As an expat in Nepal, I had been invited to a few Nepali weddings, and honestly, I had no idea what was going on. When it was time for me and Suraj to get married, I wanted to understand the traditions and significance of what we would be doing during the ceremony. We would be having a very short Newari ceremony that only focused on the main parts of a typical Nepali wedding. Since I’m American, we didn’t do everything (some weddings are 9 hours), so we had a Nepali wedding on an American timeline.
There are over 125 different ethnic groups in Nepal and each one has its own traditions, therefore, not everything is listed below.
Nepali Wedding Bridal Saree
In Hindu weddings, it’s tradition for the bride to wear a red saree or lehenga (two piece dress). Red is good luck in Hinduism. The color represents purity, love, and fertility. It’s also a bold color that represents passion, power, and strength. Most of the sarees are embroidered with gold and green. Green often represents the peace and harmony found in nature.
Sarees are a long rectangular piece of fabric which can be up to 26 feet long! Under it, you wear a simple floor length cotton skirt (petticoat) and a crop top that matches the saree. Then, the saree is folded and wrapped meticulously and held in place with just a few safety pins. Wrapping a saree takes patience, and you can hire a specialist to come style you for a small fee.
Mehendi is a tradition used in Hindu weddings in India. Due to its popularity in Bollywood films, it’s a tradition that has been adopted by Nepali brides in recent times. The day before the wedding, brides hold a Mehendi Party (like a bridal shower).
Traditionally, mehendi (henna) was applied as a medicine to relieve stress, keep the body from becoming tense, and cool the body. It was applied to the nerve endings on the hands and feet to be most effective. It’s also said that the smell of the mehendi acts as an aphrodisiac.
Now, mehendi is mostly decorative. It’s rumored that the darker the color, the more the groom loves you, and the longer it stays on, the happier your marriage will be. It’s also customary to hide the groom’s name somewhere in the pattern so he can’t find it. If the groom can’t find his name, he has to buy the bride a gift.
Family and friends asked if Suraj and I would be exchanging wedding rings during the ceremony. Yes, in Nepal it is very common to have wedding rings. What I found interesting was that at the beginning of the ceremony, we were given a grass ring to wear on our right fingers (before the exchanging of our wedding rings). This is called a “kusha ring.” The kusha grass is considered holy in Hinduism because it is long lasting. It’s believed that the ring makes you pure and doing any kind of worship without the ring on would be fruitless.
The grass used to make this ring only grows in certain tropical regions including some areas of Nepal. If used for worship, the grass cannot be picked any random day. It can only be picked the day after a full moon.
During the pooja (worship), we had to give offerings to different elements of nature and gods. Each of the bowls on the table represents a different thing which we are praying to. The brass canister is kalash which is the most important one in the ceremony. The canister represents the cosmos, and it’s filled with water which represents the elixir of life. In a wedding ceremony it also represents fertility. The offerings made during pooja include fruit, money, water, flower petals, sindoor powder, and rice.
The silver lantern is called diyo which holds oil and a cotton wick which is lit during the ceremony. This represents prosperity, purity, good luck and power. The light is believed to get rid of darkness and any evil spirits. Often a diyo is made out of clay. You can see them outside of temples and in people’s homes.
Circling of the Groom
The bride walks around the groom three times to represent that the groom is the center of her universe. When the bride finishes the circles, the walls around them fall and their souls are united. Depending on the ethnicity, some brides will throw flower petals or rice as they walk. I was to sprinkle water from a vase. In some cultures, you circle a fire seven times. So this can vary a little depending on the ceremony.
Bowing to the Groom
In traditional weddings, the bride bows down to the feet of the groom once she completes the circles. We opted not to do this as Suraj and I feel we are equals in our relationship. I bowed my head in respect but did not get down on my knees. This tradition is very controversial since women in Nepal want to be treated equally. Kissing someone’s feet in Nepal is the ultimate sign of respect which is often reserved only for one’s parents. It’s a really touching tradition, if you understand it fully. The problem people have with it at weddings is that the groom never kisses the bride’s feet in return.
Dubo Ko Mala
During Hindu weddings, it’s traditional that the bride and groom place a grass mala (garland) around each other’s necks. This is called a “Dubo Ko Mala.” The mala is made from Bermuda grass which does not fade or wilt after being picked from the ground. Because the grass stays so well preserved, it represents a long happy marriage full of good fortune.
Sindoor powder (the orange powder seen in the photo) is applied to a bride’s hair part by her husband when they get married. This is the sign that they are officially married (much like saying “I do” in western cultures). The powder can only be worn by married women and acts as a symbol like a wedding ring.
Traditional women continue to put the powder in their hair every day to show their everlasting love for their husbands. In modern times, most women wear the sindoor powder to special events and festivals rather than every day. Sindoor can be worn a few different ways. Some women make a small circle at the start of the hairline while others put it across the entire part.
The red and gold necklace in this photo is a sign of marriage. The beads are called “pote” and the gold piece is called “tilhari.” The two items are bought separately and are then assembled together. My sister in law was kind enough to take me with her so that I could watch the necklace being made. If you find yourself in Ason Market, you can watch the necklaces being assembled on the sidewalk. It’s fascinating to watch.
A pote necklace is only worn by married women. The red and gold one in the photo is a special gift from the groom and his family on the wedding day. This necklace can be worn to special events like weddings and festivals while smaller beaded necklaces in different colors can be worn daily. The pote necklaces are like a wedding ring in Nepal. Traditional women won’t leave the house without having one on.
