Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Thai Wedding Ceremony

There are an increasing number of foreigners who are marrying Thai women or Thai men. And according to our Forums, there are also many people coming to Thailand to attend weddings as guests as they are asking questions like “What do we wear to a Thai wedding” and “What gift do we give the bride and bridegroom?”. As I was at a Thai wedding last weekend, I thought I would share with you some of my photos. I was the official photographer (I also do funerals but that is another story) so I took about 1,900 pictures on this day. I have been to quite a few weddings in Thailand, so I will try my best to give you an explanation of a typical wedding. These may vary throughout the country but most of them typically have the same elements. In urban areas the wedding might only last for one day, but upcountry the celebrations often go on for three or four days. These are pictures of a typical wedding in Central Thailand.
A Thai wedding in Thailand is not your typical wedding that you may have experienced in your home country. There is no church wedding as such as the first ceremony usually takes place at the home of the bride or the new home of the wedding couple. Traditionally, an odd number of monks, usually nine, are invited to bless the home of the wedding couple and also all of the participants in the upcoming wedding. The wedding cannot take place on just any month of the year or even day or time. Auspicious months for a wedding are usually days in the waxing phase of the moon on the second, fourth, sixth, eighth and twelve lunar months. These are all even months as the number two represents the couple to be married. The ninth lunar month is also considered to be lucky. However, you should never get married in the tenth lunar month as it is considered very unlucky for your marriage. This is to do with dogs who are usually in heat at that time of the year. No-one wants to be associated with copulating dogs. Once the month is chosen, they then consult an astrologer who will then choose the precise date and time for the ceremonies to start.
The monks are invited early in the morning. Usually for this part of the ceremony, only close family and friends might attend. The five precepts are first recited and then the monks chant auspicious text from the scriptures. While this is being done, some water in a bowl, with a candle dripping over it, is being made sacred. At the completion of the chanting, the wedding couple simultaneously, again representing their unity, offer food to each of the monks. After the monks have finished their meal, the couple then make another offering of flowers, money in an envelope and essential items for every day life for the monks. Any merit made during this ceremony is then passed onto ancestors and absent relatives by doing “kruat nam”, where water is poured from a container slowly into a bowl. The head monk will then mark the foreheads of the couple with three dots using paste which was blessed during the ceremony. He then blesses the couple with the holy water. As the monk departs, he will sprinkle water over the other guests. To receive the blessing in a proper manner, you need to put your hands together in a prayer-like gesture.
As you can see by the above picture, most guests are sitting outside the house at round tables. They are being served food and drinks. Though, strictly speaking, they cannot start eating until after the monks have finished their own meal. Inside the house were the parents and grandparents of the couple to be married. Everyone else was outside. When you receive a wedding invitation, you will often have the times for three different ceremonies. Quite often these days, they are held on the same day. For this wedding, the ceremony to be blessed by the monks and to make merit started at 7 a.m. and lasted over 90 minutes. It might be a bit boring with all the chanting and if you are not a Buddhist then there isn’t much you can do other than eat and drink. In addition, you will most likely be sitting outside so will only be able to hear the chanting. Most people don’t turn up for this part. Or, if they do, they will arrive late. You don’t have to wear anything formal, just something smart. This is now the end of the first part of the wedding day. The couple are not married yet. They have just received a blessing from the monks. The monks now leave and don’t take part in the next ceremony.
On the wedding invitation I received, the next event was scheduled to start at 9 a.m. This is the parade of the groom and his family and friends from his house to the house of the bride. Though typically, they normally start their parade just around the corner. This starts as soon as the monks have left as they no longer take part in the wedding ceremony. The procession is only for members of the groom’s family and friends. They are basically escorting him to the house of the bride’s parents where the elders will discuss the dowry payment. Leading the procession are a group of young ladies performing the ramwong dance. A lot of hand movements are typically used for this. Behind them are a traditional Thai band used for such processions – they have long drums and cymbals. Next comes the banana plants and sugar cane plants. After the ceremony has finished, the banana plants are planted in the garden. By the time the couple have children, the plant will be ready to provide food and nourishment for the baby. Taking up the rear are the people carrying the gifts and food for the family of the bride.
As the procession approaches the house, they see that their way is blocked by three gates which act like a kind of “toll-gate”. To pass them, the father of the groom has to negotiate the price of a safe passage. At each gate, usually made up from silver and gold coloured belts, the price of the toll becomes higher. As you can see from this picture, a female member of the bride’s family wants a higher price than the one offered. The father of the bride has to make sure that he has enough money envelopes to pay off all the female relatives standing at each gate. Eventually they arrive at the house. The gifts are brought into the front living room and the banana tree and sugar cane plant are left at the front door to provide their own symbolic doorway.
Inside the house, senior members of each family carefully inspect all the wedding gifts. The amount of the dowry, or sin sod in Thai, to be paid by the groom to the bride’s family, had been agreed upon several months before. They were now making sure everything is in order. The food is an offering to the dead ancestors. The ceremony tells them that the couple are intending to get married. Common offerings include banana, coconut, boiled rice, meat, alcohol and Thai sweets. The number of trays offered has to be an even number to represent the couple.
