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A Bideshi Wedding

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As I’ve mentioned before, my parents keep a lot of papers - especially photographs. They’re not always the moving kind, like the ones I see around magical England - probably depends on who’s shot them.

I found this really beautiful, striking photograph in one of the piles the other day. I could tell straight off that this was my mother: it was from quite a long time ago, likely younger than I am now, and quite obviously caked with makeup (like most Bangladeshi brides!) but her eyes are distinctive and unmistakeable.

"Ah yes, the wedding day. One of two, anyway," said Mum wistfully.

Two? What, one for the jadukara and one for the jadunai?

Mum laughed. “No, no…ah, it is such a story!” By this point I’d hungered for stories: I wanted to know more about my family, how they came to be, how I came to be.

But instead of telling me that story, she tells me about the wedding, the one in the photograph. It is a week-long ritual, each day dedicated to honouring different aspects of each person’s life and history, culminating in a magical holy union of love, family, community.

For the first few days, the bride and groom are separated: they will need time to connect with their families of origin before coming together to create their own. It is not a time for goodbyes, as they will never really leave their families - rather, they are joining families together, new relatives and kin and roots and branches.

On the very first day the bride and groom spend time alone: away from family, friends, their beloved. They spend this time in meditative contemplation, charting their personal progress from their earliest memory til now. They evaluate their current situation: are they ready for this new commitment, the mutual responsibility? What excites them? What worries them? What do they need to learn, understand, appreciate? Who are they, away from their family, away from their spouse? Some may decide to employ skills of jyotisa, reading tea leaves or cards; some may commune with the dainee for advice; some may take the time to read through the Quran or the Vedas as well as the great literary works that are at the heart of their jadu.

The second day is a day for beauty, pampering, quality time spent amongst trusted intimates of the same gender as the bride or groom. A special ayurvedic bath is drawn, filled with magical flowers and herbs that promise luck and love and goodwill, much like a human-sized potions cauldron. After the bath there may be other cosmetic adjustments - eyebrow threading and henna-dyed hair and sugaring - but the main compulsory element is holud: a yellow paste made from turmeric with flakes of gold, spread onto the skin for radiance and prosperity. The beauty rituals end with intricate mendhi designs on hands, made with specially-charmed henna that makes the designs move to reveal the name of their intended spouse. Through this day the trusted intimates share their wisdom on love, marriage, family, sex, homemaking, living - from secret recipes to tips on conflict resolution to advice on conception (or contraception). Here they are often more frank and open then they would be in mixed company, a bond of sisterhood or brotherhood that never breaks even if - God forbid - the marriage falls apart.

On the third day they meet with their immediate family, though in this case “immediate” doesn’t just mean parents and siblings: rather, it refers to the people who have been directly involved in the bride’s or groom’s upbringing. Sometimes this is just the parents and siblings; sometimes this is the entire neighbourhood. These are the people who were responsible for the bride or groom’s life - their basic needs, their companionship, their education. Each member of this meeting shares their personal story with their star to the group, before bestowing them with a specific blessing: may your children be strong and healthy, may your marriage be as magical as the works of Tagore, may you always be surrounded by love.

The fourth and fifth days are mirrors of each other: here the two families meet, some for the first time. On the fourth day the groom’s side visits the bride’s family bearing gifts and well-wishes, and on the fifth day the bride’s side makes their way to the groom’s family with gifts of their own. The jewelry set my mother wears in this photo (and eventually at the wedding) is one of those gifts, from the groom’s uncle who works with magical floristry: the roses are charmed to be removable, turning into living crimson stemmed roses that can be planted or vased for as long as the marriage is still alive. On both days they are fed a feast of the family’s special dishes, including trays of milky sweet mishti, and the holud from a few days before returns - now shared with the other partner, bringing radiance and prosperity together.

Indeed it is on the next day that the couple are together - and alone, save for the presence of a holy jadukara. It is mostly a repeat of the first day, with the couple quietly contemplating on what they contribute to the marriage, how they will work and live and love together, what they need to create and maintain a successful family. Sometimes they will perform their own jyotisa consultations, provide relationship advice, or conduct prayers. The jadukara asks if they are truly ready for the responsibility, the excitement, the challenges and the creation - and when they are, the jadukara casts elaborate verses of tantramantra, spells of protection and happiness.

The seventh day is the day all have been waiting for: the wedding ceremony. With Bangladeshi weddings, jadu or not, they are more like community festivals - everyone is invited, everyone is fed and cared for, everyone gets to share in the bliss of the newlywed couple. Highlights from the previous week recur in the ceremony: the sharing of potent texts or thoughts from the days of contemplation, the jadukara guiding the couple as they announce their vows to all and sundry, the guests meeting the couple one by one to feed them a piece of mishti and dab a bit of holud on their forehead and share a blessing, the overflowing piles of gifts and food and advice and well-wishes and “I knew you when you were thiiiiiiiis small!" and tears and love, so much love.

And of course, a dance party that lasts the whole night long.

I started daydreaming about my own wedding: not so much the idea of finding a life partner (I could barely even figure out my own life), but the massive community effort to ensure your health and happiness. Everyone wanting the best for you. The creation of a new family, a new home.

I noticed Mum going quiet at the end of her explanation. Was she wondering when it would be my turn? Was she daydreaming too? Or was there something else in mind?

"Are you OK?"

It took a moment for Mum to break out of her thoughts. “Oh! Yes, I’m just remembering how it was for your dad and I…it was a little bit different…but we were a different situation after all…”

"Oh? How so?"

Again a moment of quiet and a slightly saddened face before replying. “That, my choto, is a story for another time. Now come, help me make dinner.”