Supari is the name of a traditional ceremony in the Newari community where the bride is accepted into the groom’s family. During this ceremony, the bride hands 10 betel nuts to each member of the family starting with the oldest members down to the youngest members. Each member keeps 1 of the betel nuts and returns the rest. This symbolizes the brides’ acceptance into the family.
I’m told that in the past, betel nuts were given out in lieu of invitations to the wedding. This was back when everyone lived close to one another in tight knit communities. Betel nuts represent loyalty in love and a strong bond. It is also a symbol of fertility.
Bowing to Family
In the Newari caste, it’s expected that you bow down to your elder family members when greeting them. I always thought this was a form of respect (which it is), but it’s also so that your elders can give you a blessing. They hold their hands over your head and wish you good health and happiness.
Now that I’m officially part of the family, I’ll bow to the elders. Likewise, when a younger member of the family sees me, they will bow to me, and I will hold my hand up and give them a blessing.
The interesting part is that the older and younger members are determined by Suraj’s age (not my own). Since he’s 10 years older than me, I found myself awkwardly bobbling back and forth during the supari ceremony whenever someone appeared to be in between our age.
Nepali Wedding Receiving Line
After the wedding ceremony and introduction to the family is complete, friends begin to arrive. The bride, groom, and groom’s immediate family receive the guests in a receiving line. Guests often bring gifts, flowers, or khata.
In western weddings, the bride and groom walk around the wedding meeting guests as they go. In Nepal, you sit at the front and everyone comes to you. It’s typical to have between 500 and 1,000 guests at a Nepali wedding, so greeting everyone can take hours. If you are attending a wedding, this is when you present the happy couple with their wedding gift.
Khata originated in Buddhist cultures but are popular among all religions in Nepal. The scarf represents purity, good luck, compassion, and sincerity. It is often given as a gift of congratulations and also to guests when they arrive or depart. Many have mantras printed on the fabric that bring good luck to the wearer. Suraj and I were buried in khata, so I feel that our marriage has been blessed many many times.
Stealing the Grooms Shoes
During Nepali weddings, there is a tradition where the young women on the bride’s side steal the shoes of the groom. This was originally an Indian tradition, but now many Nepalese do it as well. During the ceremony, the groom removes his shoes and gives them to a female family member to protect. The bride’s sisters (or female relatives) have to try to steal them before the ceremony is over. Once the shoes have been stolen, they are held for ransom. Bargaining begins and the two sides settle on an acceptable amount of money. The bride’s side gets to take the money and have a nice night out. In arranged marriages, it’s a fun way for both sides of the family to get to know each other since it’s likely they have never met.
Lisi got a head start and tried to steal Suraj’s shoes before he even put them on (pictured). Sadly this didn’t count. During the ceremony, Suraj forgot to take his shoes off, so I made him sit down, stole the shoes and threw them at Lisi and Monet who happened to be nearby. Throughout the night, my friends hid the shoes from the kids on Suraj’s side who tried to steal them back. We gave them cryptic clues like “The American boy has them” which sent them screaming in Pat’s direction. Then, the Spanish woman, German man, blonde lady, so on and so on. We were finally called the victors and settled on $50 for the shoes. A steal for the groom! I’m told we could have gotten more but everyone was too drunk to negotiate…
Vidaai is the part of the ceremony when the bride says goodbye to her family. In Nepal, most men and women live with their parents. When a couple gets married, the bride goes to live with the groom’s family. This is usually her first time leaving home for an extended period, therefore, the goodbyes are often very sad and full of tears. We skipped the vidaai ceremony because I haven’t really lived at home since I went to college. Not to mention, Suraj and I had already been living together for over 8 months (a very rare occurrence in Nepal). When we go to the States, we will stay with my mom at her house. Having some kind of epic goodbye during the wedding felt odd to me. Instead, me and my mom shared our tears at the airport when she flew back home.
Typically, the wedding ceremony would be one day, and the reception is the following day. We did both of ours in a row at the same venue, so we didn’t have a janti. In most Nepali weddings, the groom’s family forms a parade like procession down the street as they arrive at the wedding (traditionally at the bride’s house). The procession includes the groom’s family and friends and a marching band/music. Everyone dances and celebrates as they walk to the bride’s home. Once the ceremony is complete, the janti takes the bride to the groom’s home for the first time.
Ghar Bhitrauni Ceremony
In Nepal, it’s likely that the bride will then go to live with the groom and his parents. Therefore, there is a ceremony to welcome her to the home for the first time. Younger female members of the family will refuse to let the happy couple in and demand money from the bride to enter. This is a fun way for the young girls on the groom’s side to get some money to go out and celebrate.
Once the negotiations have been complete, the bride is allowed to enter. The older members of the family will welcome her in and bless the couple at the door.
Given how many different cultures there are in Nepal, I’m sure there are tons of things this article missed. But, if you’re an expat in Nepal and happen to be attending a Nepali wedding, this should help you understand the basics. The cool thing about Nepali weddings is that they are very informal in the sense that people talk and walk around during the ceremony. It’s not like a western wedding where everyone sits silently. So, if you have any questions, you can easily ask those around you to explain it to you!
Have any more questions about Nepali weddings? Ask in the comments!
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Michelle Della Giovanna
Writer at Full Time Explorer
I’m just your average New Yorker who quit her job in the fashion industry to explore the world. Come find out what it’s like to trade in five-inch heels for squat toilets.