Thai Wedding Traditional Ceremony
Thai Wedding Ceremony
Many a traditional Thai wedding is still arranged and takes place with adherence to centuries old traditions. Hotels and wedding companies offer packages that replicate the key elements of these traditions in a beautiful ceremony available to non-Thai bridle couples living or holidaying in the Kingdom. See here for our latest PHOTOS
The Thai wedding ceremony is basically not a religious affair even though monks are very much part of the proceedings early in the morning on the main day. There are many variations of a traditional Thai wedding which differ from the north to the south; specifically rural areas generally incorporate more of the age-old customs than the central areas of Thailand. As in the West, the wealthier you are the more elaborate the wedding. Usually, an astrologer is involved in picking the most auspicious day to marry. Additionally, many of the functions are organised to start at specific times that will bring good luck and prosperity to the bride and groom. As a Westerner planning a Thai wedding this may not be of importance but for Thais the exact date and timing of the important activities are crucial.
Preparations for the Wedding Day
A Thai Wedding will most often take place at a private house, usually at the home of one of the bride’s relatives but there is no fixed rule here. Having photographed a number of Thai weddings, the night before the big day is usually a hive of activity in the venue household. In more rural areas many friends and relatives will gather together to prepare food for the following day.
Thais upcountry tend to sleep early anyway but I was warned that the morning was going to kick off ultra early so we bedded down for the night at about 10 pm. I think it was 4 .30 am that the cock started crowing and I was awake but as you might have guessed the most of the household was already up and into the morning preparations. I was going to be using using a couple of Canon 1D MK III’s and 85 1.2 and 16-35 2.8 lenses to shoot this Thai wedding.
The Wedding Day
As the sun started to rise I saw the bride and groom in their Thai style finery and asked if I could do a couple of shots while they were getting ready and before the monks arrived.
Some parts of the wedding day, such as the blessing by monks in the morning, will only be attended by relatives and close friends of the bride and groom. Wedding invitations list the times that each of the most important ceremonies start. The timing of the wedding events are set to ensure good luck and will commence usually at an auspicious time such as 09.09 (9 is a lucky number in Thailand).
Buddhist Blessing and Merit Making
You don’t have to be Buddhist to partake in the Thai wedding ceremony and, in fact, many Western couples also elect to have a Buddhist wedding ceremony when they marry in Thailand. It is important to note that although monks may be present during part of the wedding day, a Thai wedding is essentially a non-religious affair and will usually take place in a private home belonging to a relation of either the bride or groom as opposed to a wat or temple. If monks are invited to attend the ceremony it will be to bless the couple and enable them to make merit. Performing a Buddhist ceremony does not in itself grant legal status on the marriage.
The monks were scheduled to arrive approximately 7 a.m and there was a hive of activity to prepare for this solemn beginning to the day’s proceedings.
When the monks arrived, they sat themselves, facing the gathering of close family and relatives, in a semicircular line. The wedding couple began the ceremony by lighting a candle, burning joss sticks and placing an alms bowl, half full of holy water in front of a Buddha image. The monks then began to chant, in the old Pali language, which reminds people to practice the tenets of Buddhist philosophy so that happiness may fill their lives.
This merit making ceremony (known as “Taam Boon” or “Dtug Bart“) is one of the most important during the wedding day. The couple knelt within the semicircle made by the monks and they were each, bride and groom, adorned with a white yarn headband called a “monkol“. The headbands are connected to each other symbolizing unity and matrimony. The monks, in turn, passed a long length of white yarn from hand to hand. This is the “sai sin” (sacred cord) which starts from the right hand of the Buddha image and was clasped by each monk before being looped around the entire room (or house) thereby protecting all within from any malicious spirits. (Just as a note the more recognised format is to perform Sai Sin in conjunction with the Rod Nam ceremony but here in Surat Thani this was done differently).
During the few minutes of introductory solo chanting by the Senior Monk, the wedding couple jointly poured holy water, drop by drop, from one small receptacle into another. As the drops fall, they respectfully think of their ancestors, think of merit making and, perhaps, make a wish that they will meet their ancestors in some future life. This little prayer ceremony is called “Gruad Naam” and, as soon as the other monks join their Senior in chanting, the water pouring will cease.
