Notes From

A Feast for the Senses

India’s bustling wedding season provides the perfect adventure for a first-time visitor.

I’VE DONE MY fair share of traveling, both for work and for pleasure, but nothing could have prepared me for India. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit twice; both trips revolved around my close friend’s wedding, which provided a unique opportunity for a first timer to experience the vast country. Traveling between New Delhi, Amritsar, Jaipur, Agra, Varanasi, and Kerala, I quickly realized that no amount of time spent visiting India would ever be enough to get a true sense of it. My own inspiring and bewildering journeys could only ever scratch the surface.

I was between jobs when my friend invited me on the first trip to shop for her bridal trousseau (a collection of possessions, such as clothing and jewelry, that a bride assembles to prepare for her wedding). Before my friend even definitively confirmed the dates, my ticket was booked and I was off for an unforgettable experience. At the time, there were several things I didn’t yet understand, including what a huge production a traditional Indian wedding is, as well as the level of overwhelming sensory splendor that lay ahead.

The Shopping Trip

It was August, and despite the 95 degree heat, my trip to New Delhi had a focused mission: help my friend shop for her wedding. Along with her trousseau, my friend had 15 bridesmaids to dress. Her aunt, a designer, would be making all of the bridesmaid dresses, called lehengas. Our first order of business was shopping for the textiles that would be used to make the garments.

In Lajpat Nagar (a market near Old Delhi), there were quite literally thousands of fabrics to choose from, in so many rich jewel tones, bespoke patterns, and shimmering metallics. Walking into those fabric shops was a feast for the eyes. On display were an almost unimaginable variety of textiles, a seemingly endless array of colors and textures with detailed embroidery and incredibly intricate workmanship. For the bridesmaids’ dresses, we ended up mixing and matching fabrics because it was impossible to choose.

Each store we visited was an experience unto itself: from the decadent interiors to the endless display of dress options and designers to the impeccable service. But no store, no matter how spectacular, compared to going to a fitting at one of the designer’s homes, named Debyani. Meeting her was a rare opportunity to better understand the dedication that goes into making these one-of-a-kind garments. There is also something very personal when you visit someone’s studio. You get an intimate look at their process and the intricacies behind their work.

My friend worked with Debyani on a full-length custom outfit called an Anarkali, with a sheer dupatta, or veil. Each pattern and color was handpicked by Debyani, down to the gold that she delicately hand-embroidered with sequins and thread for the veil. The moment my friend put on the dress, I was transported to a place and time that I had only seen in the movies or read about in books. The dress style was indeed very popular with royalty from the Mughal Empire, which reigned from the 1500–1700s in India, which explains my flashback.

New Delhi on My Own

After the shopping extravaganza was complete, I spent a couple more days exploring the sprawling city on my own. Although I consider myself a pretty seasoned traveler, the sensory overload of being in Delhi was a whole different ball game. I found myself in areas that would quickly shift between complete calm and utter chaos — masses of people and cars moving in every direction with seemingly no rhyme or reason, followed by Lodhi Gardens, where there was a palpable sense of serenity. After even a few minutes of walking around the gardens, you almost forgot where you were. Then you’d step outside, and the frenetic rhythm of the city would swallow you up all over again. That was my experience pretty much the entire time I traveled around India: either being overwhelmed by the buzz or overwhelmed by the beauty, food, or by just how much there was to see.

Inspired by the wedding hoopla, in my explorations I stumbled upon an under-the-radar dress store at an outdoor shopping center. It was getting late and retailers were closing, but there was something about this shop that drew me in. The designs weren’t opulent, but they had a modern feel that I quickly embraced. For someone whose favorite color is beige, I was determined to find wedding attire that would push my boundaries.

There, I picked several looks off the runway and had them custom fit and ordered for the wedding. All I had to do was tell them where I was staying, and the order arrived at my hotel the day before the first event. I’ve never had a more pleasant and less stressful time finding something to wear for a wedding, let alone five different custom, tailored looks. Out of all the pieces, I was most excited about the cropped hot-pink blouse that would have typically been reserved for a flamenco dancer, paired with a white-and-pink tie-dye sari and long white-feather earrings.

The Wedding

Three months later, I was back for my second trip to India. The adventure started in Jaipur, known as the “Pink City.” It’s that part of India in the state of Rajasthan — which also comprises Jodhpur, the “Blue City,” and Udaipur, the “Floating City” — that conjures up images of royalty. There are giant palaces that are now hotels, and giant palaces that people simply live in.


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The wedding itself was in the village of Samode, just outside of Jaipur, at the Samode Palace, which is exactly what it sounds like — a 475-year-old palace. There were 350 guests at this part of the wedding (my friend told me this was considered an intimate size by Indian standards), and over 150 of those present had flown in from around the world. The wedding itself was a multi-day affair — several events over the course of a week, capped with a huge party of over 1,000 people at a family farm outside Delhi.

When I was back in Delhi, scalloped, tasseled, sumptuous wedding tents dotted the landscape for as far as the eye could see. It seemed that there was a wedding happening on every corner. I learned that it was wedding season throughout the month of November in India, the brief window of time when it’s not brutally hot or torrentially raining.

Before my visit I had never imagined such a grand affair for a wedding. But then again, I think to myself, what greater force to celebrate so completely than love?


After the Wedding

Spending so much time with my friend's Sikh family, attending a traditional Sikh wedding, and watching “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” inspired me to go to Amritsar, a city of deep religious significance. I wanted to see Amritsar firsthand, to learn more about the culture and visit a part of India that most tourists don’t get to see. Amritsar is also home to the Golden Temple, one of the holiest religious sites. The temple itself is everything the name would imply: a majestic golden temple, or gurdwara, that appears to float atop a man-made pool.

