Inside Neil Chawla and Hemang Saraiya’s Destination Wedding in Mexico
Los Angeles-based couple Neil Chawla and Hemang Saraiya first met on a “friendly hike” in 2019, after hooking up online through Bumble BFF. “But we quickly found various commonalities that made us realize it was more than a platonic connection,” says Chawla, who is a primary care physician in Hollywood. From travel and veganism to their shared desire to live a greener life, they’ve discovered many similar inclinations and quirks along the way. The pandemic has only strengthened their bond. “As the world became an unnerving and unfamiliar place, it was increasingly clear how much we knew each other and what really mattered to us,” adds Saraiya, event planner and freelance photographer. Thus, he got down on his knees in October 2020, in a pizzeria which is special to the duo.
Chawla also proposed to Griffith Park, after hiking the Hollywood sign. When it comes to wedding planning, Saraiya naturally took the lead. After attending many extravagant Bollywood-inspired weddings, the couple wanted to throw an antithesis. “A truly one-of-a-kind intimate beachside gathering where there were no ballrooms or ‘South Asian’ wedding packages!” Saraiya said. Tulum ticked all the boxes on its checklist. So while Saraiya was handling all the details of their destination wedding, he enlisted Shaadi Destinations and Cristina Meilán of Unique Stories Weddings for one-site production and logistics.
The three-day celebrations took place at several venues in the seaside town. The common factor? Each location offered them a clean, minimalist and timeless aesthetic that was central to their wedding mood board. Guests received a leather and woven fabric wristband as an entry wristband to all events, purchased from a local store in Tulum. A mehendi mixer in their boutique-villa Nest kicked off the festivities where guests were treated to a custom margarita bar, Indian specialties from local restaurant Tika Tulum and mehendi from Loto Mehndi. But the first “main event”, according to the couple, was the next morning – a Vinyasa yoga session by Yoga Dicha. This was followed by the pithi (haldi) ceremony on the beach, after which the bride and groom jumped into the ocean.
The evening was reserved for their rendition of a traditional sangeet, held poolside at the neighboring property, Radhoo Tulum. The climax ? Kerri Colby, of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame, as host. “Kerri is a friend, and this was her first time donning Indian outfits and hosting a sangeet. She quickly became an audience favorite after opening with a Beyoncé-Bollywood fusion number,” Chawla explains. Kerri also involved guests in a classic parade challenge and closed the evening’s program with a Whitney Houston classic that got everyone emotional. Her presence not only created a unique experience, but also created an awareness of all facets of our LGBTQIA+ community,” adds Saraiya.
The wedding day began with dueling baraats on opposite sides of the property, with dhol (Drums in Paradise) drummers and music from Ohm Mexico. “The guests marched through the jungle surroundings to the waterfront, where our two baraats collided in a frenzy of cheering and competition,” Chawla recalled. They then walked down the aisle to their rainbow mandap (complete with flowers from Zuniga Designs and Pentaflor Flowers) with their respective mothers, where Chicago priestess Hersh Khetarpal performed a modernized Hindu ceremony.
“She’s a trailblazer who performed her daughter’s same-sex marriage over 10 years ago when it was only allowed in Massachusetts,” Saraiya says of their pick. The theme for the reception that evening was a dramatic evening in the jungle – it began with cocktails and a performance by musician Miguel Hiroshi on the rooftop of the trendy restaurant, Nü Tulum. Guests then descended to the main veranda for a night of revelry. “The intimate energy of the first half of the reception flipped 180 degrees when the water drum performers of Drums in Paradise performed on the dance floor,” Chawla recalled.
The multi-day wardrobe of the bride and groom has been carefully organized. They wore matching ivory linen kurta sets with embroidered bandis from Project Bandi for the mehendi night. For the next morning’s yoga session, they kept cool in kimono jackets and shorts from Thai brand Wai Wear. For the sangeet, Chawla chose a Bohame tie-dye bandi over a pleated Anju Agarwal kurta set. Saraiya went with a vintage white chikankari kurta with embroidered bandi by Anju Agarwal and corduroy leggings.
The couple turned to Pranay Baidya to customize their off-white ashkans, worn with silk and linen trousers, for the wedding day. They wanted to pair this with their mothers’ wedding sarees as shawls, so Baidya drew inspiration from these heritages to create complementary embroideries on the ashkans. For the reception, Saraiya chose an asymmetrical black Bohemian kurta, which he wore with a sequin vest from his high school’s Glee Club. Chawla complemented her hubby in a tuxedo with a sequin jacket. The eco-conscious couple’s gold wedding bands came from Toronto-based Fair Trade Jewelry Co. and were made from 50% certified recycled gold and 50% fair trade gold. Brazilian makeup artist Alex Corbanezi, based in Mexico, was in charge of hair and makeup for all events.
Not only did the duo want to offer their guests a unique take on an Indian destination wedding, but they also wanted to work with wedding makers they had a personal connection with. For example, Chawla’s sister Symrin of Studio Ru designed her invitations and accessories inspired by the Mayan sun, mixed with vintage Bollywood and Mexican elements. The welcome bags were from Chawla’s aunt’s company, Bags Go Green – filled with snacks from California, Tulum and Hawaii (where the bride and groom are now moving) and tea bags from Herbal Republic.
The food was a mix of Indian and Mexican dishes, including Mezcal cocktails and a rainbow cake with decorations modeled after their dogs. “But what was most memorable was when our friends and family came to the mandap after the ceremony and told us how much our vows meant to them,” Chawla muses. “All of our guests said the weekend helped them in their own relationships with each other, which was so heartwarming for us to hear,” Saraiya signs.