Storybook Indian Wedding Captivates Salt Lake City with Pomp, Revelry, Opulence

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The newlyweds Abhishek Dhingra and Avni Patel with their parents, Ashok and Vijay Dhingra of Houston on the left and Dinesh and Kalpana Patel of Salt Lake City on the right.

 

For video clip click here

 

By Jawahar Malhotra

SALT LAKE CITY: The pristine, cool morning air reverberated with the deafening sounds of the two dholuks that played in dueling cadence under the porte cochere of the Grand America Hotel entrance. The baratis (groom’s side) of the wedding party took their positions behind the heavily decorated white steed which snorted and strained at the unaccustomed noise that played out so close by; its master gripping the reins tightly and whispering calming commands. The baratis stepped out in their dazzling, colorful Indian finery, the men with red turbans with long tails, achcans (tight pants) and embroidered sherwanis (long top jackets), the women in heavy, embroidered silk and brocaded saris with intricate pallas (end pieces), dazzling jewelry and henna laden hands.

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Down the curved driveway, the procession of 200 or more baratis slipped onto South Main Street as intrigued passersby gaped and stared in bewilderment while the guests of the Little America Hotel across the street came out to stare appreciatively and take pictures on their camera phones. Passengers on the electric trolley line that plied down the middle of the road looked excitedly out of the windows at the procession that turned south towards 900 South Street where two policemen stopped and redirected traffic around the wedding party that turned eastwards the side entrance driveway of the hotel.

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The DJ blasted out dance music – mostly fast paced Punjabi bhangra – from the back of an electric golf cart which rode at the front, shouting encouragement to egg on the revelers to dance – and they did with a half two-step, arms in the air, hands gesticulating, hips swinging, faces grimacing and prodding on others with raised eyebrows and keen, wild stares – as they made their way to the side entrance. The groom sat on the white mare, his face partly hidden by a veil of strung white flowers and held onto his three year-old nephew – in the finest of Punjabi traditions – and was led behind the baratis. 

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They entered the southern porte cochere and for the next 20 minutes, the baratis – led by the young men, then family and close friends who joined in – danced in a tight circle of aggressive moves, in front of the family of the bride which awaited them at the entrance doors. As the dancing ended, the bride’s family received the groom’s family and the rest of the baratis with tradition bound pomp and pageantry.

The groom Abhishek arriving at the mandap in courtyard of the Grand America escorted by his parents.  Photos: Nadia D. Photography

The groom Abhishek arriving at the mandap in courtyard of the Grand America escorted by his parents. Photos: Nadia D. Photography

It was a wedding the likes of which this almost mile-high city with clean streets, a small town friendliness and mountain ranges on three sides had never seen before, attested to by the huge front page news story coverage in the local newspaper, The Salt Lake Tribune on two consecutive days.  Nestled in the bowl of the Salt Lake valley – the Great Basin – created by the Wasatch and Oquirrh mountain ranges on the eastern and south eastern borders and the Great Salt Lake to the northwest, this city of 200,000 in a valley where nearly half of the Utah’s almost 3 million people live is home to only 5,000 Indians, according to unofficial local estimates.

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And many of them have done exceedingly well, like Sim Gill, a Sikh-American who is the Utah Attorney General and Dinesh Patel, the father of the bride, who is a pharmaceutical industry entrepreneur, turned financial fund manager, venture capitalist and philanthropist who, along with his wife Kalpana, is well known in Salt Lake City societal circles. Many work in the growing technology industry in the region and a Hindu temple to Ganesh and a Gurudwara have started in the valley and rumblings of an India Culture Center have generated fund raising drives.

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It is the city – and later the state – that the Mormons founded after settling here from the Midwest sates of Indiana and Illinois where they were being persecuted and legally tracked down and killed. Sensing they had found the Holy Land in the West, Brigham Young, Issac Morley, George Washington Bradley and other Mormons founded the city in 1847 and built the Gothic inspired Mormon Temple and its surrounding structures. On Saturday, June 21, 2014, 111 Mormon couples were married in a ceremony at Temple, as the following two months were closed off due to Temple activities.

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It was also the day of the Hindu wedding of Abhishek Dhingra of Houston (his parents are Ashok and Vijay Dhingra, well-known figures in Houston society) and Avni Patel of SLC in an opulent, colorful series of events heavy with traditional rituals that started three days earlier in the evening of Wednesday, June 19 with a puja held at the Ganesh Temple, attended mostly by close family and some friends who had started to arrive in the city. The next day brought in a trickle more friends from both sides and the morning began with a Ganesh puja followed by a Grah Shanti puja at the Patel residence built at the highest point on the side of a hill in the Holladay suburb and the last home at the end of the street.

