Hope all of you are enjoying the series on Singapore. Priya Raju’s entertaining posts have definitely enlivened the proceedings – Here is her previous post. Thanks Priya.
All along the trip, we kept hearing the term “Peranakans” and it piqued our curiosity. Therefore, we decided to explore the Peranakan Museum, which is a wing of the Asian Civilizations Museum. We signed up for the tour of the museum and were fortunate to have a guide who was passionate about Peranakan Culture. Throughout the tour, she would ask us to guess why Peranakans did something a certain way. Given my current preoccupation with Symbology, I was able to crack many of them. The guide quipped that I must have been a Peranakan in my prior birth!
Who are the Peranakans?
Peranakan means “Local Born” – the people that were born in Singapore. Though the term usually means Peranakan Chinese, it also includes Chitty Melaka Peranakan – Indian Hindu + Local Malay mixture and the Jawi Peranakan. – Indian muslim + Local Malay. Chitty Melaka speak Malay with quite a few Tamil words.
They follow a syncretic religion that has a mix of beliefs from Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, which they brought from Southern China. Over time they developed their own customs.
Previously in the tour, we had seen the temple of the Goddess of the Sea – Ma Cho Po. It was built by Tan Tock Seng, an early Peranakan Chinese leader. We could see gods from all the constituent parts of the religion. The temple in Kusu Island that Priya Raju mentioned is also from the same syncretic religion.
The Peranakan fathers were Chinese Traders and hence they didn’t have scholars amongst them. Interestingly, that meant that, they didn’t have all the details of their religion accurately. For instance, the 8 immortals were key gods of the religion but are represented incorrectly as 6 or 7 in the Peranakan art, cutlery, furniture and other symbols. One could say this is how ideas get distorted when they travel long distances.
It is this part that is the most fascinating for an Indian Tourist. Being a male dominated culture there were so many customs that sounded eerily familiar to our own.
The daughters were trained to cook, clean, sew etc, so that they can be excellent housewives. They were called Nonyas. Arranged marriage to well-employed men, called Babas, with an elaborate 12-day wedding (yes, 12 days) was the norm.
The elderly women went scouting for daughters-in-law. The bride to be had to prepare and serve Sireh. Sireh had Betel leaf lightly smeared with lime paste as well as betel nut slivers (Seeval) like Tamil Vethala Pakku. The Nonyas had to know how to make the Sireh well. If she folds the Sireh in the correct way then she is thought to be well-trained. If the bride to be was not acceptable for any reason, the elder will simply not accept the Sireh indirectly saying “No” to the Nonya.
The 12 day wedding was very interesting. On the wee hours of Day 1 the bride and groom have to go through what they call as the “Hair Combing” ceremony in their own homes. It is supposed to be symbolic of the coming of age.
Later on day 1, the First Meal Ceremony happens when the bride and groom share a meal for the first time. They also feed one another some portions. Most likely this the first time they meet each other. Sounds familiar, eh!
Then a procession of the bride and groom happens. Both of them have an attendant holding a large umbrella to give them shade (the umbrellas looked somewhat like the ones we carry during processions of Hindu Gods in Southern India).
Aunts of the bride & groom follow them behind like in our Hindu Brahmin weddings. But the Peranakan twist is that these guests will have to be specifically invited based on whether their horoscopes were matching with the bride and groom. Widows were never invited. If the lady had many sons, she was much preferred!
On Day 3, the Tea Ceremony with in-laws happens. Traditionally, this is when the in-laws give their wedding gifts to the bride and groom.
Like in our arranged marriages, a lot of gifts – furniture, vessels etc are given by the bride’s family to the newly weds. Interestingly, the Peranakans never use any nails in the furniture because of its association with coffins.
On the 12th day, the white kerchief placed on the bed for the first night is checked for virginity and if not the marriage could be canceled!
They also had elaborate rituals for their ancestors. Every home had an altar that has a cupboard which contains the ancestral tablets – one for each ancestor.
When the man of the house dies, the women go into mourning for 3 years. She has to wear a dress made of sackcloth for a period of time after which it is burnt. As time passes, the color of the dress changes to specific colors that indicate the elapsed time of mourning. It is only after 3 years that she can wear normal clothes. Of course, there are no such rules for men!
Overall, the brief tour of the Peranakan culture indicated how conservative cultures think alike across the world.
Questions for the readers. When did Hinduism go to South East Asia? Was it with the Chola conquests in South East Asia?
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