The Tour The Guidebook Life Celebrations

An Uzbek wedding is a major occasion to say the least, marked by extravagant exchanges of gifts plus days of community feasting and ritual. It signifies the transition from childhood into man or womanhood and is often a bittersweet celebration containing both joyful and poignant moments. Nearly everyone in Uzbekistan gets married and, despite the huge cost and complex organisation, weddings can be arranged and carried out within a matter of weeks. Often the bride and groom have only met a few times previously and it is not unheard of for parents to set the date of the wedding and only then start to look for a prospective bride.

While some weddings are based on love and romance, most are arranged by the couple’s families according to age, income and character. In a culture where dating is not common, most young people accept the choice of their parents although it is not unusual to turn down the first few prospective partners and to ‘shop around’. The search begins when a young man reaches his early twenties and his parents start looking for a suitable young woman who is of the same ethnicity, slightly younger, healthy and, most important, of virtuous character. Beauty, diligence and obedience are also top of the list of valued qualities. Hopeful mother-in-laws usually make enquiries within their neighbourhood or wider family circle but they have been known to ask around in the most unlikely places, as Gustav Krist discovered when he visited a homom (bath-house) in 1916.

A double wedding

‘The oriental women in particular found them (bath-houses) indispensable for they afforded them their chief opportunity for negotiating marriages. Mothers who wished to steer their adolescent sons into the safe haven of matrimony come to the baths to choose the most desirable daughter in law for themselves from amongst the naked maidens. When such a mother spots a suitable young girl she commissions one of the woman attendants to get into touch with the girl’s mother and arrange a meeting of the seniors at the baths. Here the bargaining begins, much as in a cattle market or a horse fair. The little girl, ten or twelve years of age at most, is present during the whole of the proceedings. While the son’s mother cynically depreciates the girl’s qualities, her own mother eloquently expounds all her virtues and qualifications. After the wooer’s mother has assured herself of the girl’s virginity, the serious haggling begins, this time to assess the amount of the bride price. When they finally come to an agreement the betrothal is as good as concluded and a day is fixed for the wedding. Not till the day after the wedding is the bridegroom allowed to see his young wife and to exercise his marital rights.’
Gustav Krist ‘Journey through a Forbidden Land’ 1939

A prospective daughter-in-law?

Once a prospective kelin (bride) has been found, the groom’s parents make a visit to her family with the all-important gift of sweets. After the usual cups of tea and chitchat, the marriage option is discussed and if the girl’s parents want the proceedings to progress further, they accept the sweets. Next the young couple meet in a park or cafe (accompanied by chaperons) and this gives the girl the chance to see the boy for herself, albeit briefly. The prospective groom offers her a gift of perfume or chocolate which, if accepted, is a sign that the girl agrees to his proposal. If it is not, then he must look elsewhere. However to accept straight away would be considered very unbecoming and the young man has to offer his gift repeatedly to win her consent.

Then serious marriage preparations begin, starting with the ‘patir toy’. This is the breaking of a delicious flaky bread (patir) made from flour and oil at a meal where both families are present. Here the actual day for the marriage is set and the first batch of gifts including clothes, fabric, jewellery and food are given from the groom’s family to the bride and her relatives. In Khorezm the bride often receives distinctive hooped earrings made from yellow Uzbek gold and turquoise.

The bride’s gear

Bride’s hats

Traditional Khorezm earrings

Gifts given and received

Next follows a flurry of activity as arrangements are finalised and items such as mattresses, pillows, blankets and carpets are bought or made by both families. The groom’s mother hands over a sizeable sum of money as part of the dowry and presents her future daughter-in-law with a large bag of groceries every Sunday before the wedding. She also buys a large wooden chest which she fills with dresses for the bride to take with her to her new home on her wedding day.

The night before the marriage festivities get underway the bride and her friends celebrate with the ‘henna yoka’, decorating the hands with henna and eating a meal together. Meanwhile, at the groom’s house, his friends are invited for a rowdy evening of eating, drinking and eyeing up the obligatory dancer, known as the ‘Yigit Yiglish’.

