Book describes Life and Culture of the Mah Meri Tribe

Mah Meri New Year Celebration on Carey Island (flickr/tian yake)

by Peter Duku and Fatin Nabilah Abdulamin //

“Bunga Moyang (Flower of the Spirits)” is a book written by Rashid Esa, the Director of the Mah Meri Cultural Village on Carey Island, West Malaysia. It provides the reader with wonderful insights into the culture of the Mah Meri tribe. The book is rich in pictures depicting their life and culture. 

The Mah Meri tribe is one of 18 Orang Asli (original man) tribes found in Peninsular Malaysia which are divided into three main groupings – Negrito, Senoi and Proto Malay.

The Negrito in the North are believed to be the oldest settlers in Malaysia. They are short dark people who have distinct African features and possibly came from Africa about 25,000 years ago.

Senoi found in the central part of the peninsular, are believed to have come originally from Yunnan via Southern Thailand around 10,000 years ago.

Proto Malay living in the south were originally seafarers and arrived in Malaysia in several waves from around 2500 to 1500 BC.

The Mah Meri people who belong to the Senoi group, were originally seafaring nomads who began to settle in the islands on the west coast of Thailand, Myanmar and Carey Island Malaysia about three hundred years ago. It is believed the Mah Meri people came ashore to avoid capture and enslavement by pirates operating in the Straits of Malacca and the Andaman sea. Originally, they lived on their boats trading sea food for other essentials. Even until today they remain fishermen and traders.

Carey Island is named after a successful British coffee and rubber planter called Valentine Carey in the Kuala Langat district of Selangor state. Carey cleared much of the natural vegetation for agricultural uses just over 100 years ago. Today, the island is still dominated by oil palm plantations.

There are five Mah Meri villages with a population of around 4000 people living on the island. The cultural village is located on the island near the sea front. Mah Meri means Jungle Man despite the fact that they were originally seafarers.

Rashid, as well as being the author of Bunga Moyang, founded the cultural village, and is a Proto Malay himself. He has studied the Mah Meri tribe for over 30 years since graduating from London University with degree in English literature. Rashid explained some of the cultures and beliefs of the Mah Meri people which are depicted in Bunga Moyang. “In some respects the Mah Meri, who can trace back their ancestry back over 10,000 years are more advanced than us,” he said. “They believe in conservation, what trees they cut down have to be replanted. Also, they believe in the equality of the sexes, if a man can have two wives so a woman can have two husbands. Their culture predates modern religions and they have no concept of heaven and hell. They are animists and believe in two parallel worlds, the human world, which is 24 hours in duration and the spirit world which is 12 hours. When they perform rituals these must accord to spirit world time.”

The two worlds are separate and the spirit enters the child at birth and departs at death. One day a year the door opens between the two worlds. This is a festival day and traditional masks are worn by men as they celebrate the event. The Mah Meri are renowned for their traditional wood carvings, depicting their ancestral spirits. Rashid went on to explain the importance of the Mah Meri carvings many of which have UNESCO Seal of Excellence. “They depict how a person or an animal became a symbol to be worshiped by the Mah Meri tribe. Their sculptures are created to replace something that has been destroyed. They believe that everything, whether living or inanimate, has a spirit. Each carving is crafted from the nyireh batu trees which is found in mangrove swamps. Perhaps the most famous and certainly the most complex is the sculpture of the spirit of the Tiger in Chains. There is a sad story behind the sculpture. A tiger was caught in a trap and left to die by the villagers because they were too frightened to release it. The sculpture shows the tiger roaring as it is trapped in the chains.”

Not much is known of the ceremony when a the spirit is invited into a newly borne child as it a carefully controlled ritual. Rashid went on to explain the ceremonies that are performed at death. “The dead are believed to be living as normal without the body. The dead must be placed in a special area after death and before burial. The ritual of the death begins when the headman announces that a person has died. Everyone who has been connected to the dead person must attend the ceremony. A piece of string is tied around the wrist of those gathered around the body and they are bound together. The string symbolizes the release of the spirit of dead person from relatives and friends. If they do not participate, they will be haunted by the dead person’s spirit. Once the ceremony is completed and relatives and friends have been released, the body is taken to a burial ground where a grave is dug after its arrival. The body is placed in the grave with its feet facing away from the village and the headman releases the spirit.”

Wedding ceremonies are very complicated and involve great expense as there are seven ceremonies that must be completed in four days. “The suitor picks his wife from a line of potential candidates who are separated from him by a curtain. The candidates only show their hands through a curtain, and the prospective groom chooses his future wife based on the hands. There is a serious game that is played to assess the level of intelligence of the bride and groom. Puzzles used in these games are shown on page 71 of Bunga Moyang. The final rituals include sharpening of teeth so that if the couple should die their spirits would not eat their children and the couple are bathed is to purify them before their single days are ended. After the ceremonies are completed, the pair sit on a throne, which can only be sat by a newly married couple. ”

This short review of Bunga Moyang highlights just a few aspects of the ways of life and beliefs of these unique people who trace many aspects of their culture back to their ancestors 10,000 yeas ago.

For more information on the Mah Meri Cultural Village including visiting hours, go to http://mmcv.org.my/web

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