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Monday, April 19, 2010

Bengali wedding in all its splendour - a treat in the form of a traditional Baangali biye


There is something so romantic about a wedding, well, maybe not your own wedding, where you hardly get a chance to free yourself from the clutches of the photographers so desperate to make that ‘perfect wedding album’ or the video-waalahs who want to capture your perfect smiles and each and every second of your ‘wedding’ moment. Your own wedding isn’t the perfect ‘platform’ to enjoy really, but what I was talking about was the wedding of someone close and dear to you. A wedding, a traditional one at that, where all the intricate patterns of our lovely culture come popping out.

I recently had the chance to be part of one such wedding. My friend, the one who always was so sure she would never marry, and when that conviction began to waver upon meeting a certain ‘charming young man who was a ‘typical’ bong’ was so sure that she would have a registry marriage and not one with the countless numbers of rituals and hoo-haas (that’s how she put it)…..well, it was one ‘BIG’ event when she finally got married, a marriage that was finally performed in as traditional a way as it can be.

As the bride and groom’s families were all based in our very own sweet and fragrant Kolkata, the marriage simply had to take place there, with all the ‘dadas’ and ‘boudis’ and ‘kakimas’ and ‘kakus’ and ‘didis’ and ‘jaamai babus’ and ‘thakumas’ and ‘pishis’ and ‘maashis’- who were all geared up to converge in their best fineries and glitters jewels.

Beginning the preparations:

As I was ‘special’ friend of the bride I reached Kolkata a good three weeks before the wedding. I was immediately sucked in to the group of women and almost immediately after landing I was shepherded off to the tempting markets of Gariahat, Shyam Bazaar and New Market. There was a riot of colours on the counters as the shop attendants brought out sarees after sarees for the bride and her entire entourage. There were the ever-favourite reds with gold work, the bright greens with yellow, the blues with navy, the purple with the silver, the creams with the maroons and so many more shades that I wondered how I had managed to stay away from this most charming fabric till now, the fabric that is undoubtedly one of the most flattering gifts to the Indian female form. Our bride would be draped in a lovely bright red and gold ‘benaroshi’ saree, red an auspicious colour in a Bengali Hindu wedding.

The mouth-watering spread:

The cooks had been booked from Kalighat a month in advance; the feast would be elaborate and guests would be treated to a culinary delight they were not going to forget soon. There would be steamed basmati rice, ghee, mushoor dal (pink lentils), chholar dal (Bengal gram lentil) with roasted coconut, aaloo bhaaja (fried potato), begun bhaaja (fried brinjal), maachh bhaaja (fried fish), luchi, aalur-dom (a typical Bengali potato gravy), mocha ghonto (a dish prepared with the flower of banana), chanchra (a mixed vegetable curry with fish head), shorshey maachh (fish in mustard), fish curry and kosha mangsho (a typical Bengali mutton curry). After the main meal, tomato chutney, papad, mishti doi (sweetened curd), roshogollas and shondesh would be served, followed in the end by a huge paan wrapped in silver foil and decorated with rose petals, as a mark of the auspicious occasion. Guests would stuff the paan in the insides of their cheeks, their lips and tongue red with the kaththa, their mouths sweet with the mishti supaari, talking animatedly about the marriage and how beautiful the pair looked, and finally blessing them again in their talks. I had read the menu and my mouth had watered immediately, couldn’t wait for the special day when I would stuff myself with all the baangaali food.


At the bride’s house:

A week before the wedding the house was lit up with little dots of gold. There were long wires full of tiny gold bulbs that hung from the terrace and came all the way down the front of the building till the ground. Strains of shaanai came from inside the house and people were already dropping in to celebrate the wedding. Cooks had been hired and a makeshift kitchen took shape on the terrace, a bright red shaamiyana was erected to keep out the sun and tables and chairs set to accommodate relatives and neighbours who came in large numbers. Temporary beds were made by placing mattresses on the floor and everyone sat around till late in the night, enjoying addas, singing folk songs and marriage songs and enjoying this holiday atmosphere. We placed sticks of rajanigandha (tuberose) and roses in all corners of the rooms and the heady fragrance announced the arrival of the wedding.


The day of the aashirbaad (blessing):

The aashirbaad day was fixed four days before the wedding. The significance of this ritual was to symbolise the acceptance of marriage between bride and groom by both the families. In the morning, the bride was dressed in the finest silk, her hair washed and shining in the morning light. As someone blew the shaankh (conch shell) signalling the arrival of the members from the groom’s side the house broke out in a flurry of activities. The groom’s side sprinkled husked rice on the bride and gifts, in the form of gold ornaments, were exchanged by the families. The same evening, the elders of the bride’s family visited the house of the groom and blessed him by sprinkling husked rice over him, in addition to another round of exchange of gifts in the form of sarees and kurta pyjamas and sweets.

The aai-buro-bhaat (the last meal of the bride in the house before marriage):

The day before the marriage was the aai-budo-bhaat. The last meal of the unmarried girl in her home was celebrated with all relatives and friends, songs were sung and many jokes shared in giggling tones by the many aunts and boudis.

THE WEDDING DAY:

On the wedding day the bride, and I, since I was sleeping in the same room as my friend, was woken up at four in the morning by her mother. She was carrying a small bowl of curd and sugar. In the Bengali custom, doi chini is considered a good start to any auspicious occasion, be it a wedding or even an examination. The bride would be allowed only this small helping of curd and sugar for the whole day, her next morsel would come only after the rites of holy matrimony had been performed and her transformation into a Mrs.

