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Iranian Marriage Ceremony
History and Symbolism
Last Updated: October, 2009

The ceremony takes place in a specially decorated room with flowers and a beautiful and elaborately decorated spread on the floor (sofreh aghed) and it traditionally faced the direction of the sunrise. By custom, the aghed normally takes place at the bride’s home or that of her close relatives and always during the day. This is from the Zoroastrian period when darkness was associated with hostile spirits. The bridegroom is the first to take his seat in the room and the bride comes afterwards. The groom always sits on the right hand side of the bride. With Zoroastrians, the right side designates a place of respect.

The bride and the bridegroom have at least one marriage witness each. Usually older and married males are chosen amongst close relations to stand as witnesses. The priest (mula) or other males with recognized authority (i.e. a notary public) perform the legal part of the ceremony. With very religious families where segregation of sexes is practiced, these males will stay in the adjacent room and will only talk to the bride without actually seeing her, or the bride’s face will be totally covered when these procedures take place.

This part of the ceremony consists of preliminary blessings, questions to the witnesses, guardians, the marrying couple and finally the ceremony is solemnized by reciting verses from the Quran or other holy books and the signing of a legal marriage contract. The contract can contain clauses to protect the bride against polygamy, unconditional divorce rights by the husband, property and custody rights etc. Normally all these details are worked out beforehand.

After the blessings and a few words about the importance of the institution of marriage, the priest confirms with both the parents or guardians that they indeed wish to proceed with the ceremony and there are no objections. Then the priest asks for the mutual consent of the couple.

First, the bridegroom is asked if he wishes to enter into the marriage contract. After he says yes, then the bride is asked the same question. Once the bride is asked if she agrees to the marriage, she pauses and remains silent. The question is repeated three times and it is only after the last time that she will say yes. To make the bridegroom wait for the bride’s answer is to signify that it is the husband who seeks the wife and is anxious to have her and not the other way around. With the very rich, each time the bride is asked the question, the groom’s mother or sister would place a gold coin or a piece of Jewelry in her hand symbolically encouraging her to say yes. During the service female relatives of the couple (mainly the bride) hold a fine scarf or other delicate fabrics like silk over the couple’s head. Until the 19th century this was green—Zoroastrians’ favourite colour—though, now other colours, particularly white, are used as well.

Two different actions take place at the same time. Two pieces of crystallized sugar (shaped like cones) are rubbed together, a symbolic act to sweeten the couple’s life together. In the second act, two parts of the same fabric are symbolically sewn together with needle and thread. The ceremony is suggestive of the ancient traditions when the bride and groom’s ceremonial belts (koshti) were symbolically tied and sewn together. The Zoroastrians traditionally held over the grooms head a tray on which two pieces of cloth are united together, with needle, thread, scissors, a raw egg, a pomegranate or apple, dried marjoram, and white sweetmeats, all covered by a green kerchief. Koshti are ceremonial belts that are given to all Zoroastrians to mark the passage from childhood to adulthood. This is a rite of passage and is a very significant ritual in their lives. The symbolic act of sewing the bride and groom’s koshti together is uniting the couple for the rest of their lives, a knot is tied that should not be broken or separated.

Wedding Once the bride has said yes to the proposal, verses from holy books are read. Documents are signed and the amount of mahr (bride price) is entered in the legal document, which is signed by the couple and the witnesses, and the two are announced man and wife. The practice of setting up a bride price is becoming a ceremonial for most modern couples. Most will settle for a holy book, a gold coin and some flowers—mainly roses. However, mahr should be included in the marriage document whether it is symbolic or not. Etymologically meaning "price" or "ransom", mahr is the money or other valuables, paid or promised to be paid to the bride, by the groom or his family for the financial protection of the bride in case of a divorce and it is obligatory in Islamic marriages. Once this is over, the couple holds their right hands together, drink a sweet liquid or taste some honey for a better and sweeter life.

At this time the bride and groom exchange wedding rings. Then the bride is showered with gifts, usually expensive jewelry and all that she receives is hers and her husband has no right over the presents. The groom also receives gifts from the bride’s family, normally an expensive watch and other male items like gold chain etc. Songs, jokes and merry-making gestures and clapping of the hands accompany the whole ceremony. When the two leave the room, they are showered with coins, flowers, rice and the sweet candy noghl. This item is present in all Iranian festivities and it is believed to bring sweetness into life and is regarded as blessed (barakat). Showering the couple with the above items is called shabash and varies from one place to the other. The guests would eat the noghl and take the coins home for good luck. With the rich families real gold coins will be used, but most will use specially minted fake coins with the word shabash or mobarak bad (congratulation) engraved on the coins.

