Human Flower Project

Bengali Weddings ~  What’s the Rush?

Making marriages to last (or so they hope), Bengali Hindus bring carved marsh-reeds, grass bracelets, marigolds and tuberoses to the altar.


Rituparna Basu on the eve of her wedding in Kolkata;

a priest and family members gather to bless her and

the wedding crowns, made of shola.

Photo: Sandy Ao

Indian couples typically don’t hurry into marriage. Even circa 2008, many parents still choose their children’s life partners, often picking out spouses years in advance.

If that weren’t enough of a brake, there are so many other customs to slow things down…ornately…devoutly…florally. Who could possibly elope where there are conch shells to blow, spongegrass crowns to make, bracelets to tie on, holy water to sprinkle, marigolds to purchase, nose rings to rig, and vermillion to daub?

In February, the wedding season in Bengal, Sandy Ao had the joy of attending two Kolkata weddings (three actually, because two couples shared ceremonies). Over the past few weeks she’s showered us with some of most splendid images we’ve seen in nearly four years of HFP.  Flowers and plants play bigger roles in Bengali weddings than do bridesmaids (or even caterers) in U.S. celebrations. Without further ado…


Ritu and her father bless the white topor (crown) her groom, Arjun, will wear the following day; marigolds honor the deity Narayan

Photo: Sandy Ao

Here is Rituparna Basu on the night before her wedding. She sits with her father and a pandit (Hindu priest) before an altar to Narayan heaped with marigold flowers. She and her family are seeking blessings on the upcoming marriage and, particularly, on the ring and bridal crowns.

And here’s the only rush. It’s shola (Aeschynomene aspera), a spongy marsh plant similar to a bullrush. From its pith, artisans make the elegant headpieces for Bengali weddings: the bride’s mukut and the groom’s stunning topor (upper right in the photo above).

Lord Shiva himself wanted a crown made from shola before he wed Pavarti. And it was Shiva who chose this rather astounding (and manly) conical shape.

A.k.a. pith plant, shola and the beautiful headpieces made from it have such a central role in Bengali culture that sholacraft is the work of one particular caste, the malakars. This fine article profiles Shankar Chandra Malakar, a shola artisan from Magura on the border of India and Bangladesh. “The seeds germinate with showers in April and matured plants are collected in September / October, which are then dried in the sun and stored in shade for use throughout the year.” In other words, just as wedding season comes to a close, the shola begin sprouting again. Here you’ll find details about the handling of this wetland plant and the market for objects, including wedding crowns, that are made from it.

imageRitu wears the mukut, a ceremonial bridal crown made from shola

Photo: Sandy Ao

But back to our bride… in Sandy’s photographs, Ritu is first blessed by friends and family, who touch her head with chandan, a paste made from sandawood. Sandy says that as this wedding eve puja began, the mukut and topor were kept together in one bag, Then, “the pandit separated the crowns, and the girl would wear her crown while the other crown, (her husband’s)  was kept in front of them to be be blessed.”  Ritu dons the lovely mukut, so delicate it might be made of meringue.

A fish shaped spoon holds “holy water (drawn from the Ganga-Hoogly), tulsi leaf, grass (a selected fine longish variety), marigold and straw (used for sprinkling holy water on the worshipers).” Sandy writes, “They are essential instruments in every puja.”

For this pre-wedding ceremony at the home of the bride, a whole cornucopia of plants, spices, leaves, and flowers are brought together. In the same spirit as the West’s “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue…and a sixpence for your shoe,” jittery families want to cover all the bases with auspiciousness. 

“There are two trays,” Sandy explains. “One contains all the agriculture products. We can see turmeric, pulse, paddy, bael leaf /twig,  betel leaf (pan leaf), wheat, sandalwood, thread, and vermilion/sindur.” The latter will be used to mark the bride’s forehead after the wedding itself, to symbolize her new marital status.


Tray of sacred objects, leaves and flowers at Ritu’s pre-wedding puja

Photo: Sandy Ao

See also:  “incense sticks, shikakai, a clay pot of holy-water with mongo leaves, grass and marigold, a country-made twig brush, knife, metal and shell bangles etc. This tray,” Sandy tells us, “is placed in front of the groom’s crown—all these materials are the daily necessities for a housewife.”

At the pre-wedding puja all the offerings are agricultural. “I’ve not seen any gold/silver, gems, or currency being involved in front of the god/goddess,” Sandy notes and then suggests why that may be.

