Rohan Kalathiya is sweating.
On any other Saturday, the future cardiologist might be sipping Bloody Marys with friends or doing rounds at the hospital. Not today. Today he has to get on a horse. And he has to do it Bollywood-style in front of three photographers, three cameramen, and 250 family and friends. Kalathiya is getting married, and on top of the typical nuptial stressors, he has to perform in a parade.
The setting isn’t Saratoga or Louisville or, for that matter, Virginia horse country. Kalathiya and his bride, Neha Nigam, chose a venue just three blocks from the Mall—the Mandarin Oriental in Southwest DC. The white mare, a loaner named Cindy, is standing on Maryland Avenue, waiting for the groom to mount her in front of a Starbucks and a CVS. And he’s never ridden a horse.
As a musician hired for the occasion thumps his drum, Kalathiya’s buddies give him a lift. Suddenly it’s as if the crowd is pogo-sticking in unison, a swirl of fuchsia and gold. Kalathiya dons a floral garland and breaks into dance—“like a bawse,” one spectator later notes on Instagram.
At one end of the scene, Nigam is perched on a hotel balcony, welcoming the entourage with a Cinderella wave. At the other, a CitySights tour bus approaches, its passengers no doubt wondering what the heck is going on. It’s an Indian wedding. And it’s just getting started.
Kalathiya and Nigam first exchanged glances on a med-school rotation, then bonded over guacamole and beer at Surfside.
The two complement each other: She’s training to be a gastroenterologist and did her residency at Georgetown; he’s in cardiology and did his residency at Johns Hopkins. She drinks vodka-sodas; he likes bourbon.
Nigam really wanted a glamorous wedding. Plus, she reasons, “I’m the first member of my family to get married in America.” All the more reason to go bold. Her mother, a neonatologist, and her father, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic science at the University of Maryland, allotted a budget of $400,000.
Everyone knows weddings are expensive. Last year, the industry flooded the US economy with an estimated $57 billion worth of peonies, ribbons, and glittery envelopes, according to the Wedding Report research firm. TheKnot.com says the average American couple burns through about $35,000*. Indian nuptials, however, tend to be even more exorbitant. Planners in Washington say their average Indian client’s budget is roughly $200,000.
Many spend more. A lot more. Consider an Indian-American wedding that took place in Virginia Beach a few years ago. The four-day weekend involved 600 guests, intricate ice sculptures, a custom light show, and a six-person band flown in from India. The grand total: $1 million. “As soon as their child is born, parents are already saving for this,” says Trisha Cranor, the Washington planner who orchestrated the affair.
Indian parents spend years wishing, hoping, praying for their kids to get married. These celebrations represent love and commitment, yes, but they also epitomize the endurance of traditional family values. The spiritual union of a young couple has become a great excuse to throw a blowout family reunion, with relatives traveling from every square foot of the Indian diaspora for the occasion. (In 2013, one family reportedly chartered a jet to fly 200 guests from Houston to Las Vegas for a Bellagio hotel wedding rumored to cost $9 million.)
Whereas Western brides fret over the extra costs and logistical hassles of spontaneous plus-ones, Indian weddings are largely inclusive by nature. Those desiring an intimate affair will invite 200; a guest list of 1,000 signals an all-out bash. “You have to invite everyone you know,” says Simran Chawla, author of Indian Weddings, a guidebook for Indian-American brides.
The trend has birthed an entire publishing industry. There’s South Asian Bride out of Atlanta and Bibi out of New York. In 2014, Harper’s Bazaar launched a bridal magazine dedicated to the market. A magazine called Indian Weddings has bureaus in San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago, and New Delhi.
But the market opportunities in Washington are especially pronounced. In 2010, the area surpassed Los Angeles to become the third-largest South Asian population center in the country. For every dollar a Western couple in Washington spends on white tulle and filet mignon, their Indian counterparts hand over more than five times as much for purple silk and palak paneer.
Indian parents who want to marry off their daughter at the Four Seasons pay $225 a head for dinner and drinks. To hire a planner, they’re looking at a pricey flat fee; a full-service package for a three-day affair can reach $20,000. That’s a more-than-welcome windfall for the swath of hospitality industry that’s been reeling from a recessionary decline in corporate and government spending. It’s no wonder everyone wants in.
The Kalathiya-Nigam union involved six different fetes. At three different locations. On three different days.
The party started on a Thursday with the mehndi, an intimate gathering at the bride’s family’s home in Potomac. A bunch of ladies got inked up by henna artists, who spent six hours drawing rosettes, swirls, and tiny dots on the bride alone. As is customary, from this point on her family paid for meals, transportation, and entertainment for many out-of-towners. “The expectation is that you will do this,” says Rajesh Khubchandani, general manager of the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner. “There’s no limit to it.”
