MEASURING A READINESS THROUGH SYMBOLS
Seto Wardhana, The Jakarta post

“A marriage is not only to unite two different personalities, but it also serves as a medium that unites parents from two families plus their siblings and relatives,” says the Indonesian father of anthropology Koentjaraningrat about the definition of a marriage. Home to at least 1,340 ethnicities, Indonesia has hundreds, or maybe thousands, of wedding tradition. Every ethnic group sets its unique conditions that need to be fulfilled by a groom-to-be in order to be able to propose his sweetheart. Yet, these different kinds of requirements lead to a single purpose; which is to measure the readiness of any groom-to-be to establish a new family.
One of those conditions is a mahr, or a gift presented by a family of a groom or a groom himself to the bride’s family or the other way around prior to a wedding vow. As Indonesians consider a marriage as something sacred and a part of family’s affair, a long-held tradition plays an important role in defining the form of a mahr. The real value of a mahr varies from one ethnicity to the other. Even, in some cases the symbolic meaning of a mahr is more important than its monetary value.

In a Batak wedding, for instance, a mahr could come in the forms of a Batak traditional cloth of Ulos, either a cow or a pig and vegetables, in addition to a sum of money in an even number, all to symbolically represent humans’ primary needs of clothing, food and shelter. The mahr is to show nothing but a readiness of the groom-to-be to build a new family.

While in a Dayak tradition, a mahr comes in the form of a gong, a percussion instrument, symbolizing a new journey in the life of a newly-wed couple. In Betawi wedding tradition, a copper steamer filled with rice and other staples serves as a mahr which symbolizes the readiness of the groom-to-be to feed a new family he is about to build. Within a tradition of an ancient society, a mahr served as compensation to a family who lost one of its bread-winners as he moved out to join his new family. I addition to its economic value, a mahr also defines a social status, and becomes a symbol to unite two big families and to establish a new family.

“So, it is not about the real value or the material itself, instead, it is about a symbol and a prestige,” says a University of Indonesia anthropologist Irwan Hindayana. Up to now, a mahr has become a main symbol in every wedding ceremony in Indonesia. Like local traditions and religions, the meaning and the value of a mahr has continued to evolve and change.

In Jakarta, for example, a traditional mahr has gradually transformed to its modern form. Yet, a mahr has kept its same meaning and social value, which is used to propose a child of a family in order to build a new family.


Seto Wardhana

Seto Wardhana—popularly called Awo— was born in Jakarta on 2 November 1984. He graduated from the faculty of law at the University of Indonesia and learnt journalistic photography at Galeri Foto Jurnalistik Antara from 2007 to 2008.

Awo worked with TEMPO in a 2010—2014 period before he moved to The Jakarta Post daily, where he has worked until today.