“Basically what a man seeks in a wife is that she will be a good farmer, a neat and clean wife (the brush is for brushing her hair and face and the shikakia bean  is used to make a soap for hair and body), a good cook, and a faithful Hindu who will not forget her daily puja.”

The second tray contains ritual plants dedicated to the deity—“flowers, tulsi, and bael leaf. The pandit will bless the grass blades and ask the father to tie the grass with a thread on his daughter’s wrist,” a protective decoration called Kappu.

imagePooja’s groom, Ajoy, in his topor

Photo: Sandy Ao

After these puja ceremonies, the pandit rejoins the blessed crowns. On the wedding day itself, the bride’s family will present their imminent son-in-law with his magnificent topor. And after the wedding night (which is spent at the bride’s parents’ home), the bride’s mother and father take charge of the two shola crowns.

So now it’s time to throw rice? Not so fast!

Two days after the wedding, another set of ceremonies begins, the groom’s parents acting as hosts this time as the bride prepares a ritual meal, her first in their home.

The Bou Bhaat, as it’s called, “is symbolic of the bride’s desire to serve her new family….The ceremony is usually followed by a banquet in the evening, hosted by the groom’s parents, which is when the bride is adorned with flowers and gold ornaments.”

And have you ever seen a more beautiful couple!?

imageRupesh and Sampa Hazra at their wedding reception

Photo: Sandy Ao

Here is the other wedding Sandy attended, of Sampa and her new husband Rupesh Hazra. “I am very fond of this boy,” writes Sandy. “I have seen him grow into a fine young man, He is a very well mannered and a very hard working boy. With his hard earned money, he took care of these marriages,” paying for both his own wedding and that of his beautiful niece, Pooja, who was married the same day.

For the Bou Bhaat, tuberose garlands and tiaras spill over the young brides. Sandy describes them as “doll-like/goddesslike.” And theirs does seem a superhuman kind of beauty. The white tuberose blooms look like pearls and the ritual gems worn at this occasion are bold and bright as flowers. It’s as if all the world conspired to brings its treasures together. Rupesh and Sampa are otherworldly, dazzling.

After the reception, the groom’s family takes charge of the tuberose crowns.

“The crowns that the married couple wore during the marriage night will be kept with the bride’s parents,” Sandy writes, “and the other crowns, which the couple wore while entering the groom’s house, will be kept with the groom’s parents.” 

Both sets of in-laws are to take care of the wedding crowns for a year. Then on the couple’s first anniversary, “both parents will take the crowns and throw them into a Holy River or pond. If they fail to follow such respect for the crowns,” the marriages may fail.


Pooja and her grandparents at the Bou Bhaat (wedding reception) Kolkata, India

Photo: Sandy Ao

To describe all the rites, accoutrements, prayers, costume changes, roles and obligations involved in Hindu weddings is far beyond us. Even our account of the floral customs must be incomplete.

But Sandy’s photographs and observations of these three couples give a sense of the occasion’s immensity, when gravity and exuberance come together and stop time.

She writes that one of Ritu’s relatives expressed concern that young people “due to modern living, are ignorant about all these customs. They have no inkling about anything of all these puja, and he fears in due course, they too will lose all these traditions in the same way other ancient cultures got lost in this world.”

imageRitu’s father ties a protective bracelet of thread and grasses around her wrist on the eve of her marriage to Arjun Chackerbutty

Photo: Sandy Ao

Sandy does not share these fears. “I don’t think the Indian cultures will ever be lost! For they have the pandits! It is the pandit who has kept these cultures alive for the last thousand of years in India. Because of the class systems in India, this culture is still alive!! Amazing…”

We must note here that the divorce rate in India is about 1%, the lowest in the world, according to this source. The same source measures the U.S. divorce rate at 54%. Do marigolds, tuberose garlands, and shola crowns make the difference, or at least part of the difference?

Not Hindu herself, Sandy adheres to another religious tradition, but she finds much to admire in the Bengali rites. “I notice that in Hindu ritual, basically it’s a culture that teaches everyone to love nature. Nothing is to be ignored or destroyed, be it a leaf, a twig, a root, a stone, ash, grass, straw, fruit, mud, water, fire, air, animal. Everyone of them is holy!! Is it the way to remind us that we are self-sufficient only if we look around us without destroying nature? Is the grass to remind us to be humble?”

To see holiness at every step slows even passion down.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 07/23 at 10:31 PM


Is this the floral equivalent of “slow food”?

Posted by Georgia on 07/25 at 03:10 PM
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