Weddings in Malaysia
The representative of the groom, typically a male relative, is usually accompanied by a small entourage bearing trays of gifts including, among others, a betelnut leaves arrangement, an engagement ring and sweets. On the morning of the wedding day the bride and groom will perform a special ablution bath as required in Islam. The focus of a traditional Malay wedding is the akad nikah or marriage vow, which is overseen by the imam in front of witnesses.
The imam then will confirm with the witnesses if the vow was clearly heard and once they confirm this, he will lead the congregation with a doa to conclude the ceremony and ask for blessings from God. In some respect, the traditional Malay wedding ceremony bears similarity to the Indian wedding ceremony. Before the advent of Islam, Hindu was the most prolific religion in this region and this has been attributed to these similarities, which include, among others, the mandi lulur.
Like the Indians, a day before the wedding, traditional Malay bride and groom would often partake in a mandi lulur – a special bath scrub whose ingredients includes turmeric powder – in their respective homes. The majlis berinai – whereby the bride will have henna applied onto her hands and feet – is also reminiscent of the mehndi ceremony in an Indian wedding. The bersanding ceremony, highly similar to the use of mandapa in Indian weddings, is also an important aspect of a traditional Malay wedding.
This is when the couple becomes a ‘King for the Day’. While the akad nikah might take a half hour at the most, the bersanding ceremony may take longer, depending on the number of guests and family members who wish to partake in the tepung tawar or blessing, anointing the couple’s upturned palms with scented water, pandan potpurri and rice. Similarly, Thursday evenings are considered by both the Malays and the Indians as an auspicious day to hold a wedding. The Indian wedding ceremony is perhaps the most elaborate.
Strict wedding customs require that the bride and the groom (and at times, their immediate family members) keep to a strictly vegetarian diet several days before the wedding. This is in respect to the Hindu religion practised by the majority of Indians in Malaysia. Before the wedding, the mehndi or henna is applied onto to the bride’s hands and feet to ward off evil. The bride then dons the sari and jewellery, gifts from her future husband on the day of their engagement, and makes her way to the temple.
Bright hues of yellow, red, orange, peacock blue and green are favoured as they are believed to bring good luck and blessing to the occasion, while white and black – considered to be mourning colours – are generally avoided. Steeped in ancient Vedic customs, a traditional Hindu wedding involves extensive prayers and ceremonial acts. Elaborate in rituals and prayers the actual wedding ceremony itself comprises some ten rites. But the central part of the Hindu wedding is the agni parinaya.
Agni parinaya is the circumambulation of fire – which symbolises divine witness to the marriage while all the time reciting a Vedic chant. The completion of this agni parinaya is concluded with a prayer that the marriage is indissoluble and the groom ends the ceremony with the tying of the thali on his bride’s neck, an act greeted with loud traditional music, clapping and congratulations from the guests. The bridesmaid plays and important role in an Indian wedding, thus she is one of the individuals to receive a gift from the groom’s party.
The priest is given a gift of a dhoti (a traditional suit for men) and fresh vegetables by way of thanks for his service. A unique aspect of Hindu wedding is the post-wedding games engaged by the bride and her new family to break the ice and make her feel belonged with her new family. Auspicious days for weddings are during the period of the waxing moon particularly during the Ponggal festival (harvest festival). Like the mandi lulur preceding a Malay wedding, the bride and groom in an Indian wedding partake in their own ablution ritual in the morning of the wedding, in their respective homes.
A ritual bath is accompanied by anointment of scented oils, turmeric and sandalwood paste, which not only serves to exfoliate and soften the skin but also lends it a pleasant fragrance. Traditional Chinese weddings encompass the three letters (betrothal letter, gift letter and wedding letter) and six etiquette (proposal, divination of birth dates, confirmation, presentation of gifts, choosing of wedding date, and acceptance of marriage) between the two families. The matchmaker plays a pivotal role, acting as the main go-between for the two families. Red – a colour symbolising prosperity to the Chinese – fills the house of the bride.
The central act in a Chinese aside from the wedding act itself, is the tea ceremony. This is a ritual that places the parents, above all else. The ceremony is also a symbol of respect. Before the arrival of the groom, the bride offers tea to both her parents in way of thanks for having raised her. This is done on her own without her groom or the bridesmaid. Once this ceremony is completed, the groom will arrive and with the help of his best man, plead, pay, haggle, sweet-talk their way into the bride’s house with much merriment and teasing from relatives and friends – a light-hearted moment shared in a traditional Malay wedding.
This is followed by the wedding ceremony itself, which is a relatively simple affair with the bride and groom paying homage to Heaven and Earth, the Kitchen God and family ancestors, asking for blessings for the union. Unlike the Malay or Hindu wedding, a traditional Chinese wedding does not normally involve a priest. This is followed by a tea ceremony between the newlyweds and the groom’s parents, which basically completes the wedding. Three days after the wedding, it is customary for the newlyweds to pay a visit to the bride’s parents where she will be received and treated as a guest.
In Malaysia, though at a glance, the ceremony and content of each ethnic traditional marriage is different, there exist similarities and parallels between them. Both the Indian and Malay wedding guests receive a token gift for attending the wedding. While the Malays traditionally give away the practical gift of bunga telur (basically a boiled egg) to their guests symbolising a fertile union, those at an Indian wedding receives sweets reflecting and reaffirming the sweetness of the occasion.
Haggling for passage to get to his bride is a light-hearted rite shared by the Malay and Chinese weddings. Both the Malay and Chinese wedding announces the arrival of the groom with loud accompaniment of the kompang and firecrackers respectively. Although traditional marriages across the three ethnic groups can still be found, more and more of the younger generation is opting for a simpler wedding with minimum fuss, in hand with an increasingly hectic lifestyle.
The application of mehndi, believed to ward off evil, is slowly being edged aside by the more eye-catching body-art designs. Tempered by the call for moderation in Islam, the Malay weddings of late are moderate affairs whereby more and more of the younger Malay couples opt to not have the bersanding ceremony, while the token gifts for guests have changed from the traditional bunga telur to chocolates, sweets and potpourri. The divination of the birth dates for the bride and groom is as important to the Chinese as it is to the Indians, but is a process slowly being swallowed by time.