Many years ago, I received a wedding card and was surprised to see the words ‘ao rung khailen’ on one of the invitations inside the ornate envelope. I began to wonder if on arrival at the venue, we would be issued with ‘pichkaris’ filled with colored water or perhaps this was an invite to celebrate the Hindu festival of ‘holi’. Nonetheless, I regretted the kind gesture much to the annoyance of the host. The incident left me reflecting on how modern cinema (particularly Bollywood) and the widening chasm between us and our time honored traditions had effected the way weddings, particularly in urbanised society, were now being organised.

Marriage ceremonies in Pakistan have over the years begun to look more and more like lavish film productions. The sequence of events begins days in advance with a spate of ‘dholkis’ organised by relatives and friends. One can often be misled by the name as the ‘dholki’ and singing of traditional wedding songs plays only a bit part in the show, while a large part of the evening is taken up by dance practice and a sumptuous banquet.

The ‘Mayun’ ceremony continues to begin with a ‘milad’ or ‘homage to the Holy Prophet’, followed by the time honored tradition of anointing the bride with ‘ubtan’, an aromatic herbal concoction designed to act as a skin toner. It is also an occasion where close family members are asked one by one to offer a tiny sweet morsel to the girl in a symbolic act of joy. In the good old days, this was followed by a free for all, wherein the leftover ‘ubtan’ was applied to the faces of all present (whether willingly or otherwise). The occasion turned into ‘chases’ with victims were hunted down and ‘marked’. It was all good fun and no one ever minded being targeted. The day was rounded off with a good meal for everyone. The modern ‘mayun’ has witnessed a gradual decline in ‘ubtan khelna’ or ‘playing the ubtan’ (as the ritual was called) and in some cases I have seen guests getting upset on finding themselves at the receiving end of this activity.

Mehndi was once known as ‘rasm e hina’ and consisted of two functions. First the groom accompanied by his family (and a ‘dholki’) went to his bride’s home carrying decorated ‘mehndi’ or ‘hina’ containers, sweetmeats and ‘jewelry’ made with flowers (often ‘motia’ blooms). Seven married women (known as seven ‘sohagans’) from the grooms family then applied ‘mehndi’ on the girls palm as a token of happiness and longevity amidst ‘singing’ of wedding songs (which often became competitive between the two families). The guests were then offered food or light refreshment as previously arranged by mutual consent. Having given enough time for the groom’s party to return home, the bride’s family then proceeded to the groom’s house to repeat the ritual followed by dinner or light refreshment. Economic pressures and ease of management have now forced families into organising a single joint event, which overshadows the actual wedding in glamor and style. The ‘mehndi’ venue has in most cases shifted from the privacy of homes to halls and marquees and dancing long into the night in public, has diluted traditional rituals.

The actual wedding day continues to feature the ‘baraat’, ‘rukhsati’ and ‘joota chupai’ in between, but quaint ‘rasms’ such as ‘aarsi musaf’, where the groom and the bride had the first glimpse of each other in a strategically placed mirror; the ritual of the groom offering two ‘nafils’ in grateful prayer on the dupatta of the bride; the ‘doodh pilai’, where the bride offers a cup of milk to her mate and vice versa; the ‘baarh rokna’ (blocking the groom’s entry into the house) or in the case of a horse-riding young man – the ‘baag pakrai’ (reign holding) by sisters and last but not the least the ‘kheer chatai’, where the harried groom is not allowed to take his bride into the bridal chamber, until he has licked a dollop of rice pudding from the bride’s palm, are rituals that are becoming extinct.

The ‘walima’ or the feast on the day after the wedding, given by the groom’s family was designed to invite the extended family and circle of friends, who had been left out of the wedding day list. It has of late succumbed to fiscal pressures and is now being integrated with the wedding as another joint function.

After the ‘walima’, the bride returned to her parent’s home. On the fourth day of her return, the groom accompanied by his family went to collect her with gifts of ‘fruit and vegetables’. The party were set upon by the bride’s sisters and other female members using flowers as missiles. The response came in a salvo of fruit and vegetables. This ‘battle’ was rounded of by a feast and the return of the happy couple. Regretfully this particular ceremony is now almost extinct. How much time will our other rituals take to follow ‘chauthi’ into oblivion is a question that we must ask ourselves.