From Amritsar my partner and I made our way to the Wagah border of India and Pakistan to witness a ceremony that takes place when the gates along the border are closed. People from both countries congregate along both sides and cheer on security forces as they dance in an elaborate military-style routine. And then the gates close. Despite the turmoil that exists between the two countries, this joint celebration still happens every single day at the border. It was both beautiful and humbling to witness.

From there we flew back to New Delhi and then on to Varanasi, which is situated on the fabled Ganges River. It's one of the holiest places in the world and is often described as the spiritual capital of India. To make the most out of our visit, we contacted a woman in Varanasi who took us out on a sunrise boat ride along the Ganges. There, I experienced a kind of reverence I’ve never felt before, simply knowing I was sharing space in a location that so many people find holy. There were just three of us on a tiny boat, watching people along the banks of the river who were swimming, bathing, and praying.

It perfectly summed up so much of my entire India journey — taking in so many great traditions that I felt both constantly exhilarated and overwhelmed at the same time. It was almost too much to process, but in the best possible way.


Header image by Mark Hartman

Producer Elissa Polls’ Guide to Traveling around North India

Where to eat, sleep, and have your mind blown.

Jaipur

  • Samode Palace

    Outside Jaipur, this palace is both an event venue and hotel.

  • Gem Palace

    A renowned jewelry store with new and vintage collections.

  • Samode Haveli

    Located in Jaipur, this is a sister property to Samode Palace.

  • Teatro Dhora

    Concept store in Jaipur to shop for clothing, bags, jewelry, and accessories.

  • Samode Palace

    Outside Jaipur, this palace is both an event venue and hotel.

  • Samode Haveli

    Located in Jaipur, this is a sister property to Samode Palace.

  • Gem Palace

    A renowned jewelry store with new and vintage collections.

  • Teatro Dhora

    Concept store in Jaipur to shop for clothing, bags, jewelry, and accessories.

Amritsar

  • Golden Temple

    The Golden Temple is a gurdwara (a Sikh place of worship). It is the preeminent spiritual site of Sikhism and one of the holiest sites in all of India.

  • Golden Temple

    The Golden Temple is a gurdwara (a Sikh place of worship). It is the preeminent spiritual site of Sikhism and one of the holiest sites in all of India.

New Delhi

  • House of Masaba

    This clothing store boasts both traditional and contemporary Indian garments and is where I bought all of my dresses for the wedding.

  • Lodhi Gardens

    Beautiful gardens and the perfect place to visit when you need a moment of quiet in New Delhi.

  • Debyani+Co

    Debyani designed my friend's dress for her Sikh wedding ceremony.

  • Lajpat Nagar

    Lajpat Nagar is a sprawling open-air market, selling everything from vivid saris and embroidered fabrics to kitchenware, herbal cosmetics, and street food. This is where I went with my friend to pick out all the different fabrics to make lehengas and dupattas for her wedding, all of which her aunt made by hand.

  • The Imperial New Delhi

    A five-star hotel with a lovely high tea service.

  • CMYK Bookstore

    Here you’ll find new and old books, vintage posters, and other treasures.

  • Sabyasachi

    In this grand flagship store, browse dresses and other coveted items on offer by the Indian designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee.

  • Hauz Khas Village

    Area in New Delhi that's great for sightseeing, shopping, and eating. I recommend spending an afternoon wandering around the narrow streets and popping in and out of the different boutiques and shops.

  • House of Masaba

    This clothing store boasts both traditional and contemporary Indian garments and is where I bought all of my dresses for the wedding.

  • The Imperial New Delhi

    A five-star hotel with a lovely high tea service.

  • Lodhi Gardens

    Beautiful gardens and the perfect place to visit when you need a moment of quiet in New Delhi.

  • CMYK Bookstore

    Here you’ll find new and old books, vintage posters, and other treasures.

  • Debyani+Co

    Debyani designed my friend's dress for her Sikh wedding ceremony.

  • Sabyasachi

    In this grand flagship store, browse dresses and other coveted items on offer by the Indian designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee.

  • Lajpat Nagar

    Lajpat Nagar is a sprawling open-air market, selling everything from vivid saris and embroidered fabrics to kitchenware, herbal cosmetics, and street food. This is where I went with my friend to pick out all the different fabrics to make lehengas and dupattas for her wedding, all of which her aunt made by hand.

  • Hauz Khas Village

    Area in New Delhi that's great for sightseeing, shopping, and eating. I recommend spending an afternoon wandering around the narrow streets and popping in and out of the different boutiques and shops.


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Our Contributors

Elissa Polls Producer

Elissa Polls is the senior director of content production for Departures. A producer who typically stays behind the scenes, she has worked with creatives from around the world helping bring their ideas to life. Elissa has over 15 years of production experience and lives in Berkeley, California.

Ahonen & Lamberg Illustrator

Ahonen and Lamberg is a multidisciplinary design studio based in Paris. Founded in 2006 by Finnish designers Anna Ahonen and Katariina Lamberg, the studio concentrates on art direction, creative consultancy, and graphic design.

Stebs Schinnerer Director

Stebs Schinnerer is a Bay Area director and director of photography. He specializes in documentary storytelling for commercial and editorial clients around the world.

Mark Hartman Photographer

Mark Hartman is a photographer and director based in New York City.

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