh. With large golden earrings, a red sari baring a flat stomach, bright red lipstick and orange hair pulled back from a strong-jawed face she was a striking, spectacular contrast to the wispy white-haired, elderly priest in front. “This wedding is brilliant!”, I whispered to my boyfriend. The high priest, who had by now finished his cigarette and joined us again at the ceremony, leaned in to explain: “Not man, not woman”.

This begged a number of questions, but before any could be asked, we were informed that the couple were now married and everyone around us got up to congratulate them.

“After this, she will go to her husband's family near Mumbai. We are all witnesses, so they will never get divorced. In this community we never get divorced or go to court,” the high priest said.

Again, I would love to have asked questions, but suddenly the priest from the ceremony stood in front of our chairs. “I told him to put sticker and holy thread on you”, the high priest explained. And, so, while chanting, the elderly priest put red marks on our forehead, added a few rice corns and then tied orange and red threads around our wrists. Now, this wedding is quite something, I thought to myself happily.

The fire was still burning, and the high priest explained that the large, white sweets that were being tossed into the air were “for sweet life and sweet love!”

And that was it. The newly weds were led away and we had to make a move to make it to Ranakpur temple before it closed for the day. Before we left, the high priest told us to find his nephew Manjo and have him show us around. “He’s the one with two thumbs!”

As for our visit to the temple later that afternoon, we did find the nephew Manjo. And as a matter of the day as such, I found it rather fitting that he had an extra thumb.

So, thumbs up for a lucky Saturday!


 

 

 

 

 

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