A big, fat Indian-American gay wedding where rituals were rendered gender neutral

Vaibhav Jain and Parag Mehta at their wedding ceremony in Killeen, Texas, March 30. The two men smashed taboos and reclaimed tradition with a big fat three-day event, replete with all the pomp and rituals of a traditional Jain wedding.

The recent wedding of the most high-profile and openly gay Indian-American couple — Parag Mehta and Vaibhav Jain — attended by over 500 guests over three days in Texas — was a high-energy celebration of the duo who have been held out as exemplars to the Indian American/South Asian American community. It was a culmination of love story that unfolded over years on Facebook, exemplifying that love and commitment have no barriers despite all the entrenched cultural taboos.

In interviews with India Abroad, Mehta, an official in the Obama administration and now executive director of Mastercard’s philanthropic arm and vice president of the company’s Center for Inclusive Growth, and Jain, a researcher who works on global public health issues, advocating on behalf of vulnerable populations, including LGBT people and linguistic minorities, described all of the trials and tribulations that followed the first time they met and fell in love. They spoke of the challenge of convincing their parents that there was nothing unnatural about their union, and to ultimately organizing an elaborate wedding incorporating all the Indian traditions. They discussed what lies ahead for them as they’ve set a trend for same-sex South Asian couples who may still fear to come out, notwithstanding the scores of examples in the community in recent years and the progress made by the LGBTQ communities, particularly in the U.S.

After the honeymoon that followed the three-day celebration over March 29-31 held in Killeen, Texas, near the Fort Hood Army Base, the couple are now back in White Plains, New York. Mehta is the son of physician parents, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1972, and was born and raised in Temple, Texas, and Jain is the son of a businessman and a home-maker, and grew up in New Delhi.

The wedding celebration kicked off with a sangeet and garba — a colorful night of music, street food and dancing, with the venue transformed into an Indian village, with food carts having chaat and Tex-Mex items as well as paan-flavored ice cream. There was also a gift cart, where the hosts gave away colorful bangles, bindis, bags, bandhani-style scarves and dandias to the guests.

Meanwhile, mehendi artists decorated people’s hands and Bollywood-themed photo ops — including a colorful rickshaw — were on display for people to enjoy. Family and friends of both grooms performed choreographed dances, and close friends made speeches about the couple. The highlight of the evening was Gujarati garba and raas featuring the couples’ parents, with the guests joining in and dancing the night away.

The next event was the wedding ceremony, which took place on the morning of March 30, and since the wedding had two dulhas (grooms), it had to two baraats. Mehta and Jain rode in on separate horse-drawn chariots and came to the wedding venue from opposite directions. Each baraat had its own dhol player and DJ Rizwan Moosa (“DJ Riz”) setup speakers on both routes to synchronize the music to which the guests danced. Upon arriving at the venue, the two dulhas were welcomed by their soon-to-be mothers-in-law — who performed a tilak and aarti ritual to welcome and bless the grooms.

A big, fat Indian-American gay wedding where rituals were rendered gender neutral

Family members and friends bless Vaibhav Jain and Parag Mehta at their wedding ceremony in Killeen, Texas, March 30.

The subsequent wedding ceremony was performed in a modernized and open-form mandap (wedding altar) following vedic traditions by Ashok Sanghavi, a tax accountant from South Bend, Indiana, who volunteers his time as a Jain wedding officiant. Since Indian wedding ceremonies are gender specific, the grooms made a few modifications to make them gender neutral. The ceremony included a jaimala (exchange of flower garlands), four pheras (circles) around the sacred fire. Since there was no bride, the traditional kanyadaan was changed to a var daan — two words which, separately, translate to “giving away of the groom.” When combined into one word, however, vardaan means “God’s reward or blessing,” which was befitting the occasion. Both sets of parents then individually gave their sons away to the other during this part of the ceremony. After the formal wedding ceremony concluded, one married gay couple (J.P. Singh and Chuck Johnson) and one married lesbian couple (Shamina Singh and Ashley Bell) came on stage to share marital advice with the grooms. This was a substitute for the traditional saubhagyavati bhava (blessings for a bride). Jain renamed this activity chiranjeevi bhava (live a long and happy life). The wedding concluded with a traditional Gujarati lunch.

 The formal reception which took place on the evening of March 30. A few close family and friends spoke about Mehta and Jain’s relationship and the power of this celebration to change hearts and minds. Then Mehta and Jain did their first dance as husbands to Mustafa Zahid’s song, “Maine Khud Ko.” As they danced, their sisters and bhabhis encircled them on the dance floor, showering the couple with flower petals in a sort of human rakhi (protective ring). The first dance was followed by a mother-son dance where the grooms performed a slow dance with their mothers to Arijit Singh’s “Mai Teri Chunariya Leheraye.”

The reception featured a vegetarian Mughlai dinner where guests enjoyed dishes like paneer makhani and malai kofta. DJ Riz played popular Bollywood and Punjabi songs, getting not just the Indian guests but also American friends to dance to a desi beat. The evening concluded with a big surprise: a spectacular vidaai of the couple by helicopter.

