Mah Meri is a group of indigenous people or “orang asli” who resides in the Carey Island, which is about 28km south of Klang town. There are 5 Mah Meri villages here on Carey Island with total population about 3,000 persons.
Amongst all the indigenous people around Peninsular Malaysia, this tribe has become famous because of their creativity in terms of weaving and wood carvings. Their fame has attracted international attention when UNESCO’s Asean Handicraft Promotion & Development Assocation awarded the Seal of Excellence for at least 20 wood carving pieces.
Having learnt that Mah Meri will be celebrating their annual “Hari Moyang” or Spirits’ Day on 20th April, I jumped at the chance to visit their village. Spirits’ Day is celebrated anytime within 1 month after the Chinese Lunar New Year, and the exact day is determined by signs or visions received in their dreams during that period.
Mah Meri practices animism, and believes that spirits have an influence over the living. During Hari Moyang, the spirits of their deceased relatives and protecting spirits will return to the world and visit the living.
During this special day, Mah Meri will prepare a special altar called “Sanggar” for the spirits of their relatives. On this altar, favourite food and drinks of the deceased will be placed.
As for the protecting spirit, it will be received and housed in a special House of Spirits or “Rumah Moyang”. The altar is prepared inside this house, complete with food and drink, and surrounded with lit candles and incense.
The House of Spirits will be also decorated with all sorts of origami made from “nipah”, a type of palm fronds found easily around Carey Island. Ladies of the village spent the last 2 to 3 days to complete all the origami. Many shapes and designs will adorn the gathering place, each with its own meaning.
Second stop at another House of Spirits which is much older
In the morning, villagers arrive at the House of Spirits for blessings. Individually they approach the shaman to ask for blessing from the protecting spirit. Then villager will bless the shaman by applying rice flour paste on his forehead and hands, and this will be reciprocated by the shaman to complete the ritual. Villagers will also come with food prepared to be shared amongst them.
Group of musicians plays traditional rhythmic music in the background using the viola, gong, drum and 2 sets of bamboo stampers.
For the benefit of outsiders who have come to witness Hari Moyang, Mah Meri Cultural Village has also organized a group of dancers to perform the traditional Joh-Oh dances around a central “busut” or weaved cone-shaped ant house. The dances are performed to invite the spirits to join in the celebrations. The public is also invited to join in the dancing, which is quite easy to follow.
Group of musicians
Female dancers with their traditional costumes
Masked male dancers accompanying the female dancers
The dancers were dressed in the traditional Mah Meri clothing – beaten tree bark from “Terap” tree and weaved “nipah” fronds. The men usually dance outside the circle of women with their special wooden masks. These masks are believed to represent their ancestors’ spirits, and can only be passed down from fathers to sons.
Personally felt privileged to have witness this symbolic day with the Mah Meri people. Seeing how modernisation is creeping up on their community, I personally hope that the people will survive and pass down their cultural heritage. It is a shame that big corporations are slowly taking away their ancestral land and livelihood.
Female dancers proudly showing off their traditional costumes
Masked male dancer named Diaman, with his ancestral mask called “Manjus”