By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Delhi
When Priya Aggarwal arrived at her wedding venue riding a white mare, she didn’t just cut a fine figure in her golden yellow sari and a red and yellow turban – in one fell swoop, she also dealt a blow to patriarchy.
The 27-year-old’s celebrations, earlier this month, made headlines in her home town Ambala, in the northern Indian state of Haryana.
A video of the event that went viral showed her sitting on the horse, arms stretched out, laughing, as family and friends walked alongside in a procession, stopping to dance every few minutes as a band played music.
“I was thrilled. Every groom knows that he will ride a horse for his wedding procession, but it’s not something that brides do,” Priya told the BBC.
“I felt like an emperor, a commander, leading my procession,” she added with a laugh.
Priya is not the first Indian bride to ride a horse to her wedding – there have been a few cases in recent years but they can perhaps be counted on the fingertips of one hand.
Traditionally, it’s the groom who comes riding a horse in a colourful procession, known as baraat.
“It’s meant to be his special day. He’s compared to a royal, who arrives with pomp and ceremony to claim his bride; adorned in silks and jewels and a sword worn at the waist to fight any demons who may try to steal her,” says Ram Narayan Kogata, author of a book on wedding customs and rituals.
In some communities in Rajasthan and Haryana, brides are taken on a horse around their neighbourhood or village a day before their wedding, but he says he’s never before seen a bride riding to the venue.
Wedding expert Neeta Raheja says although the shy Indian bride has been on her way out for over a decade now, a bride riding a horse is “nothing less than a statement”.
“I don’t see the coy bride anymore who comes in head bent, supported by friends and relatives. Nowadays, brides make a grand entry – they come with flower girls, or surrounded by girls carrying clay lamps, they come in a limousine or in buggies or chariots bedecked with flowers and the music that’s going to be played as she enters is chosen carefully.”
But by choosing to ride a horse to her wedding, Ms Raheja says, Priya is making a feminist statement.
“This is very assertive. What she’s saying here is that ‘I’m an equal’,” she adds.
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Priya says it was her father Narinder Aggarwal who suggested that she ride a horse to her wedding.
A businessman, Mr Aggarwal told the BBC from his home in Ambala that he was a firm believer in gender equality.
“I never treated my daughter any differently from my son. At his wedding last year, my son rode a horse so it was only apt that my daughter did it too,” he said.
“It was to send a message to society that a daughter is as precious as a son and that she will go a long way if parents supported her,” he added.
In Haryana, a state deeply rooted in patriarchy, his statement stands out – more so since Ambala has long been known to be unkind to the girl child.
In the decade of 1990s when Priya was born, female foeticide was rampant in the district. Families wanting sons were using pre-natal diagnosis to abort female foetuses and as the 2001 Census showed, in the zero to six age group, Ambala had only 781 girls for every 1,000 boys.
But when Priya was born, Mr Aggarwal says he was “ecstatic” and celebrated by distributing sweets in the hospital.
“Some of the elderly women who were there with their pregnant daughters or daughters-in-law threw it away when they realised I was celebrating the birth of a girl child. They thought I had lost my mind.”
Mr Aggarwal – who considers his daughter to be his “lucky charm” and over the years has named all his businesses after her – says when he saw her riding, he felt “very proud”.
As Priya’s procession made its way through the narrow alleys of the town, watching it live on a video call was her groom Arav Gupta, also a lawyer.
Priya and her parents had kept their plan under wraps so Arav had no idea about her unusual entry, he told me, laughing.
“I was watching it with my parents, relatives and friends. We were all surprised, even shocked, but in a good way.
“We were all wondering what’s going on? It was a new thing to see a bride sitting on a horse, but it made for a refreshing change. Everyone loved it. And I was very proud that I’m marrying a woman who’s so brave and bold,” he said.