NEW DELHI/CHENNAI (Reuters) – Earlier this month, 27-year-old Rohit Kumar took an almost-unthinkable step for many Indians – he asked his parents to scale back his May 1 wedding.
Despite the growing spread of coronavirus across the country – and a nationwide three-week lockdown imposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi late on Tuesday – they have so far refused.
Weddings take on outsize importance in India, where families spend huge sums on elaborate multi-day ceremonies, often involving thousands of guests.
A 2017 report by consultant KPMG estimated the Indian wedding market at more than $50 billion per year, second only behind the United States and growing rapidly.
But in recent weeks, the rapid spread of the coronavirus that has already infected more than 550 in the densely populated country of 1.3 billion, has put a damper on the celebrations.
As authorities have tightened restrictions across the country in an attempt to control the spread, couples planning to wed have been faced with three options – postpone, downsize or attempt to carry on as normal.
After Tuesday’s move by Modi, ordering people not to leave their homes, there may be only one option for those set to wed within the next three weeks – postpone.
Development worker Kumar and his fiancée, 25-year-old policewoman Soni Kumari, are both children of farmers in Bihar who have so far spent a combined 200,000 Indian rupees ($2,618.86) on the ceremonies, he said – a vast sum for both families.
“This money means a lot to us… (but) I think they should understand the seriousness of this,” he said. “A thousand people will come if it happens the traditional way.”
In desperation, Kumar even wrote a letter to Modi, asking the leader to persuade his parents to cut back on the number of guests. With postal services across India severely disrupted, he is yet to receive a reply.
Weddings across India in recent weeks have been an unusually muted affair, with swathes of empty seats and leftover food.
Mahesh Pakala, a 28-year-old financial analyst, said his wedding in the software hub of Bengaluru was impacted by the sudden restrictions on public gatherings of more than 100 put in place by the Karnataka state government on March 13.
“We had a lot of relatives who were already on their way, by trains from other states,” he said. “We told some of them to turn back without giving them a chance.”
At a wedding in India’s capital New Delhi on Sunday, the groom’s brother Mohammed Ahmed said only a quarter of the thousand expected guests turned up due to a travel restrictions.
“A lot of food got wasted,” Ahmed said.
On the same day in Chennai, over 2,000 guests were expected, but only a little over 400 turned up.
Workers offered hand sanitiser to guests at the entrance, and caterers and those serving food all wore masks.
“Ultimately, we were happy that most of our closest friends and family made it,” said S Varsha, the bride’s sister who had to repeatedly ask guests not to shake hands with the couple. “A few empty chairs did not bring down our spirits.”