Monday, December 14, 2009

Culture in Action 5: The Gaye Holud Revisited

One of my earliest posts introduced the practice of the gaye holud—a purification/beautification pre-wedding ceremony common in Bengali culture. Recently, I had the chance to revisit the practice and thought it might be interesting to discuss here. It took a slightly different form this time: The practice was included as a part of the 30th-wedding anniversary celebrations planned for an aunt and uncle within the family where it was transformed into a ritual for remembering and renewal. Though our "bride and groom" in this instance had been married for many years, on this night, they revisited some tender moments of their youth. This gaye holud provided an interesting look at a traditional practice and underscores its importance in establishing family ties and acceptance.

Prior to the evening of the gaye holud, a dais, or stage area was created where the main festivities would occur. The stage was decorated in red, orange, and yellow, traditional colors for the evening (although apparently green is also appropriate.) Saris were draped in the background to provide a festive wall covering, and plastic flowers—in red and yellow—added a lively touch. In the South Asian community colors are highly symbolic, so the choices of red, yellow, and orange are intentional. Red symbolizes purity, fertility, and sensuality—which is why it is the color of choice for Indian brides. Yellow represents sanctity. And orange symbolizes piety and strength—and balance, as it combines red and yellow. It is customary for the relatives to also wear these colors, and red and orange hued saris dominated the scene. (This explains why my black formal wear has been sometimes met with dismay—I swear, I don't mean any ill will!) Because this was a faux-gaye holud, the traditional offerings were laid out on the dais. In a traditional event, the groom's family (sans the groom) would come to the bride's house bearing gifts of sweets, clothing, and jewelry. The practice is then reversed as the bride's family visits the groom's home. [Image Left: A young celebrant wearing the traditional colors of red and orange with flowers in her hair.]

The bride's sisters-in-law put the finishing touches to the stage area. The family matriarch (right) supervised the process.

The completed dais for the event. The chairs displayed were for show only—normal-sized chairs were put out for the couple to sit in.

Offerings for the "new" couple, including milk (a symbol of both purity and nourishment), clothing for the bride (and in this case the groom) and assorted sweets and fruits.

After the finishing touches were completed, the guests waited patiently for the couple to make their entrance. In the traditional form, a procession lines up in front of the bride's home, and the groom's family enters the home with much joyful noise-making. The family then waits for the official "presentation" of the bride—she is usually carried out to the dais. The same process is later followed by the bride's family at the groom's home. Since this ceremony was being done to mark an anniversary, there was no such procession. Instead, the "bride and groom" came to us.

The "bride's" entrance.

The bride's brother having some fun with the groom. The spectacle of him carrying his brother-in-law was met with hearty laughter as everyone rushed forward to try and get a photo.

The happy couple—30 years into their marriage, reliving their time as newlyweds.

With the couple in place, the "offerings" were presented—with some impromptu dancing. Everyone was in high spirits after watching the groom be spontaneously scooped up and carried to his place.  Following the offerings, came the highlight of the gaye holud: the couple was covered with turmeric, which is believed to both beautify and purify the celebrants. It's yellow color probably also links it to this role. Turmeric does stain, so when the festivities took on a holi-type nature, Steve and I quickly looked for ways to escape the flying paste.

The offerings that were laid out on the dais are presented to the couple. Left, the bride's sister hoists sweets in the air, while another sister carries a decorated gallon of milk on her head.

This celebrant is not exorcising the groom—she is liberally applying turmeric.

Celebrants, including the family matriarch, watch as turmeric is applied.

Turmeric flies! The celebrants get a bit carried away as paste is flung freely.

Following the holud events, what else would we do but eat? We had lots of appetizers to keep us happy while the couple got cleaned up and changed. And then it was time for dinner!

Appetizers, including, pie, fruit cake, puri, channa, and assorted sweets.

Dinner is served. Interestingly, in addition to various curries, a West Indian-type chow mein was also served. I wonder if this "invasion" of a non-native dish is the result of the neighborhood where the family lives, which has a large West Indian presence.

The gaye holud is a "night-before" pre-wedding activity. And in keeping with tradition, these events were a precursor to a vow renewal ceremony held at a restaurant the next day. It was moving and very sweet to note that the couple's voices still shook after all these years in reciting their vows (in Bengali) to one another and before friends and family. As is common to these events, food was abundant—on both occasions—rivaled only by the outpouring support from those gathered to honor the couple.

The couple arranged in front of a backdrop for the ceremony.

The Maid of Honor (bride's sister-in-law in blue) appears excited by the groom's recitation of his vows.

 The groom gets instructions from the priest.

Even the priest seemed to be enjoying himself.

More than just the motions of the ritual themselves, the practices seen here worked to bring this family together. The event would not have been possible without the support and willing participation of everyone involved. The traditional event marks the beginning of goodbyes for the bride's family and the introduction of the grooms family into the extended kin network. It also in some ways marks a transition of power/authority as the bride is accepted into her husband's family. (In an actual gaye holud, the bride is dressed by the groom's family in a sari and jewelry after the turmeric ceremony. She symbolically changes her clothes for clothing from her new family.)  Because there was no new bride in this case, the event was a chance to reaffirm kinship connections.

As the holiday season approaches its peak, many people will gather together with friends and family to mark the occasion. Do you have rituals of kinship? They don't  have to be rooted in a traditional or cultural practice—it could be something like a family outing to the ice skating rink. Share your family stories below.

For more information on traditional Bengali weddings (which are three or four day events), there's a good article here.

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