Monday, March 19, 2012

My Big Fat Malaysian Wedding

My friend, Lokhman Hakim, is a wedding photographer. 

While that is a fascinating occupation in any context, it is especially interesting to me because he is a Malaysian wedding photographer. Not only does he take beautiful pictures, but his images help me wrap my head around the fascinating differences and surprising similarities of marriage ceremonies in his country and mine. 

Happy news: Lokhman is engaged himself and about to get a whole new perspective on this wedding business. 
It's a fairly universal truth that any culture's wedding customs are an intricate blend of religious ritual and local traditions, and Malaysian weddings are that, in spades. The citizens of this southeast Asian country, tucked in between Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and the South China Sea, are a diverse lot. More than half of the country's population is native Malay, the local indigenous culture, and the rest is a very mixed soup of ethnic diversity with an emphasis of Indian and Chinese. 

The native Malays are Muslim, and so Arabic traditions pervade the local customs. Now throw in the fact that Malaysia was a colony of Great Britain up until 1957, and you'll understand that when these people decide to throw a wedding, there are a lot of influences to sort out.

Let's start with the engagement. When a Malay couple decides to wed, it quickly becomes a family affair. Parents are formally consulted, and financial arrangements are made. Grooms must commit to pay for a part of the wedding and to provide a sum of money to the bride. Once the details are worked out and everyone is satisfied, family and friends gather for the engagement ceremony. Malay engagements are quite formal and almost seem like mini-weddings. Often held at the bride-to-be's home, there are gifts and flowers galore. In some cases, she almost looks like a bride, perhaps wearing an elaborate traditional dress and make-up, and sitting upon a special pillow or chair, as she will again on her wedding day. 

Keeping with Islamic prohibitions against touching before marriage, the groom-to-be does not place the ring on his fianc√© 's finger.
Malay engagements are definitely a family affair.
Upscale cupcakes add a contemporary touch to a traditional event.
Interestingly, the prospective groom typically shows up in an everyday outfit 
This cute little "Reserved" sign looks like something straight out of Pinterest, doesn't it?

Now it's on to the wedding day. But wait. Malay tradition calls for not one, not two, but typically three distinct wedding days. The first day, called the akad nikah, is the day of the legal marriage which takes place in a ceremony led by an iman at a family home or a mosque. 

The groom typically wears traditional clothing for the wedding day; the baju melayu (tunic and pants), the sampin (plaid cloth wrapped around his hips) and the songkok on his head. 
Grooms also sport a traditional Malay weapon, called a kris
The metal blade of the wooden-handled kris is tucked into the groom's sampin .
Flower arrangements decorate the venue, and brides often carry Western-style bouquets.
Brides who wear hijab typically use three layers: a headscarf, a sheer shawl and then a crown over the shawl .
Many brides choose white for their akad nikah dress, but other colors are perfectly fine.
Traditional henna designs may adorn the bride's hands as well as the groom's. 
Ordinarily prohibited from wearing make-up, Muslim brides are allowed to pull out all the stops. 
While white dresses may be optional, fancy shoes are a must.
During the akad nikah, the groom first signs the marriage contract and fulfills his financial obligations to his bride. All the participants are seated on the floor; the bride watches from her perch on a decorated pillow. Once the legal documents are in order and prayers are spoken, the bride and groom exchange rings and kiss each other; she kisses his hand, he kisses her forehead. And now they are married.

But the celebration is not over yet. Typically, the bersanding takes place over two days and in two different locations - once at the bride's hometown and again at the groom's. Scheduling is very flexible; the three events might be held within one week's time, but anything is possible.

The purpose of these bersanding events is to honor the newly wed couple as royalty. Central to the celebration is the pelamin, an elaborately decorated couch or pair of chairs upon which the new couple sit as thrones. Once the couple enters the venue and takes their seats of honor, the guests are free to eat, visit, and have their pictures taken with the newlyweds.

The bersanding begins outdoors as the groom makes his way to find his bride.
He spies his bride, joins her, and together they enter the venue.
The wedded couple is protected from the equatorial sun by umbrellas carried by their closest friends.
A Western-style wedding cake is another element of the bersanding.
The pelamin is raised, as a dais, so that the couple can be viewed and admired by all.
Friends and family join the happy couple for lots of photos.
Flowers, lamps and draped fabrics decorate the pelamin.
Depending on the venue, finances and wishes of the couple, the pelamin may range from lavishly ornamental to stylishly simple.

And so the happy couples begin their new life together, properly celebrated and welcomed into married life by all their friends and family. Of course, that is the goal of any wedding - to honor and acknowledge the couple's new commitment to life together, and to start that shared life off with joy.

Lokhman, thank you for sharing this joy as you have captured it in your photographs. I'm looking forward to the day when I can see your wedding photos, and I wish you all the blessings of a happy and healthy life!

{All photo credits to Lokhman Hakim Photography. Check him out on Facebook.}

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My other musings about marriage:


  1. Lokhman, here is the comment that I received from you via email:

    Hi Diane,

    This is such an honor for me as my artwork been sort out to be an outstanding and briefly explained into a post. You have done a great researches in Malay wedding coverage which I barely tell the story in pictures, yours in words and pictures. No other words can describe it well, I'm loving it..Thanks a bunch Diane.

    Truly honor,


    And here is my reply:

    It was my pleasure to share your beautiful photos in my blog. I'm glad if you are pleased about the way I used them to tell my story. And by the way, all those things I have learned about Malaysian weddings came from my very, very, VERY patient Malay friends who answered all my billions of questions. Thanks to them, too!

  2. Kak na. Wow.u did great research on malay wedding! U make Me see in special way of our traditional wedding. . Ohhhh i wish i cn make my own wedding party Fast. Pray me kak na!:)

    1. Trimo kasih for your kind words! I'm glad if you enjoyed my story and I look forward to someday seeing you at your own wedding. Can't wait for it!

  3. This is great one to see your blog last time I see same design to my friend Engagement party in chennai. Majorly used Aluminium scaffolding equipment used for light setting up to all trees edges. Really very gud looking.

  4. Yes i am totally agreed with this article and i just want say that this article is very nice and very informative article.I will make sure to be reading your blog more. You made a good point but I can't help but wonder, what about the other side? !!!!!!Thanks Photographer Melbourne


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