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Indian Weddings - Feasts and Festivities

“An Indian Wedding”…and the words evoke a scenario of gaiety, of color, of music and fasting. Although these elements of rejoicing and celebration are common to all castes and communities in every corner of Indian, it is difficult to generalize and paint a uniform picture as the canvas is very wide and the social set-up complex and multi-hued.

People of varied ethnic origin, belonging to various strata of society, speaking myriad tongues and worshipping different gods and goddess make up the rich amalgam that constitutes the Indian cultural heritage and tradition. But there is a common thread that makes up the warp and weft that a wedding is a celebration of life itself. Rich and poor alike make a wedding an affair to be remembered life-long albeit the poor have to do everything on a shoe-string budget.

In the Punjab, preparations for a wedding begin several days ahead. This is particularly true to the home of the bride–to-be. For in India, generally, weddings do not take place in a temple or a mosque but in the bride’s home where the bridegroom’s party arrive with family and friends. After the marriage ceremony, the bride goes away to her new home with her bridegroom and his entourage. This is to put it very simply but he preparations entail much forethought and rituals.

For a start, the young girl who is getting married is surrounded by a bevy of girl friends, cousins, aunts, and other women members of the family who anoint her with a concoction of turmeric, sandalwood powder and oil a day before the wedding. This herbal beauty balm is to make her fairer, cleanse her skin and beautify her. Ivory bangles called chaurha are ceremoniously donned on both wrists, her hands decorated with designs in henna and her hair arranged in a coiffure adorned with flowers and jewels. Her attire may be a sari or a lehnga (a voluminous skirt, gathered at the waist) with a top known as a “choli” and over it a diaphanous chaddar or dupatta (a veil to cover the head). The auspicious color is red. Bedecked and bejeweled the bride waits for the bridegroom’s arrival, heralded by the sound of music and the beating of drums and a vanguard of dancers.

The bride’s home, illuminated with lights and festooned with flower garlands and with an elaborate welcome gate is the hub of activity. She receives him at the portal of her home with a garland, generally of flowers. This is a custom handed down from the days when a girl, particularly from a princely family, chose her husband from an assembled galaxy of suitors. She garlanded the one she favoured with the jaimala and that ritual continues till today although, in some cases, the parents of the bride may have selected her future husband.

The bridegroom and his party are then served a sumptuous dinner. Traditionally, it was a vegetarian meal prepared by professional cook or halwais as they are called. The variety of vegetarian dishes in Punjab is vast. Choicest seasonal vegetables are cooked in pure ghee (clarified butter); there is always a dish of a rice pullao – a fried rice with an addition of black mushrooms (morel) or green peas. On the other hand, green peas may be curried with pieces of paneer (cottage cheese) or the paneer may be mashed and made into koftas (paneer balls that are fried and then curried). Chick peas (known as kabli channa) are generally an accompaniment. They are made with an addition of tamarind and spices and are a delicious dish served with “puris”, small deep-fried bread that balloons up and in crisp on the outside but soft inside. For nobody would dream of serving at a wedding dry chapattis made of wholemeal and eaten every day in the ordinary course of events. Then there is a yoghurt preparation generally with varhas which are small savoury cakes made of ground pulses of a particular variety, flavoured with sliced ginger, green chillies and raisins. All the main dishes are rich with ghee and spices. Other accompaniments are a variety of pickles and chutneys and also papads, again made of pounded pulses. The meal is rounded off with a variety of sweet dishes. The traditional desert is a halwa in winter it could be made of carrots or of ground lentil with an addition of khoya (milk condensed till it becomes creamy and solid), garnished with almonds, raisins and pistachios and covered with thin edible silver foil. In addition, there may be freshly fried jalebis, a saffron-colored sweet made of a fermented batter, deep-fried and then dipped in a sugar syrup. In summer, kulfi would be served which is the Indian ice-cream, again made of condensed milk with an addition of saffron, pistachios and set in earthen cone-shaped containers. And the whole rich repast is rounded to with paans, betel leaf with betel nut.

In contrast to the exuberance at a Punjabi wedding, a wedding in Kerala is a quieter affair with much emphasis on the religious rituals. Of course, present-day preparation are much simplified and generally confined to one day for the whole celebration whereas in the past they were spread over a few days. As in other parts of India, the population of Kerala consists of Hindus, Christians and Muslims. Christians do not hold a wedding during the period of Lent; similarly the Muslims observe Ramzan. The period of fasting and no wedding takes place during these days. The typical Brahmin wedding in Kerala is worth observing. It starts with the boy and girl to be married being given a ritual oil bath. The actual wedding ceremony is the Vedic Ceremony where the bride and groom take seven circumambulations around a fire to the chanting of Vedic slokas or verses. This is universal to most Hindu weddings in the north and south. It is interesting to note that in Kerala, a Brahmin wedding ceremony must be completed before nightfall whereas in North India the actual ceremony generally takes place later at night after the bridegroom’s party has been feted at dinner.

