Right from the moment I got off the plane at the "Indira Gandhi" airport in New Delhi one early morning of March, I got the strong feeling that I am far, far away from home ... I stepped on a shiny yellow carpet full of oriental ornaments.

I had never seen an airport completely covered with carpet! A peculiar smell hit my senses - strange, strong and spicy. Following the colourful stream of tourists I headed towards the escalator. I found myself in a huge hall full of people, chaotically moving or waiting to pass passport control. I was impressed by the many men wearing turbans in different colours and shapes, as well as the women studded with fake or genuine gold jewellery with huge dimensions that reflected glare; and among them were the casually dressed European tourists, patiently waiting for an entry visa. I felt that from now on I will be part of this vast, colourful, noisy crowd. I felt ready to dive into this exotic country for which I had heard so much and was ready to meet my friend Varsha, with whom we studied together in the UK. The invitation for her wedding, which brooked no refusal, was one reason to visit fabulous India.

Varsha took me from the airport along with her future husband – Amet; and we immediately sloped on the

New Delhi Roads

The traffic was shockingly fast, chaotic, supplemented by constant horn pressing and bold overtaking. A cultural shock was probably written on my face because Varsha said laughingly, "Welcome to India!". When I arrived at her house, I was greeted with Hindu prayers by at least seven aunts, touching my forehead. Most of the time, they would lay next to each other on a huge bed. They all had come for the wedding, and even more aunts from all over India were expected to come to the ceremony. The following days were filled with wedding preparations, through which I got the chance to visit some of the city’s landmarks.

The Indians consider it a great honour when guests visit their home and all family and friends are included in the welcoming part. When I woke up the first morning, I felt the smell of fried Paratha – a flat bread served with different chutneys. Before I got out of the bed, one of Varsha’s aunts, who I later found out was the personal cook of the family, served me water and tasty Masala tea (black tea with aromatic Indian spices and herbs). I had tried Indian cuisine in Europe, but the variety of aromas and flavours can only be felt in here, in a genuine Indian house. After having my tea, I left the room and saw a scene that grabbed my attention, and that would be part of my daily life over the next two weeks –

Varsha’s aunts

They were all dressed in saris sitting on beds, couches or just on the floor and were singing farewell songs for the wedding separation of the daughter with her family. This they did from morning till night until the very last wedding day. Here I must note that the average Indian wedding lasts three days and this was how my friend’s wedding was going to be.

The day began; Varsha and I set out to give away the wedding invitations. We spent a lot of time in the car, crossing Delhi from one end to another. Sometimes we would fall into severe congestion and sometimes we would drive at high speed on the wide avenues. "This is our life" - Varsha  said. The good thing was that we had enough time to talk, and I managed to ask all my questions related to the famous Indian weddings. I wanted to know her opinion on arranged marriage, which was what hers was going to be. Generally, Varsha seemed very happy and excited for her special day, it was written on her face. She explained that arranged marriages are a tradition in India and nowadays they have been modernized. Her parents told her that she can find a man to marry, but she should not be very late with her choice. In particular, at the age of 26 years she was expected to have found a man, and if not, the parents would find one for her. While having a choice, she still felt that the parents would be the ones to choose her husband. "You should have trust in your parents, they won’t pick somebody bad for you". She told me that her family introduced her to many bachelors, and she had the complete freedom to make choices and to say "no" to those who she did not like. "I met around 40-50 men! Some of them I rejected and others rejected me. But Amet was the one to finalise my choice" Then she added: "Everything is a matter of first impression, you only need 5 minutes. We met, we liked each other and that was it…

The marriage was fixed

I was very intrigued by this tradition and asked almost everyone I met, about their opinions and experiences. Somya, one of Varsha’s best friends, told me that she does not trust herself when it comes to guys, "I trust my parents completely. They will make the best choice for me. And in case he turns out to be bad, I will blame it on them and they will have to deal with the problem! I’m just playing it safe! "; another girl - Aarushi, expressed a different opinion: "You have to meet the person, make friends with them and then see whether you want to be with each other. How can anyone make such a choice for you?"; Anmol, a law student in Delhi, also shared his vision: "The negative way that the West looks on this tradition is due to the fact that it was practiced in a different way one or two centuries back. Now arranged marriage has been modernised and close to the Western standards. Both the man and the woman have the freedom to say "no" to someone if they do not like them" he continued: "Of course, this applies to the majority of the society, but in some rural areas of India, arranged marriage is done the old way. In cities, however, things have changed –the tradition has definitely undergone modernization". So I became aware of how arranged marriages are done in India and especially in Varsha’s family, because every household has different rules and customs that more or less differ. And the next thing I came across with were

The wedding rituals

As I mentioned, Indian weddings last for three days and are strictly themed with religious traditions and customs. The first day, a Hindu preacher comes and performs the ritual Ganesh Puja. This is a ceremony that usually occurs in the bride’s house and is attended by the closest relatives. In Varsha’s house this ritual was accompanied by bewail songs of the aunts and special oil that was applied on her knees, hands and face. On the second day the "mehndi" ceremony was performed–the henna application on the hands and the feet of the women. In India this is done on various festive occasions and is filled with important symbolism. The painted with ornaments hands are a symbol of beauty and also of caring and affection. In wedding ceremonies however the henna application has special wedding messages. The ceremony was followed by a party where the whole family was part of, and was filled withwild dancing. The third day is the most important one; it is the formal wedding ceremony. I was stunned by the solemnity of the ceremonial hall, its lavish decoration and the wedding food. The place was bursting with the brilliant scenery of golden couches, garlands of fresh flowers, traditional costumes of the guests and lavish gold jewellery. I was also dressed in a very beautiful but extremely heavy,silky sari!

