The marathon Indian wedding turning heads around the world

Anant Ambani, son of businessman Mukesh Ambani, poses with his fiance Radhika Merchant on the red carpet during the sangeet ceremony at Jio World Centre, Mumbai, India, July 5, 2024
After months of festivities, the Ambani wedding is finally coming to an end [Reuters]

How much is too much?

That's the question many in India are asking as the months-long wedding festivities for the youngest son of Asia's richest man enter their final phase.

The celebrations are expected to culminate this weekend when Anant Ambani, the youngest son of Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani, ties the knot with Radhika Merchant, daughter of pharma tycoons Viren and Shaila Merchant.

There have been four months of lavish events leading up to the wedding itself. All the glamourous outfits, stunning jewellery, fairytale-like decor and rare performances by Indian and global stars have been the focus of much public attention.

"It is nothing short of a royal wedding," says writer and columnist Shobhaa De. "Our billionaires are the new Indian maharajahs. Their shareholders expect nothing less than a mega extravaganza."

Indians "have always loved pomp and pageantry - just like the British", she says, adding that "the scale [of the wedding] is in keeping with the Ambani wealth".

But the hullabaloo around the wedding has drawn as much ire as public fascination. Many have criticised the opulence and the sheer magnitude of wealth on display in a country where tens of millions live below the poverty line and where income inequality is extreme.

"[The wedding] can easily be seen as a kind of a mockery, a sort of blindness to the reality of the country at one level. At another level, however ridiculous this might be, it is still in keeping with the grossly distorted, almost grotesque bloating of Indian weddings in the last decade or so," writer and commentator Santosh Desai tells the BBC.

"It is part of a larger shift that is taking place. A generation or two ago, wealth was spoken of in whispers. Today, wealth must speak as loudly as possible. Even then, the scale of this wedding makes it an outlier."

The Ambani house in Mumbai
The main wedding is set to take place at the family residence in Mumbai [Getty Images]
Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani (R) and his wife Neeta Ambani gesture during a mass wedding ceremony for underprivileged couples at Reliance Corporate Park, in Navi Mumbai, India, 02 July 2024
Parents Neeta and Mukesh Ambani are leaving no stone unturned to make the celebrations memorable [EPA]

With a sprawling business empire - ranging from oil, telecoms, chemicals, technology and fashion to food - the Ambanis are a ubiquitous presence in India and their lives are the subject of intense public fascination.

Mr Ambani's personal fortune is estimated at a staggering $115bn (£90bn). Anant, 29, holds a position on the Reliance Industries board of directors.

Ambani senior, along with fellow Indian business tycoon Gautam Adani, is reported to be close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government, with opposition parties accusing the authorities of unduly favouring the two business houses - accusations both the government and the businessmen deny.

While the Ambani family’s enormous wealth and clout are well known in India, many outside the country may not have realised the extent of their riches until now.

That changed in March, when Mr Ambani hosted a three-day pre-wedding party for his son.

Indian actress Janhvi Kapoor poses on the red carpet during the sangeet ceremony of Anant Ambani and Radhika Merchant at Jio World Centre, Mumbai, India, July 5, 2024.
Some of Bollywood's biggest stars, like Janhvi Kapoor, have attended the pre-wedding events [Reuters]
A band plays drums during the pre-wedding ceremony of Anant Ambani and Radhika Merchant outside the residence of Mukesh Ambani, in Mumbai, India, July 3, 2024.
The festivities have included musicians, parties, luxury cruises and several traditional ceremonies [Reuters]

The festivities were held in the family's hometown Jamnagar in the western state of Gujarat, which is also the location of Mr Ambani's oil refinery - the largest in the world. Some 1,200 guests attended, including Meta's Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft's Bill Gates.

The party began with a dinner held inside a glasshouse especially built for the occasion. The stunning structure reportedly resembles Palm House, a crystalline Victorian-style building located in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, which was a favourite of Ms Merchant when she was a college student in New York City.