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All day long, shuttle buses ferried guests from the Grand America and Little America hotels 12 miles east across the freeway to the 30,000 sf, three-story Patel house, the grassy, landscaped terraced backyard of which gave way to a stunning view of the city in the valley below and a brilliantly colorful sunset. By evening time, it had been transformed into an outdoor mushayra setting for the menhdi ceremony.  Under a centerpiece white tent, the group Jashn from Atlanta, provided the Indian musical interlude with songs, while the women got henna designs at two tables and the bride hand elaborate designs drawn on her hands and feet. Guests milled around over an outdoor Mexican buffet vegetarian dinner, capped off with a game of bingo played to identifying Indian song titles.

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The following day gave the entire wedding party invitees a morning and afternoon to visit the city and its environs for a first-hand look at what has made Salt Lake City such a hot tourist destination ever since it was “discovered” by the rest of the world, of course for the Mormon Temple complex and its world famous Tabernacle Choir but also for its natural beauty, scenic mountain settlements, like the modern Park City, site of the annual Sundance Film Festival, the immensely deep copper mine and smelter owned by Rio Tinto Corp., and the Great Salt Lake just 10 miles east of the city and Bonneville Salt Flats beyond.

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Friday night started off the revelry in earnest when the Sangeet party occupied the Grand America Ballroom which was converted into a luxurious sitting area around the white dance floor and the settees for the betrothed couple and their families with the musical group on the opposite end. On either side of the hall filled with 600 people were arrayed stations serving Indian snack foods found along Chowpatty in Mumbai – pani puris, bhel puri, pau-bhaji, channa bhature, jal jeera and an assortment of deserts.

The wedding couple was serenaded by dances from friends, roasted by witty jests of the couple’s friends, and the groom joined in for a Gujarati folk dance. A group of women from the bride’s side performed a Gujarati folk dance and then, not to be outdone, a group of Punjabi women – friends of the groom’s side who had come from Houston – commandeered the dance floor for a rustic giddha which slowly dissolved into a full-fledged bhangra with the menfolk joining in and the dholuk players contributing to the din for close to an hour. The bride’s Gujarati side countered with a garba and dandiya garba that soon had everyone on the dance floor moving to the songs of the musical group.

But of course the main extravaganza of the four day wedding was the marriage ceremony itself and the reception later that evening. After the bride’s family formally received the groom, his family and his wedding party at the South entrance, they moved into the central courtyard of the Grand America hotel, surrounded on all sides by the light grey granite blocks framing the walls and high bay windows, that come from the surrounding hills but were sent to France to be precisely cut for the façade.

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The landscape manicured courtyard with yellow flowers in the beds was lined with chairs, each bearing a paper Chinese umbrella to guard against the bright afternoon Sun. Entering through an archway of flowers and petals, the guests and wedding families went to sit and await the entrance of the groom, and then the bride, as they walked by the central fountain and sat under the mandap created under tall, flowing white veils trimmed with red flowers. The pandit went through the hour-long ceremony and as it concluded in the late afternoon, the newlyweds walked towards the grassy lawn in the back, and, under the gaze of all assembled, took off into the blue sky in a multi-colored hot-air balloon, which was tethered, of course, to a stake in the ground. That picture made the next day’s edition of the Salt Lake Tribune.

After lunch inside the ballroom and a short break of a couple of hours, the same courtyard – now sans chairs but strewn with small cocktail-serving bars, became the scene for the evening reception under the quickly cool evening air, as 800 people mingled, and some even had their caricatures made by two artists in the wings.

The ringing of xylophone bars heralded the start of the formal reception inside the ballroom, now turned into an exciting night club with shades of light and dark blues and an acrobatic female maneuvering herself between two long, strong, wide ribbons of blue cloth into which she swung, rolled, climbed and hung perilously, sometimes by her wrapping her feet in the streamers.

The immediate families sat at tables along the edge of the circular white dance floor, and after the parents and siblings and their families from both sides had been introduced, they did a little ditty as they danced to their sets. Avni’s brother Ashish and Abhishek’s brother-in-law Manav played both emcees and the two who roasted the newlyweds after they entered to a thundering applause and sat in the center of the circular table line up. Abhishek’s sister Annu and Nikki recollected their brother’s antics and welcomed Avni as their own sister; and Avni’s best friend Ashi shah recalled treasured moments from their relationship.

Avni’s father Dinesh’s voice cracked with emotion as he declared he couldn’t deny his daughter anything she wanted in the wedding, which had been planned for 15 months, and thanked Grand America “for allowing us to do things that they had not done before. After explaining the importance of Indian food preparations, we got their permission to serve here. They probably never saw these many spices in their kitchens!” Dinesh joked. Ashok Dhingra could not contain his appreciation for the superlative wedding, adding that “we will cherish these moments forever, thanks for all your graciousness.” After a buffet Punjabi dinner, the revelers broke into the music that started to rock the partiers well into the night.

A video collage of the entire three days of rituals and ceremonies, all the way to the conclusion of the wedding at the hot air balloon that afternoon was presented on screens across the room, beginning and ending with Abhishek speeding away in a silver blue convertible sports car across the Bonneville Salt Flats to pick up Avni who holds a yellow scarf unfurling in the breeze of the blue sky. A fitting way for the Shek – as his friends call him – to ride away with his bride.

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