Decked out in a fluorescent orange sherwani, Ashwani Chopra surveys the modest cocktail party he is throwing to celebrate his daughter Samara's wedding to Sharik Currimbhoy. The 1,000 guests mill under a marquee that's the size of a cricket field and help themselves to a 42-dish buffet. The sides of the tent are crimson chiffon, the ceiling is black satin inset with sequin stars, and the drapes and the throw cushions are gold and amber silk. The place is heated by 20 gas burners and illuminated by 25 chandeliers, 40 lanterns, 66 spotlights and 288 candles. Tradition dictates that separate celebrations be held for the groom, the bride, their engagement and their families and friends. So Chopra, a prominent New Delhi physician, plans to throw five parties over seven days. He expects the festivities to set him back tens of thousands of dollars--and that doesn't count the wedding itself. "I tell you," he says, "the wedding business is the best bloody business in India."
As a roaring economy swells the ranks of the ultrarich, weddings have become prime occasions for India's élite to show off their fortunes. Even the most skinflint shindigs run to a few hundred guests, several days of feasts and, occasionally, near bankruptcy for the hosts. In early 2004, for instance, the boss of the Sahara conglomerate, Subrata Roy, flew some 10,000 guests aboard 26 planes to Lucknow, in northern India, for a $128 million double-wedding party for his two sons. "People want to make a statement, present an image," says Vikas Gutgutia, head of the wedding-planning company Ferns 'n' Petals. "'Look what I've got. Look at what I've achieved.'"
Such conspicuous revelry has turned India's wedding- planning industry into a $10 billion market and has stoked a consumer boom that coincides with the November-February marriage season. Commodity analysts say Indian demand for gold wedding jewelry helped lift the metal's price to a 25-year high last month. Among the beneficiaries are entrepreneurs like Neeta Raheja, who runs a wedding-planning company called Creative Explosions. The firm organizes weddings that range from $20,000 (the average cost of a wedding blast in the U.S.) to $2 million, which gets you hand-painted invitations by artist M.F. Husain, a Thai banquet for 2,000 and a helicopter to ferry the groom to the ceremony. Indian weddings, Raheja says, are more than the union of boy and girl: "It's the merging of two families, often two businesses."
The wedding boom, though, has brought some social strains. Because good weather and good astrology coincide so rarely, millions of weddings are held on a few select nights during the cool winter season. In Delhi, that means up to 15,000 weddings a night, causing dusk-to-dawn gridlock for 14 million residents, as hundreds of thousands of guests cross town, park on the sidewalks and later weave unsteadily back home. To rein in the bacchanalia, local police have begun raiding unlicensed wedding parties and impounding gifts as evidence. Ahead of the estimated 30,000 weddings scheduled in the city in the first two weeks of this month, the Delhi high court banned ceremonies in public parks and wedding parades on the roads. "We're doing this as a last option," says a Delhi city official, Ajay Kumar. "Everybody loves a good wedding, but there are times when the city turns into a kind of happy hell."