Cheo Thau ritual is the most sacred ritual in Peranakan Marriage. It is very similar to the Chinese wedding custom called hair-combing ceremony. However, this ritual is more elaborated in the Peranakan community.
It is believed that once you have performed Cheo Thau ritual, you have sealed the marriage agreement of being husband and wife until the afterlife.
Most importantly, if the bride or the groom did not undergo this ritual, he/she will not considered married. Therefore, any offspring would therefore be considered illegitimate as the marriage is not blessed and witnessed by heaven and earth.
Doesn't it sound pretty scary?
This Cheo Thau ceremony can be conducted separately at the couple's homes or together. The bridegroom must complete the ceremony first if it is held together and if it is held separately, the ritual must be done concurrently.
I had the privilege of witnessing this sacred ceremony when I was around 9-10 years old. As I remembered vividly, the whole house was in “chaos” during the wee hours of the morning (around 3 to 4 in the morning). My cousin Dorris (the bride) bathed and dressed in a white suit. Her hair was tied into a bun or “sanggul” by one elderly lady (the Sang Kheh Umm).
The Cheo Thau ceremony starts during the auspicious time when my Engku Johnny (as the head of the house) prays and lights the candles on a special altar. This ritual or step is also known as “Pasang Lilin” which literally means light up the candles while the altar is known as “Sam Kai”.
This altar, “Sam Kai” is positioned facing the main door. A beautifully ornated and colourful cloth named “Tok Wee” was used to cover the front potion of this Sam Kai table.
Besides the usual offerings of tea, wine, cooked food, flowers, tangerines, sugarcane and a pair of glass lamp on top of the “Sam Kai” table, a special wooden stand containing decorative skewers spikes with young papaya, red dates and a few other things could be seen. This wooden stand is known as “Chein Arb” in Melaka and “Beet Chein” in Penang.
Then, my Engku Johnny and his wife (Engkim) pray to the God of Heaven as well as deities and ancestors at home with joss sticks. They will then be seated on the chairs and Dorris would now kneel and “Sohjah” to them. After that, she is led by her parents (My Engku & Engkim) to sit on the rice funnel (gantang).
My Cousin (Dorris) paying respect (Sohjah) to her parents.
The old Sang Kheh Emm is sitting beside there with
her walking stick while giving instruction.
Note: The bridegroom must face the deities in the house (for his second marriage and onwards) while the bride faces outside when carrying out the Cheo Thau ceremony.
The Sang Kheh Emm (Chief Mistress) place a Chinese Almanac on my cousins’s lap. Then, there’s a boy standing beside her. He will hand out symbolic objects to my cousins with the instruction from the Sang Kheh Emm.
The objects were a Chinese ruler, a razor, red threat & a pair of scissors. While the boy handed out the objects to my cousins, the Sang Kheh Emm will explained or advise my cousins. For instance, when the boy handed out the sharp razor to her, the Sang Kheh Emm will remind her to be careful in everything she does as her mistake might hurt her like the sharp razor.
My Engkim is performing the Cheo Thau eremony with the instruction
from the Sang Kheh Emm (not in the picture).
As for the Chinese ruler it reminds her to exercise wisdom in all her judgments. After the boy had handed out all the objects to my cousins, he holds a Chinese weighing scale above my cousin’s head and slowly lowers it to the feet to remind her to weigh her actions.
My Engkim is placing flowers and hair pins while the
Shang Kheh Emm is standing beside them.
Then, the Sang Kheh Emm and my Engkim placed ornate hair pins and red Siantan flower on to her plain bun. While this ceremony was performed (from the moment “Pasang Lilin”), the traditional “Seronee” music was played as the background music.
The finale of the ritual, Dorris is praying to the Heavens
wearing a red robe (as a substitute of her wedding "Kuah").
After her hair was ornated with flowers (Bunga Siantan) and pins, my cousins was led out from the gantang by the Sang Kheh Emm. This marked the end of the ritual before the actual day of traditional peranakan wedding ceremony which will starts in a few hours time!
Until then, all of us (relatives & neighbours) try to get some sleep. As for my cousin Dorris, she needs to conserve her energy for the complex rites of her Peranakan traditional wedding day. No doubt that a bottle of Chicken Essence will help her to get through her wedding ceremony!
The set-up of the altar table (Sam Kai) must be done by the Babas (men). The pregnant ladies or those with their monthly periods must stay away.
Remember the white suits worn by my cousins and her husband?
Supposing, they will only take off their clothes (white suite) after the wedding ceremony. The clothes mustl not be washed and worn again. When they passed away, they will be buried wearing these clothes. What happens if the clothes coundn't fit? Then it will be put inside the coffin for burial.
Why the bridge and bridegroom need to wear white clothings?
The white suits indicate that the couple is making the vow (oath sworn by the couple to the God that they would cherish their marriage in the future) with a purified and sincere heart. This is the essence of the Cheo-Thau Ceremony!
Why the bridegroom needs only to face the deities in the house while the bride faces outside when carrying out the Cheo-Thau Ceremony?
During the olden days, it was common for a man to have several wives, hence the bridegroom only needed to vow in front of the deities at home (for the second wife onwards). However, a woman must be attached to only one husband, and was therefore required to face outward and vow to Heaven.
An older photo of my cousin Danny performing the
Peranakan Hair Combing Ceremony with the help of Pak Chindek.
You could see the "Sam Kai" altar table at the back.
Danny sitting on "gantang",on his lap are the Chinese Almanac and the symbolic objects. The Cheo Thau ritual should be ending soon as there's a red flower on top of his head.