India has long been known for it’s extravagant and breathtaking weddings – so when The Wedding Design Company and the Taj Hotel Group invited us with a group of top wedding planners, we were delighted to accept the invitation.
Over 7 days we checked out some of the most popular wedding destinations and venues, met some inspirational bridal and jewellery designers, tried on turbans and saris, shopped for exquisite venue decorations and learnt why so many Indian couples from the UK choose to head to India for their wedding.
Any bride planning an Indian wedding will understand the challenges in finding a venue that fits the bill; it needs to be beautiful, it needs to be big and it needs to understand the importance of incredible, authentic Indian cuisine. Those venues are hard to find in the UK, but plentiful in India, with the added benefit that your guest list will significantly reduce in size as soon as flights are involved.
Vandana, owner and founder of the Delhi-based Wedding Design Company, understands Indian weddings better than most. She explained that she had focused our trip on the Rajasthan region as the stunning forts and palaces of Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur and Hyderabad make them a popular choice for grand weddings. The more relaxed, smaller weddings tend to be outside the Rajasthan region in Kerala and on the beaches of Goa.
Day 1: Delhi
Our arrival in Delhi meant a stay at the ITC Maurya Hotel and a focus on the wedding dress. We visited top designer Sabya Sachi’s boutique and browsed his exquisite wedding outfits for both the bride and groom. His gowns typically take around 25 seamstresses and 3 months to create; all the silk he uses is hand woven and then hand embroidered – and often incorporate gold, silver and precious stones. Brides and grooms choose their outfits from his existing range, none are designed to order as Sabya feels that personal additions would compromise the design. In addition to his breathtaking clothes ranges, he also has a popular range of customised Louboutin shoes.
It is almost impossible to get an appointment with designers like Sabya without the help of a good local wedding planner who can make the connection for you.
Day 2: Delhi
A trip to Delhi isn’t complete without a hair-raising ride on a cycle rickshaw to Delhi’s old city where tiny open-fronted shops are neatly packed along narrow cobbled streets, tidily arranged by theme; if you want gold you head to the gold markets, spices are in the spice markets, saris in the sari markets and despite the bustle everything seems very neat, tidy and ordered. It makes finding unique venue decorations an exciting task and it would have been easy (and inexpensive) to take home cases of the beautifully embroidered rolls of fabric.
Lunch time gave us our first opportunity to experience the legendary Taj hospitality with a delicious meal at New Delhi’s Taj Mahal Hotel. The General Manager explained that the occasional weddings held at the Taj Mahal Hotel were primarily a business networking opportunity with the “main” celebrations held at an alternative venue. With so many guests spending so much time together an Indian wedding is seen as a great opportunity for major business deals to be struck.
Days 3: Agra and the Taj Mahal
You can’t visit this region without a visit to the Taj Mahal, considered one of the romantic places in the world because of the love story behind it, and attracting up to 8 million visitors ever year. You cannot get married at the Taj Mahal; the closest you’ll get is a wedding in gardens nearby. We stayed at the Taj Gateway Hotel in Agra, where the roof top terrace boasts views of the Taj Mahal over the city’s rooftops. The Oberoi Amarvilas is a good alternative if you want to stay even closer to the monument. Agra is between Delhi and Jaipur, nicely breaking up the 8 hour drive but with very little else to keep you here for longer than you need to.
Day 4: Jaipur
Our arrival at the Taj Rambagh Palace was truly unforgettable, but one that can be made available for couples planning their wedding here. A procession of elephants, camels and horses belonging to the royal household carried us into the hotel grounds. This Taj Hotel was a genuine palace, putting a whole new spin on “feeling like a princess on your wedding day”. For our first evening in Jaipur we enjoyed drinks with HH Princess of Jaipur; she is keen to encourage more tourism to this beautiful part of India and welcomed us to her City palace with another parade of elephants, camels and horses. The city really wakes up for the evening so we enjoyed a visit to a jeweller’s boutique followed by a delicious meal on one of the city’s restaurants.
Day 5: Jaipur
On day 5 we enjoyed some much needed R&R with relaxing massage at Rambagh’s spa or a bit of shopping at the famous Gem Palace, followed by lunch at Taj Jai Mahal Palace, another spectacular Taj Palace in Jaipur. They were preparing for a big wedding that evening and no detail, big or small, is overlooked. We watched as huge stages were erected and the giant, hand painted Indian chess set got a delicate paint touch-up. With sweeping lawns down to an inviting pool and the magnificent palace backdrop this is one of India’s most popular wedding venues.
The afternoon was spent with jewellery designer Sunita Shekhawat who produces some extraordinary pieces; each one individually designed and many of them with a completely different design on the reverse. Gifting of gold and jewellery is still an important tradition for Indian weddings and is treated in the same way as a dowry so a huge amount is spent on wedding jewellery here.