Kerala being a coastal state on the west of India, is studded with coconut palms and groves which abound in the interior also. In fact, coconut is one of the mainstays of Kerala’s economy. It is not surprising therefore that it features prominently in the cuisine. Another important plant that contributes both to the economy and to the culinary

repertoire is the banana of which several varieties are grown in Kerala. It is the leaves of the banana, or plantain as it is known, that serve as platters. The wedding guests sit cross-legged on the floor and fresh green plantain leaves, duly washed, are placed before them. There is no cutlery as the custom is to eat with one’s own hands. The elaborate menu consists of a series of dishes starting with avail, a stew-like preparation of a mixture of vegetables with a white sauce. This is followed by toran, again vegetables garnished with dry desiccated coconut. The next dish is olan: the olan prepared at a wedding is with coconut milk added to boiled vegetables. Kalam is the next item on the menu: it is made with curds with an addition of unripe banana and zimikand, a tuber. Green chillies add zest to the dish.

Tamarind water and jaggery are the main ingredients of pachhari which follows. This is a sweet-sour preparation in which lady’s fingers and gourd are cooked. With a tempering of mustard seeds and an addition of coconut, the pachhari is ready to be relished. Fresh ginger finely cut like matchsticks, is added to tamarind water and jaggery which is the basis for injipuli, spiced with green chillies. All these spicy and savoury dishes are served on a bed of rice. A small bowl of pure ghee is kept on the left of the plantain leaf and added at will as the wedding guest partakes of the highly spiced and tasty items.

Fresh papadams are also served. The dessert at a Kerala wedding is either of two specialties paladaaprathaman or chka prathaman, both of which are made with milk. Rice is added to the former and jackfruit to the latter. Lots of coconut is necessary for the festive varieties. So we see how coconut and the banana are predominant in the wedding cuisine in Kerala. A marked difference between the Punjabi wedding fare and the Kerala cuisine is the restraint on oil is cooking in the latter, which is a much healthier form of cooking than the oil or ghee saturated Punjabi food.

Whereas pure vegetarian fare is enjoined at both Punjabi and Kerala traditional weddings, non-vegetarian food is served at Bengali weddings. The festivities start a few days earlier when the first formal agreement for the marriage is arrived at. A puja takes place at this ceremony known as pattipatra. Fish and meat are served. Generally, on the actual day of the wedding, the formal engagement takes place with the arrival of the bridegroom’s family at the bride’s house. They bring sweets, a sari and jewels for the bride. Then the girl’s parents and other close relations make a return visit to the bridegroom’s home to bestow their blessings on him. They give him gifts and then escort him and his family and friends to the prospective bride’s home. He is given a new set of clothes and a number of elaborate dishes are served. This ceremonial feast is known as ai burho bhat. The menu must include 5 types of fired dishes which consist of a variety of fried vegetables and fried fish.

Another dish is shukto which consists of several vegetables but karela, or bitter gourd, is a must in this. Fish is also the main ingredient in murhi ghanto which is prepared with the whole head of a large fish, generally rahu, a species of large carp. Alternatively, there may be a dish of pulses in which the fish head is cooked. This is known as macher mathe dia dal. Mutton and chicken are also served. The desert is usually payash, a milk

and rice preparation. Besides this, sweet yoghurt (mishti doi) and sweet made of channa (cottage cheese) are also served.

On the actual day of the wedding, the auspicious date and time of which are ordained by the stars, the bride and groom both fast till after the ceremony. As in other parts of India, the ceremony is conducted according to Vedic rites with seven steps (sapt padi) being taken around the fire. After the completion of the religious ceremony, the bridegroom puts sindur, a red powder, in the bride’s parting in her hair. Kusum dinga is the Bengali name for this and then he drapes a veil on her head. The auspicious color for the bride is red and the auspicious time of the ceremony is generally after sunset or godhuli which is when the cows come home. After the completion of the marriage rites, the feasting takes place which is again a lavish series of delicately flavoured fish dishes, rice, vegetables, sweets and sweet yoghurt.