'Bunga telur': Gifts lavished at weddings

Stately: Traditional Bruneian newlyweds (Top) display the literal 'bunga telur' or eggs adorned with flowers, nowadays symbolised by a variety of gifts. Pictures: Rozan Yunos collection

Sunday, May 18, 2008

YAHYA related from Malik, from Humayd at-Tawil, from Anas ibn Malik that 'Abd ar-Rahman ibn 'Awf came to the Messenger of Allah (upon him and his House and Companions blessings and peace), and he had a trace of yellow on him. Rasullullah asked about it. He told him that the had just been married. Rasullulah said, "How much did you hand over to her?" He replied, "The weight of a date pit in gold". Rasullullah said, "Hold a feast, even if it is only with a sheep".

Many Muslims, especially in Brunei have heeded this advice by holding a wedding feast — not just a small one but a banquet consisting in inviting at least 500 people to their weddings.

And in many wedding ceremonies in Brunei, during these wedding feasts, something rather unique to the Malay society, hosts will hand out gifts to their guests known as bunga telur.

Loosely translated, bunga telur is the "egg gift" or "flowery egg", a token gift that is given away by the hosts to guests who come to any Malay wedding ceremonies in Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia or Singapore.

Sometimes the bunga telur is just a simple household item such as a small glass or something quite elaborate depending on the wealth of the hosting family.

Anything that could be given away as gifts has indeed been given as bunga telur and runs the gamut from small dishes to crystal clocks. Other interesting items include a wall clock, a three-tiered tiffin (food containers) and scrolls containing verses from the Al-Quran.

Ironically, the giving away of bunga telur is not an Islamic practice. It is originally a throwback to Hindu culture, which influenced almost all the cultures in Southeast Asia.

The egg represents or symbolises a fertile union between the couple as a symbol of fertility. In some sense, since human life begins with a fertilised egg or ovum and new life in non-mammals hatches from an egg, the symbolism of the egg appears in more ways than one.

By giving away eggs, it was hoped that the newlywed couple will also be blessed with fertility and with their own children in the future.

In the 1950s and the 1960s, for weddings in Brunei Darussalam, hardboiled eggs were actually handed out as wedding gifts to those who came.

Slowly, this evolved into the practise of giving the eggs wrapped in paper. That too evolved to placing the eggs in small porcelain egg baskets or holders. The eggs were given wrapped in handkerchiefs and the handkerchiefs became the bunga telur.

Over time, the baskets and holders for the eggs became more elaborate. By the late 1970s and early 1980s guests were receiving the eggs placed in tiny porcelain swans, glasses and even crystal holders.

As time passed, the gifts got more elaborate still. At the same time people no longer gave out eggs. This is probably due to a number of factors. One of them could be that the guest numbers for Brunei weddings had increased. It was quite cumbersome boiling some 1,000+ eggs for wedding ceremonies.

Many families remembered trying to boil eggs for their relatives' weddings and discovering that boiling many eggs to be given away as bunga telur requires much diligence in comparison to just boiling one egg in boiling water and using an egg timer!

Huge number of eggs were dipped into a huge cauldron over a certain amount of heat. No egg timer would satisfy the boiling duration for these eggs. It could take up to four hours to boil the batches for the perfect bunga telur. Many egg shells broke and more eggs had to be boiled to compensate for the broken ones. Try it and you'll discover the number one reason why bunga telur in today's weddings do not contain eggs.

Nowadays, even though eggs are no longer given out, the practise of giving bunga telur remains. Today's bunga telurs have moved away from anything that resemble holders for eggs — from prayer mats to calligraphies of Surat Yassin and from luxury soaps to expensive biscuits and silver trays.

The costs of these vary from a dollar to a few dollars each depending on the financial capability of the hosts. Even at a dollar each, bunga telur for 500 guests will still mean that it can fetch at least B$500 — and the guests haven't even eaten yet!

In Brunei, bunga telur with eggs are still given out, though not during the main wedding event. It will be given out during the berbedak ceremony (described below). It will also be given out during other events such as any zikir ceremony celebrating the birth of a child.

Surprisingly, at Indian weddings, the originator of the practice, it is not eggs that are given out anymore. Those guests at an Indian wedding will receive sweets reflecting and reaffirming the sweetness of the occasion.

There are many other similarities between the Malay and Indian ceremonies. They include mandi lulur or mandi belulut as Bruneians call it, where a special bath scrub was applied to the bodies of the brides and grooms.

Another similarity is the Malay majlis berinai or berpacar, called the "Mehndi Ceremony" in an Indian wedding. Originally the application of the colourful henna — or pachar as we Bruneians call it — was supposed to ward off evil spirits as the colours are supposed to scare off those spirits; but in Brunei Malay weddings, it is just a custom to be followed, and all wedding couples have pachars to indicate that they have undergone a wedding ceremony.

In fact the pachar design can be more elaborate nowadays than the traditional moon crescent and star shaped one of the old days.

Another similarity is the Majlis Berbedak where guests and family members bless the couple with mencalit, the daubing of coloured and scented powder and sprinkling of pandan potpurri on the newlywed's open palms. This is also reminiscent of the "Mandapa" at Indian weddings.

Brunei Malay weddings now have other additional ceremonies which include cake cutting, sarung cincin, the "giving away" of jewelry and other items, also adopted from other cultures.

Some wedding custom adoptions depend on the districts and origin of the couples such as the basuh kaki ceremony or the makan tamuan.

Most of us do not realise the origins of some of these traditions which we have followed from time immemorial.

Nevertheless, the practice of giving away bunga telur — whether literal eggs or something else — will always be there with the intended symbolism of fertility and as a memento of the wedding or event for the guests.

The writer runs a website on Brunei at bruneiresources.com.

The Brunei Times


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