Iranian Marriage Ceremony, Its History & Symbolism
"I say (these) words to you, marrying brides and bridegrooms! Impress then upon your mind: May you two enjoy the life of good mind by following the laws of religion. Let each one of you clothe the other with righteousness. Then assuredly there will be a happy life for you".[Yasna 53.5, ancient Zoroastrian textbook"]
The Iranian wedding ceremony despite its local and regional variations, like many other rituals in the country goes back to the ancient Zoroastrian tradition. Though the concepts and theory of the marriage have changed drastically by Quran and Islamic traditions, the actual ceremonies have remained more or less the same.
For Iranians marriage is an event, which must be celebrated not quietly but with glory and distinction. It is the most conspicuous of all the occasions and is celebrated in the presence of a fairly large assembly. In the past the parents and older members of the family arranged almost all marriages. This is still the case in rural areas and with traditional families. Modern couples however, choose their own mate but their parents’ consent is still very important and is considered by both sides. Even with modern Iranians, after the couple have decided themselves, it is normally the grooms’ parents or other relatives who take the initiative and formally ask for the bride and her family’s consent. Once this is done then the marriage will be announced. In the ancient times, the musicians playing at marriage gatherings used drums to announce the marriage to the people of the town or village. The group that gathered for the marriage was called the assembly for the queenly bride. Traditionally, both the bride and the bridegroom dressed in white with garlands of flower on their necks. The color white is a symbol of purity, innocence and faithfulness. Today most modern Iranians follow the European dress code and style.
Once the groom and his family express their desire for the union, they go to the brides’ home with flowers, sweets and sometimes-gold coins or jewelry and ask for her hand. If accepted more presents will follow. The couple becomes engaged in a reasonably lavish party. Rings are exchanged; the engagement rings are simple, mainly gold with no stones. While the wedding ring presented to the bride will be lavish expensive with precious stones. The engagement ring is sent to the bride’s house with female relatives of the groom. A few days before the actual ceremony again more presents are taken to the bride’s house. Men dressed up in festive costumes would carry the presents in elaborately decorated large flat containers on their heads. The container is called tabagh and the whole thing with the presents is called khoncheh. Many of these customs are still followed by the more traditional families and in the provinces. The modern Iranians normally by pass some stages like sending the ring through relatives and outside Iran tabagh and khoncheh are hardly used. However ceremonial objects are still present.
Mirror and candelabras are amongst the most important ceremonial objects that are taken to the brides’ home and they are reminiscence of the Zoroastrian religious believes. Grooms’ family is expected to pay for all expenses and if they can not, they will be looked down at. The higher the status and social standing of the bride, the more lavish will be the banquets and the presents, especially the jewelry. An elaborate wedding in Iran presently costs around a hundred thousand dollars. There are efforts by the government to encourage people to simplify the weddings and lower the cost. Mass communal weddings sponsored and paid by the government have become increasingly popular. In February 2001, fourteen thousand couples married all across Iran in this manner.
All financial details are sorted out before marriage and the couple’s parents, mainly fathers, will carry out negotiations. With prosperous families the issue is settled rather quickly. However families with not enough means may drag the negotiations for a while bargaining about how much should be paid and what should be included in the marriage contract. Bride in Persian is called arous, which means white. The word was used in Sassanian period and exists in Avestan literature as well. The oldest historical record describing marriage ceremonies is by the Greek historians following Alexander’s invasion of Persia. Alexander and his men married a number of Iranian women, mainly from the royalty and aristocracy. In one account it is mentioned that the marriage ceremonies were in Persian fashion; chairs were set for the bridegrooms in order of precedence. Wine was served and they all drank to health. Then the brides entered and sat by their grooms, including Alexander. The men took their brides hands and kissed them. The king was the first to perform the ceremony. After the ceremony both the bride and groom ate from a loaf of bread, halved by sword and drank more wine. Then they took their wives into their private quarters and retired. It is also mentioned that dowries were paid for the brides. Alexander provided the money from his treasury.
