It was wedding season in Lahore, and this time I was ready. I laid out my various suits and saris on the bed to make sure I had appropriate accessories for each outfit, and an outfit for each day of the wedding. Something bright and playful for the mehndi (traditional henna tattooing), classy stilettos and a matching purse for the barat (when the groom’s family meets at the bride’s home), and an elegant faux gold jewelry set for the final day of the wedding ceremony, the walima.

Anita-Mehndi-HC-800aIn the Punjab, the most popular time for couples to get married is during the cooler months between November and March. Weddings typically last for three days, although some families stretch out the events to cover an entire week. For foreigners, it can take some trial and error to figure out Pakistani wedding etiquette. Unlike western weddings, Pakistani weddings are based around socializing and not around any particular series of events. The actual wedding ceremony, the nikka takes place in the mosque and is usually only attended by close relatives.

Sometimes the bride and groom sign their nikka (also a contract) well ahead of the wedding festivities, while other times wedding guests wait outside the mosque to bless the new couple as they emerge from signing the documents and receiving the mullah’s blessing. Otherwise, there is no specific moment, like when the bride walks down the aisle in a western wedding, that guests are expected to be present at the ceremony.

Anita-Mehndi--HC-800bDancing usually takes place on the mehndi, the first day of the wedding. On the other days guests sit around, gossip, and take posed photographs with the couple. The most important event of each evening is when the food is served. This is typically done buffet style, and men and women queue up around separate tables. Be ready to jostle some elbows in order to fill your plate, especially if you’re on the women’s side.

I look at the invitation for tonight’s mehndi. The red paper is embossed with gold calligraphy, and the names of several aunts and uncles are listed as hosts for the event. The starting time is listed at 7:00 p.m., so I plan on arriving between 9:30 and 10:00. If I get there at 7:00 on the dot, I’m likely to be the only one at the party. By 10:00 the party should be in full swing and the food served some time before 11:00.

The mehndi is celebrated the day before the bride and groom officially become a couple. Often families hold separate events, one for the bride’s family and friends and one for the groom’s family and friends. The bride traditionally wears yellow and is fed sweets by family members for good luck and blessings. She is not supposed to wear any makeup, in contrast to the heavy makeup worn on the second day of the wedding. The bride’s friends and family wear bright colors and pastels to celebrate their last time with her as an unmarried woman.

After I slipped into a hot pink shalwar kameez, I wondered how Pakistani ladies could dance for hours in four-inch heels. I put my feet before fashion and chose flat sequined slippers instead of the stilettos I reserved for the night’s event. Turquoise bangles and matching beaded earrings completed the outfit, and I was ready for the first wedding of the season.

Heather-Carreiro-250Heather Carreiro is an English instructor, lecturer and teacher trainer who has spent three years living in Lahore, Pakistan and traveling the Indian subcontinent. Jamming on the bass, haggling over saris in dusty markets and cross-country jumping on horseback are just some of the things she enjoys when she’s not in the classroom. Her writing has been published in Matador Abroad and The Green Kaleidoscope, and she is currently pursuing an MA in English. Read more on her blog at ExpatHeather.com.