Malay weddings in a kampong during the early days of Singapore. Source: National Archives
Nothing livens up the neighbourhood like traditional Malay weddings. Especially Malay weddings in the kampong. They are festive and colourful events that bring together family, friends, and even neighbours. This was particularly so, long before the 1960s, when people in Singapore lived communally in small villages. A Malay wedding back then usually lasted for several days. Different ceremonies would take place, and each of them embodied meaningful customs and traditions.
Let’s take a look at some of these ceremonies, and how they were conducted in the old days.
Akad Nikah: Marriage Solemnisation
The marriage solemnisation, also known as akad nikah, is the most important rite in a Malay wedding. It takes place before the wedding reception itself, and an Imam (religious leader) or a Kadi (religious affairs official) would officiate it.
On this occasion, the Imam or Kadi would visit the couple and recite religious verses from the Quran. He would also counsel the groom towards his future responsibilities as a husband, and personally ensure that the bride is not marrying out of compulsion. Lastly, he would solemnise the marriage and the couple would sign the marriage contract. After which, the couple are officially and legally husband and wife.
The signing of the marriage contract during an akad nikah. Source: National Archives.
The Berinai Ceremony: Henna Staining
Henna staining of the skin is a tradition that originated in India. It is done with a long-lasting dye made from grinding the leaves of the henna tree.
On the nights leading up to a Malay wedding, an intimate Berinai Ceremony would often be carried out. Close family and friends would gather to paint the bride’s and groom’s fingertips, hands and feet with henna. This symbolised luck and beautified the couple (especially the bride) for the wedding.
Henna applied on the hands and feet of a modern-day bride. Source: Teha fateha henna designs.
In the old days, berinai was a much more elaborate affair. Three separate ceremonies would take place – the berinai curi, berinai kechil and berinai besar.
The first, Berinai Curi (which means ‘steal’), was an all-female ceremony reserved only for the bride. It took place two nights before the solemnisation at the bride’s house, and her close girlfriends would carry out the henna staining. The ceremony was called curi because it was customary to allow some boys who were helping out with wedding preparations, to “steal” a peep at the girls during the ceremony in order to spot a prospective future bride for themselves.
A modern-day Berinai Curi ceremony, where the bride’s close girlfriends apply henna on her hands and feet. Source: steemit.com
The second ceremony, Berinai Kechil (which means ‘small’), would be held the next night. The groom would be go to the bride’s house, and close male family members and friends would apply henna on his hands and feet.
The final ceremony was Berinai Besar (meaning ‘big’, or ‘grand’), and it took place after the marriage solemnisation. The newlyweds would sit upon the wedding dais (called ‘pelamin’), which would have already been constructed beforehand. There, berinai guests would take turns to stain their hands with henna and shower them with saffron rice and scented water. One of the guests, usually an elder, would also bring an egg to the bride’s or groom’s mouth for them to gently blow on it. This symbolised fertility for the couple. Finally, the ceremony would end with a recitation of prayer and blessings.
1st DPM & Minister for Defence at the time, Goh Chok Tong, brings an egg to the mouth of the groom for him to blow on it. This was a tradition that symbolised fertility. Picture source: National Archives
Picture source: National Archives
A modern-day berinai besar ceremony, where a guest showers the couple with rice Source: riauberbagi.blogspot.com/
The Wedding Procession on The Big Day
The wedding day itself would begin with the groom setting out from his home with an entourage of close friends and relatives. Bearing an array of gifts like cash and jewellery, they would travel to the bride’s house. As is the case with Malay weddings in a kampong, this would often take place on foot.
A Malay wedding procession with entourage bearing gifts. Source: National Archives
A groom en route to his bride’s house. Source: National Archives
A troupe of kompang drummers would also be part of the procession. Kompangs are traditional Malay handheld drums made with a goat hide membrane. In addition to providing an air of grandeur and festivity with their music, they also sang verses from the Quran that seek blessings for the bride and groom.
Kompang Drummers at a wedding procession. Source: National Archives
The bunga manggar (colourful palm-shaped branches) was another key feature in a wedding procession. Friends or relatives would usually carry them during the procession.
In the old days, they would tie bunches of real coconut palm blossoms to bamboo poles to make the bunga manggar. In modern times however, colourful tinsel or paper is usually the material of choice instead.
Bunga manggar was sometimes also tied to road signs or lamp posts as directional landmarks to help guests locate the wedding reception. Besides serving as pretty decorations for the wedding, they also symbolised prosperity and well-wishes for the couple to have many children.
A Malay wedding procession with kompang drummers and children carrying bunga manggar. Source: National Archives.
Colourful bunga manggar at a Malay Wedding. Picture source: National Archives.
Upon the groom’s arrival at the bride’s house, guests would scatter saffron rice to mark his entrance. At times, the bride’s friends or relatives would also tease the groom by preventing him and his male companions from reaching the bride.
When the groom finally made it inside, the bride would be seated upon the dais with her mak andam holding an open fan to cover her face. The mak andam, usually a middle-aged woman, plays the important role of being the bride’s beautician and attendant, as well as consultant on the necessary rites to observe in a traditional Malay wedding.
The groom would often pay the mak andam first, in order for her to remove the fan and reveal the bride. Afterwhich, he would finally be able to take his place next to her.
Following this, the bride and groom would make their way to the wedding reception and bersanding ceremony, which is often the grandest event of the entire wedding.
A mak andam covers the bride’s face with an open fan as the groom approaches. Picture source: National Archives.