The next day, a work crew of 40 descended upon Arena Stage in Southwest DC and clocked a frenetic eight hours getting everything ready for Neha and Rohan’s sangeet, the Punjabi equivalent of a rehearsal dinner. The soiree for 175 included a deejay, a dance performance by the DC Bhangra Crew, a massive display of bangles imported from India to give away as favors, and a six-station buffet of more than 22 dishes. Also, a giant, gold-painted swinging bench—a throne from which the bride and groom could take it all in.
And that was all before Cindy the lady steed showed up for Saturday’s baraat. The baraat consists of the groom’s procession toward the bride’s family, a bit of pomp and circumstance harking back to the days when the groom would travel in on horseback from a different village. It’s also an Indian man’s once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to release his inner Bollywood prince. A drummer on foot typically lays the soundtrack for the groom and his family to march and dance, a physical jubilee embodying just how elated they are to welcome the bride into their lives.
Modest grooms rally up a white horse for the occasion. Indian grooms, however, are not generally known for their modesty. Many demonstrate their joy by way of a Ferrari, a Lamborghini, or, for the groom who’s skittish atop a stallion, a horse-drawn carriage.
In 2012, one husband-to-be with a white steed wanted to parade down Constitution Avenue. He had to apply for a permit from the Metropolitan Police Department, in order to shut down the street and spend an hour trotting past the Mall with “200 participants, 1 vehicle, 1 horse, and 1 drummer.” The paperwork, which was approved, cost $363 and came with two police escorts.
Other enterprising grooms have roared down Washington’s streets in convertible Rolls-Royces. One tried to charter a yacht for his arrival at the Gaylord National Resort in National Harbor but settled on an Aston Martin instead.
The showiest want to come in on an elephant. In 2009, a local groom intent on making a grand entrance at the Mayflower Hotel put his wedding planner through the logistical nightmare that is trying to bring the world’s largest land mammal into the city. For those who grew up in India—home to some 27,000 of the pachyderms—procuring and mounting an 11,000-pound animal is a routine task. “In India, it’s easy to get an elephant,” explains one jaded wedding planner. “It’s no big deal!”
In the US, it’s a very big deal. Planners have to fork over around $12,000 to book one of the few elephants for rent on the East Coast. To get to Northern Virginia or Maryland, the four-legged chariot—either Beulah, Karen, or Minnie—has to travel 350 miles from Connecticut.
Getting into DC is trickier. The city allows certain elephants at Indian weddings, so long as you secure a permit from the health department first. You’ll have to furnish the animal’s name, age, and route into the District; brandish a USDA license and a federal animal-exhibitor license; show proof of something called a “current trunk wash”; provide a copy of a “chemical immobilization plan” (in case there’s a stampede and the elephant needs to be put down); and hire a police-department sharpshooter (ditto).
Oh, and one more thing: You aren’t supposed to mount the elephant. Since the late 1960s, the city has had a no-ride policy for exotic animals. (Not that that’s stopped anyone.)
For his June wedding at the Renaissance Arlington Capital View Hotel, a local groom petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration to let him ride in on a helicopter (rental cost: $2,500). Nine days before the wedding, I received the following e-mail from his wedding planner:
We are still working out the details. If you have a high ranking government official that can help us push forward the approval, that would be amazing. Will keep you posted!
Citing a lack of public and operational benefit—and because even if I knew a single high-ranking government official, I couldn’t help—the FAA denied his request for a waiver of the no-fly zone.
Many a parent who has married off a child has attended nuptials thrown by friends or colleagues, then dreamed of making their fete bigger, bolder, and pricier than the last.
In Washington’s wealthy Indian communities, that impulse is even more conspicuous. It has spawned the use of fireworks for a special pop ($10,000), flash mobs for an element of surprise ($6,300), drone videography for aerial shots of the baraat ($2,000), initial-emblazoned dance floors for a personal touch($5,000), and light projections of the Taj Mahal ($6,000) because, well, why not?
One bride recently received a custom-made, platinum Audi sedan as a gift from her brother. He wanted her to ride off in style from her reception at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium. “It’s about keeping up with the Patels,” jokes Apoorva Gandhi, vice president of multicultural affairs for Marriott International.
It hasn’t always been this way. In India, a wedding is considered the most important moment in a child’s life. Families have traditionally saved for years to celebrate properly, sometimes bankrupting themselves in the process. But today’s over-the-top affairs weren’t the norm until after 1991, when the Indian government drastically cut import tariffs and taxes and the market boomed. Bollywood directors glamorized the free-spending spirit of the time, and status-conscious Indians—particularly moneyed families in the North—started making their weddings the stuff of movies. “Now it’s like you’re in the film,” says Harleen Singh, chair of South Asian studies at Brandeis University. Eventually the new custom migrated to the US.