The couple, kneeling with heads bowed, palms together in prayer and clasping smoking joss sticks, listened as the Buddhist ceremony unfolded. The Senior monk intoned a long prayer and blessing on the union interspersed with chanting from the other assembled monks. This was a very solemn thirty minutes.
When finished, the Senior monk sprinkled holy water over the pair as well as other participants; he used a sprig of “ma yom” (a local shrub) to dip in the water and then shake over the kneeling bride and groom in the form of a blessing.
The bride and groom at the Thai wedding then lead others in offering food and refreshments to the monks; using a large spoon which they jointly hold, the couple placed steamed rice into the alms bowl of the senior monk. Inviting participation from their elders, seniors relatives and friends, the wedding pair will then offer an array of food to the monks including prepared dishes, fresh fruits and desserts.
Surrounded by bridesmaids and relatives, the most senior member of the family will anoint the forehead of the girl and her new husband. Three white dots, prepared from powder made and blessed earlier by the monks, will be dabbed onto each forehead in a triangular shape. This signifies the Triple Gem of Buddhism
The central focus of inspiration and devotion for Buddhists is the Triple Gem (also known as the Three Treasures and the Three Refuges). These three are Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
Buddha means ‘Enlightened One’ or ‘Awakened One,’ and is generally used to refer to the founder of Buddhism. There have been other Buddhas before him, however, and will be other Buddhas in the future.
The word Dharma (in Sanskrit, Dharma) is often used to refer to the Buddha’s teachings, but it also means the eternal Truth which the teachings convey to us. Dharma is threefold: the Dharma that we study, that which we practice, and the Dharma of Realization.
Sangha literally means ‘community’ or ‘assembly.’ The word has two meanings in proper Buddhist usage: the community of disciples (whether ordained or not) who have gained Realization of any of the stages of Awakening; and the community of ordained disciples–bhikkhus (monks) and bhikkhunis (nuns).
The mornings proceedings over, it was time to eat and relax for an hour or so until the next stage of the Thai wedding proceedings. The early morning sun was still just low enough to attempt a couple of portraits which I did in the family compound before grabbing a much needed cup of coffee and some sustenance.
After resting for a while it was time to convene at the bridegroom’s office about a mile and a half away from the bride’s family house. This was to be the starting point for the Khan Maak procession
Khan Maak Procession
Traditionally in Thai culture, the family of the groom discuss with the family of the bride how much dowry (‘sinsod’) should be paid. Once this is agreed, the engagement can take place which involves an offering of gold and gifts for the bride and her family. The groom and his family form a procession to take the ‘khan maak man’ (‘items for engagement’) on special trays to the family of the bride. This often takes place on the same day as the wedding as we are seeing today. The procession is a lot of fun and is accompanied by musicians playing traditional long drums as the entourage dances its way to the bride’s house.
Starting at a suggested auspicious time believed to create good luck and prosperity to the couple, the Thai wedding procession commenced with the lighting of the biggest firecracker chain I have ever seen culminating in a huge thunderous explosion firing red paper fragments in all directions.
The reason it is called Khan Maak is because in the olden times the groom and his family would carry “khan” or “paan” a gold or silver plated bowl. Inside the bowl was “maak” a type of betel palm which was popular in days gone by. The “maak” will be presented to the bride’s parents by the groom’s family in order to ask permission for their son to marry the daughter.
The groom was followed by his parents, siblings, relatives and tao kae (mediators) carrying items such as “paan khan maak” and engagement gifts. Other members of the group carried 2 kinds of holy plants; sugar cane and banana (sugar cane represents sweetness and banana represents fertility). A troupe of musicians played at the front of the procession throughout the whole journey. It was a very colourful, traffic stopping ceremony. Just before reaching the bride’s house the procession stopped and let off another huge firecracker to announce their arrival.
If the bride’s family agrees to allow the marriage to take place: upon the arrival of the Khan Maak parade they will send someone to greet the groom and accept “paan” containing flowers, joss sticks and candles and welcome the groom’s Khan Maak procession to the house.
Arriving at the front of the house the groom’s passage was blocked by member’s of the brides family holding chains across the door.
Doors Ceremony/Gate Ceremony
This ceremony is what the Thais call ‘sanuk’ with plenty of laughter and frivolity most of which comes at the expense of the groom as he is teased and gently ribbed by the bride’s family. The bride remains inside the house when the khan maak procession arrives. To make sure that the groom is worthy and financially able to take care of his bride, he must be able to open the symbolic doors or gates. The number of doors or gates can vary from region to region, but typically there is a gold and silver gate represented by a gold or silver belt or ribbon which is held by two female members of the bride’s family.