In 19th century Iran pre marriage arrangements were very extensive. The couples were not allowed to see each other at all before the wedding night. Therefore a number of unofficial arrangements were made for the groom to see the future bride accidentally or watching from behind doors or curtains. Pre-nuptial agreements could take a long time. During negotiations the family of groom was served with tea, sekanjebin (sweet/soar drink made from vinegar and sugar) and they smoked water pipes. Once an agreement was reached then the guests would be served with sweets but not beforehand. This was called ‘sheerne khoran’ (eating sweets) and is still practiced and varies according to the locality. In a few days the bride would receive an engagement ring and a shawl. These were placed in a relatively expensive carrying bag (boghcheh) with nabat (concentrated sugar extract), sugar cones and sweets and other presents. Then the female relatives on both sides would visit the bride, and one of groom’s relatives other than his mother placed the ring in bride’s hand and the shawl on her back. There would be dancing, merrymaking and with the rich female musicians. Segregation of sexes due to religious codes of behavior was observed.
Guests were invited by sending written invitations to the men or simply by calling on them and letting them know. For the women a female servant or relative would personally visit the households and present the ladies with noghl (small sugary sweets), nabat, and cardamom seeds in a silk or satin handkerchief with lace placed on a small glass plate. She would offer them the sweets, would tell them the time and place. The ladies would eat a couple of sweets and would express their joy. If a servant had come they would receive tips and sweets.
Modern Iranians place sweets and candies like noghl and nabat in small satin kerchiefs or lace for the guests to take home. The tradition of giving gifts to guests is very old and existed before and after Islam. One such account is mentioned at the marriage of the daughter of the famous Barmakid Minister Jafar at the court of Abasid Caliphs. In this account special little wax balls were filled with coins or names of slaves or even title to properties. The couple was showered with these and people who got the balls would claim their presents later on.
Three days before the actual wedding the bride would be taken to female beauticians or was visited by them at home for the ritual of removing body hair. A significant rite of passage this marked the passage from girlhood to womanhood. Unmarried women would not remove their body hair or pluck their eyebrows, the most visible sign that a woman was married.
This was done three days before to make sure any allergic reaction and redness of face and body parts would be healed by wedding day. Facial hair, all hair from under arms, legs even stomach and back hair were removed by using special threads that once moved in certain fashion would remove the hair right from the root. This is called band andazi and is still practiced by traditional families and in the rural areas. In recent times with the more restrict and traditional parents moving to the western countries shaving legs and plucking eyebrows has become a source of conflict with their teenage girls. For the teenagers these are part of beautifying process common in modern societies, while for their parents this is an obvious indication of becoming a woman without being married.
Mirrors and candelabra with Espand (a popular incense), large decorated sugar cones, cardamom seeds, rosewater, henna, dress fabrics, prayer mat (janamaz) and candles were sent at this time to the brides house. Included was specially decorated bread called khoncheh still placed on the wedding spread. These were carried on tabagh with singing and clapping and accompanied by male musicians if they could be afforded. All the males stopped by the entrance to the bride’s house and women took over from this point on. The day before the wedding was the bathing day. The bride and other female relatives went to the bathhouses. She would be thoroughly cleaned, massaged and all dead skin on her body would be removed by scrubbing (kisseh keshi). The hair was washed and her entire body would be rubbed with oils and perfumes. On the morning of the wedding the beauticians arrived again to apply the makeup. The groom to be also had his pre-marital bath, however his was a lot simpler. What mattered was the bride being accepted by the groom not the other way around.
Today still many of these traditions are kept and carried out even though they might be ceremonial. The wedding is almost identical to the past and all brides will have the mirror and candelabra if not the other items. The mirrors were always full size and a pair of candelabra was placed on either side of the mirror with lit candles one for each, the bride and the groom. However the cost of living has forced many to settle with smaller mirrors and candelabras.
A very important part of the pre wedding activities is dowry preparation by the bride’s family. Till very recently the girls were expected to prepare many of the items themselves. They were required to weave fabrics, prepare cloths and many in the poor families would weave carpets and rugs long before there was any talk of marriage. The tradition is very ancient. Herodotus mentions that Achaemenian Queen, Amestris, Xerxes’s future wife made a magnificent outfit for the king with fabrics that she had woven and prepared before her marriage. Today dowry preparation is still practiced by almost all families. The bride’s family will buy household items for the dowry. The higher the social status the more elaborate will be the dowry and it could include properties as well. The very modern professional couples with means do not follow this tradition. On the whole this is still very important and is practiced by the majority and at times it becomes a source of major conflict between the two families.