After some time, the ladies of the house accompanied the bride to a pond nearby. It had been a task to locate a water body in the posh neighbourhood of Jodhpur Park. I realised then how much the times had changed from when our elders had formulated these rituals. The singing and giggling group reached the pond where my friend, the bride, had to take a dip in the cold pre-dawn water, before taking the blessings of her ma and all the ladies who had come along.

During the day a yagya was performed to invoke the blessings of the forefathers who were long since departed. Once the pujo was over the purohit handed four bangles, two red(polas) and two white(shaakhaas) to the seven married women of the family who had sat with them near the pujo. They then put one red and one white bangle in each arm of the bride.

Gaaye-holud (smearing of turmeric on the body):

With much laughter and joking and giggling we then proceeded to the courtyard where five ladies of the girl’s family had already ground the fresh turmeric and turned it into a fine paste, mixed with a little ghee and oil. The ritual was meant to provide the bride with a glowing and fair complexion. After the initial teasing and fun the bride went for her last bath in her maternal home as an unmarried girl.

The evening:

We were all ready for the occasion, our silks sending out flashes of colour everywhere, our jeweleries causing people to turn and admire. The bride looked resplendent in a bright red and gold saree, her forehead lined with small dots in red and white, gold bangles on her arms, a shindoor kouto in her hand, a shy pink blush on her cheeks and a traditional mukut on her head. The groom looked dashing in a cream silk dhuti kurta, little sandalwood dots on his forehead and a topor on his head.

The Sampradan, the ceremony where the bride is formally ‘given away’ to the groom’s family, was performed by my friend’s mama and it was a time when the tears sprang up in every eye.

After the shaat paak, the seven rounds around the holy fire to solemnize the occasion, the bride’s brother got up to help perform the onjoli, the offering made to the holy fire. He handed khoi, puffed rice, in the bride’s hand, as the groom, standing behind her, held her hands and poured the offering in the fire together. A loud cheer went up in the crowd as he finally coloured her parting red and my friend covered her head with a ghomta, a veil, with the saree that her in-laws handed her. There she was, the girl who had lived her entire life in a pair of faded jeans and fitted tees, now all shy and blushing and covered in a veil. As odd as it was, I could feel my vision blurring as I realised my friend had now become a new person altogether and that now there was someone more important in her life to lay claim on her.

The Bidaai:

After the heavenly experience of savouring some traditional mouth-watering Bengali food, it was now time for the bidaai, that time when the bride would leave her maternal home and go to her new family.

The plate of rice was brought and placed near the bride who dipped her aalta-dyed red hands in and picked up fistfuls of rice. She then threw it over her head on her mother’s saree, crying inconsolably, even as kakima (her ma) continued to cry behind her. The ritual symbolises that the bride has repaid all her debts to her mother, or maternal home, and as she departs to bring prosperity to her husband’s home, she wishes prosperity for her parents’ home as well.

Conch shells were blown and the auspicious sound of uloo (which I hate) made as the bride stepped into a new beginning.


POST-WEDDING:

As the bride’s best friend I was invited to go along with her to her new home.

Bashor ghor (welcome of the newly-weds in the groom’s house):

For the bashor ghor, the groom’s boudi (brother’s wife) was waiting to assist the newly-weds in the house. The bride dipped her feet in a plate containing the red aalta and milk and as she imprinted her feet on the floor of the house, boudi held her hand and took her in. The conch shell was blown again and I realised how important a part it played in a Bengali wedding.

Baashi-biye (stale marriage):

After an eventful night where the bride and groom were surrounded with relatives and friends from both the families and many rounds of games played, a new morning dawned, the morning of the baashi-biye, or the stale marriage, when a few rituals of the marriage would again be performed. The groom applied shindoor (vermillion) to the bride’s parting and they visited the mandap where they worshipped the sun god under the watchful eyes of the family’s purohit.

Bou-bhaat:

After the pujo the bou-boron, or welcome meal, was served, where the groom offered a plate of sweets and a saree to the bride, signifying that, from this moment, he would be responsible for looking after her food and clothing and shelter. The bride then proceeded to the kitchen to prepare a rice dish, ghee bhaat, assisted by the women of the house, which was later served to the elders of the family as part of the bou-bhaat ritual.

Dira gaman (visiting the maternal home):

In the evening we went back to my friend’s maternal home as part of the dira-gaman ritual, where the bride visits her maternal home first time after marriage. As soon as we got off the car, the entire family erupted out of every single door in the house and crowded around the new bride, welcoming their daughter home. Kakima (the bride’s mother) struggled to get a free moment with her daughter, even as relatives quizzed her about her in-laws, the house, her husband, how she liked it and how she was treated. Finally, as the questions were answered and as everyone settled down once again, kakima cut the thread that had been tied on the bride’s wrist by the purohit at the time of the wedding. I left my friend alone with her mother for a quiet moment between mother and daughter.

In the evening my friend left her home for her home with her husband. Kakima had placed a few new sarees and a fresh pair of shaakha-pola in a bag and handed her daughter.

“Come to visit your ma soon and make your new parents happy and proud, just like you have us the happiest.” With this my friend left for her new home, even as this mother echoed a sentiment shared by all mothers in any part of the world.