Traditional Wedding Customs of the Ceylon (Sri Lanka) Malays.
The Fading Away of the Traditional Wedding Customs of the Ceylon (Sri Lanka) Malays.
This article is written based on the traditional wedding customs that were practiced by our ancestors; that landed in Ceylon during the Dutch conquest of the Island. Regrettably these customs have seen a steady decline (in practice) in the last few decades; with many of the traditions and customs being replaced by Western & Indian customs/practices.
The Malays were predominantly of the Islamic Faith and hence followed the Islamic Muslim marriage rites, coupled with their cultural and traditional customs.
Following are the procedures that were/are followed from the time of proposal to the complete wedding ceremony:
Proposal of Marriage.
The wedding can be by mutual agreement between the parents of the intended bride and bridegroom (an arranged marriage); or in the case of a girl and boy who wishes to get married of their own accord they could get their respective parents to arrange for their marriage (love marriage). By tradition, if the latter was to take place, it is customary for the girl’s parents to visit the boy’s parents seeking the hand of their son in marriage to their daughter and vice versa. At this juncture wedding plans are mutually agreed upon. A Registration of Marriage Date is agreed upon. An Engagement date is optional; and rings may be exchanged at any one of the two dates or as mutually agreed upon. Mention must be also made of the existence of marriage brokers/match makers (mainly female marriage brokers/match makers) in this field as was very common in the decades gone by; and is now believed to be almost non-existent.
Invitation to the wedding or other related matters/ceremonies is done by personal visits to the other family members; relatives; close friends and neighbours. Currently due to the modern postal systems and the advent of e-mail facilities it is known that, other than personal visits to close relatives and friends, invitations are sent using the aforementioned forms of communication. One of the most important concepts at a Malay Weddings is based on : “The more the Merrier“. Weddings are also considered as an important social event – a time for the meeting of friends and relatives. Presence of all invited kith and kin are considered mandatory and the same goes for close friends. Fall-Outs are known to occur among family members and friends on their non-attendance at the wedding.
Gifts to the Bride (Dulang Hantaran)The custom of sending gifts in an official manner is no longer believed to be in practice. The elders of the community may, however, remember the sending of gifts from the intended Bridegroom to the intended Bride. Dulang Hantaran means the sending of gift trays. There are 5 basic trays (dulangs) that are sent to the intended Bride, prior to the wedding. It comprises of:
1. Dulang Persalinan – Tray containing clothes for the bride.
2. Dulang Buahan – Tray containing Fruits.
3. Dulang Manisan – Tray containing Sweets.
4. Dulang Cincin – Tray containing a Gold Ring.
5. Dulang Duit Hantaran – Tray containing cash.
The affluent did send 5 separate trays but it was normal to send all the above in one tray by the not so affluent. The intended Bride’s side too would reciprocate the same way.
On the day of the wedding a special ceremony takes place for the Bride; either at the Bride’s home or at a convenient location. Invariably the location is at the place of the wedding but held away from the main reception hall, at that location. All female members and relatives attend this ceremony. Close friends may be invited. The ceremony is called a “Pachar Ceremony”; which translated means a “Bride’s Ceremony”
The Bride is dressed in a traditional wedding attire (which is optional). The Malays in Sri Lanka have in most instances adopted the colorful and richly adorned sari; to be worn on the occasion or opted for a Western style Wedding Dress.
The Bride is seated on a richly adorned seat and the Bride’s party would chant prayers from the Holy Koran invoking the Blessings of the Almighty for the Bride’s happy wedded life. At the end of the prayers all the women folk present will smear perfume on the palms of the Bride as a symbolic gesture of congratulations and well wishes to the Bride. The perfume symbolizes that the path be as fragrant. A veil is then drawn over the face of the Bride by the mother of the Bride; prior to being led from the room to the main reception hall, at the auspicious time.
Wedding Reception (Resepsi Pernikahan).
The Wedding and the reception were customarily held at the Bride’s home with a “Home-Coming” ceremony being held at the Groom’s home a few days later. But in present times this has changed and very elaborate weddings/receptions are held at the Banquet Hall of leading Hotels and at Community Centres, depending on the affordability of the parties concerned.
The Bride and the accompanying Bridal Party is met at the entrance to the reception hall by the Bride’s father and elderly relatives. A simple ceremony is conducted called an “Alathi Ceremony” by an elderly female relative. It comprises of two dishes – one with milk and a betel leaf (daun sirih*) in it – signifying prosperity; and the other with liquid tumeric solution and a betel leaf – signifying health and purity. Each of the dishes is waved over the head of the Bride along with prayers of blessings. The Bride is then led to the Wedding Throne (istahal or pelaminan chair). The wedding throne is very elaborately decorated; and either side sits two large vases – one vase has a pure white cloth decoration in the form of a fan – signifying purity; and the other has a freshly cut coconut flower and frond – signifying fertility.
