Dancing with Pulau Carey Guardians on Mah Meri Ancestors’ Day
“Why don’t you ask the shaman directly? He’s at ease now, since we’re waiting for low tide,” the organiser said. He led me over to the rough wooden platform, bedecked in nipah frond origami decorations, and sat me down before the head shaman of the Mah Meri in Pulau Carey.
I could hardly believe how lucky I was. I felt even luckier when I was told later by a young woman there, that this isn’t usually allowed.
“Ask!” prompted the organiser. So I asked: why were the flags and the shamans’ clothing mainly in yellow? And the cloth wrapped around the totems in the Ancestors’ Hut as well? Was there a special meaning to yellow?
In Malay culture, yellow symbolised royalty, because it is the status colour of gold. I also knew that there is a folk Malay practice to wrap yellow cloth around monoliths as a sign of respect for the spirits believed to be interred there. So I wondered if the Mah Meri practice was related to either one of these.
But the shaman told me, the colour was merely specified for the Mah Meri of Kampung* Judah by the spirits. He said that other villages of the Mah Meri might have different colours. It does not necessarily have to stay yellow. If a shaman while in a state of spirit possession (menurun) receives a new preference from the spirit, then it would change accordingly.
Maybe it’s a royal spirit! Or maybe yellow was just the spirit’s favourite colour!
- Hari Moyang of the Mah Meri nation
- The diversity of the Mah Meri
- Mah Meri puja pantai: Waiting for the low tide
- The Puja Pantai ceremony begins
- Are Mah Meri like Malay people?
- The Aboriginal vs Modern Worldview
- Tips for attending the Mah Meri Ancestors’ Day
- Glossary & notes:
Hari Moyang of the Mah Meri nation
I was in Pulau Carey (Carey Island) as a tourist guest at the Mah Meri people’s Ancestors’ Day, or Hari Moyang. Despite the name, the festival actually spans two days. The villagers had already gone to a different part of the shoreline the previous day, to commemorate the spirits of their ancestors who had perished there when their ship sank in a storm, long ago.
But today, the festivities turned cheerful. For this day, they were commemorating the ship that did not sink, and which came safely to shore. They believed it was all through the intercession of the Guardian Spirit of the coastline, Moyang* Getah**, who is credited for the succour of the surviving ship.
Today’s ceremony is called puja pantai, a worship ritual meant to honour the coastal spirits. Once common to the coastal-living nations in the Malay archipelago, the practice died out as the various communities embraced Islam, surviving only in the aborigine nations who still hold animistic beliefs such as the Mah Meri.
Anthropology tip: Usually the ‘weird’ thing actually has a sensible explanation.
I continued to sit with the head shaman, as everyone was killing time. We were waiting for the low tide, but I did not know why. Perhaps there was a special significance? Was that when the ship came to shore? So I eventually asked the shaman.
“Because it’s sensible,” the shaman said. “There are fish and things on the sand flat. It is better to see what we step on.”
How banal after all!
This is by far my favourite reason for asking open questions when I find myself in these situations.
On TV programs and books, in which (usually) Western adventure personalities, archaeologists or anthropologists go to ‘primitive’ tribes, the explanation put forward for these things is always some kind of mystical or esotericism. So, being the well-read sort, this is also how my mind has been trained to jump:
It looks weird to me = It has a meaning I can’t relate to.
And of course, sometimes that’s true. But it’s less often than you think.
When I ask directly, and to people actually in the know (like shamans, not the guy at the hostel), more often than not the answers I get are plain and practical. I can totally relate to them. In fact, anyone can.
I try my best to un-train my mind, and re-train it to see strange peoples as being just like me, to begin with. Meanwhile, the contrast between expectation and reality is a constant source of amusement to me!
The diversity of the Mah Meri
“Next month there is another one,” remarked the head shaman, offhand.
“Another what? Ceremony?” I asked. He nodded, and explained the Mah Meri of Kampung Bumbun would have their Ancestors’ Day next month.
