Modern day Malay Wedding Customs and their origins – Part II

Malay Weddings II

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Author’s Note: Apologies for the long interim since the very first article in the series. Family and career life takes over most of the time, and the rest of the time, I’m plain lazy to research. 

The previous article skimmed the customs of a typical Sri Lankan Malay Wedding before the actual wedding takes place. This is the sequel in which I look into the actual wedding ceremony and the customs and rituals that take place around it. The Malay weddings in Malaysia and Indonesia draw influences from diverse traditions – Indigenous, Hindu and Islamic. In addition to these traditions brought down to Sri Lanka by our ancestors, years of co-existing in a multi-ethnic society has further added traditions and rituals from the Christian and Moor communities.

The Malay Wedding

  • Nikah

The Nikah, or the actual marriage is a religious and legal step towards officiating a marriage. In Sri Lanka, the Malays are as a majority, Muslims and therefore fall under the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) and thus the solemnization of the marriage takes place in front of a Kazi (appointed Marriage Registrar). There has been quite a lot of dialogues regarding the MMDA, especially in the areas of increasing the minimum age of marriage for girls, but that deserves an article of its own.

The Nikah takes place between the father/guardian (wali) of the bride and the groom, with two witnesses. In most instances, it is held in the mosque whereas sometimes in the venue in which the wedding ceremony takes place. Since it is the religious and legal part of the marriage, I will not tread in the path of analyzing it, nor looking for its origins.

My personal qualm regarding the Nikah is the fact that the bride is not present, nor is her written consent required to formalize the marriage. This is a loophole which is exploited in certain situations. On the bright side, unlike in Hindu marriage traditions, there is no dowry to be given from the bride to the groom, but the Mahr, which the groom gives to the bride, without which the marriage is not complete.

  • Pantun

At present, the Pantun is recited/sung to escort the bride and groom to the wedding hall. The bride enters first and the groom follows, (most often after performing salaat and the nikah in a separate venue). The sequence to enter perhaps stems from the groom traditionally coming to the bride’s house in request of marriage, since in Sinhala, Hindu and Christian weddings, the groom is the first to arrive.1 In contrast to what takes place in Sri Lanka, the role of pantun at traditional Malay weddings is different.

The Pantun is a Malay poetic form consisting of 4 lined verses. The history of poetry in Malaysia goes back to 14th century, thus resulting in the rich use of symbolization which might not be familiar to other communities.Pantuns are sung at formal functions and weddings, and the most common theme is ‘love’. It is ideally an exchange between individuals or groups and not recited to an audience.

In traditional Malay weddings, the singing of pantun happens during rambongan meminang, the formal meeting of the two families. An interesting part of the meminang is the clever exchange of pantun, where the groom’s family asks for the girl’s hand in marriage. The bride’s family too responds in an equally clever and amusingpantun. Alas! This is a dying art even in Malaysia. In Sri Lankan Malay weddings the pantuns based on love are performed rather than exchanged.

  • Alathi

The practice of welcoming the bride and groom is known as Alathi. Generally, two saucers, one containing milk and betel leaves (daun siri) and the other containing turmeric mixed water and betel leaves are circled over the bride/groom’s head accompanied by a prayer at the entrance to the wedding reception. The former signifies prosperity while the latter stands for health and purity. The Alathi ritual is conducted by one of the elderly female relatives for the bride, while a male relative does the honours for the groom.

Linguistically, the word Alathi probably derives from the Hindu practice of Aarti, the religious ritual of worship in which light and camphor, and sometimes flowers are offered to one or more deities. The word Aarti is derived from the Sanskrit word ārātrika, which means something that removes rātrī, darkness (or light waved in darkness before an icon).

The performance of the ritual has similarities to the Aarti performed during the Griha Pravesha (home coming) of Hindu weddings. This is when the bride formally enters the groom’s house after marriage. The mother-in-law performs the Aarti for the newlywed couple and applies a tilak to both after which the couple seek blessings from the elders of the family.

  • Isthal

Well, this is a word I’m not sure if I use right, but this refers to the throne in which the couple sit during the wedding ceremony. It probably resonates the word sthal meaning ‘place’ in Hindi, referring to the place which is occupied by the couple.

The isthal is decorated from simple to elaborate, depending on the preference of the couple. But the main feature is the brass pots, one with a white cloth fan and the other with coconut flower, placed in either side of the isthal, the former signifying purity and the latter prosperity. Most often the same pots used at the pacharceremony are brought to the wedding venue.

In traditional Malay Weddings the pelamin (platform) is erected for the bersanding, the ceremonial seating on the dais. This is considered the high point of a Malay wedding where the bride receives the groom and they take their seats as husband and wife to an audience of family and friends. The bersanding takes place on hari langsung, or the day of completion, and signals the conclusion of the marriage ceremony, which is followed by a meal. Ideally the pelamin is made with an umbrella like shape at the top. However in Sri Lanka, one rarely sees such a design.

While awaiting the arrival of the groom the bride holds a betel leaf (daun sirih) rolled into a cone with lime in it in each hand. Upon arrival one of the tasks of the groom is to pick this surool and throw it over the bride’s head. This is believed to ward off the evil eye. The betel leaf, or daun sirih plays a significant role in Malay culture. In a traditional Malay wedding the groom cannot enter the bride’s home until the bride sends him a prepared daun sirih known as sirih latlat or sirih genggam. This signals that the bride awaits the groom’s arrival. Furthermore, during hantaran, the giving of gifts to the bride’s family during the walima, which is rarely practiced among Sri Lankan Malays, there is an exchange of what is known as sirih junjung and the display of sirih dara. Both are elaborate decorations made of daun sirih and flowers. The former is exchanged between the bride and groom as gifts, whereas the latter is usually placed in the middle of the wedding dais as part of the decoration and symbolizes the bride’s virginity (sexist much!). Which of these traditions led to the surool, or if it was derived from a completely different source, I’m not sure. However, the important place given to the betel leaf in all kinds of Malay traditions is worth reading about.

That’s a wrap to Part II of the series. Please write your comments and thoughts and help us build on revisiting these traditions.


1 Please note the use of Sinhala (an ethnicity) and Hindu and Christian (religious groups), since there is no official Buddhist marriage tradition.

Tinaz Amit
Surviving in the field of Public Relations, mainly because it keeps me closer to things I enjoy; reading, writing and research, with a smatter of socializing. Daughter, wife, mother and career woman, trying to keep a level head while juggling all these roles, just like all others. Cynical to the extreme but has the required amount of social skills to restrict expressing them to the world.

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