07 Jul The Long & Wedding Road
The Long & Wedding Road
7 July 2018
The wedding season is ending soon around Cambodia. On the occasion of this timeless ceremonial, bride and groom reach some divine realm in spite of the harshness of modern life’s mundane constraints.
“We have traveled a long way”, announces a woman from the groom party as they reach the bride’s house, each relative and guest bearing presents wrapped in multicolored paper, whole boiled chickens, flowers, pig’s heads, perfumes and candies, and it is a sincere statement even if they live a few yards down the dirt road lined with palm and banana trees. A cosmic travel in the name of love, and for the perpetuation of the community.
From December to late April, with a pause during the New Year holidays, wedding parties are everywhere. Reception tents are erected right on a highway, if needed. Centuries-old
music sets and mantra recitations are blared through loudspeakers from 4am till late at night, when dancing tunes take precedence, from romvong, saravan or surin traditional forms to the hottest Khmer hip-hop.
Even in Cambodia’s countryside, the customary three days of prayers and festivities has been trimmed down to one day and a half, while in Phnom Penh the most important moment is not anymore the “reunion of the pillows” (Pelea Ruom Khnuoy, when the future couple invites the community to bless their pillows before retiring to the nuptial bedroom with the groom following behind the bride, holding her golden train) but the wedding gala dinner.
Nevertheless, there is a remarkable continuity in the ritual when you compare a Khmer wed- ding of our times to the meticulous account given by Ker Nou in the year 1925 (a French translation is available in Bulletin de l’Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, 60, 1973), or to Mme Pich Sal’s study published by the Preah Sihanouk Raj Buddhist University in the 1960s.
Khmer marriage is still more than a convenient union between two families, a pact of love and support between two individuals – the blessings, symbols, codes, garments, musical accompaniment, everything alludes to a sacred, mystical encounter, the one uniting the deities Rama and Sita, or Krisna and Jali, or more important since it is the founding myth of Cambodian identity: the one between Preah (Prince) Thong and the Nagi, daughter of the Naga (snake deities) King. For this short but highly charged time, young villagers become goddesses and gods.
As it always occurs in Cambodian folk culture, solemnity never frowns upon raucous enthusiasm, sexual innuendos and jokes, ironic tales about the joys and miseries of married life, and abundant libations. The last day, late morning, the kat sa’q (hair cut) ceremony, when relatives and guests symbolically cut and perfume the mane of the bride and groom, is an occasion for hilarious sketches, a joyous celebration of physical beauty and elegance. The bride will change her outfit five times during the day, wearing the most propitious colors. Nowadays, she’ll open the ball in a Western-like white bridal gown, and will likely opt for casual tee-shirt and cutoff jeans to join in the late night dancing.
Wedding parties are a substantial financial effort for families, especially in rural Cambodia. However, the guests list is carefully set up, with social decorum and practical considerations in mind – hosts will more or less precisely know how much every guest is going to contribute in cash, so at the end donations off set most of the expenses. This aspect tends to be more and more important as young couples are not afraid anymore to call it quit if the union does not turn as idyllic as expected not long after the ceremony, and the divorce rate, like anywhere else around the world, is up in Cambodia.
While the social dimension of Khmer weddings remains significant in small, close-knit rural communities, it tends to get diluted within the urban lifestyle. In the big cities, wedding parties are nowadays a display of wealth and respectability more than a shared celebration. People dance less, attend for a shorter time, and the wonderful moment when the young couple honors the parents by feeding them a slice of fruit or cake is often skipped. To get the real vibe of the immemorial celebration, one has to head to the countryside, immerse oneself in a village awaking before dawn with a dream-like female voice and the refreshing sounds of gongs and xylophones, the first bars from the first bridal song, Preah Thong Neang Neak…