Say what? All this while I had assumed the Mah Meri of Pulau Carey, numbering only about 4,000, were all one nation.
Yes and no. This coastline of Selangor, the region around the bay named after the warrior Panglima Garang (I rendered him “Lord Furious” in my attempt to make his legend more relatable for my Anglophone readers) is the range of the Mah Meri nation. There are five villages on Carey Island, he said, ticking them off one by one.
I asked him whether Kampung Bumbun would also come to the coastline for puja pantai.
He shook his head. Kampung Bumbun has an ancestors’ day, but no sea worship. They’re a little inland. But Kampung Sungai Kurau also lives by the coastline, and their Ancestors’ Day has a puja pantai ritual too.
Mah Meri Arts: Intricate Nipa origami
I glanced up at the hanging decorations dangling from the roof of the shed. They were intricate, birds and flowers and corn woven like origami from the fronds of the nipa palm that grew around the briny marshes here. Upon my own brow was an origami crown which they had given to all the guests that day.
The art was familiar. I’ve seen it across the region – all the way up in Vietnam, and as far west as the Maldives.
However, the intricacy and skill I saw among the Mah Meri surpassed examples I’ve seen before. Certainly it far outstripped my own Malay people, among whom this art survives only in the making of ketupat.
One caught my attention – I had not seen that shape so far that day. It was a crescent and star. Perhaps to symbolise the merging influence of the Muslim religion into Mah Meri beliefs.
I asked him about the nipa origami. He smiled and shrugged, claiming a lack of knowledge. “It’s the art of the womenfolk,” he said, losing interest.
Mah Meri Arts: Surreal wood sculptures
So I then asked him about the bizarre wooden sculptures the Mah Meri are better known for.
At times grotesque, and always surreal, Mah Meri artists often draw inspiration from their animistic beliefs of spirits in nature. 22 Mah Meri sculptures were awarded the UNESCO Seal of Excellence, and are displayed in the gallery of the Mah Meri Cultural Village in Kampung Bumbun.
The shaman explained that he did not know very much about that, because the Kampung Judah people do not really have this art. However the Kampung Bumbun, and perhaps Sungai Kurau peoples, are quite skilled.
Yet more micro-diversity that I had not expected!
I racked my brain, trying to think of further questions while I had this golden opportunity. But a young woman was trying to catch my eye. Succeeding, she motioned for me to come away. Time’s up.
I took my leave from the head shaman, and came off the platform.
Mah Meri puja pantai: Waiting for the low tide
I wandered onto the beach to bide time. How not? There was the sea, and she always pulls me like a magnet. So I skirted around the mangrove roots, and out under the burning midday sun.
It was not quite low tide yet, but it was almost all the way there. The sand flat was exposed for quite a distance, and nearly all the way to the ceremonial high platform that the Mah Meri had decorated for the reception of the Guardians.
I allowed myself to be distracted by nature.
The bleak mangroves and the regular rippling pattern on the sand.
Wan saplings here and there – signs of past attempts to re-plant the mangrove, perhaps.
Finally I simply sat, looking out to the sea. Far on the horizon, container ships moved grandly across – the harbours of Klang are close by.
The Mah Meri children had also grown restive by this time. Their attention span had run out. They clambered over the mangrove roots, and before long, they were playing at chase all across the sand flats.
The sight brought to mind my first visit to Carey Island, just the previous year. When I watched an impromptu chase being waged with the Kampung Bumbun children around the street near the Cultural Village. I had brought a house guest to the Cultural Village, and that was the moment when I knew my guest was special.
Early last year, when I returned from my second trip to the Maldives, I grew restless by inches. I had been accustomed to the rapid pace of things happening following my Blue Period, pulling me hither and thither as fast as I could keep up.
Learning how to speak. Learning how to live all over again – as this version of me.
I see now, why people say they’re ‘born again’.
But then there was a hiatus. Perhaps the universe was done putting me back together and turning me the right way around. And though I kept busy learning how to have a travel blog, I began to feel out of sorts.
