Food plays a symbolic role in the country’s colourful wedding traditions. Rituparna Roy explores several unique customs and dishes from marriage ceremonies around India.
In the days leading up to a cousin’s wedding in Calcutta, as my aunts fried up luchis, and the rest of women in the family decorated the tattwo (gifts to be sent to the bride’s family), the groom’s father was put in charge of securing the big prize. Straw bag in hand, he stepped out, and returned a few hours late, triumphant with a 3-kilo rohu, the catch of the day. Immediately, the pishis and kakimas gathered to admire the fish, fussing as they adorned the auspicious gift in a bright red sari, complete with vermillion, nosepin and crown. Another cousin meanwhile, carefully folded the saris to be gifted to the bride’s family, also in the shape of fish.
A similar custom is prevalent among the Odias and Assamese, who gift fish for good luck and prosperity. Parsis too, have a similar tradition, in which mawa ni boi, a sweet delicacy shaped like a fish, with silver vark, made to resemble real fish scales, is prepared at weddings. This is sent to close family and loved ones who cannot be present for the actual wedding. Food blogger Perzen Patel believes that no Parsi wedding is complete without fish patio, a sweet-sour-spicy preparation. “Although this is made with prawns on a regular day, traditionally lagan-nu-patio uses pomfret, and is cooked in the days leading up to a wedding.” According to the Parsis, fish (and water by extension), symbolise abundance and fertility.
In Assam, juroon is a pre-wedding ritual where the womenfolk from both families come together to bless the bride. There is coconut, yoghurt in an earthen pot, turmeric, urad dal, sweets and a generous portion of tamul-paan (betel leaves and nuts). Betel nut, a symbol of fertility, hints at the possibility of motherhood. “Everything is divided into two parts for the bride and groom’s ceremonial bath, to be performed on the wedding morning,” Guwahati-based culinary expert Kashmiri Nath explains.
In older times, weddings were occasions to subtly communicate the bride’s responsibilities. Several customs, (some prevalent even today) suggest a woman’s duties are confined to the domestic space. While this would be considered an archaic suggestion today, culinary expert and cookbook author Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal believes that these traditions often helped the bride set up her new kitchen. In her community of Kutchi-Bhatias, the bride-to-be would always receive shagun ka papad and vadis, considered pantry essentials. Cooking utensils, sun-dried foods, dried fruit, and other non-perishable goods are common gifts across cultures. At Munshaw-Ghildiyal’s in-laws’ home in Garhwal, the bride is made to place her toes on a sil batta (the traditional stone grinder) during the pheras. “I believe it signifies that a woman is the cornerstone of the kitchen,” she says.
These customs often offer insight into the socio-cultural milieu of the community. A unique ritual that UK-based food blogger Preeti Deo vividly remembers from her childhood is the rukhwat at Marathi weddings, gifts presented by the bride to the groom’s family. Besides dry snacks, plates of karanji and modaks, there is the unique gavhale or hand-rolled pasta. “The women of the house roll and twist the dough, a task that demands dexterity, and the elders usually keep close watch to ensure the size and shape of the gavhale remain consistent,” she says. The pasta are shaped intricately to resemble rice grains, pearls, rings, shells or even teardrops, using tools like combs and wooden sticks. It is then cooked with milk and sugar, to make kheer for the groom’s family.
Once the wedding is over, and the bride is welcomed into her new home, every effort is taken to make her comfortable. This is when the games come into play. US-based cookbook author Asha Shivakumar recalls one particular game among the Tamil-Mudaliars called nalangu, where the newly-weds are made to playfully slap papads on each other’s cheeks. “Traditionally, this ritual was meant to be an ice-breaker between the new couple – especially since most marriages were arranged, and the couple would barely know each other.”
Loorn mayarnh, a Sindhi tradition, involves the bride pouring salt into the palms of her new family. Salt in this symbolic tradition, is believed to help establish goodwill among her in-laws, according to Alka Keswani of Sindhi Rasoi. Salt is replaced with sesame seeds among the Punjabis, in a tradition called til khel. Bangaluru-based food blogger and recipe consultant Monika Manchanda describes it as a warm and welcoming custom. “The best part is that it is performed by all women, irrespective of whether they are single, married or widowed,” she says, a reference to traditions that often exclude widows or spinsters from celebratory functions.
No wedding is complete without sweetmeats to commemorate the happy occasion. Apart from the regular pithas and ladus, an Odia bride must carry the most popular sweets from her town as part of bhara (gifts) for the groom’s family. “A bride from Salepur (a town in Cuttack district) will bring with her the famous Salepur rosogullas, and a bride from Nimapada (in Puri district) would carry chenna jhili,” explains London-based food blogger and photographer Pallavi Roy. Among the Kokani Muslims, when newly-weds visit the bride’s parents, they are showered with sugary delicacies, the highlight of which is the pathavniche ghavne. Pathavniche means farewell and ghavne the multi-layered pancake made of rice flour, jaggery, coconut, milk and eggs. “When this sweet is served to the groom, it is a hint for him to return to his house with his bride,” laughs Saher Khanzada of The Bombay Glutton.
But, as times change, elaborate ceremonies and customs are falling out of favour. Some are dropped because gender roles have changed and older customs do not carry the same meaning as they once did. But others that celebrate produce, culinary skill and tradition, deserve to be preserved as a memory of culture and tradition that is rich, varied and unique.
Rituparna Roy is a Mumbai-based freelance features writer. She spends her free time cooking, travelling and obsessing over her balcony garden. She can be found on Instagram @rituparna_r
Banner image credit: Food Tank
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