In Washington, demand “keeps getting bigger every year,” says Midge Harmon of Harmon’s Hayrides and Carriages in Brandy Station, Virginia. Fifteen years ago, she answered a call from an Indian couple looking for a white mare for a baraat. Harmon didn’t own one at the time but thought it sounded like a good idea to invest. Today she has three. She can book up to ten Indian nuptials per weekend, at about $500 an hour for each.
About a decade ago, Ani Sandhu was just another Subway franchisee in Rockville, scheming his way into the wedding-planning business.
After launching his own company, he fell in love with Anjali Julka. At an elaborate engagement party, Ani formally asked Anjali to marry him in front of 250 guests.
Soon, Anjali realized that her day job at a dental office really impinged on her betrothal plans. She quit. As part of the intensive prep, she embarked on two monthlong sojourns to India and loaded up on jewelry and clothes. “Being in the wedding industry, we were really put on the spot to see what we would do for our own wedding,” Anjali says. “I got the ultimate Indian shopping extravaganza.”
Ani first materialized for his baraat in an ivory Rolls-Royce, later switching to a white mare. (He, too, had hoped for a helicopter. But not even a professional wedding planner can get the FAA to budge.) The couple partied with 750 friends and relatives at the National Building Museum. There were 20 valets, ten bartenders, three drummers, three deejays, two monogrammed dance floors, three peacock-shaped floral arrangements on a 14-foot-wide faux garden, and a handful of aerial acrobats hanging from the ceiling on silk. By night’s end, Anjali’s 15-pound dress had left bruises on her shoulders. The total damage: $600,000.
The following year, the Sandhus’ company, Ace of Events, planned 25 Indian weddings—including one with a budget exceeding $1 million. The couple markets themselves as a family-oriented company, flacking their relatability. They claim to comprehend India’s mind-boggling cultural diversity on a deep level. India is home to some 700 languages, hundreds of ethnic groups (at a minimum—the actual number is up for debate), and six main religions. Each retains wedding traditions of its own. “Because we’re of Indian descent,” Anjali says, “we can understand where the parents and bride and groom are coming from.”
Wooing clients is a high art. In May, Ani and Anjali hosted the last of 30 meetings for the Nigam-Kalathiya wedding. While Anjali served chutneys and samosas from a silver tray, Ani enumerated a play-by-play of the big day. What time should the 13-dish buffet open? Which table-card design captures the wedding theme best—pink butterflies or pink flowers? Should we talk about how the baraat will have to be canceled in case of rain? No, best not to speak of that. “I’m seeing my money evaporating,” quipped the bride’s father, Sumant Nigam.
His firstborn’s wedding day had a few close calls. Before the ceremony, while the bride and groom posed for professional portraits, a parade of aunties in saris arrived for their photos—only they weren’t supposed to be there. Telling a Western family that portraits were for immediate family alone probably would have resulted in a few scowls. Telling an Indian family, many of whom had traveled from India for the occasion, could have led to an ugly spat.
Ani, all Secret Service agent in his black suit and earpiece, went into damage-control mode. He whispered something into the earpiece mike, then approached the group and talked it out with them in Hindi. “These little things make a huge difference,” he says, adding, “They took it much better that way.”
Christine Godsey doesn't speak Hindi. But she is resourceful.
The Virginia native used to be a corporate event planner. After she switched to weddings, she booked one Indian affair and was stunned by the color, the culture, and, yes, the bill. Godsey realized that in a city saturated with luxury planners, caterers, and decorators, this market had somehow gone undetected. Why should Indian vendors like Ace of Events get all the cash?
So Godsey did what any ambitious up-and-comer would do: She read up on Indian culture and began peddling herself as the cool American planner who knew enough about the traditional stuff to satisfy parents but who could also talk rustic barnyards and Mason jars with brides. “It’s not your mother’s Indian wedding anymore,” says Godsey, who books 15 of the affairs a year. She gets brought in “because they want someone who understands the Indian culture . . . but they also want something with a more modern twist.”
While couples born in India may prefer celebrations festooned with red and gold, planners say those born to Indian parents in the US have begun requesting a reclaimed-wood aesthetic that’s more Shenandoah than Chennai.
In June, Godsey and a young couple huddled at the Georgetown Ritz, her preferred spot for meetings, and discussed their wedding-day schedule. Her ten-page document had it broken down into 15-minute increments. Two months later, she threw their $170,000 nuptials at the Castle Hill Cider barn near Charlottesville. There were burlap linens, white picket fences, and vintage touches such as a love marquee sign (available for $1,840). “In the past, a lot of Indian weddings stuck with Indian planners, Indian caterers,” she says. “Now there are Indian weddings where I only have the priest and the henna artist who are Indian.”