After seeing the preparations for a huge Indian wedding at Jai Mahal Palace earlier in the day we were treated to a more European style celebration at Rambagh Palace in the evening. Signature cocktails and canapés were served on the Palace lawns while we were entertained by dancers and musicians, before being led down steps and paths edged with flower petals and candles to a marquee draped in a curtain of tube roses and carnations. A full banquet awaited us with musical entertainment throughout and a firework display to round of the evening. It was wonderful for us to get a taste of how totally magical a smaller wedding would feel in such a grand venue.
Day 6: Hyderabad
A short flight took us from Jaipur to Hyderabad, to stay at the Taj Falakunuma Palace. As we pulled up in a horse drawn carriage in front of the impressive palace facade with views across Hyderabad it was hard not to feel like a princess and the attentive staff kept the illusion alive throughout our stay. The main palace building is steeped in history with high ceilings a marble lobby, huge sweeping staircase, historic library and drawing room, a very masculine bar with a snooker table, and the most impressive dining room I have ever seen. All the accommodation, as well as the main restaurant, is air-conditioned and is set out in more modern buildings around several beautiful courtyards.
The pool is beautifully landscaped and was the perfect place to enjoy cold gin and tonics under a shady tree in the late afternoon sun.
In the evening we dined on the world’s largest dining table, which seats up to 101 people. The dining room was breathtakingly decorated with ornate touches and fresh flowers and each course was dramatically presented at the chime of a gong.
Day 7: Hyderabad
Our morning was spent in the hotel’s spa preparing for a photoshoot to be featured in a high profile magazine later this year – details to follow – with various interviews about the wedding industry worldwide.
Afternoon tea was hosted by Pinky Reddy whose family designed and built the airports in Bangalore and Mumbai. She showed us photos of her son’s wedding from earlier this year which involved a temporary building to house all 1500 guests, a carnival themed reception and major construction work within their garden to host part of the wedding at home. We left laden with gifts of beautifully presented toiletries, candles, handbags and chocolates; just some of the gifts given to their wedding guests.
We all enjoyed a relaxed evening; a historical tour of the palace, a talk on traditional silk weaving and a traditional barbecue on a terrace overlooking the city below.
Day 8: Mumbai
Another short flight took us from Hyderabad to Mumbai, still known as Bombay by many locals. If New Delhi is the business capital of India, Mumbai is without doubt the social capital and is the base for many Bollywood stars and glamorous socialites. We stayed at the waterside Taj Lands End on the edge of Mumbai overlooking the sea on one side and the huge bridge over Mahim Bay on the other side.
Taj Hotels and India Vogue Magazine hosted a cocktail party in the evening to introduce us to local couples planning their wedding and it gave us a great opportunity to find out more about the aspects of the wedding that are so important to them; beautiful palace venues with exceptional food and a focus on great hospitality; exactly as we had experienced over the past week.
Day 9: Mumbai
On the final morning there was time to indulge in some sari and jewellery shopping. We were fascinated by the rich and colourful fabrics and stunning costume jewellery pieces; this certainly isn’t the place for a demure white wedding dress and the groom’s outfits are equally elaborate and almost as colourful!
A final treat was left to our last afternoon in India; a tour of Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, in a bustling area on the southern tip of Mumbai. The hotel is vast with impressive staircases, a large pool, ballroom, luxury shopping arcade and 11 restaurants, with great views across the Gateway to India to the Arabian Sea. Our tour took in the Tata suite, considered the most desirable suite in Mumbai with a crystal chandelier over the dining table, handwoven upholstery with silver and gold threads, a private gym and spa with steam room, sauna, massage tables and two massage therapists.
Afternoon tea at the Taj Mahal Palace is a refined experience with a pianist at a grand piano adding to the colonial feel. Indian delicacies, European patisserie and hand crafted chocolates were served alongside a huge range of Indian teas.
We had all assumed our Indian adventure was over when we left the lobby bar later that evening to prepare for our flights back to Delhi, London, New York, Italy and Jakarta but the wonder of working with a wedding planner like Vandana is that you never know when she is going to spring another wonderful surprise. As we each arrived at the airport at different times throughout the night we were met at the curb side, escorted through check in and security by buggy, past art installations with vast doors; depicting India’s welcoming “open door”, to the airport lounge to enjoy a wonderful meal, massage and a chance to relax before the flight. The Reddy family, who built Mumbai airport, feel that every visitor should receive the same great level of service and hospitality as they enter and leave Mumbai so they built a business class and a first class lounge to be used by all airlines, instead of each airline having their own with differing levels of service. This final experience summed up the the week for me; another thoughtful gesture arranged through Vandana’s vast network, with logistics discreetly handled by her team, with great hospitality, incredible food and a chance to relax and feel pampered. That is India.