One evening after a long day at work, Diksha Manocha was idly scrolling Instagram when she stumbled across something peculiar: an account for Join My Wedding, an online service that allows tourists to purchase tickets to weddings in India.
Ms. Manocha, 26, was in the thick of preparing for her own destination wedding — a three-day affair that would take place in the scenic city of Jaipur, “famous for its heritage, its beauty, its greenery and everything that can showcase a proper big, fat Indian wedding,” said Ms. Manocha, who lives in Bengaluru, formerly known as Bangalore.
She had always been one to try new things. So, after researching and confirming that the site was “legit,” Ms. Manocha registered her wedding, opening it to strangers from other countries to attend. A tourist from Brazil and her friend purchased tickets, and Ms. Manocha tasked her brothers with educating them on traditions, what to wear and where to go.
Looking back on the July wedding now, it was a risk worth taking, she said. Seeing strangers embrace her culture with such enthusiasm is an experience she will remember forever, said Ms. Manocha, a manager at a finance firm. “When I met them, they were full of joy and happiness,” she said. “They were interested to know everything.”
Bollywood films have frequently depicted grand Indian weddings filled with dance sequences — take, for example, “Jodhaa Akbar” (a three-and-a-half-hour long feature centered around a royal marriage) and “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham…” (or nearly any movie starring Shah Rukh Khan, for that matter). The romantic drama series “Made in Heaven” on Amazon Prime follows a wedding planning company in Delhi, and there’s even a plotline involving one character profiting from inviting foreign tourists to the weddings in the newly released second season.
American media has also grasped onto Indian weddings to pulp for colorful scenes, like in the 2008 classic romantic comedy “27 Dresses,” in which Katherine Heigl changes into a sari in a cab, while rushing to a Hindu-Jewish wedding. More recently, Netflix’s “Murder Mystery 2” featured Adam Sandler in a cream-colored sherwani and Jennifer Aniston in a lehenga. Offscreen, Nick and Priyanka Chopra Jonas’s 2018 wedding at Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, publicized via Instagram posts and magazine spreads, led to countless jaw-drops (some coverage stirred controversy, too).
Join My Wedding, promoted by the founder, Orsi Parkanyi, as the “the Airbnb of weddings,” is capitalizing on the public interest in lavish Indian weddings by allowing tourists to purchase tickets to one of the most publicized, celebrated — and sacred — aspects of Indian culture.
And while the site’s offer can lead to feel-good moments of cultural exchange, like in the case of Ms. Manocha, some argue that it can also result in a flattening of the Indian wedding experience.
“The fetishization of Indian weddings and wedding tourism is a two-way street: the ‘seller’ gets money (and social status), and the buyer gets the product, namely, the experience of an Indian wedding without investing years of emotions in a friendship,” Parul Bhandari, a sociologist at the University of Cambridge and the author of “Matchmaking in Middle Class India,” wrote in an email.
Dr. Bhandari added that wedding tourism is part of the larger trend of selling experiences, comparing it to travelers attending tea ceremonies when visiting Japan.
‘Every Cultural Element Is Right There at a Wedding’
Join My Wedding customers can choose to attend just one day of wedding events for $150 or two or more days for $250 (Indian weddings typically have multiple ceremonies that take place over three days, though some go longer). The majority of the fee, which Join My Wedding also calls a “contribution,” is kept by the couple, and the site takes a commission, the founder said.
Ms. Parkanyi, a Hungarian-Australian entrepreneur based in Lier, Norway, founded Join My Wedding in 2016. She had never been to an Indian wedding before creating the business, but “Indian weddings are world famous,” she said, pointing to Bollywood as what drew her attention to them. “It’s like a music festival,” she said.
Last month, the site had over 1,200 weddings registered that a traveler could choose from, and over 400 bookings have been made through it in total, according to Ms. Parkanyi. The business currently focuses on access to weddings in India, but Ms. Parkanyi, 40, said she hopes to expand to other countries.
“Every cultural element is right there at a wedding,” she said. “If I had just one day in any country in the world, I would want to just go to a wedding.”
To become hosts, a couple must complete a questionnaire and nominate a “ceremony guide,” Ms. Parkanyi said. The ceremony guide, usually a close friend or family member of the bride and groom, is responsible for explaining the various ceremonies and festivities to the tourists, as well as answering any questions on what to wear and where to stay.
On the website, tourists can scan the various listings, which have images of the couple along with brief descriptions of their love story. “Join us for a grand affair filled with love, culture and warmth as we embark on a journey together with our beloved families,” one description reads. Another couple wrote that they “were classmates from kindergarten till high school. We fell for each other and decided to get married.” A few even include professionally filmed videos, that almost seem like promos for the couple.
