Lahore and beyond

Many years ago I received a set of wedding cards from an extended relative. As I read the card inviting us to attend the ‘Mehndi’, I was taken aback by three words that stared me in the face – “Ao Rang Khaylen”. Being a senior member of the family, I could not resist (much to my better half’s irritation) calling the father of the bride and ask him if I was being invited to ‘holi’ or ‘Rasm e Hina’. Let me quickly clarify that I am a great believer in interfaith harmony and some of my best and dearest friends are from other beliefs. My question was therefore not intended to convey even the slightest sarcasm, but stemmed from a genuine concern for mutating one of our very own cherished tradition. Nonetheless, the incident reminded me of the time six decades ago, when marriage halls were unheard of and weddings spanned four days – ‘Mayon’, ‘Mehndi’, ‘Baarat’ and ‘Walima’. The entire program was conducted on one’s home premises, the nearest school compound or ‘Maidan’. My parent’s marriage for example, was conducted inside the walled city of Lahore in the ‘maidan’ in front of our ancestral house and the Victoria Girl’s High School across it. Many of my aunts and uncles were wed at our spacious family home on Queen’s Road, which was also the venue of mine and my sibling’s matrimony.

The ‘Mayon’ ceremony was exclusive to close friends and family. It began with a ‘Milaad’ to bring divine favor to the alliance and happiness to the couple. This was followed by rubbing ‘Ubtan’ (an aromatic herbal concoction that produced a perfect skin tone) on the bride’s skin. It also included a quaint segment, where seven married females (‘Saat Suhagans) from the family, anointed the bride with the aforementioned paste. This accomplished, all mayhem broke loose as the tradition of ‘Ubtan Khelna’ (Playing with Ubtan) was set in motion. The container with the left over greenish paste was pounced upon by the younger females and everyone, irrespective of age and gender, became a fair target to be hunted, chased and plastered on the face with the ‘gooey stuff’. Significantly enough, everyone enjoyed the moment and there was no anger or irritation, when clothes and faces became a victim of the game. The proceedings for the evening ended with a sumptuous meal for all the guests.

The wedding day began at the groom’s house with a ‘sehra bandi’, where the young man was helped into an ‘Achkan’ by his sister’s husbands (who then demanded a sum of money for the effort). A ‘sehra’ made out of fresh flowers or in some cases tinsel was then affixed to the groom’s turban in a manner that it concealed his visage (a practice that is now frowned upon by modern grooms). The family poet then recited poetry eulogizing the occasion amidst applause and the ornately printed version of these verses was later framed and presented to the couple. In some cases the verses were printed on napkins and presented to each guest.

Nikkah was generally solemnized, when the wedding procession reached the bride’s home preceded by a band (not military). Lahore’s most famous wedding band was one, led by a clarinet player known as ‘Babu’. The departure of the bride was accompanied by some tear jerking refrains known as ‘Mandhas’. In retrospect, this further ‘traumatized’ the bride and her family causing a fair amount of sobbing and sniffling. The ‘Walima’ was celebrated a day after the wedding and was much as it is practiced now.

There were no restrictions on menus in those days and the four day menus consisted of ‘Biryani, Zafrani Qorma, Spinach with a choice of poultry or mutton, roti (‘laal or khamiri’) and chilled ‘Firni (served in clay baked small platters known as ‘Thoothees’).

The advent of technology (DJ music, light and sound displays and laser lights) coupled with western influence has drastically altered our traditional wedding scene. The ‘Mehndi’ has gradually stolen the limelight from the two main events and the fun lasts well past midnight. The convenience of marriage halls and marquees along with their catering packages has taken weddings away from homes, leaving behind fond memories of how wedding were once celebrated.

 The writer is a historian.