There were and are two stages to a marriage. Most often both take place on the same day, but occasionally there could be some time between the two. In the past when marriage age was very low, there might have been a few years between the two to allow the girl to grow up. The first is called ‘Aghed’ meaning knot. This is when the legal process takes place, both the parties and their guardian’s sign a marriage contract and a bride price or ‘mahr’ is set to guarantee the financial well being of the bride. The mahr is agreed on beforehand and at this time previously prepared documents will be signed. The second stage is the actual feasts and the celebrations, which traditionally lasts from 3 to 7 days.
The ceremony takes place in a specially decorated room with flowers and a beautiful and elaborately decorated spread on the floor i.e. ‘Sofreh Aghed’ and traditionally it faced the direction of sunrise. By custom the aghed would normally take place at the bride’s home or her close relatives and always during the day. This is from the Zoroastrian period when darkness was associated with the hostile spirits. The bridegroom is the first to take his seat in the room and the bride comes afterwards. The groom always sits on the right hand side of the bride. With Zoroastrians, the right side designates a place of respect.
The bride and the bridegroom have each at least one marriage witness. Usually older and married males are chosen amongst close relations to stand as witnesses. The priest (Mula) or other males with recognized authority i.e. a notary public perform the legal part of the ceremony. With very religious families where segregation of sexes is practiced these males will stay in the adjacent room and will only talk to the bride without actually seeing her, or the bride’s face will be totally covered when these procedures take place.
This part of the ceremony consists of preliminary blessings, questions to the witnesses, guardians, the marrying couple and finally the ceremony is solemnized by reciting verses from Quran or other holy books and signing of a legal marriage contract. The contract can contain clauses to protect the bride against polygamy, unconditional divorce rights by the husband, property rights etc. Normally all these details are worked out beforehand.
After the blessings and a few words about the importance of the institution of marriage the priest confirms with both the parents or guardians that they indeed wish to proceed with the ceremony and there are no objections. Then the priest asks the mutual consent of the couple.
First the bridegroom is asked if he wishes to enter into the marriage contract, then the bride is asked the same question. Once the bride is asked if she agrees to the marriage, she pauses and remains silent. The question is repeated three times and it is only at the last time that she will say yes. To make the bridegroom wait for the bride’s answer is to signify that it is the husband who seeks the wife and is anxious to have her and not the other way around. With the very rich each time the bride is asked the question the groom’s mother or sister would place a gold coin or a piece of Jewelry in her hand symbolically encouraging her to say yes. During the service female relatives of the couple (mainly the bride) hold over the couple’s head a fine scarf or other delicate fabrics like silk. Till 19th century this was green, Zoroastrians favorite color, now other colors particularly white are used as well.
Two different actions take place at the same time. Two pieces of crystallized sugar (shaped like cones) are rubbed together, a symbolic act to sweeten the couple’s life together. In the second act two parts of the same fabric are symbolically sewn together with needle and thread. The ceremony is suggestive of the ancient traditions when the bride and groom’s ceremonial belts (koshti) were tied and sewn together. Zoroastrians today hold over the grooms head a tray on which two pieces of cloth are united together, with needle, thread, scissors, a raw egg, a pomegranate or apple, dried marjoram, and white sweetmeats, all covered by a green kerchief. Koshti are ceremonial belts that are given to all Zoroastrians to mark the passage from childhood to adulthood. This is a rite of passage and is a very significant ritual in their lives. The symbolic act of sewing the bride and groom’s koshti together is uniting the couple for the rest of their lives, a knot is tied that should not be broken or separated.
Once the bride has said yes to the proposal, verses from holy books are read. Documents are signed, the amount of mahr (bride price) is entered in the legal document, which is signed by the couple and the witnesses, and the two are announced man and wife. The practice of setting up a bride price is becoming a ceremonial one for most modern couples. Most will settle for a holy book, a gold coin and some flowers mainly roses. However mahr should be included in the marriage document be it symbolic or not. Etymologically meaning "price" or "ransom", mahr is the money or other valuables, paid or promised to be paid to the bride by the groom or his family for the financial protection of the bride in case of a divorce and it is must in Islamic marriage. Once this is over, the couple hold their right hands together, drink a sweet liquid or taste some honey for a better and sweeter life.
