Saris, sporrans and the wail of the pipes - Sikh wedding chic

Robert Nurden on tying the knot to the sound of a Scot
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The Independent Online
It is one of the most haunting Scottish laments ever written.

But it's being performed, not at a gathering of homesick Caledonians who have requested the pipers to play Flowers of the Forest, but in a suburban Essex street before a Sikh marriage ceremony. The bagpipes are the ultimate in wedding chic in Asian communities.

Gruff bagpipe players, decked out in tartan, busby and sporran, have become a familiar sight at fashionable Hindu and Sikh ceremonies across Britain. Up to half a dozen pipers at a time are hired to perform during one of the most important parts of the day - the departure of the baarat (marriage party) from the bridegroom's house. In the most sophisticated weddings, the pipers accompany the groom, who sits on a white charger, and later they serenade him and his bride as they enter the temple.

All across the South-east and the Midlands, Scottish bandsmen are being hired for Asian weddings. Rather than traditional music from the Indian sub-continent, they are expected to play rousing Scottish marches and haunting ballads. It is invariably the groom's family that hires them, while the bride's father foots the bill for the wedding itself, in this case about pounds 20,000. But at pounds 100 a day each, Scottish pipers are not cheap.

Willie Cochrane, 60, a veteran with the King's Own Scottish Borderers, and his troupe, the Balmoral Highlanders - a team of six pipers and a drummer - play at around 20 weddings a year. "It's growing all the time as the craze catches on," says Mr Cochrane. "We play the standard Scottish melodies, which they seem to like, rather than try to play traditional Indian music."

The sight of the Highlanders tumbling out of their Ford Escorts on to an Ilford street might have surprised some of the residents, but it hardly fazed the older Indian men attending the wedding of 20-year-old Amarjit Sanger to Sonya Manjinder Bhopal, a Sikh from Slough.

Indoors, Amarjit's female cousins were applying the finishing touches to his sunna (eyeliner). Outside, the pipers took up their positions on the pavement between two gleaming Shogun cars, pink ribbons tied ostentatiously to bonnets. It was 8.30am, and all along the street curtains twitched as they started to play.

Amarjit walked carefully out of the semi-detached house, followed by the women resplendent in pink, gold, white, red and black saris. His face was hidden behind a swaying veil of golden threads and his head banded by a red turban, while the garland round his neck set off his new Armani suit. Pipers serenaded him to his Shogun.

The party was late, and for Sikhs it is inauspicious to start the wedding after midday. "The M25 will be choc-a-bloc, so will the North Circular; let's go through the centre," said the best man.

The pipers only just had time to dismantle their instruments before the convoy of cars and two coaches sped off. The perspiring bandsmen in their Escorts did their best to keep up with the Shoguns and BMWs as they negotiated Trafalgar Square at breakneck speed.

In Slough, the pipers escorted the procession into the gurdwara (temple) to the accompaniment of the most rousing Scottish folk tunes yet. Inside, the stately rituals of the Anand Karaj unwound, the couple beingshowered with pounds 2,000 in notes as they sat cross-legged before the Manji Sahib (guru's seat). For the reception at a Northolt country club, it was lashings of food and bhangra music; later, the couple would leave for their honeymoon in the Caribbean.

"All very smooth, that was an easy one," said Mr Cochrane as he dismantled his bagpipes. "But they struck a hard bargain, and we took a long time reaching a price. Tomorrow, we do a store opening and, on Sunday, a Hindu wedding in Leicester."

No one is sure of the origins of the Scottish/Asian wedding link. Some, like Amarjit, say it harks back to the Raj, when Scottish battalions played at high-society Punjabi weddings. Others say the practice goes back even further - bagpipes originated in the Middle East, and were in India centuries before the British.

"In India, traditional dancers and musicians still lead the wedding processions," said Amarjit, who owns a garment store. "Now, many Indians in Britain want to keep some kind of traditional music at weddings and Scottish bagpipes are a good substitute."

But Mr Pritam Singh Matharu, a Sikh priest in Woolwich, south London, disputes the historical link. "It's just an accident," he says. "I first saw Scottish pipers at a Hindu wedding in Potter's Bar four years ago. Soon, weddings all over north London were copying it. This will become a common feature of the Asian wedding.

"It is a pleasing way of achieving a little harmony between peoples."

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