Last year when Neil got married, I was at my wit's end. My mother had tried to tell me about our wedding traditions for years and I had dismissed her with a hand wave and a "Not now, Ma." In what seems like the blink of an eye, my first born grew up, moved away, found the love of his life, and told us that he wanted to marry in our tradition. I called my mother incessantly. I Googled till I couldn't anymore. I picked my mother-in-law's brain and relied on my husband to impart whatever bits of knowledge he had.
In putting together Neil's wedding, I learned a lot about our tradition and a bit about weddings in other cultures. The parallels reinforce the oneness of the globe.
Our tradition - the Bengali tradition that is - centers around the color red. The bride wears red, the decorations are often red, the house is lit up with mini red lights, and red roses are everywhere. In keeping with this theme, Neil's brother and cousins carried Humera to the wedding venue on a decorated wooden plank called a "pidi" made by one friend and painted by another with a beautiful motif on red.
Interestingly, in Morocco the bride is carried by her relatives from the wedding venue to her room. Jewish tradition includes the chair dance where the bride and the groom are hoisted above the guests in celebration.
Our daughter-in-law, Humera, wore a red sari from the city of Benaras. The artisans of this city are famous for their handiwork of intricate embroidery on opulent silks . I wore a Benarasi sari for my wedding as did my mother and her mother. The saris last forever if you take care of them well and we are lucky we get to wear them more than once.
Hindu weddings are witnessed by an eternal witness, fire. In lieu of the sun, we light a fire and go around it seven times, reciting our vows. Red is representative of the rising sun. Red is also the color of the planet Mars, technically the celestial body in charge of marriages. Just take my word for this or else I'll have to drown you in astrological details. And finally, red is a sign of fertility.
In the west, red has a devilish connotation. How perfect is that for a bride!
I had whole-heartedly bought into the myth that brides in the west wear white since it represents chastity. The real story is rather banal. In the old days - the really old days - when washing was an expensive, tiring, and possibly fruitless endeavor, white was the most difficult color to pull off. It was easier for the wealthy to wear white. So, brides wore white to show the world that they had financial gumption. This is where the tradition of a wear-it-once bridal dress comes from. Centuries later, I still think white is a scary color to carry off and I am in awe of the brides who wear white.
Common threads run between African and Indian traditions. A reverence of earth, plants, fruits, nuts, and gods run deep in both traditions. A typical African bridal dress is made from a woven fabric called Kente with green, red and gold colors. Green for plants that sustain us, red for those who have sacrificed to protect others, and gold for prosperity. I found this picture on the net of kente cloth.
At Neil and Humera's wedding, we had banana plants, mango leaves, fruits, flowers, five types of metals, and many more objects that represent our roots, our aspirations, our hopes, and our faith. I was both frustrated and exhilarated to gather the long list of items. Most things came from the local Indian store. The banana plants arrived from amazon.com, leaving my mother dumbfounded.
Before there were cars, Bengali brides arrived at their wedding in a "palki" a hand-carried covered chair. The Chinese have this tradition too. They call it a sedan chair. Humera arriving on a pidi with a palki in the design was a modern day rendition of this ancient theme.
Sadly, many of the world's wedding traditions indulge in the custom of dowry. It is a sum of money paid by the bride's family to the groom's family. Tragically, this tradition transcends religion, geography, class, and time. In some situations, the custom is reversed. Dowry can be in cash, kind, or both. By definition, dowry is demanded, placing abhorrent financial and emotional burden on families. I live for the day when this tradition will be outlawed all across the world.
The traditions before and during the ceremony run the gamut from meaningful to odd. Neil read seven vows while Humera knocked apples set on leaves as a gesture of commitment to the vows (saptapadi, seven steps). My cousin captured this moment with incredible creativity.
In Congo, the couple is barred from smiling since that would be insulting to the somber nature of the proceedings. In Mongolia the couple butcher chickens to find a liver with an auspicious sign before they can get married. German couples clean up broken porcelain dishes that guests throw before entering their new house as a commitment to working together. The bride's cousins steal the groom's shoes in India for a ransom that is tenaciously negotiated.
In Nigeria, the ceremony is not complete until the couple eat the kola nut, which has medicinal properties and symbolizes that the couple and their families will provide healing for life. Henna tattoos, ululation, and headdresses are common in Africa and in India. And gift giving to the couple and the respective families transcend cultures.
These happy traditions are a nod to the fact that the coming together of two people and their families is a momentous occasion that deserves the very best in terms of tradition, eccentricity, and hilarity.
But wait, we are not done until we eat.
Stay tuned for the next post on wedding gastronomy from across the world.