The esteemed wedding planner explains the importance of observing culture through eloquent Malay customs.

 Behind every happily-ever-after, is the master or mistress of the ceremony. As part of a wedding special, we discover what it’s like to be in the shoes of a wedding planner, particularly when it comes to upholding the intricacies of the couple’s culture and heritage that's slowly vanishing.   

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Nazrul Nazaruddin is recognised as the guru of Malay wedding planners

For the past 15 years, Nazrul Nazaruddin, the founder of Nas Great Idea, has been an instrumental force in executing spectacular Malay weddings. Passionate about themes and details, the celebrated wedding specialist is also a household name for traditional weddings with strict procedures.

His passion for wedding customs is also a core theme for Intensive Weddings, Thoughts and Actions (IWTA) a union of Malaysian wedding planners he manages between wedding jobs. With them, he emphasises on preserving customs down to a tee.

Read also: Wedding specialist Stephen Foong on upholding the dying art of Chinese weddings

Although trained in engineering, he gave in to a strong calling to special in weddings. He studied in Indonesia for more than thee years, where he learned Nusantara traditions, wedding customs and decorations.

 “Traditional weddings is in my blood"

"My grandfather and relatives used to organise weddings. Now, I’m the only one left in my family with the experience,” Nas shared, adding that Malay customs is just a drop in the ocean of Nusantara ethnicities that include Minangkabau, Sundan, Batak, Bugis. 

As Nas spoke in detail about these wedding rituals, it was apparent that his role extends from wedding planner to guardian of heritage, too. 

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Nas (seated on the right): "We don’t just create a beautiful ceremony; we are responsibility for upholding native customs"

When does your role begin as a wedding planner?
When a couple approaches me, my first questions are on their concept and theme colour. My advice would be to stay true to their traditions and to combine the wedding practices native to their background into their special ceremony. As a wedding planner, we don’t just create a beautiful ceremony; we are responsibility for upholding native customs. I’m present from the very first stage of arranging the  hantaran.

What are the pre-wedding rituals and their symbolism?
The first stage is the merisik (inquiry). In the old days, a young man’s family does this to check on the availability of a potential bride. The procedure begins with both parties meeting at the woman's home. The young man presents a tepak sirih box consisting of seven betel leaves on a top tray, and condiments like sugar, salt, pepper rice on the bottom tray. These ingredients depict the sign of a family.

 If a proposal is accepted, both parties will exchange the first set of hantaran consisting of barang adat – the all-important sirih junjung (betel leaf). The groom’s sirih to the girl must be closed, to remind her of her purity and dignity, while the sirih to the groom must be opened, to denote abundance of fortune, fertility and sustenance. 

Another interesting fact is that the ratio of gifts between groom to bride must be odd numbers, so if the groom sends five trays of hantaran, the bride returns seven, and so on. Should a bride accept a proposal, the next stage is bertunang – here, the hantaran is barang makan, deluxe food like cookies, chocolate, fruit, cake. For the final solemnisation process, hantaran is barang pakai – the groom gifts makeup, watch, jewellery and dress, while the bride offers toiletries, pants, trousers, shirts and books. Gifts from each of these stages signify a complete life cycle.

There will also be three rings for each step of the way and only the third ring goes to bride’s left hand. Nowadays though, people skip to the bertunang stage.

There is a refined manner to performing these rituals. Can you please elaborate on the protocols?
Malays are soft-spoken by nature. If a girl turns down a proposal, her father will push back the tepak sirih box offered to him by the groom's family without verbally declining. If the proposal is accepted, the girl’s father will open the tepak sirih box, take out four leaves and distribute it to the men in his party. The balance of the leaves will be passed back to the groom’s family, and everyone will start chewing as they discuss the engagement, mas kahwin and dowry. Malays believe the betel leaf is sacred and that every word mouth spoken is good and true.

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Nas strives to educate couples about their ethnic background, conducted throughout of their wedding

What are the rituals that lead up to the wedding day? 

After this is the walimatul urus (banquet). There will be a gotong-royong to prepare for the big day. The bride will undergo a berinai kecil ‘henna painting’ ceremony. The next day is the berinai besar, where the couple both get their henna applied. The number of fingers dyed marks the number of children the couple wants. The bride, though, needs to to cover every nail to ward off bad spirit and energies. 

The next ceremony is the mengandam ‘beautifying’ ritual. This begins with hair removal – baby hair along the hairline and eyebrows will be shaved off  to depict the transition from childhood to adulthood. To complete the ritual is the mandi bunga, a bath of seven fragrances from seven different flowers to achieve an aromatic glow.

What are the little things that make a wedding more beautiful to you?
The music plays an important part to the ambiance. Malays use the gamelan ensemble to produce a gentle and wistful melody, often accompanied with the tarian burung. The couple is also treated as king and queen for a day – after they are officially wed and seated on the dais, their elders and family are invited to perform the merenjis ‘sprinkling’ ritual by dipping their hands in a mixture of rosewater, chalk, turmeric and rice, to ‘shower’ them with happiness and prosperity. Guests are gifted with bunga telur, a decorated egg symbolising fertility. In some states, these eggs are placed in a bunga pahar  floral arrangement for guests to collect.

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The dais a newlywed couple is seated on. Family and elders will come forward to shower them with blessings

And what about the rare rituals that barely exist today?
At the closing ceremony there would be a joget dance, followed by the unwrapping of gifts in the presence of guests and family. The days of the walimatul has also scaled down too, from seven days to three days. Now, it’s simply the nikah, groom reception, and the bride reception. Weddngs used to last for seven days, "tujuh hari tujuh malam", as they say. Seven is also chosen for its sacred connection. In the old days, the water for a couple’s mandi bunga ritual comes from seven sources of water, such as the river, streams, wells, sea and lakes. 

Traditional wedding rites have noticeably scaled down or discontinued. How do you keep this legacy alive?
I constantly remind my contemporaries to observe customs. There’s a Malay saying that goes, “biar mati anak, jangan mati adat”, emphasising their great value for  traditions. Indonesians, for example are very particular about their wedding decorations – there must not be any Minangkabau elements in a Padang wedding, for example. My ultimate satisfaction comes from witnessing the delight and awe of families when they discover more of their identity simply through their wedding rites.

Photo credit: Azam Neurmaya

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