A kelin and her friends

Hands decorated with henna

The wedding day begins around mid-morning when the young couple and their entourage of friends, relatives and video cameramen drive to the registry office where there is a short ceremony. The cars race each other, each festooned with flowers and balloons with a plastic doll strapped to the bridal car and a teddy bear to the groom’s. In Khiva, the registry office, known as the ‘house of happiness’ is situated in an old madrassah. However the ceremony itself is secular in nature and it is only afterwards that the newly married couple visit the holy sites of Khiva. Most wedding parties visit the tomb of Said Allaudin to pray and receive a blessing, before moving on to the Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum. Considered the holiest site in Khiva, the couple receive a blessing from the resident mullah (holy man) and take a sip from the well-water which is said to promote fertility.

Tying the knot at the registry office

Touring the Old City

Arriving to pray at one of the holy sites

After this the couple part and return to their own homes. The bride’s relatives put on a farewell lunch of plov at which she wears a special handmade dress of white cotton. Her hair is braided with white ribbons over which she wears a white cotton headband, a shawl to veil her face and a typical fancy wedding hat. As the bride is getting dressed, an old woman sings a song admonishing the girl not to cry which usually has the opposite effect of making her weep! This is looked upon with approval since a dutiful Uzbek bride should appear sad and downcast throughout her whole wedding day as a sign of sorrow at leaving her family. At this point the girl says a tearful goodbye as her relatives pray, before setting off with her bridesmaid (normally a close female relative) in a car covered with a huge piece of brightly coloured fabric. The bridal car is followed by an entourage of friends and relatives in other cars as well as a lorry containing all the wedding presents from the two families. However the bride’s parents, having lost their daughter, stay behind in their house and do not attend the wedding.

Meanwhile preparations are being made at the groom’s house for the bride’s arrival. As soon as her car comes into sight, the men of the neighbourhood run before the car in order to welcome her into their community and the car drives over a small fire to ensure good luck for the newly weds. Everyone crowds round to see the bride emerge from the car, especially as she puts her right foot on top of the sheep’s fleece placed by the car door. Next comes the ‘kelin salam’ (bride’s greeting) when the bride, totally covered in the fabric from the car, bows twice before each of her new relatives as a sign of respect.

At last the gate of the house is opened and the bride is ushered inside. A respected woman from the groom’s neighbourhood carrying a plate containing flour and sweets comes forward and makes a mark on the forehead of each of the bride’s female relatives and friends to distinguish them from those on the groom’s side. At the same time a woman from the bride’s neighbourhood places a lamp in the bridal room which should remain lit for three days in order to keep misfortune at bay. The bride is shown into her new room and the fabric that was used to cover her during the ‘kelin salam’ is hung up as a curtain dividing the room in two. The friends and relatives go into another room where they enjoy a meal of butter and yoghurt with sweetened water, the butter symbolising the bride’s softness or obedience and the yoghurt representing good luck.

The veiled bride waiting for her husband

Meanwhile, the groom and his friends eat a meal together at his neighbours house. At the end, the groom gives each of his unmarried friends a stitched bag containing a hard boiled egg. This is a symbol of fertility and a sign that he hopes that they too will be married soon. The meal finished, the grom and his friends then proceed to the groom's house where the proceedings are reminiscent of the bride-stealing days of old. In those days a young man would fight his way in to a family’s yurt (tent), grab the maiden of his choice and run off with her to live as husband and wife. Nowadays the groom’s female relatives present him with some small gifts, including a scarf which is tied around his waist using many knots. These are used to bribe the bride's female relatives who stand at the door of her room and refuse entry. Once he has successfully negotiated his way into the room, the groom is thrown into the air ten times by his friends while the bridemaid bows to him. The bridesmaid then takes off his jacket and shoes before untying all the knots from the scarf around his waist. Once all the knots are gone the groom belongs to the bride and he is invited behind the curtain inside the bridal room. He tears down the blanket that divides the bridal room and picks up his bride who is sitting on the floor covered in a large sheet. He then throws her onto the bed and lies down, fully dressed, with her. The couple are then covered with a blanket and a baby boy is passed under the blanket between them as a symbol of their hopes for a fruitful marriage. The boy is then rewarded with money that has been slipped between the groom's ring and finger. One of the eldest grannies lights isfan and wafts the smoke around the couple to protect them from the evil eye, she also places a round of bread under the mattress as a symbol of prosperity.