The feast was followed by a performance by Rihanna and viral videos showed the Ambani family grooving with the popstar on stage. If people hadn't been paying attention, they definitely were now.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg poses with Anant Ambani, son of Mukesh Ambani, the Chairman of Reliance Industries, and Radhika Merchant, daughter of industrialist Viren Merchant, during their pre-wedding celebrations in Jamnagar, Gujarat, India, March 2, 2024
Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg was among the guests at the pre-wedding celebrations in March [Reuters]
Rihanna performs in Jamnagar for the Ambani pre-wedding party
Popstar Rihanna performed for the family in March [Reuters]

Through it all, dozens of speciality chefs served some 2,000 dishes, carefully curated from around the world, to guests lodged in luxury tents, with personal makeup artists and stylists at their service.

There was also a 10-page manual on the dress code for the events, which included a "jungle fever" theme for a visit to a family-owned animal sanctuary, followed by a Moulin Rouge-themed "house party" held at the sprawling grounds of their palatial residence.

The bride-to-be wore a number of specially crafted outfits, including two lehngas (long bridal silk skirts) - one studded with 20,000 Swarovski crystals and another that reportedly took 5,700 hours to make - and a pink version of a Versace dress that actor Blake Lively wore to the 2022 Met Gala.

The groom mostly wore Dolce & Gabbana outfits and flaunted a Richard Mille wristwatch, worth an estimated $1.5m. A viral video of Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan gawking at the watch went viral in India.

Newspapers and websites perfectly captured the opulence of these dazzling events, attended by the glitterati from around the world. "It was almost like the time of maharajahs 100 years down the line," the New York Times reported.

Akash Ambani and Anant Ambani, sons of Mukesh Ambani, the Chairman of Reliance Industries, pose with Shloka Mehta Ambani, wife of Akash, and Radhika Merchant, daughter of industrialist Viren Merchant, during pre-wedding celebrations of Anant and Radhika in Jamnagar, Gujarat, India, March 2, 2024. Reliance
Akash Ambani and Anant Ambani with Shloka Mehta Ambani, wife of Akash, and bride-to-be Radhika Merchant [Reuters]

There was also backlash after India's government overnight designated the city's small airport into an international airport, expanded its staff and deployed military and air force personnel in service of the family.

The final night of the three-day jamboree, which ended with a shower of confetti, fireworks and a lightshow, set the tone for what was to come next.

In June, the couple and their guests took their pre-wedding celebrations overseas, literally. The party, which included top Bollywood stars, embarked on a luxury cruise along the stunning azure coastline of the Tyrrhenian Sea in Italy, to the French Mediterranean.

They stopped in Rome, Portofino, Genoa and Cannes for late-night revelry that reportedly brought complaints from local people.

This time, the celebrations had performances by 90s teen heartthrobs The Backstreet Boys, singer Katy Perry and Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli.

This week, yet another set of wedding celebrations kicked off on the family's home turf, Mumbai, with a performance by Justin Bieber.

A video of him singing at the edge of the stage as the bride and her friends sing along has been viewed 38 million times. It shows ecstatic women in sequined gowns and saris as they punch their fists skyward in glee. The crowd doesn't miss a beat to Bieber's verse: You should go and love yourself.

Anant Ambani, son of businessman Mukesh Ambani, arrives with his fiance Radhika Merchant on the red carpet during the sangeet ceremony at Jio World Centre, Mumbai, India, July 5, 2024.
Groom and bride have made public appearances throughout the celebrations [Reuters]

The scale of the celebrations show that nothing is out of reach for the family. And there is speculation that Adele could be performing at the actual wedding this weekend - the family, however, are tight-lipped.

Of course, India isn't a stranger to the concept of big fat weddings - the country is the largest spender on marriage ceremonies after the US.

Tina Tharwani, co-founder of the Shaadi Squad, says in recent years, there's been a noticeable trend where weddings have become larger-than-life events that veer towards excessiveness, driven by societal expectations, competitive displays of status, and a desire to create memorable moments.

So, we've seen expensive weddings routinely make headlines in recent years, such as this $74m wedding in 2016.

