Before several hundred guests and a few stray tourists, Mahesh Narayanaswamy and Radha Mehta were married Sunday in an opulent, traditional Hindu ceremony at the Hyatt Grand Cypress Resort.
On Sunday, Mahesh rode the elephant from the entrance of the grand ballroom to the front entrance of the hotel with a procession of family members dancing behind a Nissan Pathfinder broadcasting amplified drum beats.
East Indian weddings are a growing market for Orlando-area hotels and resorts where the competition is getting tougher. The Waldorf-Astoria and Hilton Hotel at Bonnet Creek have just begun catering to the area's Indian community, joining the Grand Cypress, Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Hilton Orlando Resort and Gaylord Palms Resort in competing for Hindu weddings.
"This market is very competitive," said Janine Boylan, Waldorf-Astoria director of catering.
As Hindu weddings go, the marriage of Mahesh and Radha was exceptional in size, expense and elephants. The bride's family, which owns an engineering and entertainment company in Orlando, invited 500 people to the event — which spanned four days and cost well over $100,000. The rented elephant set them back at least $5,000.
Although Orlando's Hindu community is not large — estimated between 7,000 and 10,000 families — its weddings tend to be super-sized. The average Hindu wedding has 400 people; the average American wedding fewer than 125, said Christopher Shimkus, director of local catering for Gaylord Palms.
At some local high-end hotels, Indian weddings now outnumber American weddings. An estimated 70 percent of weddings at the Hilton Orlando Resort are Hindu, said Kelly Knowlen, director of sales and marketing.
At a time when many are cutting back and toning down, affluent Hindus are unabashedly extravagant. They require two things for their weddings: lots of space and genuine Indian cuisine. Hotels that have Indian chefs on staff have an advantage over those that don't. Hotels that normally don't allow outside catering will, in order to secure the parties.
"We know it's definitely a deal breaker," said Shimkus, of Gaylord Palms in Kissimmee.
Hindu weddings go beyond the marriage of two individuals and the merging of two families. They are often social, business and networking events. Guests fly in from across the country and around the world. Some families hire Bollywood actors and other Indian entertainers to add star power to the ceremony.
Family friend Vishal Verma flew in from India for Mahesh and Radha's wedding. He had a similar Hindu wedding of his own, but his was less extravagant.
"I rode a horse instead," he said.
Radha and Mahesh's wedding included the decorating of the Grand Cypress lobby with Hindu statuary and copious amounts of red roses. The color theme was red and gold. The groomsmen and the bridesmaids all wore traditional Hindu attire imported from India. The bride wore a sari of red, green and gold, glittering with silver sequins.
The celebration started Thursday with "Mehndi night" and the temporary tattooing of the bride's hands and feet — along with an Indian-style buffet, singing and dancing with the bride's family at the parents' house.
Friday night was a meet-and-greet party at a downtown Orlando nightclub. On Saturday, the bride's and groom's families gathered at the hotel ballroom for traditional folk dances, music and singing.
Sunday's celebrations started with a catered breakfast in the hotel at 8 a.m. The wedding itself took two hours, followed by a luncheon. The evening reception started at 6 p.m.
In the end, the wedding united in ritual and law a man and a woman, both 30 years old, who first met at Duke University.
Mahesh graduated first, taking an engineering job with General Electric in Wisconsin. Radha took her finance degree to New York City and then Switzerland before joining the family business, MEHTA Group, where she is vice president of engineering. In her spare time, she's a singer who has performed at Orlando Magic games.
For a time, while they were separated, Mahesh and Radha broke up. A year ago they reconciled, and on Sunday they married.
In the ritual of Hindu weddings, the couple took their first seven steps together, the seventh step symbolizing that they would remain true friends for life.
Jeff Kunerth can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5392.