SHAMAN, SAIVA AND SUFI
(c) BETROTHAL AND MARRIAGE
There is little or no magic about a Malay betrothal. It is a contract to be ratified before headman or elder, and
to be published abroad by the despatch to the girl's relatives of two elaborate betel boxes, one of them containing
one, or in Negri Sembilan two, rings wrapped in betel−leaf. If the youth is guilty of breach of promise, the girl's
people keep the ring or rings: if the girl is guilty, her parents return them with cash their equal in value. In parts of
Perak the betel boxes are replaced by trays, one of which is adorned with a paper tree; and, when the bearers
arrive, yellow rice is strewn. The boxes or trays are proffered only if negotiations for the marriage are successful.
Nowadays girls are seldom married before they are fourteen or fifteen, or boys before the age of seventeen: often
both are older. Like the Hindu, the Malay considers a hairy person unlucky. The Brahmin student may not feed
"the husband of a younger sister married before the elder, the husband of an elder sister whose younger sister was
married first, a younger brother married before an elder, an elder brother married after a younger," and in Malaya,
also, the request for a younger sister's hand before her elder sisters are wedded is universally disliked. In the
figurative language of Malay betrothal verses the suitor comes, like the Esth wooer, "in search of a lost calf," just
as among the Finns he wants to buy a bird, and among the Sardinians to ask for a white dove or a white calf. The
suitor accepted, his mother is invited within, where she slips the ring (or two rings) on the finger of her future
daughter−in−law. Songs and feasting conclude these preliminaries.
Seven days later the suitor and his friends resort to the girl's house and stay singing and feasting for two days
and two nights. Before leaving, the suitor does obeisance to his future mother−in−law. When harvest time comes,
he and his friends are invited to help, and the rice that will be eaten at the marriage is trodden out to the
accompaniment of songs bandied between men and women, the two parties of groom and bride. But in Negri
Sembilan a youth is ashamed to meet either of the parents of his future bride, even accidentally on the road.
Favourite times for weddings are after the harvest or after the season of rice planting, not only because those
are days of leisure but probably because so the child in the womb and the grain in mother earth are likely to
develop simultaneously. The festivities may occupy two or four or five days if the contracting parties are humble
peasants, seven or forty days or even months if they are rajas. Astrological tables are consulted to determine a
lucky time to begin them.
On the first day the magician takes steps to protect the groom, and a matron to protect the bride from all
jealous spirits. In Upper Perak this preludes a most elaborate marriage ritual. The magician ties a ring on a white
thread round the bridegroom's neck; lights a candle on cup or tray; burns incense and invokes all spirits and the
sacred dead to be kind. He scatters saffron rice, sprinkles the groom with the usual cooling rice−paste and dresses
his hair. A matron does the same service for the bride. If her shorn fringe lies close to the forehead, it is a sign that
she is a virgin; if it sticks up, then "the flower has been sipped by a bee." At the Perak court the midwife first
waxed and clipped seven long hairs: if the stumps moved or the tips fell towards the girl, she had been
deflowered. On either side of the house−door a red and a white flag are stuck. The magician descends the
house−ladder, sprinkles the earth with yellow rice and rice−paste, and offers betel. to the spirits of the soil. The
bride is bathed in her house. The groom is conducted down to the river. A white flag with a candle fixed on its
shaft is planted on the bank. Near by, two large candles are put on the ground. Incense is burnt in three bamboo
cressets, to which are tied three candles, three quids of betel, and three native cigarettes. On a vertical frame is
fastened a palm−blossom. Again rice is scattered with appeals to all the spirits of earth and water. The
palm−blossom is broken open that the dew in its heart may be mixed with limes and rice−powder for bathing the
bridegroom. During the lustration he stands in the river facing downstream and has water thrown into his mouth.