Varsha was waiting for Amet in the special "bride’s room". She looked stunningly beautiful, with a red dot on the forehead, symbolizing the commitment to her future husband. Her wedding sari was in red and gold- the traditional Indian brides’colour. Half of her hands were covered with bracelets called choora, which had strange icicles hanging from them. The ritual is that those should be pulled by the single women in order to see who will be the next bride, something like the throwing of the bouquet ritual in Christian weddings. The choora bracelets are worn 40 days after the wedding. They are deliberately made of fragile material because it is considered that the bride should refrain from any hard work during this time. In past times, the choora was worn for one whole year.

While Varsha was waiting for the groom to arrive, under the accompaniment of farewell songs of the aunts, Amet was slowly approaching, sitting

on a golden carriage drawn by white horses

He looked like a Maharaja from a fairy tale! All his relatives and friends were following him towards the hall while dancing. The music was loud, accompanied by the passionate dancing of the happy family. Somya explained to me the difference in the emotions of the two families during the celebration: "In India, the society is patriarchal and after the wedding the woman goes to the man's family to live there forever. It is unlikely for a couple to stay nuclear. Therefore the groom’s side is excited by the fact that the family is adding a new member while the bride’s side is a little sad because they are giving away one" she then added: "But do not get me wrong, they are also very happy! The biggest dream of every Indian mother is to see her daughter getting married! It’s just that they will no longer live in the same house ..."

When Amet arrived in the hall, he grabbed Varsha in his arms and carried her to a special stage. There all the guests went one by one in order to greet them. Then the most important ritual was performed - the preacher married them. There were many different rituals–fire lighting, throwing rice in it, going around the centre three times, pronouncing prayers and others ... When everything was finished, the young family left the room and headed to the house of the groom. Varsha said that she had never visited Amet’s house before the wedding, it would be the first time and she would have to stay there forever! They got into the wedding car that was slowly pushed forward by the brothers and relatives of the bride. The aunts were left behind, singing their farewell songs. The bride and the groom headed to a new and all set up future...

The famous Holi festival

In the coming days I had the opportunity to explore a part of fascinating India. From our tour, I cannot forget to mention the spectacular Chandni Chowk - one of the oldest and most attractive markets of Old Delhi. There we tried amazing food from the "Paratha World" - fried paratha filled with bananas, along with extremely spicy chutneys and pickles! Then we enjoyed a refreshing Kulfi (Indian ice cream).

We also got to visit several temples in Delhi. The atmosphere there was calm and pleasant, and the interior - very beautiful. In one of the temples three men with long white beards and purple turbans sang spiritual songs. On our way out we were treated with a handful of delicious semolina halva. We left with the feeling of being completely renovated and soulful.

I cannot do but mention the famous Holi festival – the spring festival of colours and love sharing. The whole city was covered with colours. All people, regardless of age or situation, from new-born babies up to hundred-year-olds; and all cats, dogs, trees and cars were sprinkled with dust of all rainbow colours...this euphoria and fun was joined by foreign tourists, as well.

From Delhi we headed to the pink city

Jaipur - the capital of Rajasthan and of the...jewellery

There we had the opportunity to visit the Bapu Bazaar, where we bought amazingly beautiful Indian bracelets, necklaces and ornaments, and most importantly- amazing anklets! Then we followed our "Tuk Tuk" driver in one of the poorest areas of Jaipur. We went to his home, where he and his friends performed a brilliant puppet show. We also visited the Monkey Temple in the mountains. As the name suggests, it is a temple full of monkeys! After these amazing experiences in Jaipur, it was time for us to head to probably the most important cultural heritage of India- the magnificent Taj Mahal. Varsha and Amet joined us on this journey, considering it as their unofficial honeymoon.

Heading towards the city of Agra, where the Taj Mahal is, we travelled for nearly four hours, during which I had the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful and tranquil Indian landscapes. The highway connecting Jaipur and Agra seemed endless and desolate. However, from time to time you could see small outdoor restaurants where weddings were taking place. We saw more than a dozen of such! In order to reach the wedding ceremonies, the guests had to walk many miles on foot just to be part of them! The other thing that impressed me was the small liquor stores, hidden slightly off the highway in the middle of nowhere and yet they were full of customers!

To see the Taj Mahal

We arrived in Agra. At first the town seemed plainer compared to the beautiful and picturesque Jaipur. But after seeing the Taj Mahal, that impression quickly changed. This Muslim mausoleum was built by Shah Jahan for his third and most beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal ("pearl of the Palace"), who died after giving birth to their 14th child. While Mumtaz is on her deathbed, Shah Jahan promises that he will never remarry and that he will build a majestic mausoleum over her grave. Its construction took 22 years and the labour of 22,000 workers. According to the legend, Shah Jahan cut off the hands of the Taj Mahal’s builders after its completion, so no one could later re-build this magnificent palace. Our local guide told us that the "cut hands" stand as a metaphor for the fact that the emperor had paid so much money to his employees so that they and their next three or four generations will not have the need to work. To this day those who protect and restore the monument are the actual descendants of the people who built the Taj Mahal in 1649.

The time had come for me to leave India. I was filled with some sweet melancholy caused by my impending separation from this fascinating country. Before I set my foot on the plane heading for my return journey, I already knew that one day I will come back again. After two weeks of impressions, observations, surveys, tastings and entertainment,I realized that I hadn’t even scratched the surface of this vast universe called India. A place different, shocking, wise, animated and enchantingly beautiful...

Photos:  Elma Neykova