I felt prodded to move, but I didn’t know where to. To make it even more vexing, I had a couchsurfer who was constantly asking for things to do, despite a seemingly full social calendar.
My first time to Carey Island
I kept thinking about the Meetme event I saw, which was for this very festival, but from last year.
I was intrigued; the notion of attending an aboriginal festival attracted me. What’s more, it’s so close. Carey Island is only an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur, an easy half day out. Actually I had already long wanted to go see what’s at Carey Island, even before I learned about the Mah Meri.
By the time my couchsurfer pestered me for activities, the Hari Moyang was over. But I decided we could still check out the Mah Meri Cultural Village.
So I proposed a day trip to Carey Island.
And that’s why I already knew about the Mah Meri sculptures and ritual masks, when I came again for Hari Moyang.
The Puja Pantai ceremony begins
The tide was deemed to be sufficiently low. Indeed, the water receded a far distance away, leaving a wide open ground around the offering platform.
I remembered the shaman saying that Hari Moyang is about 5 days after Chinese New Year, which is always on a new moon. Though it was approaching neap tide, the ebb tide still exposed a great field of sand.
The drummers began a simple marching beat.
The shamans’ assistants went ahead, bringing the food offerings and to begin preparing the ritual site. Villagers and tourists alike followed behind them.
Bringing the rear were the Mah Meri maidens in their traditional clothing of terap bark and nipa fringe, hair decorated with origami creations.
The ritual site
The tall offering platform was rustic. It looked out to sea and was cheerfully decorated in yellow flags and nipa fringes.
Offerings were placed on the platform by the shaman’s assistants. A small conical totem woven and decorated with origami arts was brought up to the fore, but placed at the side. Before the ceremony began – and every so often during the ritual – attendants sprinkle the platform all over with water.
Two points were marked before it in a straight line. I was told it represented the route of the ship that survived, and the route along which the guardians of the coast would be invited. I guess you could say, it represented the ‘red carpet’.
Moyang Getah would approach the platform along this route, and afterwards the shamans would dance with them (as well as ensure the spirits leave afterwards – a very important role of the shaman!).
Menurun – the trance dance
The visitors stood on either side of the invisible ‘red carpet’.
The shamans sat in a row behind the platform. The drummers continued to play, keeping up a discreet beat, as the shamans prepared to enter a trance. Incense wafted around from a metal container set by the platform.
Eventually the music shifted as one of the shamans – dressed in grey rather than yellow – stepped forward in his trance. He approached the path before the platform and began a kind of trembling dance, stopping at the first marker. I wondered if he would proceed to the second marker.
The visitors became excited, and began taking photos and videos. Before long, they began to encroach into the Guardian’s path. Mah Meri youth tasked to maintain the sanctity of the ritual site were forced to order the tourists back.
The shaman returned to his place behind the platform.
The head shaman ascends the platform
We waited a long while after that – at least 15 minutes, I reckon. I didn’t know whether that was normal, or if the ceremony had been disrupted by the unruly tourists. Would it normally vary anyway, depending on how many shamans could successfully achieve menurun and channel the ancestors? Were the spirits offended, or disinclined to come?
The exhibition in the Cultural Village did give a more detailed description of the ceremony. From the description, it seemed to me that rituals which draw its character from pre-Industrial times are typically not standardised as ‘modern’ people often expect it.
Meanwhile, the platform was being prepared again, with more sprinkling of water. The attendants mixed something in an offering bowl.
By this time I had decided to move closer to the platform, where I could observe the shamans and attendants.
Considering that it was faux pas to cross the spirit’s path, to block it on the far end, or even to encroach into the path, I quickly worked out that there was actually no point to stand with (often much taller) other visitors. In any case, the view from slightly behind the platform was much clearer than the sides, and I was closer to the actual ritual goings-on too.
The drums continued to play, and the villagers began chanting. The head shaman rose from his seat and walked in a stately manner to the front of the platform. He ascended it, spending some time there as the chanting continues. He then descended, and returned to his seat.
