On July 29, 1981, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer got married in St. Paul's Cathedral before 3,500 invited guests and an estimated television audience of 750 million. At the time, it was the most viewed program ever broadcast, a testimony to the power fairy-tale weddings hold over the popular imagination, especially when the groom and bride are a real-life prince and princess. Today, wedding ceremonies are rarely on that grand a scale—at least in the West. On the Subcontinent, however, the bridal business is booming, and fantasy weddings are everywhere.
Indian weddings are, by nature, more involved than Western ones. They last anywhere from three to seven days, involve multiple religious functions and feature guest lists that can stretch to 25,000 people. They're seen as community—as opposed to strictly family—affairs. But those social conventions have taken on new extravagance in light of the country's astonishing economic growth.
Business people are leading the trend. Billionaire steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal set the gold standard with the 2004 union of his daughter, Vanisha, to Amit Bhatia, a London-based investment banker. Rumored to have spent more than $60 million, Mittal chartered jets to ferry the 1,000 guests to Paris, where most were put up in the five-star InterContinental Le Grand Hotel for the duration of the five-day event. Mittal rented the 17th-century château and garden of Vaux le Vicomte for the marriage ceremony and the romantic Jardin des Tuileries for the sangeet dinner, the Indian version of a bachelorette party, where women celebrate together. The engagement ceremony was held at the iconic Palace of Versailles. Guests were treated to private tours of the palace, then entertained with a re-enactment of the bride and groom's love story, penned by a leading Bollywood writer. The biggest coup, however, was the Bollywood spectacular held at the Parc de St-Cloud, where A-list stars such as Shah Rukh Khan, Rani Mukherjee and Saif Ali Khan performed, followed by a surprise appearance by Kylie Minogue at 2:30 in the morning.
High-profile weddings have taken on a celebrity aura thanks in part to the heightened visibility of Indians among the international jet set. Drawing guests from the worlds of film, music, fashion and society, these marriages have become some of the most coveted social invitations for the world's party people—not to mention a lucrative source of income. Playboy Arun Nayar's marriage to actress Elizabeth Hurley last year was featured by Hello! magazine in a multimillion-dollar deal that included coverage of their Hindu ceremony at the Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, which attracted boldface names such as Bollywood superstar Preity Zinta and designer Tom Ford. Among the highest-profile Indian weddings was the 2006 nuptials of Vikram Chatwal and Priya Sachdev, spread out over seven nights and three cities. Chatwal, a hotelier and notable fixture on New York's party scene, married Sachdev, a Delhi-based model and retail entrepreneur, amid 300 friends—including a gaggle of top models, socialites, playboys and former president Bill Clinton.
There's a tendency, in the face of these outrageous examples, to assume that this level of expenditure is the exception, not the rule. After all, few people have the financial means to spend tens of millions of dollars on their son's or daughter's nuptials. But that's not the case. Even families that aren't included on a Forbes list are willing to invest hefty resources into arranging what will be (they hope) a once-in-a-lifetime affair. In fact, during wedding season—from December to February—it's impossible to cruise down Marine Drive in Mumbai without getting held up in traffic. The street is lined with five-star hotels and outdoor wedding halls festooned with elaborate flower arrangements and marching bands.
Even well-to-do Indian-Americans are getting in on the act. One such union, between a Michigan-based entrepreneur and a lawyer, was recently held at the riverside Royal Orchid Sheraton in Bangkok. More than 500 guests flew in for five nights of festivities, which included an elephant procession down the city streets, gold cuff links and rare pearl bracelets as gifts for guests, and a formal dinner cruise. The bride and groom both wore an astonishing array of diamond, ruby and emerald jewelry, color-coordinated to match each ensemble.
To a foreigner it's easy to scoff at such extravagance, to chalk it up to nouveau-riche impulses given free rein. Certainly, an element of social peacockery does come into play—but that alone does not account for the phenomenon. After all, impressing the neighbors is hardly a uniquely Asian concern, and there are more enduring ways to telegraph your wealth than an ephemeral celebration.
The deeper motivation stems from the country's distinct social customs. While the West tends to focus on the individual, in India the family is of paramount importance, followed closely by membership in various ethnic and religious communities. An over-the-top wedding is an opportunity to bring together all these people under one supersize tent and to celebrate the core values that define Indian society. It is an occasion for joy, not just for the bride and groom but for all 25,000 of their closest relatives and friends.