Chances are most of us will never have the opportunity to attend a wedding from a tradition completely different than our own. While many American Christians may go to weddings in different denominations, or even attend a wedding at a synagogue, and Jews may attend weddings in churches, how many in the Judeo-Christian tradition have ever been to a Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, or Sikh wedding? How many of us have even heard of the Sikh religion for that matter? In this day and age it is important we all learn more about one another.
Since we may never have that opportunity, let me share some of what I’ve learned about Sikh weddings. I became interested in this when I officiated for a couple that was blending some elements of Sikhism and Christianity in their wedding.
Most Sikh’s live in India, but of course, like any other group, they have spread out world-wide. Especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, Sikhs emigrated around the world. They do not try to convert people to their faith.
When meeting people from India or of Indian decent, don’t assume they are Hindu – they could also be Buddhist, Jain, Christian, Muslim or Sikh. And there are a few (very few) Zoroastrians and Jews there as well.
Sikhism was founded 500 years ago, and has a following of over 20 million, ranking it 5th in the world’s largest religions. Sikh is pronounced more like ‘sick’ but because in English that has a somewhat negative connotation, most say ‘Seek.’ And the plural for Sikhs is pronounced ‘six.’
The religion teaches a message of devotion to God, truthful living, and equality. They denounce superstition and blind ritual and base their beliefs on the teachings of 10 Gurus. I really respect how Sikhs denounced the caste system in India, and have been advocates for equality. They are by our modern standards, a progressive faith tradition.
They are recognizable for the turban, called a dastaar, that men wear, but those unfamiliar with that have confused it with the middle-eastern and usually Muslim keffiyeh. These head coverings are very different actually – once you know, of course. Today, however, many Sikhs do not wear the turban, and it is no longer required.
One of the most exciting parts of a Sikh wedding is the grand entrance of the groom, with lots of singing and dancing, and the groom looking very spiffy in gold or red. Sometimes he’ll enter a luxury car or, if he’s lucky enough, on a horse. He is followed by his closest friends and family. Women have their own moment next, but its cool how men also get to dress up.
A garland exchange is one of the first rituals, and it is beautiful (also done in other cultures, such as Buddhist and Hawaiian). It is used as a greeting, and symbolizes the acceptance of the two families joining together.
Everyone takes off their shoes in a Sikh house of worship. Heads are also covered, women with a scarf and men a bandana of some sort (if you’re not wearing a turban). Followers of the teachings come forward and bow to their scriptures, but non-Sikhs would not be expected to do this. But you will probably have to sit on the floor.
Don’t be fooled by the separation of men and women in the hall. Sikhism is very enlightened in their views and treatment of women, seeing men and women as complete equals.
For the religious portion of the wedding, the marriage officiant reads the couple their marital obligations as the couple walks around the holy scripture four times. After the end of each circle, the couple bows down to agree.
At the end of the ceremony, a sweet pudding, called kara parshad, is passed around to all the guests. This dessert is made with whole wheat flour, butter and sugar. Can’t go wrong there!
I am no expert, but I have learned that the Sikh tradition is full of symbols and rituals, and the wedding and temple are quite exotic to a typical westerner like me. Yet even with men’s long hair, beards, turbans, and the important ceremonial iron dagger – this faith tradition is still thoroughly modern in many ways. I hope to someday be able to attend a full-out Sikh wedding, and if I do, I hope I will feel culturally competent, knowing a little more of their traditions.
The beautiful photos are by Jay Pankhania - a UK based photographer who specializes in Sikh, Hindu and Indian weddings.