The mak andam’s role is to ensure the bride looks her best for her big day. She also ensures that all the traditional ceremonies and rites are done properly for the wedding. Picture source: National Archives.
Bersanding: Sitting-In-State Ceremony
The Bersanding Ceremony is undoubtedly the highlight of all the ceremonies. Bersanding means “sitting-in-state,” and the bride and groom would sit upon a dais called the pelamin, which is designed to resemble and symbolise two thrones. Dressed resplendently, the happy couple were then be treated like King and Queen for the day. Guests would go up onto the pelamin to offer their blessings and well-wishes.
Traditionally, the bride and groom would not laugh, smile or even talk too much during the bersanding ceremony. This reflected their status as royalty for the day, and it would explain why many archival photos show an extremely serious-looking bridal couple on the dais.
A bride and groom seated upon the pelamin during their bersanding ceremony. Traditionally, they were not allowed to laugh or smile. Although most would relax when it was time to snap some photos with the guests. Picture source: National Archives.
After the bersanding ceremony, the bride and groom would eat together, in what was known as the makan berdamai or makan bersama ceremony. In the old days for Malay weddings in a kampong, this used to take place in the bridal suite in the presence of senior family members, during which the bride serves her husband food for the first time. Today however, the couple usually just feast together with their guests.
At times, they would hold a second bersanding ceremony at the groom’s home a few days later (known as the bertandang).
The Wedding Reception
The wedding reception would take place after the bersanding ceremony, and a feast would be served for the guests. For entertainment, there would usually be band performances and sometimes even stand-up comedians.
Malay weddings in a kampong would have guests arriving throughout the event. Source: National Archives.
A few men or boys would also sometimes perform Silat Melayu as a form of tribute and blessing for the bride and groom.
Silat Melayu is an ancient form of martial arts. The artists also perform it at Malay weddings in a graceful and highly stylised dance-like form called Silat Pengantin. A small orchestra would also play alongside the performance, with a type of music called gendang silat (“martial arts drum”).
In ancient times, silat artists would often perform for the Sultan of a country. And since the bride and groom were King and Queen for the day, they would similarly be honoured with a silat performance.
Ideally, performers at a Malay wedding would carry out silat pengantin with great respect and etiquette. They would observe certain rules, such as remaining silent, not directing aggressive moves at the couple and not facing their back at the bridal couple.
A Silat Pengantin performance at a modern Malay wedding. It is a form of tribute for the bride and groom. Picture source: rentakpusaka.blogspot.com/
During the kampong days, there was a saying called “gotong royong,” which translates to “mutual help.” It was also commonly known as the “kampong spirit,” and perhaps events that most exemplified this were Malay weddings in a kampong. With modern-day weddings, guests would usually only be present on the big day itself, and most of the preparation would be done with hired help. In the old days however, relatives, friends and even neighbours would start showing up days before the wedding to pitch in and help with a myriad of chores. These included the putting up of decorations and pitching of tents, to food preparation and running errands for the bridal couple and their parents.
Wedding Attire for the Bride & Groom
It was customary for the bride and groom to go through several changes of matching outfits throughout the wedding. Most couples opted to wear traditional Malay outfits made of sonket, which is a hand-woven fabric embroidered with golden threads.
When the sonket was first designed during ancient times, only royalty and members of the royal family would wear it. As times progressed, ordinary people came to wear it as well, but usually on special occasions like Hari Raya, festivals, and of course, at weddings.
The bride would usually wear a baju kurung or a baju kebaya. At times, she would even wear an elaborate headdress or crown, creating a truly regal sight!
The groom would usually wear a baju melayu and a tanjak upon his head. To symbolise his status of “King for the Day,” he would also carry a keris on his waist, which is a Javanese dagger with a wavy blade. When he is walking during the procession, it is common for the best man or a relative to shade him from the heat with an umbrella.
A groom wearing a traditional sonket Malay outfit. Picture source: National Archives.
A Malay bride wearing an elaborate headdress befitting of royalty. Source: National Archives.
A Malay bride and groom in matching traditional outfits during the 1950s. Source: National Archives.
Traditional Attire for Guests
All wedding guests usually dressed in their finest. Consequently, Malay guests usually came in traditional attire. The women would often wear a Malay kebaya, which was a long blouse with front opening worn over a sarong (a long cloth wrapped around the waist). The men would traditionally wear a baju Melayu. They would sometimes wear the baju in the Teluk Belanga style. This meant that the kain samping (skirt-like adornment) was below the baju top rather than above it. Also, a special type of stitching would be used on the neckline of the baju in place of a collar.
A Malay wedding couple with their guests,dressed in traditional attire. Source: National Archives.
Changing Times, Remembering the Past
In Singapore today, couples usually opt to trim and simplify these elaborate ceremonies in order to suit the busy lifestyles of modern times. For example, couples sometimes hold the akad nikah on the same day as the bersanding ceremony. Similarly, they would condense the festivities to take place over the weekend these days, as compared to the “kampong days” when they lasted up to 7 days. Nonetheless, it is always meaningful to take the time and understand how Malay weddings were celebrated in the past.
Here at Miniature Stories, we’ve created a beautiful collection of miniature figurines that depict Malay weddings in a kampong. Other than the bride and groom, we’ve also included characters that form a lively wedding procession – such as kompang drummers, bunga manggar and umbrella bearers and guests. Each character figure is dressed in traditional Malay attire painstakingly recreated from real life. To set the backdrop, we’ve also provided a kampong diorama, complete with zinc-roofed houses and palm trees. We hope that this collection is a nostalgic reminder of how Malay weddings were celebrated in the old days. Check it out here.