Daily Times: Sunday, March 25, 2007

Lahore Lahore Aye: Lahore weddings as they were

By A Hamid

The people of Lahore, who love celebrations, would be enthusiasm itself when it came to weddings. I am happy to write that it is one tradition that remains alive and well. Some families organise qawwalis, others night-long concerts, the more daring and affluent get dancing girls to perform and then there are the bhands and mirasis, the traditional stand-up comedians and entertainers, who materialise at most weddings. Not long ago, one of their popular exchanges involved Kashmir. One said that the Kashmir issue had at last been decided. And what would that decision be, the other asked. “Kashmir for India, Kashmiris for Pakistan,” pat came the reply.

Wedding halls, that are now to be found in every neighbourhood, have always existed in the inner city of Lahore. Before partition, there used to be wedding halls managed by the Hindu community and separate ones catering to Muslims. There were even some that were common to both communities and their maintenance expenses were equally shared, as were their facilities. At Hindu weddings, sweetmeats and fried delicacies were served, whereas no Muslim wedding was complete without that grand meat curry called qourma, pilaf and zarda, the sweet saffron rice. The cooks who would cook the food the night before in their outsize cooking utensils or degs were barbers.

The bridegroom would come riding a horse, his face covered by a sehra, made out of marigold flowers, roses and gold thread. But with the onset of commercialisation, the flowers were replaced by garlands of high-value currency notes. Behind the bridegroom on his horse, a little boy – the shahbala – would sit, a child from the family no more than five or six years old, who would have his tiny arms around the bridegroom’s waist so as not to fall down. If it was a daytime wedding, the procession would come to a stop at a sweetmeat and milk shop in the bride’s neighbourhood where the bridegroom and some members of the wedding party would be offered glasses of thick, cream-covered milk. The bridegroom’s family members and his friends would walk alongside the baraat or wedding party. These processions always moved at a gentle pace, especially if one of the celebrated bands of the city, such as Master Sohni’s or Master Alamgir’s, was in the lead. The leader of the band would play the clarinet, a western instrument on which these masters could play the most intricate raag without striking a single false note.

The Hindu bridegroom would carry a sword, but not a drawn one, while in one hand he would hold a red silk handkerchief. He would only take a few sips from the large cup of milk offered to him and wipe his mouth with his handkerchief. Once the wedding procession, be it Hindu or Muslim, arrived in the street where the bride’s home was located, it would be received by men from her family and other invited guests who would be lined up on both sides. The women of the house would be glued to their latticed windows trying to catch a glimpse of the groom. Once the procession had come to a stop, the band would begin playing its best numbers in right earnest and most lustily. The little boy would be helped to the ground first, followed by the bridegroom who would be assisted by members of the bride’s family.

If the wedding meal was to be served at the bride’s house and not in a wedding hall, the guests would be seated and after the performance of the necessary rituals, they would be served food. If the bride’s house was not large enough to seat all the guests, neighbours would happily make their houses available. Often the street would be covered with a colourful overhead awning with chairs laid out on cotton spreads or daris that had been laid out to cover the surface. The wait for the wedding meal was always a test of patience because everyone would be ravenously hungry. The delicious smell of cooked food would further sharpen their hunger. At well-managed weddings, food would be served quickly and plentifully. One wedding party, I recall, was served chicken curry which was so watery that it was difficult to spot the chicken. One of the guests known for his sense of humour began to take off his jacket. He was about to peel off his shirt when someone asked him what he was doing. “Diving to retrieve some chicken,” he replied.

At most weddings, the first thing to be placed on the tables were glasses which were filled with water. This was followed by metal plates or thalis that would be placed before the guests, with one plate serving two. The piece de resistance was the pilaf which would be ladled out on the plates. Qourma – mutton on bone cooked with spices and almonds - would then be brought out and generously heaped on the rice. By way of condiments, an apricot chutney would be placed next to each guest in a small clay saucer. After zarda was served, the dessert would be in the form of firni, a rice pudding, served cold on clay saucers called thoothis. It was considered extremely bad form to start eating unless there was a plate of food in front of everyone.

Men were always served before women and children. Nowadays with elaborate weddings where the feast is catered, men and women are served simultaneously, though almost always in separate enclosures. The men in charge of food service were always elders from the bride’s family and some friends. It was not considered nice to eat if you were a guest of the bride’s family. Those who ladled out the food and supervised its proper distribution were called wartavas.

Among Lahore’s Kashmiri families, there was always one older member who would make sure that while no table was served short, neither was any table served more than it reasonably required. In our family, it was an uncle who would take charge and sit like a watchdog over the big deg or cauldron of curry. He would refuse to confer any special favours, even on his favourite youngsters. When food was late, it was a great embarrassment for the bride’s family. At one wedding, a Radio Pakistan musician, once told me, the food was so late that the guests began to whisper in one another’s ear, wondering what was up. A spy sent out discovered that the pilaf had been allowed to go too soft. It had been, therefore, decided to take it out of the degs, put it out on jute mats spread out on a number of cots and fanned by several people to dry it up. When after another long wait the food had still not arrived, one guest said to another, “Why don’t you go and find out if the rice they were fanning has regained conscioiusness.”

A Hamid, the distinguished Urdu novelist and short story writer, writes a column every week based on his memories of old Lahore. Translated from the Urdu by Khalid Hasan

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