At this time the bride and groom exchange wedding rings. Then the bride is showered by gifts, usually expensive jewelry and all she receives is hers and the husband has no right over the presents. The groom also receives gifts from the bride’s family, normally an expensive watch and other male items like gold chain etc. Songs, jokes and merry-making gestures and clapping of the hands, accompany the whole ceremony. When the two leave the room, they are showered with coins, flowers, rice and the sweet candy noghl. This item is present in all Iranian festivities and it is believed to bring sweetness into life and is regarded as blessed (barakat). Showering the couple with the above items is called shabash and varies from one place to the other. The guests would eat the noghl and take the coins home for good luck. With rich families real gold coins will be used but most will use specially minted fake coins with the word shabash or mobarak bad (congratulation) engraved on the coins.
The elaborately decorated spread in front of the bride and groom contains several items each symbolizing a different aspect of the ancient religion. Mirror and candelabras represent light and fire, two very important elements in the Zoroastrian religion. The large flat bread is specially baked and decorated to bring prosperous feasts (specially baked bread was and is still used by Zoroastrians as holy bread in many of their rituals and ceremonies). Gold represents prosperity. Honey and crystallized sugar is to sweeten life. Espand a popular incense is burnt. This item is used in many Zoroastrian religious ceremonies, rituals and purification rites. It is believed to keep the evil eye away and purify. In the past grain seeds were sacttered on the spread symbolizing abundance and fertility. A glass bowl with gold fish and a green leaf from a local variety of orange called Narenj was also placed in the bowl. Such traditions are disappearing quickly. The spread or the cloth used is called ‘Sofreh’ and is normally very elaborate itself and with the rich ‘Termeh’ a very expensive hand made material from India is used. Sometimes very small pearls are embroidered on termeh to depict beautiful designs. Termeh are still prized and are always included in the dowry if people can afford them and the old ones are becoming collectors’ items.
A large porcelain bowl containing a number of sweet drinks (sherbets) depending on the location was and is still part of the spread in most places. A bunch of herbs called sabzi (green herbs are called sabzi) like parsley and mint with bread and cheese was also placed on the spread and it still is in many places.
After the ceremony, there are lavish feasts, dancing, music and entertainers. There will be more parties given by close relatives and friends for the next few weeks. These parties are called paghosah, meaning clearing the path. They are to introduce the two newly related families to each other. With very traditional families and the poor the groom is supposed to provide fabrics or new cloths as part of the bride price for these occasions. Traditionally at the end of the wedding ceremony the bride would be taken to her new residence, either their own home if they can afford it, or her parent in laws. In the past horsemen and carriages were used with songs, clapping and other merry making gestures. Today several cars will follow the couples’ decorated vehicle while honking.
Honeymoon is a new concept and still most couples in rural areas and smaller cities are not familiar with this occasion. The newly wed would simply spend a night or two together and till recently a stained handkerchief was used as evidence to ascertain bride’s virginity in remoter areas and villages. Where segregation of sexes is observed males and females gather at different rooms or outdoor gardens totally separated from each other. Alcohol is not served with restrict Muslims while with the more modern Iranians whisky beer and vodka are a must amongst other beverages. Guests would be served tea, fruits, non-alcoholic drinks, nuts, raisins and other dried fruits with all kinds of pastry and baked goods. In the past it was considered good luck to take back some of these but most modern Iranians do not practice this any more.
The marriage ceremony marks the most significant ritual for all Iranians specially the women. The wedding feast is the most elaborate in the couples’ life. A few dishes are always present and the rest varies with the locality and the budget. Sheereen Polo or sweet rice is always prepared. All modern Iranians use wedding cakes this tradition is borrowed from the Europeans. The rest of the evening will be spent dancing, feasting and having a good time.
Paghosha parties will be happening for the next few weeks. There are no special foods for these parties at the present. In the 19th century a number of foods including special soup called ash was prepared by the groom’s mother and with the rich they put a few gold coins in the ash and it was sent to the bride the day after the wedding. Afterwards the dishes would be send back cleaned and filled with flowers, sweets, nuts and cardamom seeds for its’ perfume.
It is customary for the newly wed to be the first to visit their parents on No Ruz and to be visited by other relatives because it is their first New Year as a couple. The couple would normally receive special gifts such as flowers, sweets, fruits and expensive fabrics. Iranian Muslims do not marry at certain Islamic months like Muharram and Safar. The first one is a month of mourning for Imam Husayn and his Cheleh or fortieth day of death happens in Safar. No celebrations normally take place in Muharram. Till recently if the wedding happened to be on the same day or close to the festival of sacrifice the groom’s family would send a live sheep decorated with gold silver and expensive shawls for the newly wed. The sheep would be slaughtered and the presents remained with the couple.