Above the wedding throne is also a structure akin to an umbrella – signifying protection for the couple from any external evil force.
The Bride is walked to the throne by her Father and the accompanying party
(colloquially called the Thorthar Party (I believe this is a Tamil word).
Once the Bride is seated on the throne; the accompanying party take their appropriate places in the Hall and await the arrival of the Bridegroom.
*Daun Sirih – The betel leaf is venerated and revered by Asian communities in the South and South Eastern parts of the world. Offerings are made at the temples on betel leaves; and also to welcome dignitaries at social events. In addition the betel leaf is also used for various medical purposes. Hence the significance of the betel leaf in the two aforementioned plates of “alathi”.
Nikah Ceremony (Wedding Ceremony).
Almost all present-day Bridegrooms no longer wear traditional dress at their wedding. They follow the Western or Indian attire. The only traditional piece of attire would be the “songkok” (headgear). For purpose of reminding the readers there was a variation in the headgear worn and was known as “setangan kepala”. I believe that many of the elders in the community will remember this form of headgear that was made with a large scarf rolled and formed into the shape of the “songkok”.
The Nikah Ceremony which is performed by a Muslim Registrar of Marriage is attended by the Male family members of the Bride and Bridegroom. The marriage vows are taken by the Bridegroom; and as per Islamic Rights the Bridegroom will have to pay a “Mahar” to the Bride. “Mahar” is an Arabic word for “Dowry” (“Mas Kawin” in Malay).Paying of “Mahar” is compulsory; without which the marriage is not valid. It is usually the Muslim custom that the father of the Bride signs on behalf of the Bride. On conclusion of the Nikah Ceremony the Bridegroom is led to the Reception by Bridegroom’s father and retinue. They are met by the elderly at the entrance and the “Alathi Ceremony” is repeated and the groom is led to the Throne. The Groom stands at the throne and makes a general greeting to those present. Prayers are chanted at his moment for the well being of the couple and their future. In the meantime the Bride is handed two sheafs of betel leaves (daun sirih) in each hand by an elderly lady from the Bride‘s side. The Groom will then raise the bridal veil off the Bride’s face, take the two sheafs of betel leaves and throw it over the head of the Bride. A gold chain is tied around the Bride’s neck called a “Thali” (an Indian custom). These two steps denotes that he has accepted the responsibilities of married life and the acceptance of the Bride as his wife.
replaced by the cutting of wedding cakes a’la Western style; much speech-making and “toasting the newly wedded couple”.
Cutting of the wedding cake is a Western Custom that is followed by many.
The couple will then feed each other; which is symbolic that they will always stay together. Photographic sessions would follow at this point at the Hall with parents, kith & kin and friends; and/or the couple and the wedding party could also leave to have this session at an outside location and will
return to the Hall to resume their wedding celebrations.
This would conclude the official marriage ceremony; and the guests are treated to a feast of food and entertainment. There would be the customary after dinner speeches made and toasts to the well being of the couple and perhaps dancing and merry-making to the “wee” hours of the morning; or until the newly wedded couple leaves the Hall.
It is customary for the Bride and Bridegroom to greet each guests in a long receiving line either before the reception festivities begin or after the partaking of food. They may even go from table to table to greet each guest.
Once the guest start leaving the hall; they are given a piece of wedding cake/souvenir in a “Favour Box” (“Kenang-kenangan”- souvenir) as a token of appreciation and thanks for having graced the occasion – from the newly wedded couple and their respective kith & kin.
A “Home-Coming” ceremony, a few days later, is also a custom that is followed when the couple return to their parental home/s after the wedding.
Modernization of society and the convenience sought after, in getting things done, have taken a great toll on the customs and traditions hitherto adhered, enjoyed and venerated by our community.
Finally it is wished to conclude this article by highlighting 3 other additional practices that were followed (not included in the text above) by our ancestors just before/after the turn of the century. They were:
tid-bits (Called colloquially by the Tamil term – “sillaray”) a few days before the wedding, by family and relatives. These were treats offered to visitors to the Home; and to the guests at the wedding.
– The bathing ceremony for the Bride that was conducted by the Mother or very close relative/s (as the situation may require).
– The beating of a large “rebbana” (drum) by a group of ladies to herald the entry of the Bride to the Reception Hall, after the “Pachar” ceremony; and the beating of the “rebbana” once again; along with the lighting of fire-crackers to herald the entry of the Bridegroom to the Hall of the Bride‘s Home (The lighting of firecrackers is to symbolize the driving away of evil spirits). This procedure is virtually the forerunner to the present day Disc Jockey and/or Dance Band playing “Here comes the Bride” and other appropriate music to herald the entry of the Bride/Bridegroom to the Reception Hall.
It is possible that these traditions are still being practiced amongst the orthodox or rural Malay communities.
This article is written so that the new generations and the generations to come will get an idea of our past wedding customs and traditions; as was celebrated and enjoyed by our ancestors.
Noor R. Rahim