Excerpts of the interview with Mehta and Jain:

Why did you guys decide to go with a boisterous big fat Indian-American gay wedding and invite over 500 guests and have the kind of celebration with all the Indian traditions woven into the event?

Mehta: When Vaibhav and I got married, we decided to host a large-scale, multi-event celebration that incorporated customs of both our families, ancient traditions of our Jain faith and much-needed modern updates for a same-sex wedding. We were blessed that more than 500 people who traveled from all over the world to be a part of this special weekend, including relatives from India who packed their bags, took time off from work and told their friends they were heading off to a small town in Central Texas to see two men get married — as if it were the most natural thing in the world! Our decision to go big was rooted in the idea that LGBT people in desi communities are often invisible and marginalized. Even when we find acceptance from our friends and family and make the decision to commit our lives to someone else, we often feel like the customs and rituals of Indian weddings are not meant for us. Consider for a moment how gender-specific and even sexist our wedding traditions can be. As a result, many of our gay and lesbian desi friends have opted for simple and even Western style ceremonies, which are easier to make gender neutral.

Jain: It was important for me to challenge the notion that I couldn’t have the same sort of wedding as others in my family. I grew up in Delhi attending traditional desi weddings of my brother, my cousins and my friends. Why didn’t I deserve the same? So, with blessings from our parents and support from progressive and open-minded religious leaders, we built a meaningful and inclusive ceremony that kept what needed keeping and changed what needed changing. Instead of one baraat (groom’s arrival procession), we had two. Instead of a kanyadaan (giving away of the maiden bride by her parents), we had a var daan (giving away of the grooms by each of their parents; incidentally, when combined, vardaan means ‘a gift from God’). We took turns leading each other around the sacred fire. And when the time came for women of the family to whisper marital advice in our ears, we chose to also invite a married lesbian couple and a married gay couple to share their blessings and wisdom. We were fortunate to have found a remarkable Jain scholar and wedding officiant named Ashok Sanghavi, who was willing to work with us to design a ceremony that was steeped in religious tradition, meaningful to those who witnessed it and reflective of who we are and what we believe.

A big, fat Indian-American gay wedding where rituals were rendered gender neutral

The newly weds enjoy their first dance at their wedding reception.

Mehta: In the end, we achieved our goal. Not only did our guests have an enjoyable and transformative experience, but also the word got out. In the months since our wedding, Vaibhav and I have been inundated with messages from LGBT people — especially from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. They’ve read news articles (in multiple Indian languages!) about our wedding. They’ve seen photos and videos on social media. And they write to us — not asking, “Who did your decorations?” or “Where did you get your outfits?” Instead, they ask, “How did you get a pundit to perform a Jain wedding?” They are moved by the expressions of joy on the faces of our parents. They want to know, “Did your cousins really show up? What did your relatives in India think?” And, most of all, they want to know, “How can I get the same love and acceptance from my own family?”

Jain: I spent much of our honeymoon reading and replying to these moving notes. On the one hand, it was so hard to figure out what to say to give hope to people who are not feeling safe or accepted by their communities. On the other hand, I realized that change is happening all over the world.

And people are coming around to the basic notion that love is love, that it need not fit our traditional ideas of marriage or family, and that the rights and responsibilities of marriage should be available to all who seek them.

Fifty years after the modern LGBT rights movement began at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, we have learned that change is possible and that progress happens when we stop hiding and stop being afraid. The world gets better when we start demanding our equality and start owning our humanity.

How did you guys meet and how did this romance evolve?

Jain: I first spotted Parag marching and dancing among nearly half a million people in the annual Pride Parade in Washington, DC, on June 9, 2012. Only one day — and some serious detective work later — I managed to find and contact Parag, and soon, we went out on our first date. A mediocre meal of Thai food, a six-hour conversation and a shared love of Bollywood, kicked off a beautiful and very happy relationship. A year after we met, I began the process of coming out to my parents and my extended family. Soon, Parag’s parents made separate visits to India to start moving my family toward a marriage proposal. In September 2016, Parag proposed on a hilltop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at the end of a surprise 40th birthday trip planned by me and two close friends. We exchanged engagement rings, and the proposal was broadcast in real time on Facebook Live for all our friends and family to witness.

What were the best moments at the wedding for each of you?

Jain: For me, the best moments from our wedding happened when we were in the mandap (wedding altar) and took the pheras (circles) around the fire. As I took the first phera for dharma (duty), it dawned on me that God has finally given me what I always desired — a loving partner, a supportive family and community that will move day and night to stand by my side. And, most importantly, I’m privileged to marry the love of my life in the open and with God’s blessings. Seeing the smiles and tears of joy in our parents’ eyes was a powerful experience for me, knowing how far they have come and how much they have changed since each of us came out to them.

Mehta: My favorite moment was at brunch the morning after our wedding. People were intermingling and eating together — often with people they had never met until two days earlier. My friends and family were getting to know Vaibhav’s people. They were exchanging phone numbers, adding each other on Facebook and offering to share rides to the airport. We say that desi weddings are the unions of two families. For us, it was indeed the marriage of our families — the ones God chose for us and the ones we chose for ourselves.

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