When Amy Benoist and Jeff Smith of St. Louis got married in 2015, little did they know they’d have a second wedding just two years later — in India.
A sponsor through Unbound since 2012, Amy had planned to visit her sponsored friend, 19-year-old Sravanthi of India, as soon as she was able to save up the vacation time. In October of last year, she and Jeff set out on an Unbound Awareness Trip to meet Sravanthi and experience the beauty of India together.
Amy had written to Sravanthi six months earlier to let her know she and Jeff were planning to visit. That’s when Sravanthi’s family got the idea to surprise the couple with a traditional Indian wedding ceremony.
“Ever since the sponsored family [learned] that Amy and Jeff would be arriving as a couple, they decided to organize the wedding ritual at their house,” said Simon Raj Pasala, manager of Unbound programs and evaluation in Hyderabad.
A central part of sponsoring a child, youth or elder through Unbound is the relationship that forms between sponsor and sponsored friend. That relationship often extends to the families of both parties. That was the case with Amy and Sravanthi.
Sravanthi’s family saw the visit to their home as a chance to “celebrate the togetherness” of Amy and Jeff, Simon noted.
The hospitality the family showed the couple would befit family members, and it was touching.
“The time they took to prepare all of it, to get ready for our visit, they really went out of their way to make us feel welcome,” Amy said.
She recalled the moment she learned there would be a wedding ceremony. As she and Sravanthi looked through photos and a scrapbook containing letters, Sravanthi casually informed Amy that they were going to have an Indian wedding for the “newlyweds.”
“She gave us shawls,” Amy said. “His was red, mine was turquoise. They said these were worn at a typical Indian wedding.”
The family then presented Amy and Jeff with garlands, similar to the leis worn in Hawaii, and led them in the ceremonial exchange of the garlands, with Amy and Jeff placing them over each other’s heads.
The ritual of exchanging varmala is one of the most important rituals in an Indian traditional wedding ceremony, Simon noted.
“The word varmala means the garland for the groom,” he said. “Garlands in Indian weddings have an interesting history. In ancient times, it was considered as the acceptance of marriage proposal by the bride and groom. The ritual finds its roots in various ancient scriptures and texts. It simply means that the marriage is sealed by the exchange of garlands.”
After the exchange of varmala, it was time to celebrate and provide the bride with some pampering. Sravanthi’s mom brought out a colorful platter of fruit, expressing that it represented a “fruitful and bountiful marriage.” The platter was piled with bananas, apples, pomegranates and native fruits. Then, Sravanthi’s father presented the couple with a piece of artwork for their home back in St. Louis.
Sravanthi then displayed beautiful bouquets of handmade flowers that she had created out of paper.
“Each petal was half a sheet of construction paper,” Amy said. “The flowers were amazing, and I tried my hardest to get them home.”
Then it was time to get the bride ready to present to the groom, according to Indian tradition. Sravanthi’s father shuffled Jeff outside while the women ushered Amy into the back room. They gave her a sari that they had handpicked and purchased for her, helped her dress, provided matching bangles, fixed her hair and painted her nails.
Finally, Sravanthi told her, “OK, you can go see your groom.”
Amy walked outside and everyone cheered and celebrated. The once-again newlyweds, along with the Hyderabad staff, were amazed by the thoughtfulness and generosity of Sravanthi and her family.
Amy felt a connection with Sravanthi’s mom. The two women are about the same age. The reality of being in the same place in life but living in such different circumstances was eye- opening for Amy.
She saw how hard-working Sravanthi’s mother is, being a part of the local Unbound mothers group, having taken a loan from the group and opening a shop to help support her family. Sravanthi is following in her mom’s footsteps, hoping to own her own business someday. Amy saw clearly that it was because of the hard work of Sravanthi’s mother that Sravanthi’s life had changed for the better.
In the same way, Jeff was inspired by his short time with Sravanthi’s father, while Amy was being pampered in the back room.
“He said that he could really tell that Sravanthi’s dad was in love with Sravanthi’s mom,” Amy said, “and that he was trying his absolute best to provide for the family.”
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