Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Very Special Celebration

Once back in Phnom Penh, we had a rare treat. We were invited to attend a traditional Cambodian engagement ceremony for the daughter of one of Nine's relatives. 
A bit of background....the Cambodian culture contains many elements. Not only are there the Khmer, or "native" Cambodians, but others who trace their ethnic heritage to the Chinese, Vietnamese or other groups. As a result, customs may contain traditions from a number of ethnic sources. In Phnom Penh, young couples from traditional families do not "date" in the sense they do in our culture. They do not get to know each other in the back of a '57 Chevy as some of us did. Instead, they meet and become acquainted through their friends, families, work or school.

The Cliffs Notes version of Cambodian courtship (at least in the family we have met) goes something like this. When a young man is interested in a girl, he must, through his parents or family elders, receive permission to court her. If the girl is not interested, permission is not given. Prior to becoming engaged, the young couple are never alone. In fact, it isn't even proper for them to hold hands prior to their engagement. All their meetings take place in the company of groups of friends. 

Once Srey Roat, the bride-to-be (in the center of the photo above with father, Chhay and mother, Neang Nith, and her two sisters), and Samouth, the prospective groom, (shown above seated next to his uncle) decided they wanted to marry, the next step was for his parents to ask hers for their approval. That done, the astrologers and fortune-tellers were consulted to determine auspicious dates for the formal engagement ceremony and wedding, and planning began. Fortunately, Sunday, January 13, the date chosen for the engagement ceremony allowed us to attend this very special event.  On the day of the ceremony, I shot this image of Jimmy and Nine as we prepared to leave.

We arrived at the home of Srey Roat's parents to find preparations in full swing. The living room was cleared to make room for the ceremony, and two small tables held offerings for the spirits of the elders of the families.


Upstairs, Srey Roat's hairdresser was putting the finishing touches on her hair and makeup.

In the family's outdoor kitchen, the maids and cooks were preparing food for the 60 or so people expected to attend.

As Samouth and his family approached, Nine and the other elders from Chhay and Neang Nith's families lined up to greet their guests.

In the Cambodian tradition, Samouth's family arrived bearing many baskets of flowers, fruit and other goodies. These are given as an offering for her hand in marriage.

Then a religious practitioner known as an "acha," who would officiate at the engagement ceremony, made certain that the baskets were properly placed.   

After the family elders, and parents of the prospective bride and groom were seated, the ceremony began.

John and I didn't understand anything that was said, but we did understand that this was much more than an "engagement party." In the Cambodian culture, the engagement ceremony symbolizes not just the couple's intent to marry. It is a commitment between and among the families to the union of their families and to the support of the young couple in their upcoming marriage.

Several minutes into the ceremony, Samouth and Srey Roat were brought into the room and seated beside their parents.

The ceremony, presided over by the acha, included burning of incense, dedication of offerings to the spirits of departed ancestors, symbolic chewng of betal nuts.

An important part of the ceremony involved each parent tying a string around the wrists of the prospective bride and groom. I was told that the string was white if the person tying it was of Khmer ancestry and red if he or she is of Chinese heritage. 

The mothers then sprinkled water on the heads of the young couple, who in turn asked blessings from their parents.
After the conclusion of the ceremony itself, more tables were set up and a fantastic Cambodian lunch was served to celebrate the engagement. 
We were very honored to be a part of this happy occasion, and look forward to seeing photos of the wedding, which is scheduled for this fall.

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