The white thread is broken from his neck and he is dressed in a raja's garb: a scion of the Perak royal house will
be lent the armlets and jewellery used at the installation of the ruler. Then, mounted on elephants with painted
foreheads, the procession wends its way with religious chanting and song to the house of the bride. An umbrella is
held over the bridegroom's head and his attendant fans him. On arrival the groom steps down into a tray of water,
in which are a stone, a ring, a razor, and a dollar. He is sprinkled with saffron rice and seated on a dais. For three
nights, singing and firing crackers, youths encircle a "henna tree" in a bowl containing henna and stuck with
lighted candles. The experts seize and dance with it in turn until one of them carries it up the house−ladder, where girls receive the "tree" and take up the dance. To extinguish the candles during inversions and gyrations is the sign
of a boor. On this first night both bride and groom are stained with henna in private, and the formal marriage
before an authority from the mosque may now take place. All the fingers of the girl are stained; three of the man's,
counting from the little fingers. On the second day a Perak princess of the highest rank used to be taken in
procession with flags, umbrellas and music, seven times round the palace. On that night the fingers and palms and
toes and the sides of the feet of the married pair are stained with henna in public. Dramatic shows, dancing girls,
and feasting entertain the guests. The rice for the confarreatio on the morrow is brought out, piled in tiers on an
octagonal platter, topped with a tinsel tree and stuck with dyed eggs on skewers. The couple sit in state, and
guests pay homage to the bride now and to the husband at the sitting in state on the following day.
On the third day there are chants in praise of Allah and the Prophet. A buffalo is slaughtered. The girl's
relatives escorted by music present decorated rice, coconuts and firewood to the relatives of the groom. The
bridegroom is escorted thrice each way round a circular dome−shaped frame containing incense, that is, in a
passage between its mat sides and a white cloth held up by those present. Afterwards he is placed inside the frame
and censed for the space it takes a dancer with a branched candlestick to circle the structure three times. Next the
bride is brought out to undergo the same ordeal. The bride goes to her room. A duenna guards the door. There is a
mock combat between the sexes. The magician demands entrance for the bridegroom, and is admitted after
presenting a betel−box that contains a ring and some cash. His instructor lifts the groom's left hand and puts it on
the bride's head. The couple have to feed one another with betel. Then three, five or seven old people paint the
palms of the couple's hands with henna and sprinkle them with rice. After that they are stripped of their finery, led
three times in each direction round an inverted rice−mortar and seated upon this symbol of sex and fecundity.
They are lifted thrice before they arc declared duly seated. The magician pours fresh coconut oil into a bowl of
water, and after throwing five grains of rice on the oil, drops the wax of a lighted candle on to the mixture. The
pair are bathed with this compound, together with water from blossoms of the areca and coconut palms. Coconut
fronds are waved seven times above their heads. Bathing accomplished, vari−coloured string is dropped round
and over the heads of the pair three times while they step forward, and then under their feet and upwards three
times while they step back. After that the string is lowered to their chests and severed over the right rib of the
groom and the left of the bride. If the front piece is longer, the wife will obey her husband; if the back piece is
longer, the "rudder will be at the bows," that is, the wife will rule the roost if the two pieces are equal, both will
hold their own. The next ceremony obtains everywhere. Husband and wife don royal costume (or nowadays the
man may wear Arab dress)−this, it has been surmised, "shows both the tabu character of bride and bridegroom,
and also an attempt at disguising them by fictitious change of identity." The couple then sit in state on a dais, the
husband on the right of the wife. Sumptuary custom fixes the number and colour of mats and pillows allowed,
according to the rank of the contracting parties. There is an exercise in Swedish drill, where the performer has to
sink slowly down into a squatting posture, straighten his knees and stand erect. This exercise the embarrased pair
have virtually to fulfil, until after three efforts they are seated simultaneously as custom ordains. The floral
pyramid of rice on the octagonal platter is broken and the pair have to feed one another three times with clots of
the rice held in their fingers. After that they must remain motionless, like a ruler at his installation, while those
present do obeisance to the "royalty for a day." Guests throw money into a bowl. Muslim prayers may be read. At
last the principals are allowed to retire. Each guest is given a dyed egg out of the rice pyramid to take home.
On the following days there is more lustration and feasting.