The elaborately decorated spread in front of the bride and groom contains several items, each symbolising a different aspect of the ancient religion. Mirror and candelabras are two very important elements in the Zoroastrian religion. Lit candles are a symbol of both purifying fire and the Zoroastrian deity, Asha-Vahishta (Ordibehesht). Mirrors were significant items in Zoroastrian symbolism, art and architecture and are still an integral part of most Iranian celebrations including the New Year celebration.
The large flat bread is specially baked and decorated to bring prosperous feasts (specially baked bread was and is still used by Zoroastrians as holy bread in many of their rituals and ceremonies). Gold represents prosperity. Honey and crystallized sugar is to sweeten the couple’s life. The popular incense espand is burnt. This item is used in many Zoroastrian religious ceremonies, rituals and purification rites. It is believed to keep the evil eye away. In the past grain seeds were scattered on the spread symbolizing abundance and fertility. A glass bowl with gold fish and a green leaf from a local variety of orange called narenj was also placed in the bowl. Such traditions are disappearing quickly. The spread or the cloth used is called sofreh and is normally very elaborate itself and with the rich termeh, a very expensive hand made material from India is used. Sometimes very small pearls are embroidered on this fabric to depict beautiful designs. Termeh are still prized and are always included in the dowry if people can afford them and the old ones are becoming collector’s items.

Wedding A large porcelain bowl containing a number of sweet drinks (sherbets) depending on the location was and is still part of the spread in most places. A bunch of herbs called sabzi (green herbs are called sabzi) like parsley and mint along with bread and cheese was also placed on the spread and it still is in many places. Decorated eggs, a universal symbol of fertility are present.

In the Zoroastrian context, the wedding spread has a very significant message for the newly wed. It meant that marriage is a scared bound that with help and guidance from the Lord of Wisdom Ahura Mazda (represented by light, i.e. lit candles/mirror) and other deities (represented by greens, i.e. Amordad and Khordad) will hopefully lead to a happy (sweets) and prosperous (gold, bread, fruits) life with children (grains, eggs, representing fertility).

After the ceremony, there are lavish feasts, dancing, music and entertainers. There will be more parties given by the close relatives and friends for the next few weeks. These parties are called paghosah, meaning clearing the path. They are to introduce the two newly related families to each other. With very traditional families and the poor, the groom is supposed to provide fabrics or new cloths as part of the bride price for these occasions.

Traditionally by the end of the wedding ceremony the bride would be taken to her new residence, either their own home if they can afford it, or her parent-in-laws’ home. In the past horsemen and carriages were used with songs, clapping and other merry making gestures. Today several cars will follow the couple’s decorated vehicle while honking. Honeymoon is a new concept and still most couples in rural areas and smaller cities are not familiar with this occasion. The newlyweds would simply spend a night or two together and until recently a stained handkerchief was used as evidence to ascertain bride’s virginity in remoter areas and villages. Where segregation of sexes is observed, males and females gather at different rooms or outdoors gardens totally separated from each other. Alcohol is not served with strict Muslims, while with the more modern Iranians whisky, beer and vodka are a must among other beverages. Guests would be served tea, fresh fruits, non-alcoholic drinks, nuts, raisins and other dried fruits with all kinds of pastry and baked goods. In the past it was considered good luck to take back some of these, but most modern Iranians do not practice this any more.

The marriage ceremony marks the most significant ritual for all Iranians, especially the women. The wedding feast is the most elaborate in the couple’s life. A few dishes are always present and the rest varies with the locality and budget. Sheereen polo or sweet rice is always prepared. All modern Iranians use wedding cakes. This tradition is borrowed from the Europeans. The rest of the evening will be spent dancing, feasting and having a good time.

Paghosha parties will be happening for the next few weeks. There are no special foods for these parties at the present. In the 19th century, a number of foods, including a special soup called ash was prepared by the groom’s mother and, in the case of the rich, they put a few gold coins in the ash and it was sent to the bride the day after the wedding. Afterwards the dishes were sent back cleaned and filled with flowers, sweets, nuts and cardamom seeds for its perfume.

It is customary for the newlyweds to be the first to visit their parents on No Ruz and to be visited by other relatives because it is their first New Year as a couple. The couple would normally receive special gifts such as flowers, sweets, fruits and expensive fabrics. Iranian Muslims do not marry during certain Islamic months like Muharram and Safar. The first one is a month of mourning for Imam Husayn and his Cheleh (fortieth day after death) happens in Safar. No celebrations normally take place in Muharram. Until recently if the wedding happened to be on the same day or close to the festival of sacrifice, the groom’s family would send a live sheep decorated with gold silver and expensive shawls for the newlyweds. The sheep would be slaughtered and the presents remained with the couple.

Many Iranians living outside Iran have incorporated new additions. Bridal showers are becoming popular and gift registries are becoming acceptable. Traditionally only close relatives of the couple gave them presents. Now with gift registries, all guests are expected to buy a gift. Dancing with DJ and live entertainment are very common and the items on the wedding spread are becoming very elaborate and wedding decorations similar to western style weddings are becoming a must.


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