Until 28 December, Heena Vashisht was a happy bride-to-be. The 28-year-old was pleased her family had put in place early all the arrangements for her wedding on 10 February, right down to the last candle. But her plans have been shredded by India’s Omicron surge. The nuptials can go ahead in New Delhi as planned, but only if she cuts her guest list down from 650 to 20.
“My own immediate family is 80. How can I reduce the guests to 20? The tension in my family is unbearable right now. No one knows what to do and my mother’s blood pressure has shot up with all the tension,” says Vashisht.
With India’s Omicron-driven third wave firmly under way, the New Delhi government has, along with other restrictions, limited wedding guests to 20, dealing a huge blow to India’s traditional wedding season, which runs from November to March.
Thousands of families are in the same agony of uncertainty as Vashisht, with most of the arrangements paid for, either in full or in part.
Vashisht’s father has paid for the venue at Tivoli Farms on the outskirts of the city in full. “I wanted to be prepared for every small thing so it has all been decided and advances paid. When I ask about postponing the date, all the vendors say if I do that, they may not be able to do it at the same price,” says Vashisht.
In pre-pandemic times, some December weekends could see more than 20,000 weddings taking place in the capital in a single day, choking the roads with traffic. It is in this November-March period that the industry makes the bulk of its money because the weather is more temperate.
A bride searches for her coronavirus vaccination certificate to show it to a healthcare worker at her wedding venue. Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters
Before the latest wave, when cases were almost absurdly low, pandemic fatigue had given rise to “revenge weddings” that were even splashier and more luxurious than normal. November was packed with destination weddings: after two years of little or no travel, people wanted to get out to a different city.
‘You can’t celebrate with 20 people’
The industry’s suppliers are also staring at crippling losses. Its revenues have previously been put at about $50bn, and New Delhi is one of the biggest wedding markets. On one “auspicious” day alone – 14 November – around 5,000 weddings took place in the city as the industry sought to recover. Flights to honeymoon destinations such as Goa tinkled with the sound of brides wearing their traditional red wedding bangles on both arms.
Rajeev Jain, managing director of event management company Rashi Entertainment, believes the industry is a “soft target” for coronavirus restrictions. Employees at most venues and vendors are fully vaccinated, he says. The industry, he says, had taken all precautions because otherwise it “would die its own death” and all the government has to do is insist that all guests are vaccinated.
Abhishek Mishra, co-founder of Seasons Catering, agrees, saying the crowds at airports and railway stations are far bigger than at weddings. “I was at Indore airport the other day and there was barely room to stand. Election rallies are being held attended by tens of thousands of people. The markets are full of crowds, but no, weddings must be cancelled,” says Mishra.
Mishra’s phone has been ringing with distraught families asking for refunds. Some have been waiting over 18 months to have a wedding without pandemic restrictions. He intends to give the refunds because of their distress and “for the sake of our reputation”. He also has to pay the salaries of hundreds of employees, permanent and casual.
“It’s a total disaster. There are hundreds of small vendors involved in a wedding. They are not in a position to absorb losses,” he said.
Another couple, who did not want to be identified, were set to fly into New Delhi from London for the big day on 23 January. More than 500 guests were going to celebrate by the pool of a five-star hotel. Except for the flowers, large advances had been paid for most things – the caterers, the DJ, an entire wing of the hotel, the decorations, the outfits.
A wedding guest gets a Covid vaccine dose during a quiet moment. Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters
“Everyone had booked their flights, the hotel rooms, the rented cars, the photographer, the band, everything. We have postponed it indefinitely because you can’t celebrate a wedding with 20 people,” says the bride-to-be.
India has enjoyed a halcyon period since June. As late as November, the capital of 20 million people was recording a mere 35-45 fresh infections a day. But with Omicron fuelling a sudden surge the government has re-imposed restrictions. India is recording around 258,000 cases daily nationally, with New Delhi recording 18,286 cases on Sunday.
Sahiba Puri, of XO Catering by Design in Delhi, understands the need for the restrictions but has no idea what to do with the cooks who have flown in from different parts of India for a pre-wedding function at the weekend.
“The bride’s family wanted to treat guests to all kinds of regional cuisines so these cooks have come and have bought so many of the ingredients. Where do they go? They are paying rent for where they are staying and other expenses,” says Puri.
With the industry staring at yet another disaster, Mishra and others plan to ask the government to relax the 20-guest rule. The Confederation of All India Traders has also written to the government asking for a relaxation.
However, given the current explosion in cases, any relaxation is unlikely. Wedding card printer Arnav Gupta says: “Everyone is so haunted by the brutal second wave that no politician is going to take any chances.”
Vashisht has decided she cannot uninvite 630 guests. She has no choice but to postpone, but planning a later date is proving impossible too. “Who knows when this wave will end? It’s only just got going. Do I tentatively look at a date in March? April? May? I mean, who knows? This limbo is killing me.”