But for some, a Western planner remains a hard sell. Last year, for instance, Godsey met twice with Neha Nigam’s family. She had really hoped to win the parents over. In the end, Mom and Dad insisted on the Sandhus’ Ace of Events. Godsey never really got over it. She cringed when she saw Neha and Rohan’s wedding photos on Facebook this summer. “That,” she sighed, “was supposed to be mine.”
On the day of their wedding, more than 2,500 yards of chiffon cloaked the Mandarin’s ballroom in varying shades of pink.
According to decorator Prabha Bhambri, a team of 15 worked “round the clock” to ready the venue. She estimates that the number of flowers—which included varieties of orchids, roses, viburnum, and stock—reached the thousands.
Neha had selected the hotel over the Mellon Auditorium because it could accommodate her one must-have—an outdoor ceremony for 250. The Mandarin also courted her with special amenities: chilled towels, hospitality rooms for guests to grab snacks and freshen up, and, in case of bad weather, a gorgeous backup ballroom. (Three days before the wedding—with projected temperatures exceeding 90 degrees—Ani Sandhu moved the ceremony indoors, dispatching more than a dozen people to get the job done: “Plan B has to look like plan A!”)
For years, Washington’s Indian weddings have taken over roomy suburban resorts. But for many, keeping up with the Patels now means passing over a 10,000-square-foot banquet hall near the airport for the intimate glamour of the city. These changing tastes, combined with a drop in corporate and government business, have all the A-list hotels locked in an arms race, desperately courting every starry-eyed Indian couple—and entrenched vendor—in town. A big, fat, three-day wedding means a block of rooms and myriad events—which means a big, fat paycheck.
One afternoon this past June, the Fairmont in DC hosted an elaborate coming-out party of sorts to show off its new cultural know-how to 50 of the top Indian wedding professionals in Washington. The trappings included a chai bar, a henna artist, a signature mango lassi, a rub bar where guests could mix their own tandoori spice, and a four-foot-tall elephant crafted entirely from white mums.
Director of catering Robert Mikolitch says the Fairmont is making up for lost years. “We’ve had couples come in,” he says, “but because we weren’t fluent in doing this correctly, they said they were interested in going to a hotel that does that type of wedding. . . . We were crazy not to be able to work with these people.”
At the Tysons Ritz, which hosts 15 Indian weddings a year, special-events manager Morgan Mahoney has made a point of befriending Ani and Anjali Sandhu, who bring the hotel a constant stream of business. Mahoney now thinks of no detail as too slight. After experiencing how loud these festivities can be, she installed a decibel reader on her iPhone so she can notify hosts when their music is about to cause hearing damage to guests. She says she has learned the appropriate way to greet the extended family who show up for meetings to help haggle, and she knows how to cope with jittery “mom- and dad-zillas.” Yes, it’s true that a high-strung parent went berserk and made Mahoney cry. But it would take more than that to discourage her. She once had a five-tier cake decorated with henna designs and a fondant sari.
The Ritz belongs to Marriott, the conglomerate in Bethesda that in 2011 hired staffers to work specifically on multicultural affairs. Wooing Indian families is a main responsibility. The team hosts webinars and culture days, when employees visit ethnic grocery stores, sari shops, and restaurants. It has purchased tandoor ovens for cooking chicken tikka and flatbreads and has developed a signature recipe for the chai it serves during meet-and-greets. (The secret: Instead of using a powdered mix like most places, it uses teabags and steeps its milk with a pinch of cardamom.)
A recent Marriott advertisement in Indian Weddings magazine appeals to those who foot the bill. It offers to throw in two complimentary rooms—not for the newlyweds but for their parents. “We’re doing whatever we can,” says Apoorva Gandhi. It’s working. Between 2012 and 2014, Marriott’s Mid-Atlantic hotels hosted 410 Indian weddings and brought in $12 million in revenue.
Given the cash at stake, it’s easy to see why hotels are vying to earn the good graces of prized vendors like the Sandhus. The Nigam-Kalathiya nuptials that they staged couldn’t have been more stunning. There was a five-layer cake and macarons in six colors, crystal pendants dangling from the flower arrangements, and cyan and magenta hues infusing the whole room. Other than the auntie photo mishap and one panic-stricken moment when a guest’s sari got jammed in the hotel escalator, the event went off without a hitch.
A few days later, Neha Nigam’s father gave Ani Sandhu a call to thank him for what Neha described as “the best wedding a girl could ask for,” and to ask if he and his wife could take the Sandhus out for a drink. The date hasn’t happened yet. The Nigams got wrapped up with the family they had in town for the wedding. Ani and Anjali , meanwhile, have been busy planning their next bash.
*Corrected. (Our story originally used TheKnot.com’s 2013 figure of $28,000. It has been updated to reflect TheKnot.com’s 2016 estimate for the average price of an American wedding.)
This article appears in the September 2015 issue of Washingtonian.