The silver gate is known in Thai as ‘pratoo ngoen’ and the gold gate as ‘pratoo tong’. To open the gate the groom must be able to provide a ‘key’. This key comes in the form of an envelope with money inside. The groom may be given a hard time as the gate guardians joke and tell him the money isn’t enough to gain access. As he reaches each gate the amount asked for will be more and there is lots of cheering as each gate is successfully opened. Depending on circumstances it can either be the groom or his father that hands over the money envelopes to the gate guardians.
Once the gates have been successfully negotiated, the groom’s family will present the gifts they have carried to the bride’s family. The banana and sugar plants traditionally would be nurtured at the bride’s house and when the couple have their first child the plants will be there to provide nutrition for the baby. They are left outside at the front entrance of the house.
Before entering the house the groom must first have his feet washed. The bride’s younger relatives were waiting for him on the porch to wash his feet. In olden times the groom walked barefoot on dirt roads with no shoes or with just slippers. Nowadays at Thai wedding ceremonies a quick polish of the groom’s shoes is considered acceptable.
Once inside with the dowry all laid out, the groom paid respects to the brides’ ancestors in front of the family shrine. The bride was to be led in later to join her husband-to-be on his left side.
Once the bride and groom were together and after having both paid respects to the ancestral shrine the tao kae (mediators) for the bride and groom spoke on their behalf. The groom’s tao kae made the proposition of marriage to the bride’s parents for their daughter’s hand in marriage. The bride’s parents ultimately ask the bride if she wishes to marry the groom. Clearly she said “yes” and the groom’s tao kae then presented and explained the gifts and offerings they had brought with them with them.
These gifts and offerings consisted of “Sin Sod” and “Thong Mun”. According to Thai custom, “Sin Sod” or dowry is compensation to the parents of the bride for bringing her up and a way to show the bride’s family that they (Groom’s family) will take care of her very well. Sin Sod comes in a form of cash money. It is custom for the mother of the bride to wrap the Sin Sod in a towel and sling it over her shoulder as she ceremoniously goes off to stash the money in a safe place.
“Thong Mun” is the engagement package offered to the bride’s family. Normally it can be gold and jewelry including the engagement ring, necklaces, etc.
The groom will put the engagement ring on the bride’s finger (There is no wedding ring) and often place a gold necklace around her neck. Now they are officially engaged.
The bride and groom then paid respects to their elder relatives by offering “Pa Wai” in the form of gifts (often silk or towels). Both bride and groom will offer each senior relative the Pa Wai and be blessed by them.
Whilst all this has been going on many friends had arrived from the neighborhood to wish the couple well. They were treated to the food that had been so meticulously prepared the night before. A large tent had been erected in the garden to keep the mid day sun at bay.
Rod Nam Ceremony
The Rod Nam Ceremony performed at Thai weddings is a special opportunity for respected relatives and guests to give their blessings, well wishes, and wisdom to the bride and the groom. Translated Rod is to pour, Nam is water, and Sang is the conch shell. Similar to many other cultures, water is a symbol of purification and renewed life.
The ceremony began with the couple paying respects to Buddha. Sitting close together, the bride and groom held hands in a prayer-like “wai” gesture. A conch shell is used to scoop water that was blessed by monks. The water is then poured over the couple’s hands by the relatives and guests. During this time sentiments were expressed to the bride and the groom giving support for a happy marriage and well wishes for the new couple. Guests traditionally give money in a pink envelope to the happy couple. This helps to pay for the wedding day costs.
After all the guests had performed the Rod Nam ceremony it was time for some group photos and then a well earned break and some very spicy Southern food.
The final act of the afternoon was performed by the bride feeding her new husband which certainly amused the couple (I am assuming this is an older less performed part of the ceremony) and the younger generation looking on in fascination.
The evening wedding party was a huge affair as well but I was told that it was all going to be staged shots and that they had hired a local photographer to perform these mundane tasks. I could therefore relax and enjoy some great food and soak up the ambiance of a Traditional Thai Wedding dinner from the comfort of a chair.
Just one last shot to cap what had been an incredible day.