The kelin salam

The groom and his friends

That evening there is a huge outdoor party to which the whole community is welcome. The bride and groom sit at the top table with their friends while their guests enjoy several hours of good food, live music and dancing. Various friends and relatives make speeches wishing the couple happiness and present their gifts. By ten or eleven at night the celebration comes to an end with a closing prayer from the oldest male guest. Then everyone leaves and the bride and groom are shown to their specially decorated room in which they will spend their wedding night. The couple are expected to make love and the next day have to show the blood-stained sheets as proof of the bride’s virginity.

The newly weds are awakened for an early breakfast of fried eggs and gumahs (meat pasties) which are prepared by the bride’s family. The young wife is presented to the groom’s family who gather for the main ‘kelin salam’ (bride’s greeting), complete with a big meal plus musicians and dancers. Wearing traditional clothes, the bride and her bridesmaid bow continually before the male and female relatives in turn. The relatives welcome their new family member by giving small gifts such as scarves or money. This is followed by another party in the evening, this time for the groom and his friends who relax and enjoy some berek (ravioli) together. A button from the groom’s shirt is hidden inside one of the ravioli before cooking as a forfeit, and whoever gets it must host another party for the groom and all his friends.

On the third day the bride is whisked off to her parents’ home to help prepare for the next gathering when the groom is presented to the bride’s family. That evening everyone congregates for a meal of rice with milk followed by plov or stew. The groom is invited into the men’s room where he stands on a new carpet and greetings are given and received. The same happens in the women’s room and this time the bride’s mother places some money upon her son-in-law’s head. At the end of the evening the carpet and money are gathered up and delivered to the groom by his friends.

A new kelin bowing in respect

In the weeks following the wedding the bride’s family is invited to the groom’s home where they present new clothes to their new in-laws. The bride and groom are also invited to come to their relatives’ houses where further greetings are exchanged. In most cases, the newly married groom goes on to live life very much as before. However his wife’s role changes dramatically. She becomes a ‘kelin’ in her husband’s household where she is responsible for the lion’s share of chores and cooking. In a traditional Khorezm home she is expected to follow the orders of her new mother-in-law to whom she shouldn’t speak directly, at least until the birth of her first son. She must also be sure to give the ‘kelin salam’ (bow) when greeting the older members of her husband’s family.

Gradually a kelin’s life becomes easier, although she will always be considered subservient to her husband and his family. Historically, there is a strong gender divide, as Gustav Krist notes,

Even the poorest house is divided into two. The smaller side is usually allotted to the women for their harem and cannot be entered from the rest of the house. The harem possesses an entirely closed-in court and garden of its own, and communicates by one door with the terrace belonging to the master of the house. If a visitor comes and a wife or daughter happens to be in the men’s part of the house, the caller is simply kept waiting at the door until the coast is clear.’
Gustav Krist ‘Journey through a Forbidden Land’ 1939

Whilst modern homes don’t follow this design, the distinction between men and women and their roles continues. The women in a household or neighbourhood can sometimes demonstrate more loyalty and solidarity to each other than their husbands.

However most couples grow to love or at least tolerate each other. Divorce is still frowned upon although unofficial divorces do happen, especially in cases of childlessness, just as Nazeroff noted in the early twentieth century,

‘One evening at dinner Akbar told me that he was going to divorce his second wife to whom he had been married for three years; they had one child.
“She is no use to me. She won’t help with housekeeping, is lazy and now to have an extra wife is very expensive.”
On the following day about noon, the Mullah arrived. All the family gathered round in a circle and the Mullah read an appropriate prayer, then they all sat down and ate some pilau, drank some tea, and the divorce proceedings were over. An hour later Youldash took the divorced wife with her child and belongings back to Tashkent where she had come from originally. It was just as simple as the leave taking of a domestic servant.’
EM Turner (ed) ‘Kapchigai Defile:The journal of Paul Nazeroff’ 1980

Tour Links:
‘Ferris Wheel’
Guidebook Links:
‘Menu of Uzbek Dishes’
'Death and Dying'