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Various food items are used as symbols of prosperity and plenty in wedding rituals across the country. Photo: Alamy
Various food items are used as symbols of prosperity and plenty in wedding rituals across the country. Photo: Alamy

Food for the bride and groom

From a whole fish to milk, deep fried puris and all manner of sweets, food has a deeply symbolic role in Indian wedding rituals

At Bengali weddings, the morning of the wedding day is steeped in anxiety, especially for the bride’s family. Mostly, in anticipation of the arrival of the holud (turmeric paste) from the groom’s house. The anxiousness is tinged with excitement—because along with the holud, comes the tattwo—an assortment of gifts, clothes, accessories and edibles sent for the bride and her family, typically received with the sound of conch shell and ululation.

The star of the tattwo is a whole fish, decked up as a bride—a streak of vermillion on its head and a nose ring in place. After youngsters have admired the fish and elders have scrutinized it, it is sent to the kitchen where it is cut into pieces, deep-fried or stewed in gravy, and served to the guests for lunch.

In riverine Bengal, fish is considered a symbol of plenty, which explains its cultural iconicity and significance in the region’s wedding rituals cutting across religious lines. In fact, fish is a recurring motif in Bengali weddings—be it in the form of a mammoth kheer’er sandesh, a sari skilfully folded into a fish for the tattwo, or in the intricate patterns of the alpana in the wedding mandap.

Like fish, milk too is considered a mark of prosperity and in households across the country the arrival of a new bride is marked by boiling a pot of milk. It is considered propitious for the milk to boil over. The spillage exemplifies abundance. Such symbolic use of food and culinary rituals is intrinsic to wedding ceremonies across the country—as a reflection of a community’s ethos, an allusion to impending domestic life or a sign of prosperity.

It could also, quite simply, be a token of familial affection. A case in point is the Sindhi pre-wedding ceremony of dabley jo sugun, where a traditional meal of kadhi-chaawal is prepared at both the bride’s and the groom’s homes. “Usually the groom’s sisters take some kadhi-chaawal, sweet boondi and other mithai to the bride’s home and feed her," says Alka Keswani of the popular blog Sindhi Rasoi. The custom is possibly a rite of assimilation, for what would be a better way of saying “welcome to the family" than with a bowl of the quintessential Sindhi comfort food.

The Pathare Prabhu community of Mumbai does it a little differently. A few days prior to the wedding, the bride is invited to the groom’s house. “On this day, the groom’s mother makes the unique guravali—puri stuffed with powdered sugar and deep-fried in ghee—for the bride. The sugar dissolves and encrusts the inside of the puris, rendering a delicious treat," says Mumbai-based Soumitra Velkar, known for his Pathare Prabhu pop-ups. He says the rich guravali is also a means to assure the bride of the groom’s family’s affluence.

“The bride is also presented with large batashas (sugar candy discs), typically adorned with intricate paintings of auspicious icons and symbols," adds Velkar. She brings the batashas back after the wedding, and they are distributed among the groom’s family and friends “to spread sweetness". Incidentally, the batasha is also considered a symbol of plenty and is ubiquitous in sacred ceremonies across communities.

Symbolisms aside, certain culinary rituals that have become an integral part of weddings were perhaps instituted to serve more practical purposes. Take, for instance, the Bengali ritual of dodhimongol where the bride and the groom are fed a mixture of sweetened yogurt, cheerey (flattened rice), murki (jaggery-infused popped rice) sandesh, etc, before sunrise on the wedding day. In Bengali Hindu weddings, the bride and the groom are required to fast on the day of the wedding. This pre-dawn meal seems apt to fortify the body for the long day ahead.

Culinary enthusiast Sumitra Sud talks about another clever custom traditionally observed in the Kangra region of Himachal Pradesh. “After the wedding, kalirein (bridal ornament) made of non-perishable edible items like slices of dried coconut, puffed rice, etc, would be tied to the bride’s wrists," says Sud. This was to ensure that the new bride, perhaps shy among strangers in her new home, would have something to eat if she felt hungry without having to ask.

“Besides, in olden days, the bride and groom along with the baraatis would have to travel a long distance back to the groom’s house. To ensure there was enough food to sustain them on their journey, the bride’s family would pack for them a range of food items that had a long shelf life, in heaps and mounds," says food researcher Ruchi Shrivastava.

In Shrivastava’s native Bundelkhand, for instance, vivah daalis (wedding baskets) filled with savoury pooris, boondi and wheat laddoos, gujiyas, and sweet and savoury maathas, large discs of crusty, ghee-fried bread encrusted with dried fruits, are sent along with the newly-weds.

Again, no wedding in Jammu’s Dogra community is complete without the gulra, made of semolina and dry fruit, and the sasrut, a large deep-fried cake made of refined flour. “Coins and thinly sliced coconut rings are pressed on to the surface of the cake as a symbol of prosperity," says Shrivastava.

“In Bihar, mainly among the Kayasth, the groom’s family sends five (auspicious number) types of traditional sweets—khaja (deep-fried layered pastry dunked in syrup), tikri (deep-fried cookies), sweet boondi, lado (mammoth laddoos) and mathh, thick, deep-fried bread coated with sugar syrup—to the bride’s family," says blogger and home chef Rachna Prasad. According to Prasad, the mathh, meant as a gift for the mother of the bride from the groom’s mother, is the most important among them.

Marathis, on the other hand, send rukhvat, primarily gifts of food and crafts, to both the bride and the groom. “Until recently almost every item that was a part of the rukhwat was edible," says food writer and blogger Saee Koranne-Khandekar. From a pangat (traditional meal table of Brahmins) fashioned from suparis to enormous chaklis shaped into flower baskets and filled with gulaabache chirote (flaky, rose-shaped pastry) or colourful saandge (lentil vadi) to emulate flowers and nests made of sutarpheni to put bird-shaped pedha in—everything would be made at home. “My grandmother tells me about a wedding in the family where her aunt made humongous maande, a sweetened naan of sorts, only stiffer, to build a circus tent, and placed animals crafted out of barfis underneath," she adds.

However, not all communities indulge in this elaborate display of creativity. Take, for instance, the fishing community of Kolis. “The Kolis are hard-working people with little time to indulge in artistic pursuits. The hardy existence reflects in their wedding practices too," says food blogger Anjali Koli, an authority on her community’s cuisine. However, deep-fried, sourdough vadas made of rice flour (ghaari) are mandatory in Koli weddings. Making ghaari is not only a cumbersome feat, but one steeped in ritualistic significance. The first batch of the ghaari is typically offered to family deities and the rest is served at breakfast on the wedding day. Besides, a toran (decorative door hanging) made of ghaari, papad, and other edible items is hung at the entrance of the mandap. The groom must cut this toran to enter the mandap.

Food, above all, emerges as a whole new language of communication between two families, bringing them closer. Wedding food is a lot more than traditional community feasts or impersonal buffets they are often identified with.

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