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They tie the knot under water

By R. K. Radhakrishnan

TRANG (THAILAND), FEB. 16. "I feel on top of the world," screamed Eleftheria as she surfaced from her wedding held 15 feet underwater, off the Pakmeng beach here this morning.

She has reasons to be. It was about two years ago that Eleftheria Gallaiou, a Greek in Athens, met Ilias Papaioannou in a diving school. Both insist that theirs was love at first sight. And Ilias promised Eleftheria that they would get married underwater - he had heard about the underwater wedding in Trang, a coastal Thai province on the Indian Ocean with a long western coastline of about 199 km. The province consists of an archipelago in the Andaman Sea with over 46 islands.

"It's my dream come true. I am so happy. That's all I can say," Eleftheria adds as the couple come on board the tug.

They were one of the 30 couples who went underwater to affix their signatures on a document declaring them man and wife. There was a Thai official underwater, who handed them the certificates and completed the legal formalities of the wedding. As many as 16 of the couples were sport-divers who came from far and near - China, Denmark, Germany, the United Kingdom and Hong Kong.

Popular ceremony

Earlier, the wedding was restricted only to couples who had cleared a course in diving. But because of its popularity, the underwater wedding ceremony - now in its ninth year - is also open to non-divers. There is compromise they have to make. They will be restricted to the ceremonies on the Pakmeng beach.

There were 48 couples who opted for the compromise. Anand Sachthep Singh and Valaiphorn, both third generation Sikhs settled in Bangkok, were there too among the couples who were fine with the compromise. "I promised to take her to Las Vegas. That's when this came along. I will take her there soon," he says.

Anand says he was educated in Mussorie since his family feels that the children should not get alien to Indian culture. "My grandfather himself was a Thai citizen. But even now all of us travel to Punjab," he says.

Anand and Valaiphorn are not in fact, getting married. "We are reaffirming our vows," he explains. They have been married for a decade now and have two children.

In fact, there are a few couples for whom the underwater wedding is either a reaffirmation of the vow or who have to wait a few more months before they get married. For instance, Decha and Rungtiva will get married in Bangkok in November this year; but have come here because the underwater wedding is not held around that time!

Although named the underwater wedding ceremony, the aim of the event is to promote aspects of the traditional Thai wedding ceremony that includes a colourful "khan maak" procession, says Serm Phenjati, director Commercial Promotion, Thai Airways.

Visual spectacle

The "khan maak" procession is a ceremonial visit to the bride's parents to ask for their daughter's hand. The groom is accompanied by an entourage of relatives and close friends as he calls on the bride's parents to make offerings of betel nuts, arecas and dowry placed in a bowl or tray. The processions are accompanied by folk dances and songs and enlivened by the exhilarating beat of a long drum troupe. All of these elements add to the visual spectacle of the ceremony.

A day before the wedding, on February 15, the provincial Governor, Narait Jitsujaritwong, led the "khan maak" procession. In fact, the entire city was involved with the procession in one way or the other. "We had about 50,000 tourists last year," the Governor told The Hindu. "After the tsunami there was a huge drop. I think about 20 per cent or so. We are telling the tourists that tsunamis are rare and come only once in a hundred years. We want all of them to come back," he adds.

The Pakistani Ambassador to Thailand, Mir Hussain Bakhsh Bangulzai, was the chief guest at a ceremony organised in connection with the wedding in the evening.

With a mass marriage of this kind, "we have proved that we are all the same despite our different castes, religions, languages and lands," he said.

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