Sanjiv didn't spare the pedal as the Hindustan Ambassador sped down the damp, potholed road from Lucknow airport, hitting every puddle along the way. The evening market, with its dimly illuminated stalls piled with rice, spices and roti, was reduced to a blur. "We must hurry," he sputtered through betel-stained teeth. " Tilak has begun."

It occurred to me then that this was a heck of a distance to travel to a wedding, especially as I was yet to meet Pramul and Rittika, the couple getting hitched. Still, my Indian friend's email had bragged of Lucknow's reputation as the "hospitality capital of India". "In my country, no one minds a friend-of-friend tagging along to a young couple's nuptials," he wrote.

It would also be a chance, he went on, to witness the celebration of an "arranged marriage", a form still practised by 95 per cent of Indian couples, and one that he was convinced had a far greater success rate than our Western version. Not being entirely unfamiliar with marital difficulty myself, it was an invitation I couldn't pass up.

Hindu weddings are elaborate affairs that take place over several days, with religious ceremonies interspersed with parades, fireworks and copious food and drink. As they are celebrating not just the joining of two young people, but the union of two families, it is also a prime opportunity to make a show of one's wealth. And wealth is what you need - wedding costs start at half a million rupees ( pounds 40,000). Judging by the carpet rolled out by Pramul and Rittika's kin over the next three days, they weren't short of a few bob.

Tilak, it turned out, isn't just the sacred mark on a Hindu forehead, but a wedding-eve gathering for the groom's family and friends, and the first major event of this three-day wedding marathon. It was a bachelor party of sorts hosted by Pramul's uncle, a Lucknow law professor, and it entailed a religious ceremony performed by a priest.

Once the formalities were over, we were led on to a broad, tented lawn where a four-piece band and singers were pumping out the latest Bollywood hits, and legions of waiters were circulating with trays loaded with imported spirits, kebabs and paneer tikka.

"You must eat, please, as much as you can," said the first of seemingly dozens of family members who, through the evening, would urge me towards the vast silvery urns of Indian delicacies. As for alcohol, while it isn't exactly condoned by the Hindu religion, the guests showed little restraint.

Just then, the bride arrived, and I asked an aunt if the couple's seeing each other the night before the wedding wasn't considered bad luck. "In arranged marriages, there is no question of luck," she said. "The families have all agreed to every detail. The priest has selected the most propitious moment for the couple's joining."

"But what about love?" I ventured.

"First comes marriage; love follows."

Guests at Hindu weddings want for nothing. The families often provide guests with hotels, drivers, train transportation and every meal. Next morning, Sanjiv dropped us in another part of the city, where we found ourselves under yet another giant marquee where the groom's family had laid on lunch. Kingfisher beer was served to the men, while the women busied themselves with mehndi, the painting of the bride's hands and feet with henna to signify the strength of love in marriage. The daytime heat beat through the canvas roof, and soon male snores were resounding around the tent. It was time to retreat to the hotel and rest up for the marriage ceremony later that evening.

As night fell, the groom's family and friends, numbering about 200 in all, gathered for some pre-ceremony fortification courtesy of the Indian elite's favourite beverage - the whisky-soda. Fireworks began to explode outside, signifying the start of the "baraat". This deafening parade, with flashing neon lights and vigorous dancing, is the groom's official procession to claim his bride. Pramul, dressed in a jewelled turban and brocade jacket, sat astride a white horse bringing up the rear of a column of musicians and well-wishers. He had a bemused look on his face.

I wondered then how this executive in a Bombay-based, European- owned company could submit to an ancient tradition that denied free choice. "But it is his choice," his great-uncle would later tell me. "Family, tradition and commitment have bound young Indian couples together for centuries, and today's generation is no different. Your Western ideas of individualism have proved to be a fragile notion as far as modern marriage is concerned."

With mounted police blocking traffic, the parade snaked its way for about two miles towards a larger and grander marquee lit up like the Millennium Dome on New Year's Eve. Pramul was led to the mandapa, the four-pole canopy where the ceremony would take place. Once the bride in her red and gold wedding sari had joined him, the ritual began.