The summoning of the Guardian Spirit
An attendant began sprinkling water on the platform once more.
I took advantage of the lull to ask the organiser about the shaman in the grey clothing. Was he a different kind of shaman?
I wasn’t sure he got the point of my question, or perhaps my question made no sense in the Mah Meri context. He didn’t give a clear answer. However, he did point out to me that the shamans were dressed in Malay-style clothing.
Come to think of it, it was true. They were not wearing Mah Meri traditional clothing! The guide said that this was because the sea spirits were believed to be of Malay culture, so they dressed accordingly to please them.
I was reminded strongly of a question I asked my colleague in Bangkok, about some fancy clothes hung up on a random tree. He said, it was for the tree spirit. He told me to note that the style is an old, traditional Thai style. This was because the tree spirit is supposed to be from that era.
The attendant began the summoning. He called upon the spirits by name, inviting them to partake of the food offering on the platform, and grant honour to the day.
Presumably the invitation was accepted.
The music shifted to a more upbeat rhythm- very like a Malay traditional dance tune. The head shaman moves forward and began dancing in the space between the platform and the first marker.
It was very like the zapin, a Malay traditional dance. Goodness, the guide was right! If the guardian was an ancient Malay spirit, these would be the things it might like!
The Jo’oh dance and the Mah Meri masked dancer
I was distracted from the head shaman’s dance by photographers congregating on the other side of the platform. I quickly worked out why. A Mah Meri masked dancer had shown up, and obligingly posed for photographs.
He was covered almost entirely in nipa fringe and origami tassels, and wore a carved wooden mask. The third generation to wear the same mask, I overheard someone say. He also wore a huge round belly – almost as if he were pregnant.
Meanwhile, the conical totem was brought forward and placed at the first marker. The Mah Meri maidens come forth and began the traditional Jo’oh dance around the totem.
The shamans stood nearby, presiding over them.
I took it as a sign that the ritual was over, and the festivities had begun.
As if on cue, the masked dancer rushed forward and began dancing joyfully – and somewhat comically! He stamped lightly and shook his tassels, belly wiggling.
Visitors were invited to join in, and before long the Jo’oh circle was filled with people.
Are Mah Meri like Malay people?
Among the first things the organiser told us during the tourist briefing, was that the Mah Meri were ‘not like us’.
I wasn’t sure if he meant modern Malaysians generally, in reference to their different worldview, or the Malays specifically, because they look pretty much identical to us.
And indeed, the Mah Meri are different from the Malay. They arrange their society differently, believe differently, and so have different value priorities.
But that day, I was more struck by the things that were similar.
The Mah Meri greet their elders just like Malays do, and just like I’ve seen Filipinos do in their more traditional social settings: with a bow to kiss the elder’s hands.
Their percussion instruments are similar to ours, and while the rhythm doesn’t sound familiar, at one point they did sound very close to a typical kompang beat.
The food that they brought for the feast at the end, was also very close to Malay foods.
I wondered how much of it was a later cultural influence from being such close neighbours, and how much was what we had in common from an earlier age.
What is orang asli?
The Mah Meri are considered an ‘original people’ of the land (orang asli), and fall under the Senoi ethnic group.
Various tribes of the Senoi people are found all along the Malay peninsula. So their presence in Pulau Carey is often assumed by ordinary Malaysians to pre-date the rise of states and empires in the region, because this is typically the case for the orang asli in general.
But interestingly, it is not so for the Mah Meri. They actually have two origin stories for their settlement in Pulau Carey, and both place them later in time than other orang asli in present-day Malaysia.
How did the Mah Meri come to Pulau Carey?
Even so, no one disputes their status as orang asli, since they are similar to Senoi tribes who have been here since pre-history. The scholarly anthropological opinion is that they migrated south to the Pulau Carey area from Indochina, based on genetic research and language similarity (they speak a language similar to Mon Khmer).
