Of all the weddings I have photographed in India until now, it seems that the Bengali wedding is the most complex and diverse in terms of the enormous variety of customs and traditions. According to a fine lady I met at Maxima’s and Abhijit’s traditional Bengali wedding, no Bengali wedding can take place without the Stree Aachaar; the set of rituals performed not by the priest but by the women of the family. The distribution of Paan and the ululation, that sound produced by the women by moving the tongue rapidly from left to right repetitively, used to be the means of announcing the wedding and calling for social participation.
I will not try to take you through the entire wedding and all the ceremonies and rituals, but here is a small taste of what it was. I hope you enjoy them.
Nandi Mukh is a complex ceremony conducted by a priest and performed a day before the wedding, when the bride pays her respects to several generations of ancestors. After the ceremony the offerings are given to the birds and considered as if the ancestors come in the form of crows to give the blessings.
One of the accessories that distinguishes the Bengali bride from that of any other community is the ‘kajal-lata’ (kohl stick) and the ‘gaachh kouto’ (a wooden can that is supposed to contain sacred vermillion) that she carries in her hand.
Aiburobhat is the last meal of the unmarried girl at her parents house. The women of the family take turns in blessing and feeding her.
The turmeric ceremonies or gaye holud (Bengali: gaee holud, means “yellowing the body”) come before the wedding ceremony. There is one turmeric ceremony for the bride and one for the groom. At the groom’s home female relatives of the groom apply the turmeric (haldi) on him and douse him with water. The same turmeric paste is then sent across to the bride’s home for her Gaye Holud ceremony.
Gaye holud tattva -Is a set of presents for the bride from the groom’s side. One of the most important gifts is the fish with sindoor (vermilion) & nose ring, accompanied by five little fish to symbolize fertility.
The blowing of the conch shell and ‘ululation’ by the women gathered at the wedding venue are most characteristic of a Bengali marriage. The purpose is to draw the attention of all to the wedding, and also to summon the invitees, and also a kind of social declaration from the family to the rest of the society.
Left: The water container (‘matka’) with the coconut and mango leaf is placed outside the home and symbolizes lord vishnu. Right: The drawing behind the entrance door is called ‘Vasudhara’ and symbolized the search for peace in the home and is a part of the offering of the Nandi Mukh
The gifts arrive at the girls home include at least six sarees with blouses, petticoats and cosmetics to go with them. Also among the gifts are assorted sweets, curd, paan, dhaan and durba. A relative of the groom arrives at the bride’s house with an entourage of women bearing the gifts. Incense is lit welcome them and conch shells are blown. The bearers are given sweets and bakshish (reward).
For the bride’s gaye holud the turmeric paste is applied by the bride’s friends to her body. This is said to soften the skin, but also colors her with the distinctive yellow hue that gives its name to this ceremony.
After the application of the Holud, the mother of the bride walks around the neighborhood to ask water from five different ladies. This water will then be used in the Snan ceremony.
The snan literally means bathing. In this case, it stands for the bathing rituals that the bride and groom must individually follow on the day of the wedding. After bathing, the bride and groom must wear the new set of clothes that have been presented to them by their in-laws.
Dressing up the bride and putting on her special make up is a ritual in itself. The traditional Bengali bridal make up is an elaborate affair.
Saat Paak – The bride, usually seated on a low wooden stool called pidi is lifted by her brothers and is taken round the groom in seven complete circles. This symbolizes that they are winded up securely to each other. She covers her face with betel leaves which will be moved apart to enable the couple to make eye contact for the auspicious viewing.
The bride removes the betel leaves for the ‘shubh dhristi’, or the auspicious ‘viewing’ of each other. The couple will now exchange garlands and the groom will proceed to the ‘mandap’ (marriage platform) followed by the bride.
The couple are seated on an elevated platform and all the guests are invited to bless them, give their presents and have their picture taken together with the bride and groom. This is an exhausting process that might take a couple of hours.
The bride and groom are seated opposite to each other and their hands are tied together while the priest chants mantras.
Yagna – The bride and groom sit in front of the sacred fire and chant mantras after the priest. Agni, the fire god is made the divine witness to the marriage. Seven circular rounds are then taken by the couple around the fire thereby solemnizing the occasion.
The Bidaay or farewell ceremony, takes place a day after the wedding and is a mixed moment of joy and sorrow as the bride is bid adieu with blessings of her parents and relatives to start a new life with her new husband.