The Malay Wedding

Bersanding ceremony. Photo by Nadge

A right royal affair – That’s a Malay wedding for you. And it is literally true, as the couple is called ‘Raja Sehari‘ or ‘King and Queen for a Day’. The wedding event is a display of regal splendour in the ancient kingly tradition of the Malay World.

A Malay marriage involves two parts. There is firstly the Akad Nikah, or marriage contractual solemnisation, which is the more private and Islamic aspect confirming the conjugal union, and with official witnesses it affirms the sanctity of the institution of marriage. This can be held at any time of the day or night convenient to the groom and bride, the officiator, a couple of witnesses, both families’ close members and some friends. It can be performed anywhere but most usually at the bride’s family home or at a mosque.

The Akad Nikah begins with everyone gathering around the groom as he faces the officiator or solemniser, called Kadhi, but it would in fact be best if the ceremony is performed by the bride’s father. After listening to a short sermon on the responsibilities of marriage, the groom will then recite a set declaration of his intention to marry the bride as named with his symbolic obligatory gift, usually a certain sum of money. As soon as his words are clearly articulated and the official witnesses are satisfied, the couple become husband and wife in the eyes of God. Dressed in radiant white traditional Malay dresses by convention, they will then put wedding rings on each other’s finger. A sumptuous meal for all then follows.

The second part of a Malay wedding, the Kenduri or wedding feast, is more cultural and is the public side. Yet it also fulfills the religious obligation that a marriage should be publicised for the world to know, to bless, and to avoid wrongful accusation of non-marital close proximity. This is a major and merry event. The Kenduri is usually held twice: firstly on the bride’s side and not long after that, on the groom’s side. All and sunder are welcome to partake of food; from distant relatives to neighbours and even strangers, bearing gifts of cash or kind. And in true Malaysian spirit, food is replenished continuously at the serving tables as guests come and go.

The highlight of the Kenduri is the appearance of the newlyweds, each dressed in the finest gold-silver songket and most attractive wedding finery. They are flanked by bearers of ceremonial umbrellas and the ‘hantaran’ exchange of matrimonial gifts while accompanied by thudding beats of the ‘kompang’ hand drums, in a procession to the decorated wedding dais, the ‘pelamin’. Traditionally, here they would be seated for the ‘bersanding’ ceremony, to receive symbolic blessings of rose water and other symbolic items from senior family members. They then dine together at a main table, after which the happy couple mingle with the guests.

Some think that the ‘bersanding’ ceremony is a direct copy of Indian Hindu weddings. Research has now concluded that this is not so, as there is no single equivalent ceremony from any of India’s diverse peoples. The name is also Malay, whereas it would have been of an Indian language as is common for things of Hindu origin among Malays.

At most it may have evolved during the time that some coastal Malays were Hindu from around the 1st century AD. It does not contradict Islam as long as all attires follow Islamic modesty and the blessings are merely symbolic, acting more importantly as a sign of bi-familial introduction and respect where elder members come and bless the couple. 

Elder relatives bless couple in 'merenjis' with scented water betel leaves etc. Photo by Nadge
Elder relatives bless the couple in ‘merenjis’ with scented water, betel leaves etc. Photo by Nadge

These days, many Malay weddings are catered events at hotels. The difference here is that all attendees are seated together, with the couple’s moves choreographed and speeches arranged in proper order. But that spirit of ‘Raja Sehari’ prevails, if not even enhanced by the more opulent surroundings. So for your wedding, go ahead and be treated like a Malay King and Queen for the day.

This is an extended version of Nadge’s article that was commissioned and published in Heritage Asia in 2007  in the issue focusing on Malaysia’s different communities’ matrimonial traditions.

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