Two Cultures, Slowly Uniting In Matrimony

Sumeet Magoon, left, and Salomee Kanaujia marry at the Sheraton in Tysons Corner. At right are his parents, Pritam and Parkash Magoon.
Sumeet Magoon, left, and Salomee Kanaujia marry at the Sheraton in Tysons Corner. At right are his parents, Pritam and Parkash Magoon. (Photos By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)

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By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 19, 2007

The wedding procession making its way through a Tysons Corner parking lot Saturday could have been transported from some ancient Hindu kingdom.

Women in pink and yellow saris cheered and danced to a drummer's raucous beat. Men in red and gold turbans tossed money into the air as a blessing. And the groom at the center of it all looked positively regal riding atop a majestic white mare.

But what was that in front of the horse? Top hat and tails? The incongruous outfit worn by the horse's handler, Sue Harmon, hinted at the American twist that increasingly underlies such ceremonies. A year ago, Harmon wouldn't have known a Sikh from a sheik; today they're a big part of her business: She rents out the white horse.

Like the Serbian photographer and South African videographer also in attendance, Harmon is one of dozens of wedding vendors attempting to master the rituals of Washington's myriad immigrant communities in hopes of tapping that vast market. At the same time, many local South Asian wedding decorators, dressmakers and caterers are moving in the opposite direction: helping immigrant clients incorporate Western trends and branching out to serve "non-ethnic" couples.

The result has been the rise of a hybrid wedding scene in which ever more Caucasian couples eschew pastels in favor of South Asian reds; Middle Eastern and African couples use the ornate South Asian wedding canopies known as mandaps; and South Asian couples include bridesmaids, unthinkable in India or Pakistan.

"It's been fascinating to watch the cross-cultural exchange going on," said Sachi Sood, 27, of Gaithersburg-based Partyland Flowers & Event Decorators. "I feel like I'm witnessing the melting pot in action."

With the melting comes a few misfires, of course. When Foxchase Manor, a wedding hall in Manassas, hosted its first Hindu wedding, the havan, or sacred fire, nearly set off the ballroom's sprinklers.

But Manager Antonio Cecchi has since developed a system that "works like a charm." "The normal instinct is to blow out the fire when you're done," explained Cecchi, 39, offspring of an Italian father and Uruguayan mother. "But that creates this huge puff of smoke that's actually much bigger than when the fire is lit. So the key is to keep the fire in a portable container, and then when you're done, you carry it outside and close all the doors before blowing it out."

With an average of 80 South Asian weddings a year, the staff has had ample opportunity to perfect the technique, he added.

If Foxchase Manor's accommodating attitude has made it a popular venue, the undisputed place to rent the white mare on which the groom customarily rides up to these ceremonies is Harmon's Hayrides and Carriages of Brandy Station, Va.

Known as the baraat, the groom's arrival procession is meant to evoke his voyage from his home to his bride's village. The ritual dates back centuries, but Midge Harmon, Sue Harmon's 69-year-old mother-in-law and founder of Harmon's Hayrides, heard of it only five years ago when she started getting calls from Indian and Pakistani families wondering whether she had a white mare for hire.

Intrigued, Harmon decided to buy Sadie, a Virginia-bred draft horse. Within two years, Sadie was so heavily booked that Harmon purchased a second white mare named Cindy and went online to order traditional wedding attire for both horses from India.


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