A Tale of Thai Weddings
By Jules Kay
Although hundreds of western couples now choose to get married in Thailand, few ever experience the full pageantry and ritual of a traditional Thai wedding day. Images of orange-robed monks splashing holy water and chanting over the bride and groom are just a small part of what is generally an all day event in Thailand. In fact, many modern Thai couples now choose to omit the traditional community rituals in favour of a more western influenced marriage. In the villages and rural areas, however, this fascinating tradition lives on.
Traditional Thai family wedding rituals differ slightly depending on the region in which they are performed, but the central Thai-style wedding incorporates much of the folklore, customs, beliefs and practices that have passed down through the generations. Central to the marriage is the concept of 'Sinsod', the custom of paying a dowry to compensate the family of the bride "for her mother's milk". There is no set amount for this as the sum is typically determined based on both the suitor's wealth and the perceived "value" of his future wife. Factors such as beauty, personality, background, education and reputation are all taken into consideration and wealthy families may offer land, property, business interests or expensive gifts as part of a dowry, as well as money and gold. In poorer communities the groom's family traditionally gave livestock such as buffaloes, chickens, ducks and pigs as a dowry or perhaps a share in the family farmland to guarantee the couple a livelihood after their marriage.
Traditional Thai weddings begin well before the main religious ceremony, usually with the groom’s "Khan Maak" procession. This is when the groom makes his way to the bride's house accompanied by friends, family and music. The procession is lead by the groom’s representative or “Thao Gae”, and his parents also accompany him carrying flowers, incenses, candles and gifts. On his way to the bride's house, the groom must pass through three symbolic gates to show that he is worthy of his bride. The first is the victory gate, the second the silver gate and the final one the golden gate. Brightly coloured fabric is used as a metaphor for the the victory gate, with silver and gold chains for the latter two thresholds. Each gate is traditionally held up on poles by young children and to open them the groom must give a gift of money to the children to prove that he has the means to take care of his future wife.
Every time a gate is symbolically opened, the crowd shouts in celebration and this part of the wedding is cosidered by many to be one of the most enjoyable rituals. The groom's arrival the bride's house is signalled by three rings of a gong to alert the heavens and bring down a spirit to bless the couple to be. After that, the families merge and the couple are led by their representatives to the spirit house or ancestral shrine. There, they sit together and perform the “wai phee”, bowing three times and making an offering of fabric and food to the spirit of the house and their ancestors.
Next comes the counting the dowry or "Sinsod Tongman" ceremony, which involves the groom presenting money, gold and jewellery to the bride's family. The amount offered is often more than has been agreed before the union, as this is considered lucky. Once presented, the dowry is mixed with beans, sesame seeds, rice, scented power and oil before being displayed to the guests as a sign that the bride has chosen a worthy groom.
With his suitability confirmed, the engagement can be made official and the groom then places a ring onto the brides finger. After that they pay respect to their elders by placing trays of flowers, incense and candles at their feet. At this point, the couple may also receive money from their parents to start their new lives, after which their family tie the bride and groom’s wrists with "sai-sin" or sacred thread). Only then will the religious ceremony that binds the union begin. The colours, sounds and sights that make up a traditional village wedding in Thailand make every ceremony a special event for the community as a whole. The rituals and blessings are part of a deeper social fabric that goes back thousands of years, providing a gentle reminder of the respect and commitment that forms the foundations of Thai life.