The money is laid out on a cloth. This is largely symbolic as it is often returned to the couple to use after the wedding has finished. But, traditionally, it is as seen as payment for the “mother’s milk”. Again it is for the ancestors to see that this marriage is legally binding. The amount of money offered has to be an even number. If the wife desserts her husband for a reason that is not valid, then he can claim it back. Next the bride and groom present each other with gold rings and necklaces. The senior relatives then bless the money and other gifts. In the picture above, you can see various kinds of leaves in the bowls. All of these have auspicious names. Such as “gold leaf” and “silver leaf” which will mean that they will have a prosperous life.
Next the relatives, in order of seniority, will come forward to bless the couple. They will tie the “sai sin” on the wrist of each couple. To do this properly, you need to stroke the wrist of each couple first and then tie the knot. You can say a blessing at the same time. They will then prostrate in front of you, unless of course you are a junior member of the family. If you have come to this part of the ceremony, then you will see that there is a bowl next to the couple which you use to make an offering. You put the money in the same envelope that you received your invitation. This is usually pink. It already has your name on the outside so there is no reason to write anything else. Most people give at least 500 baht. You can give more if you are close to the couple. Weddings are expensive so this money helps pay for it.
The main part of the wedding ceremony is the blessing of the couple with lustural water. For this wedding, this took place at about 10.30 a.m. or 90 minutes after the procession to the house. If you want to skip the earlier chanting and the negotiation of the sin sod, then just turn up late for this part. This is often done at the house, though some people arrange for this to take place at the wedding reception in the evening. The ceremony is presided over by a senior member of the family or an invited guest who knows the rituals. A kind of spell is incanted which bless their future together. Then the “twin crown”, called “mongkhon faet” in Thai, is placed on their heads at exactly the same time. This is similar to the “mongkhon” worn by Thai boxers during their blessing ceremony. However, this version comes as a pair as there is a thin thread connecting the two. The dots, using the white paste earlier blessed by the monks, are then put on the forehead of each couple.
Relatives and friends then line up to take turns blessing the couple. If you decide to attend this ceremony, then you will need to pay attention to see how it is performed. Notice that the bride is sitting on the groom’s left. So, you first bless the groom. There will be someone standing by the bowl who will fill the small conch with the blessed water. You will probably spot some of the “silver leaf” and “gold leaf” and even “love leaf” leaves floating in the water. Hold the conch in your right hand with the left hand supporting it. Then pour some water up and down of the outstretched hand of the groom. At the same time, say something like “may you always be happy and live a long life together”. Make sure that you don’t use up all the water as you need to repeat this ritual for the bride.
Weddings in Bangkok usually last all day. However, if you have received a wedding invitation, you are usually only expected to turn up for the wedding reception in the evening. I have already shown you pictures of the other two major ceremonies that took place earlier in the day. Both of these usually take place at the bride’s family home. Usually only family and close friends attend these ceremonies. Then, in the evening, everyone is invited to a big meal at a local restaurant or hall.
For the evening session I dressed up a bit more smartly. During the day I wore a polo shirt but I changed to a traditional silk shirt in the evening. When you arrive, you will see a reception table near the entrance. Usually some beautiful young ladies are on duty here. They will ask you to sign a book where you can write some good wishes. They will then give you a small wedding souvenir. Usually nothing exciting but don’t refuse it. In Thailand, you don’t normally bring a present for the bride and groom. However, you can give some money. You put this in the same envelope that you received your invitation. This already has your name on it. On the reception table there is a box to place the envelope. You should put in at least 500 baht or more if you know them well. The money helps to pay for the wedding and also the meal you are about to eat. Before you go into the hall, you can have your picture taken with the bride and groom.
I was at the wedding reception to take pictures of people as they arrived. Quite a few people arrived late so we were stuck outside for nearly two hours. I thought I would then be able to get a bite to eat. But then the emcee invited the couple onto the stage with the parents for the speeches. Two senior guests were asked to give some words of wisdom and then make a toast for the couple. Then the emcee teased them by saying that they should kiss each other in front of everyone. But really they only did the traditional Thai “sniff kiss”. If it is your wedding day, make sure you don’t do anything x-rated on the stage!
As soon as the toast and speeches had finished it was time to have their pictures taken at every table. Unluckily for me, this wasn’t a small reception. I counted at least 40 Chinese-style dining tables. If we were lucky, people moved so that we could take pictures of everyone in one go. But many tables we had to take two pictures. It was nearly 9 p.m. by the time I had taken the last picture at the last table. I had been there since 5.30 p.m. and still hadn’t eaten. By this time, most of the food had gone and people were already starting to go home. So, I never did get a chance to eat any of the delicious food. I am not sure about the wedding couple, but it had been a very long day for me and I was very tired. But, you would think that now they would be happy as they were finally married. However, that wasn’t quite true. Although they were married in the eyes of their peers and elders from the community, they weren’t yet officially married. Really, to get married in Thailand, all you need to do is go down to the local district office, pay a fee and they will sign your certificate. People usually do this the next day or sometimes a few weeks or even months later. I know some couples who never never did get around to getting a wedding certificate.

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