Other Ambani children have also had lavish pre-wedding festivities. Hillary Clinton and John Kerry were among attendees at Isha Ambani's pre-wedding bash in 2018, which featured a performance by Beyoncé. A year later, Akash Ambani's pre-wedding bash featured a performance by Coldplay.

Nita Ambani, wife of Mukesh Ambani, the Chairman of Reliance Industries, shares a moment with Ivanka Trump during pre-wedding celebrations of Ambani's son Anant Ambani and Radhika Merchant, daughter of industrialist Viren Merchant, in Jamnagar, Gujarat, India, March 1, 2024
Ivanka Trump (left) met Nita Ambani at the pre-wedding celebrations in March [Reuters]
Actor Shah Rukh Khan, his wife Gauri and their son AbRam pose during the pre-wedding celebrations of Anant Ambani, son of Mukesh Ambani and Radhika Merchant, daughter of industrialist Viren Merchant, in Jamnagar, Gujarat, India
Bollywood heartthrob Shah Rukh Khan has attended the pre-wedding events [Reuters]

When it comes to scale, though, this is the mother of all weddings, says Ashwini Arya, owner of an event management company that has managed weddings in 14 countries.

"It's like the bible for the industry with the best of logistics, tech, design and grandeur.

"You're talking about preparations of a minimum of two years, multiple recce trips, approvals and permissions from several countries, along with the logistics of arranging security and transport for some of the biggest personalities of the world," he says.

Ambani family hosts mass wedding for underprivileged couples in Mumbai, India - 02 Jul 2024
As part of celebrations, the family hosted a mass wedding for underprivileged couples [EPA]

The Ambanis have not revealed how much this wedding is costing them but Mr Arya estimates that they "have already spent anywhere between 11bn and 13bn rupees [$132m-$156m]". It was rumoured Rihanna had been paid $7m (£5.5m) for her performance, while the figure suggested for Bieber is $10m.

Money was also lavished on constructing 14 temples inside a sprawling complex in Jamnagar to showcase India's cultural heritage and provide a backdrop for the wedding. As part of the celebrations, the Ambanis hosted a mass wedding for 50 underprivileged couples too.

It's being said the family pulled out all the stops because with all the Ambani children married, this would be their last wedding for the foreseeable future.

But with each event, public criticism of the celebration in India has grown - from people aghast at the massive jewels worn by Nita Ambani to exasperation and anger among Mumbai residents over traffic restrictions in a city already struggling with traffic jams and monsoon flooding.

Decorations seen outside the Ambani residence, Antilia during the pre-wedding ceremony of Anant Ambani and Radhika Merchant in Mumbai, India, July 3, 2024.
The celebrations have caused anger and exasperation among Mumbai residents [Reuters]
Actors Salman Khan, Ram Charan, Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan perform during the pre-wedding celebrations of Anant Ambani, son of Mukesh Ambani, the Chairman of Reliance Industries, and Radhika Merchant, daughter of industrialist Viren Merchant, in Jamnagar, Gujarat, India, March 2, 2024
But for Bollywood's biggest names, this is the place to be [Reuters]

For India's wedding industry though, it’s still an exciting marketing opportunity.

This is an excellent chance for designers to showcase the more refined side of India's couture, artistry and craftsmanship, says Anand Bhushan, a fashion designer. That said, the frequency, with celebrities changing five-six outfits per event can sometimes feel a "little saturating", he admits.

Ms Tharwani says the wedding serves as “an exemplary case” of orchestrating a multi-event, multi-location celebration "that combines tradition, modernity, and unmatched hospitality standards".

Meanwhile, in Mumbai, Varindar Chawla, one of Bollywood's best-known paparazzi, is sifting through the photographs of the celebrations.

There are a few of celebrities posing at the entrance as they arrive to attend the various events.

Each one of these pictures - even the unflattering ones, such as of a star looking stunned as the glare of a camera-flash hits them in the face - has been fetching millions of views and shares.

“Usually it’s hard to penetrate events of this scale. But this family has gone out of the way to ensure we are there to cover every little detail," he says.

"It's a royal wedding and we are getting a royal treatment."