The Mah Meri’s own oral history traces their origin south to Kota Linggi, in the territory of ancient Johor, where the last Sultan of Malacca*** fled following the fall of his capital to the Portuguese in the 16th century. His subjects – which included the ancestors of the Mah Meri – dispersed when the heirless king died. Some of those fled to Pulau Carey.
The two origin stories seem to disagree, but I personally don’t see why the two views must conflict.
Perhaps there was already a Senoi people in Carey Island, who came from a Khmer region. And perhaps the sea gypsy subjects of the fallen Malacca empire fled into their lands, merging into one community.
Perhaps that is why a tribe whose name means ‘forest people’, has a coastal culture today.
Why are Malays and Mah Meri different?
That day I watched a people with a face like my face, displaying a ritual that we might once have had in common.
It was brought home by a remark from a local Carey Islander, answering a question from another Malay girl. She asked about the material for the blouses worn by some of the Mah Meri girls: wood fibre from the terap tree.
“They cut out the outer bark. Then they carefully peel out the fibrous layers underneath. This becomes the fabric,” he said. He gave a short, self-deprecating laugh. “I mean, back then, what material would you have to make clothes with?”
What indeed? We did not grow cotton here. There were no real fibre crops. Why did the seafaring and delta tribes of the region have woven clothing in the first place? Why did we form monarchies and states?
It was because of our ability to have both agriculture and trade. So we had weaving and threaded clothes. Excess food and wealth meant a need for – and the ability to – fortify cities. A territorial state meant the ability to send and receive diplomatic missions. The foreign influence meant new ideas.
That was how this region obtained Hinduism and Buddhism from India. And later, Islam from Arabia.
And that accounts for everything that is different between us today, whose ancestors were here together in those old and ancient times.
The Aboriginal vs Modern Worldview
The modern state actually makes no sense to ancient humans.
We who are born into this era are used to the fixed borders of political states as the default way to see the world. Whether we came here before or after the formation of the state, matters. Whether we were born on one side or another of a national border, matters.
One group are citizens, the other are not.
But for the vast majority of human history, this was not so. Tribes defined their unit by social ties and kinship. Territory is a thing you have to range in for resources, it was not a concept that defined your tribe.
Even when there were states, the borders were porous. If you pledged yourself the subject of a king, and obeyed his laws, very likely that was enough to make you a citizen.
In fact, I met an Indonesian woman there, who I first thought was from Sarawak, in Malaysian Borneo. She actually identifies as Dayak, which is a tribe in Borneo, with a range across the jungles of both the modern states of Malaysia and Indonesia.
Indeed, in the aborigine worldview, her Dayak identity is enough.
But in our modern worldview, she is Indonesian. Whereas other tribes of the Dayak nation across the border in Sarawak, are Malaysian.
Conflicts in worldview
There are good reasons why the world changed the way it did. But in the human psyche, what feels more natural to us came from the aeons before.
Perhaps this is why we struggle in trying to make territory-based citizenship work in a psyche that sees it as kin- or allegiance-based. Why we have racism, and why we are more accepting of migrants similar to our own race, than a distant one.
I wonder if this age of stern political borders is a permanent new normal of human history. Or will it end up merely a blip in the dominant human experience of overlap and fluid exchange?
It is not merely a philosophical question in an age of the greatest refugee crisis in history. And for the Mah Meri, boundaries of land and the concept of ‘owning’ it, is a very real and imminent question.
You see, Pulau Carey is close to not one, but two major ports of Klang: Port Klang, and Westport. The latter is being expanded even while port volumes are in decline. And yet, there is yet a third port being proposed, right on Carey Island. How would the Mah Meri maintain their culture, if they are removed from this land?
It was what I thought about, when I watched the silhouette of cargo ships in the background, as the villagers went forth to their ritual platform.
Like a different kind of sea spectre.
Not a guardian. But the omen of a future exile.
Tips for attending the Mah Meri Ancestors’ Day
If you have the opportunity to sign up for this unique cultural experience, here are some tips to help you have a good time. Look up ‘Mah Meri’ on this website, to see if they are receiving tourist guests for any ceremonies.
