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The cobbled streets of Venice are used to the march of tourist boots but last May, they had elephants caparisoned in red and gold swaying down them. The occasion was the marriage of UK billionaire Pramod Agarwal's daughter Vineeta to NRI businessman Muquit Teja.
The nuptials were held on San Clemente Island, a 17-acre private rock in the heart of a Venetian lagoon. Around 1, 200 guests turned up for the affair that was reported to have cost 20 million (Rs 142 crore approx). Pop star Shakira performed on Day 2 and the couple took the pheras on a lavish Bollywood style set on Day 3. The flower designers were flown in from Paris and Michelin star chefs cooked the dinner.
A week earlier, on May 5, Istanbul's Ciragan Palace hosted the wedding of Vartika Mittal, niece of steel tycoon L N Mittal, with Utsav Goenka. Around 300 guests from around the world flew in and were ferried on boats to Suada - a floating club in the Bosporus with a panoramic view of Istanbul - for the sangeet.
There are billionaires like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who prefer a blink-and-miss wedding in their backyard. And then there are India's wealthy who can't have a wedding that's big, fat and foreign enough. If anything has changed, it is the destination. If Goa's Marbela beach would do earlier, now it has to be the full Monte Carlo.
Frank Damaard, who runs Monte-Carlo Weddings in Monaco, says, "Since I started my firm in 2005, we have organised three Indian weddings and right now I am in talks with another Indian couple who want to get married on C�te d'Azur next year. " In March last year, Damaard, along with Percept PDM, organised the grand wedding of socialite Kajal Fabiani and Gaurav Assomull, director of Intergen. The famed French Riviera came alive to the sounds of bhangra even as Assomull's baraat walked down the famous casino square of Monte Carlo. "The traffic at the Square was stalled for a while for the baraat. Around 3, 000 people turned up to see the spectacle. . . there were elephants, drums, people dancing. . . it turned out to be the most memorable moment of my wedding, " says Assomull.
Thailand and South East Asia are now passe. "With hundreds of weddings having taken place at destinations like Bangkok and Phuket, the new craze is to go west to much more exotic locales like Italy, Turkey and other parts of Europe, " says Aditi Kapoor, a wedding planner based in Mumbai. While luxury hotels are the obvious choice for some, many Indian couples look for quaint settings with an old-world charm. "For instance, sangeet in an abandoned railway station, cocktails at a stately mansion, and the lagan ceremony facing the Mediterranean, " says Gurleen M Puri, another wedding planner from Mumbai who specialises in destination weddings.
Destination weddings aren't new for Indians - the Versailles wedding of Indiaborn steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal's daughter Vanisha in 2004 kickstarted the trend. But it's now percolated from the super rich to the rich. Also, the days when a girl lived with her parents and married the boy next door are long gone. For a bride who grew up in Nagpur, attended college in New York and works in London, a wedding in a Venetian palazzo or a French chateau makes perfect sense. For, chances are no matter where a couple holds a wedding these days, people will have to travel to attend. So why not give them a holiday too.
Destination weddings may have got more exotic but - this is the best part - they are not necessarily more expensive. Hoteliers across Europe and Asia are wooing wedding parties from India with a smattering of Hindi, promise of curry and unbelievable discounts.
As Puri says, "There's been a complete U-turn in the attitude of the Europeans in the past three years. They are ready to slash their prices, give you group bookings and even fly down a DJ from Berlin who can play Bollywood music. " These days you can get rooms at 130 (Rs 9, 230) a night, a steep drop from 250 (Rs 17, 665), from a few years ago. Italy, Spain, Greece and Germany are especially welcoming to Indian clients. For instance, Barcelona in Spain offers picturesque options by the seaside and heritage properties on the hills as well as modern clubs for a night of debauchery. "Where else will you get such a good mix of venues?" says Puri.
Greece, in the throes of a financial crisis, is now very affordable and hence a popular wedding destination in Europe. A quick online search reveals wedding packages that range from 1, 500 (Rs 1, 06, 500) to 6, 000 (Rs 4, 26, 000) and more. Santorini, an island which once used to be a volcano, with a stunning view of the Aegean Sea and white cubical houses with turquoise roofs, has been gaining favour with Indians seeking destination wedding venues, says wedding planner Meher Sarid.
Says Ekta Gill, founder-director of VCue Motion Pictures, "One of my friends got married in Sicily and the theme was the movie Godfather. " In addition to the natural beauty of the destination, it helps if a Bollywood blockbuster has been shot there.
Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, England is also popular with Indian wedding parties, says Sarid. It is a country house built in neo Renaissance style between 1874 and 1889 which became popular with the swish set in India after Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham was shot here.
"For Indian clients looking for something unusual and beautiful, we offer a lakeside setting for the ceremony, and fine food, " says Kathryn Hobbs, marketing assistant, Waddesdon Manor. The manor has a Dairy - modelled on Marie Antoinette's farm at Versailles and formerly used to house cattle - which is now a stylish wedding venue popular with Indians. It is located besides a series of lakes and lush gardens. The manor, which will be hosting an Indian wedding in June, entertains requests for vegetarian food, and Punjabi musicians and dancers.
El Conquistador Resort in Puerto Rico is a hit with American NRIs. The resort offers a spectacular view of the Atlantic ocean and has notched up 500 Indian weddings. Neerja Singh, a homemaker living in Delhi, recently attended a wedding there and says the staff was well-versed with Indian customs and could whip up decent Indian meals.
Whether it is nautical nuptials - most major cruise lines providing wedding packages, plus built-in honeymoons - or a more adventurous bungee jump wedding in New Zealand, at the end of the day it is about having a wedding to remember.
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