Throughout all these ceremonies bride and groom remain silent and no glances are exchanged between their
If a husband is disappointed in the virtue of his bride, he may advertise his disillusionment by appearing
without headdress or creese and he can claim back half the dowry. But a marriage is not consummated for three
nights or more. So it is not usually till the seventh day that, with little fingers interlaced or both holding one
handkerchief, the couple are bathed again with all the precautions described for the bathing on the third day. The
seven fronds waved over them are dropped for bride and groom to step to and fro across them three times, after
which the fronds are cast out of the house taking ill−luck. A censer is passed about the pair and a cord of
vari−coloured thread is tied around their necks joining them. At this ceremony the guests, also, are drenched with
water from buckets and bamboo squirts. (At royal weddings, before they are bathed, the pair are carried in
procession three or seven times round a storeyed pavilion built for the lustration.) After being bathed, both don finery once more and sit in state.
Sometimes on the night before this final lustration the groom's friends tear him from the dangerous fascination
of his wife's arms by lighting a smoking fire to bring him to the door, whereupon he is carried off to his parents'
home and only escorted back next day for the bathing ceremony.
Everywhere it is usual for the husband to live in his bride's home for some while after the marriage. Among the
matrilineal Minangkabau colonists of Negri Sembilan he lives in it permanently.
The ritual of Upper Perak on the border of the Siamese Malay States contains some novel details. The
circumambulation of a structure containing incense and the lustration of the couple before the day when the big
sitting in state takes place have not yet been recorded from the south.
The order of marriage ceremonies varies according to locality and the means of the parties. Sometimes the
Muslim service is performed just before the sitting in state. Sometimes the mimic combat for the bride's person, a
custom practised in ancient India and in Europe, takes place on arrival at her house and is repeated before the
The throwing of rice over the head of a bridegroom is commonly observed by Indo−Germanic peoples.
Confarreatio, or eating together, is a worldwide usage. In many parts of India and Europe and in Muslim
Morocco the bridegroom is treated as a king on his wedding day.
The Code of Manu lays down that among the elements of a Brahmin's wedding are the leading of the bride
three times round the sacred fire, each time with seven steps, and the binding together of the wedded pair by a
cord passed round their necks. Again, "On the second or third day of Brahmin marriage ceremonies," says
Thurston, "sacrifices are performed in the morning and evening and the nalagu ceremony. The couple are seated
on two planks covered with mats and cloth, amidst a large number of women assembled within the pandal. In
front of them betel leaves, areca nuts, fruit, flowers and turmeric paste are placed on a tray. The women sing
songs they have learnt from childhood. Taking a little of the turmeric paste rendered red by the addition of lime,
the bride makes marks by drawing lines on her feet. The ceremony closes with the waving of water coloured red
with turmeric and lime, and the distribution of betel leaves and areca nuts. The waving is done by two women
who sing appropriate songs." In many parts of India bridegroom and bride are seated on mortar or pestle or
A custom of Hindu origin is for a Malay raja to remain away and send his creese or his handkerchief to
represent him when he marries a wife of humble birth. An obsolete raja custom was to send a creese to parents
who were reluctant to give their daughter in marriage, with a message that the suitor was ready with dower and
presents doubled: if they remained obdurate, the creese had to be returned with double the dower offered. Another
method, with a Sanskrit name, was for the suitor to force entry into the house, secure the girl, and drawing his
creese defy resistance. If the ruse succeeded, the man had to give twice the usual dower, present two garments
instead of the customary one and pay double the ordinary fines for trespass. These two ways of wooing are
probably of Indian origin.
The painting of the couple with henna to fend off evil influences, the first night in private, the second in public;
the dance with the henna bowl and lighted candles−these ceremonies occur at Muslim marriages even as far away
as in Morocco. Islam has added items to the ritual of Malay marriage but has failed to banish others incompatible
with its tenets. The sitting in state and the lustration of the pair before mixed audiences of men and women offend
the strict, but retain so strong a hold on the Malay imagination that a bigoted chief, whom I knew, reluctantly
observed them, but in a loft under the roof, where guests could not scale!
It should be added that when the bride is a widow, particularly a childless widow, the marriage rites are greatly
curtailed and often confined merely to the short legal service before the Kathi.