Practical tips for the puja pantai ceremony
- The puja pantai is conducted out on the sand flats which are only revealed at low tide. Wear trekking sandals, or flip-flops. Or at least shoes you can easily wash afterwards.
- Dress code is casual, even though it is the Mah Meri’s major festival. I did make a token effort, mainly because I would have dressed a bit for my own and others’ festivals. I felt if I went full casual I would not be giving them due respect that a properly brought-up Malay should normally give another. It is an outdoor ritual under the sun though, so whatever effort you make should still be practical. To blend in, aim for roughly the degree of modesty that local Malaysians usually go for.
- If low tide is around midday, it will be really hot. Bring your own bottle of water. The organiser will likely include bottled water as part of the tour, but there is no need to generate the plastic waste. Malaysia is a country with very low recycling rates.
- If you go as part of a tour group, lunch is probably included. But it will be back at the Cultural Village and not at the village feast. Depending on what time low tide is, lunch may be delayed. So eat a good breakfast if you get hungry easily.
- There are tide apps to find out when low tide is. Pulau Carey is near the primary harbour of Malaysia, Port Klang, so the tide calculations for Port Klang would serve.
General etiquette: how to be a good guest for Hari Moyang
The puja pantai is a religious ceremony carried out as an expression of Mah Meri culture, and not for the benefit of tourists. It is not a performance.
If you do not like for people to stand between a devotee and a Buddha statue, don’t do it to others. If you do not like for people to wander back and forth in front of your prayer row while the imam is leading congregational prayer, don’t do it to others. You get the idea.
When you ask to attend other people’s religious ceremonies, be aware that it is real for them. Even if you don’t believe yourself, respect means you recognise that they do.
- If you want a close-up photo of dressed-up people, ask for permission. Even if you zoom in for a shot, and they don’t seem angry, it’s still rude.
- Just because they’re ‘native’, does not make it ok to take close-up or zoom shots of children, or stop them randomly for photos. Would you like a random person to approach your children without you knowing? If you can’t find a parent to ask for permission, don’t do it.
Puja pantai etiquette: what you need to know
- The entire length from the far marker to the offering platform is the path for the spirit. A width of maybe four feet on each side was cleared when I was there. The spirit, being a sea spirit, will approach from the sea. Therefore it is rude to stand at the end of the path (where the left arrow points to), no matter how awesome that angle is to photograph the platform (where the right arrow is pointing). Wait until the ritual is over.
- Since the entire length is the ‘red carpet’, do not cross it for any reason. If a VIP is about to get out of a car to walk down the red carpet, nobody jumps the rope to cross in their path. If you want to move to the other side, walk back to the platform and cross behind it.
- Do not crowd or approach the shamans during the ceremony. They are most likely in a trance, and channeling an ancestor spirit from the hidden world. Firstly, they are not in an aware state, and/or you might displease the spirit possessing him. Secondly, the people believe it is dangerous for you, because the spirit may decide to inhabit you instead, and then might be difficult to dismiss.
Glossary & notes:
*moyang = literally: great-grandparent, although also used for any ancestor beyond this. Throughout this region, family designations are also used as honorifics even for unrelated people, the respectful weight increasing with ancientness. For example datuk (grandfather) is often used as a term of honour for people in authority. Hence, the most venerable kin title of moyang can be used as a term of deep respect for guardian spirits, which is a different usage than for spirits who had literally been one’s ancestors.
**getah = ‘rubber’ or ‘tree sap’ in Malay. This usage, however, is not at all related to rubber trees. In this case, it refers to the supernatural pull upon the boat to the shore, as if there was a stickiness.
*** Although Malacca today is a tourism draw because of its UNESCO Heritage City status related to the Straits settlement (Peranakan) culture, the meaning that Malacca has to Malay people in Malaysia actually pre-dates this. See my other Malacca stories for more insight on this.
Add a visit to the Mah Meri Cultural Village to your list of day trips out of Kuala Lumpur!