‘A Cultural Collab’
In interviews, several host couples said inviting paying strangers was not a financial decision — especially considering the almost negligible amount made in relation to the total cost of a large Indian wedding — but more about sharing their culture or adding a distinctive component to their wedding.
Gaurav Passy and Pooja Tandon, who are both 33 and live in Delhi, got married in 2019 and ultimately decided to allow a couple from Mexico to join their wedding. Ms. Tandon, who took some convincing, is happy they did.
At one point, the guests told Ms. Tandon, a manager at an engineering firm, about how they noticed similarities between the ceremonies they performed at home with some of the Indian rituals they witnessed. “We call ourselves so culturally different, but that’s not the case,” Ms. Tandon said. “It was so heartwarming.”
“It was a cultural collab,” Mr. Passey, a sales manager, said, adding that the wedding had over 400 guests, so it wasn’t too much trouble to add a few more. (Join My Wedding tries to cap tourists at half a dozen per wedding.) The couple donated the proceeds from their ticket sales to Covid health care response.
Around 250 people attended Yamini and Aditya Sharma’s opulent wedding in January, which took place at a venue in Jaipur called R Chandra’s Palace. The entire wedding cost about 30 million rupees, said Mr. Sharma, 27, who runs a construction equipment business, which is roughly equivalent to $360,000, so the comparatively meager profit from the ticket sales “doesn’t do anything for me,” he said.
Mr. Sharma had heard about Join My Wedding through a relative, and said he participated because he thought it would be “unique” to have a foreigner at his wedding. He said he also wanted to show off his pride in being Indian. “We always appreciate tourists in our country. So to provide them with the great ambience and experience of an Indian wedding, I thought that I should sign up.”
For some Indian couples, Dr. Bhandari, the sociologist at the University of Cambridge, said, part of the appeal of having a foreign attendee at one’s wedding also has to do with the element of elevated status that it might portray to onlookers. “A non-Indian, particularly white person, attending one’s wedding is seen as a status symbol,” she added. “It communicates that the couple or their family have social networks beyond their country and by that token, demonstrates a sort of cosmopolitanism and ‘success.’”
‘We Definitely Stood Out’
Emily Lord, 47, who lives in Sioux Falls, S.D., and works in programming for the Department of Veterans Affairs, attended Mr. Sharma’s wedding earlier this year. She already had a trip to India planned when she learned about Join My Wedding from a friend, so she decided to add it to her itinerary. “I just felt like a princess. I stayed in this room that was absolutely gorgeous,” Ms. Lord said. “And then I got to wear all these beautiful clothes.”
When asked if she was concerned about appropriating another culture, Ms. Lord said she was more worried about being a minority in a new country. “I’m never the only white person in a room,” Ms. Lord said. “That’s only happened to me maybe twice in my entire life.”
When it came to food, there were moments where other guests “would laugh at me and be like, ‘No, you can’t dip that in there.’ And I’m like, ‘It tastes good, try it,’” Ms. Lord said. “It felt like if someone came here and put ketchup and applesauce on their hot dog.”
Another traveler, Sarah McDonald, a 30-year-old geologist in Halifax, Nova Scotia, decided to buy a ticket for a wedding during her 2019 backpacking trip in India with a friend. Ms. McDonald recalled getting “called out” for not wearing a sari at one ceremony that they were told to do so for.
“We were backpacking, so there was sort of no way that we were going to be able to get these tailored, beautiful gowns for the wedding,” she said. “We tried to buy saris, but when we were in our rooms trying to put them on, we couldn’t make it work. It’s a bit complicated. So we wore flowy skirts and pants that had some decorative, Indian-style embellishments.”
Ms. McDonald said she didn’t feel any concern about coming into a traditional, sacred event as an outsider. “There were a lot of eyes on us, because we definitely stood out,” she said. “But I didn’t really feel anxious about breaking any customs or disrespecting any religious rituals.”
In interviews, some travelers referred to traditional clothing as “costumes” and religious ceremonies as “Bollywood performances.” While the general absence of cultural sensitivity often occurs out of ignorance, Dr. Bhandari said that “race and ethnic identities can lend a sense of superiority and confidence to ‘experience’ someone else’s celebration.”
Rochona Majumdar, a professor of South Asian studies at the University of Chicago, added that cultural experiences are often packaged to be consumed quickly. “There’s a certain entitlement here,” she said.
But another issue that arises, Dr. Majumdar said, is a “flattening out of Indian culture.” She added, “it’s a very big country, and weddings aren’t held in the same way everywhere.” She added, “For example, where I’m from in Bengal, people typically don’t dance in their weddings, and yet now you have a standard model of what an Indian wedding is, and it looks very much like watching Bollywood.”
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