In India, it is expected that the bride's family organize and especially pay for the wedding, so when a young woman's father (the main bread earner) dies, she can almost certainly forget about having a wedding, especially if she comes from a poor family. Most often than not, widowed mothers simply don't have the means to marry their daughters. That's where Indian real-estate tycoon Mahesh Savani comes in.
Ever since 2008, Mr. Savani has organized weddings for over 700 fatherless brides, not only paying for the event itself, but also giving each one of his new "daughters" a substantial dowry (gold, jewelry, furniture, home appliances, etc.) worth around 400,000 rupees ($5,900). At each wedding, the successful businessman also steps up to play the role of their father and perform their 'kanyadaan' - the traditional ritual of giving away the bride. From that moment on, the girls become his daughters.
It all started over 8 years ago, when a close relative died just a week before his daughter's wedding, and Mahesh Savani stepped in to take his place, organizing the whole event and performing kanyadaan.
"That's when I began to think of all the girls without fathers who needed someone to assume this responsibility and decided I would take this up," he said. "It is challenging for a woman who has lost her husband to get her daughter married." All he asks from the brides-to-be is a death certificate of their father, to make sure he is not being taken advantage of. Religion and caste are irrelevant to him.
In the beginning, he used to throw weddings for each individual woman, but as news of his generosity spread around his him state of Gujarat, it got to a point where he couldn't keep up with requests from young women and widowed mothers begging him to help them. It simply became to tiring for him, so ever since 2012 he started holding one mass wedding every December, on the grounds of the PP Savani School which he runs in the city of Surat.
Up until this year, Mahesh Savani had married off a total of 472 fatherless brides of various religions. At last year's mass wedding, he paid for the food and drinks of 100,000 people - the couples, their families and their friends, not to mention the gifts he gave every one of his new daughters.
This year's event, was a special one. Not only did he get the chance to marry off 236 fatherless women, but his two biological sons also got married at the ceremony.
"With Sunday's mass wedding, I have become (a) proud father to have performed 'kanyadaan' of over 700 girls," Mahesh told AFP. "This year my two sons also got married during the mass wedding event. So, in all there were 238 marriages."
Savani never discloses how much these grand wedding cost, but judging only by the value of the dowry and the elaborate gowns worn by the brides, it's estimated that he spends hundreds of thousands of dollars for each event. He can afford to pay for them thanks to the fortune he has amassed, first from his diamond polishing business, and more recently from real-estate. But just because he can afford to do it, doesn't make his generosity any less impressive.
Another thing that makes Mahesh Savani special is the relationship he has with the brides after their weddings.
"Once we become his daughters, we are daughters for life. At every festival when a father is meant to go to his married daughter's house with gifts, Mahesh Papa goes to as many homes as he can," says Vishva Vamja, one of the beneficiaries of Savani's generosity. "He treats his responsibility as one that's forever, not something that ends when the wedding is over."
"Mahesh Papa is just a message away when we need him," says Hina Kathiriya, another one of Savani's adopted daughters.
Every Sunday, it is open house at the Savani home, a day when every one of Mahesh's daughters can come by simply to keep in touch or to ask him for help with a problem. On Father's day, dozens of them turn up every year bearing gifts and cards expressing their love for him and their gratitude. Each year's wedding is also an opportunity for the earlier brides and Mr. Savani to bond.
"I get all the earlier brides and their husbands to help with the arrangements. The married girls go and do all the shopping for the new brides," he says.
Savani claims that being able to make so many women happy is a blessing from God. "The best thing is seeing the relief on the mother's and daughter's faces the moment they hear I'll take care of everything. That, and the girl's happiness on the big day," he said.
He plans to hold his now traditional annual mass wedding for fatherless girls for as long as he can afford it.