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Malaysian tribe dances to the dead for another good year

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A member of the Mah Meri tribe dances on the occasion of the Hari Moyang festival in Pulau Carey last week.— Photo: AFP
A member of the Mah Meri tribe dances on the occasion of the Hari Moyang festival in Pulau Carey last week.— Photo: AFP

Donning a fearsome mask, Ejal stamps his feet and swings his hips to the beat of a traditional drum as his costume, made of woven pandan leaves, rustles in the tropical Malaysian heat. Several others from the Mah Meri tribe also wear these carved wooden masks, akin to those made by Polynesian tribes, as they dance alongside women dressed in skirts, sashes and origami-like tiaras also made of pandan leaves.

The Mah Meri (“Jungle People”) perform the annual ritual, which visitors are welcome to watch, to honour the spirits of their forefathers on Hari Moyang, or “Ancestors’ Day,” before going before the village shaman to receive their blessing.

“I have been doing this for more than 30 years. We need spiritual blessings from our ancestors,” said Maznah Anak Unyam, 46, who added that the women make their traditional dress themselves.

But while they have settled in 10 different villages on Pulau Carey island, on the western coast of Malaysia just 60 km away from Kuala Lumpur, little is known about their origins.

According to the authorities, the Mah Meri were once a nomadic indigenous tribe but fled from the southern coast of Malaysia to escape attacks by pirates decades ago. The Mah Meri observe Hari Moyang, which falls in the first quarter of the year, believing it will protect their precarious livelihood. — AFP

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