How Mormons find love in India
- 27 December 2016
- From the section India
Summer Green Resort lies some 25km (15 miles) north of India's southern city of Hyderabad.
Situated over 22 acres, the complex resembles a gated community that wouldn't be out of place in Florida.
While the resort typically plays host to corporate functions, weddings, and the odd family holiday, recently it entertained an altogether different type of crowd.
Over the course of a weekend, 400 Mormons from all over India gathered to participate in their Church's All India Young Single Adults (YSA) Conference.
To the uninitiated, the event appears to be a series of workshops centred around this year's rather loosely termed theme, Decisions Determine Destiny.
A quick chat with the event's participants makes things a bit clearer.
"It's no secret that we all come here to find spouses," says Venella, 18.
Social media perils
The auditorium on the far side of the resort is filled with 100 or so bleary eyed 20-somethings.
Having whiled away the previous evening listening to Roll Rida, Hyderabad's resident Mormon Rapper, they are exhausted.
But Elder Natarajan, the exuberant emcee of a seminar titled Eternal Marriage: Logic vs the Lord's Way is having none of this.
"Please pay attention - if you're sleepy, don't sleep," he says, before going on to gleefully expound upon the pitfalls of modern romance.
"It's a dating class," my host, Sister Hubbard, explains.
Like a seasoned televangelist, Mr Natarajan paces up and down the room telling us the dos and don'ts of the Mormon dating scene.
"Hi, what's your name? Will you marry me?" he says, parodying your average, somewhat-over-enthusiastic Mormon suitor.
He then goes on to warn of the perils of social media where budding romance is concerned. A lesson in selfie etiquette is followed by one on social networking.
"Whatever you do, don't propose over Facebook!" we are implored.
While Mr Natarajan's talk is inevitably humorous, it is also tempered by more serious concerns.
"Every year, in the southern Chennai district [in Tamil Nadu state], there are only four to five Mormon marriages. This is simply not enough."
'Look past the looks'
Events organised by the YSA, and paid for by the church, hope to address this.
For Mormons, marriage involves a process known as "sealing", where the souls of partners are bound to one another through eternity.
Familial structures remain intact in the afterlife, so while the conference's participants are encouraged to be discerning, they are also advised to be realistic: there are only 12,700 Mormons in India.
"Look past the looks," Mr Natarajan says.
But this low marriage rate poses more than just theological issues - it also presents certain logistical constraints. The Mormon Church doesn't have enough missionaries.
A large part of its Indian congregations is composed of first-generation converts.
In fact, this was the case with the vast majority of the event's participants, largely hailing from Baptist, Protestant and Catholic backgrounds.
With Indians joining later in life, they miss out on the opportunity to do missionary work. And the Mormon Church needs an Indian born missionary force.
Not only is the experience of missionary activity itself a Mormon rite of passage, but India is also seen as a site in which the Mormon Church has made relatively few inroads.
This largely has to do with the Indian government's aversion to Christian missionary activity.
The Mormon Church first arrived in India in the 1850s, but it was only able to establish a permanent presence in the country by the 1980s.
With their missions elsewhere, the Mormon Church often brings in personnel from abroad to spread the word of the gospel.
But given the difficulty of securing missionary visas, they have had to rely largely on Indian nationals.
A video leak, titled Mormon Leaks, helps shed some light on the extent of this problem.
The clip features a US senator in talks with the Mormon Church hierarchy, detailing how he applied pressure on the former Indian ambassador, Ronen Sen, to provide more visas for the church's missionary activities in India, with some limited success.
In the past, these activities have at times proven dangerous.
One of the conference organisers, Vasantha Prabhakar, 29, told me of how missionaries working in Bangalore no longer wear the ubiquitously Mormon black and white name tags during work, for fear of reprisals.
Romance in the air
Still, it's also hard to feel too embattled with Roll Rida pumping through the air, as everyone leaps about the place playing an assortment of games.
"This is what happens when you don't have alcohol," Sister Hubbard joked.
Alcohol or not, romance is in the air.
Deepanshu Yadav and Preeti Jhadav met at a YSA conference last year, and decided to start dating at this one in Hyderabad.
"That's the main purpose of the event," Deepanshu says, bursting into laughter.
As for Venella Vakapalli, well, she is taking her time.
After regaling me with the history of the Mormon Church in India, I ask her if she has found a potential suitor.
"Everyone keeps asking me that," she said.
"Someone came up to me earlier and said, 'Have you met your husband yet? I said no, I am only 18-years-old.'
"They told me, 'He's somewhere around here. Go search'."