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Note from author: the below list is mainly based on my personal observations and online research. Therefore it might not cover all the traditions. The additional comments, sides and after-thoughts are purely mine and a humble request to the readers to not be disheartened or enraged if your point of view is not represented.
Also, once I started writing, I realized one article will not suffice to cover all the customs and my opinions about it, so I’ve promoted it to a series. Apologies for the long reads.
The Malay Wedding
A wedding in our small but vibrant community is always a time for planning, writing the guest list, booking the hall, editing the guest list, planning the dress, editing the guest list, deciding on the menu, editing the guest list, choosing the retinue, editing the guest list (make sure you invite the family of your page boys and flower girls), writing out invitations, editing the guest list (yes, even after you write the invitations), delegating work (make sure all the elders in the family are given prominence), editing the guest list among the many other little things to be sorted out, like the nikah, mahr, plans with the mosque and if the close family is to colour code with the theme colours of the wedding.
Being a community which has survived among many socio, economic and political changes, and the largely ‘accepting’ attitude, the customs one sees at a modern Malay wedding (if both the bride and groom are Malays, and sometimes even if it is not so), are influenced by the not-so-Malay, not-so-Islamic customs. Here’s a look into some of the customs and a probable assumption as to where it originally came from.
- The meeting of the families
Whether it’s an arranged marriage or a love marriage, the families of both the bride and groom insist on an official meeting of the families. They visit each other’s houses for either a meal or tea. This also serves as a way of getting to know the family better and brownie points to you if you have that one aunt (which we all do) who manages to learn the whole family history and present situation within the first hour of the visit.
This probably comes from the practices of Merisik (investigating) and Meminang (proposing) which has come from the traditional Malay practices. During the Meminang, the groom’s family take gifts for the bride, which today translates into the Dulang.
The word ‘dulang’ refers to a salver in Indonesian (a tray, typically one made of silver and used in formal circumstances). It may also have the influence of Ethnic Chinese wedding customs in Indonesia. Among the Ethnic Chinese, about a week before the wedding, the groom’s family visits the bride with gifts arranged in red baskets or boxes (because red symbolizes happiness and prosperity for the Chinese). Each basket is carried by only males from the immediate family. The bride’s family accept the gifts, sort through them and some are returned. The same takes place vice versa a few days before the wedding when the bride’s family visit the groom’s, only this time, the gifts are carried by the females of the family.
Back in the days 5 types/trays of Dulang were taken to the bride’s home; each containing Persalinan – clothes, Buahan – Fruit, Manisan – Sweets, Chinchin – Gold ring and Duit Hantaran – Cash. Of course the contents varied according to one’s financial situation. However, at present you do not see a clear demarcation of the Dulangs, and thank God for that!
- The Mehendi ceremony
This is definitely a borrowing from India, but Mehendi has becomes such a Sri Lankan thing, with the Moors embracing it from India and subsequently, the Malays. For those of Gen X (like me) and other generations preceding it, what we knew about beautifying our palms were the Marathondi we applied during the month of Ramadhan. It was limited to polka dots on one’s palm made with the aid of short eekle or later tooth-picks. The Marathondi was a paste made of henna leaves and we would sleep the night with arms stretched out, palms up until it dried off, to be removed the next day.
However, within the past decade or so, Mehendi has taken over and entered into the pre-wedding scene, obviously through the heavy Indian influence, perhaps thanks to the Hindi movies. Henna is also used as body paint in Africa and the Middle East and its origins are traced back to the Egyptian civilization.
In the Hindu wedding version, both the bride and groom attend the Mehendi ceremony, where a professional designer applies the designs. Often the groom’s name is intricately written in the design. It’s an event full of song and dance. In Sri Lanka, it is limited to the women folk of both parties. The entertainment varies according to the religious affluence of the family, but overall it is a colourful evening.
- The Pachar Ceremony
This was a tricky one to find about. After opening many tabs on my computer from various websites, I figure the tradition of the Pachar Ceremony would have stemmed from the custom of Tepuk Tepung Tawar to which there is no direct translation. In modern days, the ceremony takes place in the bride and groom’s homes, separately, prior to the wedding. The close family is invited and the bride/groom sits on a decorated chair with palms turned up. Two pots, one containing a coconut flower and the other, a cloth fan are placed on both sides. Rose water or perfumed water (in total reality someone’s perfume or cologne) is kept by the side and the family members take turns in dabbing the scented water onto the palms of the bride/groom. This is supposed to be a kind of ‘blessing’ to the bride/groom to be, (not forgetting taking the opportunity to shove the cash gifts into the palms. I don’t understand why people make a show of being secretive in giving cash).
As for the possible origins of the custom, Tepuk Tepung Tawar ideally happens during a Malay wedding ceremony. The couple sit together and starting from the eldest of the family tree, they will;
1) Take a small amount of a mixture of yellow/ white rice, roasted wheat/ popcorn (‘bertih’) and sometimes flowers, sprinkle it onto the groom and bride to signify celebration and happiness.
2) Sprinkle rosewater onto bride and groom. Onto eyebrows signifies ability to handle problems well, onto shoulders signifies able to handle burden and responsibility and onto palm of hands for strength to work hard in life.
3) A pinch of henna paste smeared onto the couple’s palms to signify their marital status.
4) Running a boiled egg or raw egg around their faces to “absorb” any bad or ill luck.
5) Odd numbers of people are encouraged but not necessarily.
Whether this or another custom was the origin of the Pachar Ceremony is arguable, but this is the closest I came across. How the custom evolved from being performed during the wedding to a pre-wedding ceremony and the changes in the ritual are open to debate.
It was also traditional for the extended family, neighbours and friends to come together at the bride/groom’s house before the wedding to help with the preparations, as most weddings took place at home. With the advent of the receptions moving to hotels or reception halls, and the family being scattered throughout the country and world, the pre-wedding vibe has been taken over by the wedding planners, florists, beauticians and hotel managers. Sigh.