WESTERN tourists travelling to India are now adding Indian weddings to their itinerary, with some also paying for the cultural experience.
Indian culture and traditions have fascinated westerners for ages and in recent times, movies, popular TV shows and social media have prompted visitors from the US, UK and Europe to attend an Indian wedding in person.
“Paid wedding guests” is a rising trend where foreign tourists shell out to experience the rituals and related celebrations of an Indian wedding.
Australian entrepreneur Orsi Parkanyi founded JoinMyWedding to facilitate western travellers to participate as guests at a wedding in India.
She came up with the idea of “packaging the cultural experience” in 2016 and told Eastern Eye that demand for it has been growing since.
“Each year, it gets bigger and bigger. We have about 2,000 weddings on our website to choose from,” Parkanyi said.
Described as a platform for “exchanging immersive experiences to transcend the traditional cultural relationship between traveller and local”, JoinMyWedding enables locals to open their wedding customs and rituals to foreigners.
Interested tourists travelling to India are connected with soon-to-be-married couples who share their brief profile, love story and wedding itinerary on the website. The visiting tourists can scroll through the listings and choose the wedding of their choice and convenience.
Prices start at about £200 ($250) per person and the money goes to the newly-weds, while JoinMyWedding said it “just charges a small commission”.
Parkanyi said the company reaches out to all registered couples to discuss their wedding details, such as the location, dress code and the programme of rituals and activities and checks if the couples are capable of hosting foreigners and if there will be (English) language barriers.
“We have a comprehensive registration that requires a Facebook account login and lots of other details. We also contact all couples and travellers and connect them up so that all questions are answered well in time,” she said.
On the website, the company asks couples to appoint a friend or family member to take care of travellers’ special requirements and once payment is cleared, contact details are shared.
The appointed person usually guides the tourists throughout the wedding and even consults and helps foreign guests with outfits for the ceremonies.
JoinMyWedding’s host couples are from varied backgrounds. A quick look at the website reveals listings by couples from across all regions in India with a mix of both love and arranged matches. Most posts were of traditional Hindu weddings with many matches between different communities (thus promising the essence of two different cultures in one wedding), but there were also Muslim and Christian ceremonies to choose from.
Parkanyi came up with the idea when she was unable to attend most of her friends’ weddings back home. “I was born and grew up in Hungary, but later moved to Australia when I was in my early 20s, due to which I missed out on all my friends’ weddings that happened back in Hungary.
“One day, it struck me that it would be great if I could just attend any wedding, even if I have to pay for it,” she said. That’s when she started exploring ways for people to see authentic weddings around the world.
Parkanyi has a background in start-ups and gender equality and said this project was her “passion”.
“I am an environmental scientist by training, but I have spent more than 10 years working with start-ups and entrepreneurs. I founded and ran the largest network for women entrepreneurs in Australia, prior to starting the JoinMyWedding project,” she told Eastern Eye.
Couples who choose to invite a foreigner to their wedding are “proud to be Indian and would love to showcase their rich culture”, while a few others also see it as a way to recoup some of their wedding expenses, according to the website.
Though JoinMyWedding said its business model is unique and it streamlines the process, the idea of paying to be wedding guests is not new.
Local guides, especially in the desert state of Rajasthan – a top destination for locals, foreign and Indian celebrities alike – are known to be prolific proponents of the wedding experience business.
Actress Katrina Kaif and Vicky Kaushal, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Nick Jonas and prior to that, Elizabeth Hurley and Arun Nayar and pop star Katy Perry and Russell Brand, all had their nuptials in Rajasthan.
With its many forts and palaces converted to luxury hotels, Rajasthan delivers the royal experience like no other state and has become a self-sufficient ecosystem of ‘big fat Indian weddings’, with designers, wedding planners, musicians and chefs setting up base there.
It’s no wonder, then, that local guides in the state are making the most of this boom.
Wedding planner Akshit Arora, founder of aanBaanShaan, revealed to Eastern Eye how local guides lure tourists with the bait of Indian weddings. Occasionally, the bride and groom are not even aware of the presence of a paid guest in their ceremony.
Arora said, “Local guides can get tourists excited about attending big, fat Indian weddings, or witnessing a different culture at close quarters. They ask for money to help the guests gain entry, usually with the help of wedding planners.
“Clients, sometimes, are not aware about it. But, even if they do know, many wouldn’t mind having a foreigner at their wedding.
“Some people feel that having fairskinned foreigners among their guests makes their wedding more happening, if I may use the word.” Local guides not only help tourists attend Indian weddings, they also help them shop for outfits to wear at the event, Arora said.
Most tourists opting for Parkanyi’s JoinMyWedding are from the UK and US. Many are in their 30s. They usually register in groups of two or four, though there is the ocassional solo traveller.
Parkanyi said JoinMyWedding boasts happy clients, though there has been the odd complaint.
“These weddings are usually very long, so sometimes guests have to wait a lot. It is very different from what the tourists are used to,” she said. “I always tell them to keep an open mind and treat it as a unique experience and do not compare.”