24 June 2011

"Tashi Delek!"

Last week I went to a Tibetan wedding. It started only thirty minutes late, which is amazing because they'd had only two days notice that the wedding would even occur! The young bride wore an exquisite chupa made of red patterned silk and her hair was done in two French braids. The groom wore a traditional black suit and both wore fur-lined hats. The family had placed a bucket of milk and a pile of manure on their front porch in the morning to give the couple good luck. Everyone was dressed in Tibetan clothes: the family wore silk chupas and the guests wore cotton chupas. All the shoes, however, were Western. Dolma, the bride's sister-in-law, wearing a pair of high heels exactly like a pair I have at home, told me that she never wears heels except for weddings. As a result, her legs and feet were in quite a lot of pain as we ascended several of McLeod's many steep roads.

When we arrived we stopped at the door, flicked seeds into the air three times, ate some floury substance (which turned out to be tsampa) and flicked a liquid into the air three times (which was chang, a beer made of barley). This procedure represented the first offering or gift, which goes to God. Then we entered and sat down to a plate of cookies. They were mostly Tibetan cookies, which have only a trace of sugar, but a few chocolate and butter biscuits, too. We were offered no less than six different beverages, and we declined all but water and Fanta since we don't drink traditional Tibetan butter tea, Coke, Mountain Dew, or alcohol. Soon afterward we had a dish of spicy peas, peanuts, and lentils to accompany the cookies.

During this time we were talking to Dolma and taking some pictures of the festivities. There was traditional music coming from enormous speakers that sometimes made it difficult to hold a conversation. The room was decorated with brightly colored streamers and a large, bright poster that had the bride and groom's names around the huge, bold red word "WEDS."

In the corner, next to an elaborate altar and many photos of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, sat the bride, groom, their parents, and Dolma's adorable little daughter. The guests stood in a line before the altar holding white silk scarves. When it was my turn I place one across the altar, one around the groom's neck, then the bride's, and then the other family members. (Their necks became very heavy laden with the scarves from perhaps 100 guests, so Dolma pulled them off of their shoulders and recycled them to guests like me who didn't realize we needed eight scarves rather than two.) I said "tashi delek" each time I placed a scarf, a greeting that means "good luck" and is traditionally reserved for special occasions like weddings and the Tibetan new year. (In the exiled community in India, however, tashi delek has become a common greeting just like we say "hi" or "hello" in the States.) In front of the bride and groom was a pile of presents to which I added a white envelope. I'd written the bride and groom's names on the front along with "Tashi delek and have a happy married life!!" I wrote my name on the reverse and sealed 100 rupees inside.

Afterward, Elizabeth, Megan, Rachel and I played a card game and took more pictures. The groom thought the photographers were quite funny, like paparazzi maybe, and smiled often, but I had a hard time getting a picture of both bride and groom smiling. My host family almost never smiles when I ask for a picture, though, so I don't think smiling for pictures is expected.

Lunch was an enormous feast--long tables in the center of the room were laden with steamed rolls, Amdo-style vegetarian momos, rice, cooked vegetables for the rice, chow mein, fried chicken, fried bittergourd, cucumber tomato salad, dal, and a tomato sauce. The food was excellent, particularly the momos. Afterward, Dolma's husband offered us bananas for dessert. Since we'd been there nearly five hours by the time lunch was over we decided to depart, and as Dolma saw us leaving she hurried with some of the white silk scarves, which she wrapped around our necks. We accepted another round of bananas and left.

Like so many elements of the community here in McLeod, the wedding was a conscious preservation of traditional Tibetan culture. The clothes, music, ceremony, and food were all decidedly Tibetan, and when some American hip-hip song came on the DJ immediately changed it. In fact, the only things I noticed that wouldn't have traditionally been a part of a Tibetan wedding were the shoes everyone was wearing. Since the entire wedding was planned in a few days (this is because it was a love marriage and her family had to decide whether she was allowed to marry someone they hadn't chosen), everything present was there at a considerable effort. The elaborate golden box containing the seeds, tsampa, and chang at the entrance, for example, had obviously taken some effort to put together, yet it was a top priority because of its significance to Tibetan culture. Events like this are prime opportunities for Tibetans to gather and recreate their homeland.

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