I have heard of the Mah Meri indigenous people a few years ago, but never had the opportunity to visit them. So when my travel blogger friend Kathleen Poon of Kat Pergi Mana asked me to join her on an outing to visit the Mah Meri on the day they celebrate Hari Moyang (Ancestors’ Day), I said yes.
The indigenous peoples, known locally as Orang Asli or Orang Asal, are divided into three main groups in Malaysia, according to their language, lifestyle, dwellings, facial features and skin colour. These three main groups, namely the Negrito, Senoi and Proto Malay, are further divided into 18 tribes, each group consisting of six tribes (as shown in the following figure).
The indigenous peoples of Malaysia are well-known for their handicrafts, and among them, the Mah Meri and Jah Hut are famous for their figure and mask wood carvings.
About the Mah Meri
‘Mah Meri’ means ‘forest people’ or ‘people who live in the forest’. ‘Mah’ refers to ‘people’, while ‘Meri’ refers to ‘forest’. Similar to most of the other tribes, the Mah Meri originally lived in the forest.
According to their elders, the Mah Meri originated from Johor Lama, also known as Kota Linggi. However, researchers are of the opinion that the Mah Meri are not originally from Malaysia. They belong to the Senoi, who are believed to come from Cambodia and Vietnam. Genetic research has so far classified the Mah Meri community as descendants of the Mongoloid people.
In terms of religion, the Mah Meri are animists. The Mah Meri depend on the forest and the sea for their livelihood, and their spiritual life closely revolves around them. This is expressed in their figurines, which are intimately connected to their ancestors and the natural environment. The Mah Meri believe that there are two forms, the good and the bad. Therefore, various ceremonies are conducted as a sign of respect and to appease the spirits or unseen beings, believed to be responsible for structuring as well as meting out punishment on their lives.
Two of the most important ceremonies of the Mah Meri are the Hari Moyang (Ancestors’ Day) and Puja Pantai (Beach Ceremony). We are very fortunate that the Mah Meri has allowed visitors to see and participate in these two ceremonies.
Directly translated as Ancestors’ Day, Hari Moyang is one of the most important and biggest festivals celebrated by the Mah Meri community living in Carey Island, Klang. The Mah Meri explained that this festival is celebrated 30 days after Chinese New Year, because they also observe the lunar calendar.
Hari Moyang is celebrated in three locations, which are the house of Moyang Gadeng (who looks after the central part of the village), Moyang Amai (who looks after the areas on the fringes of the village), and Moyang Keteng (who looks after the areas at the northernmost parameters of the village). For the Mah Meri who live near the coast, this ceremony will be conducted on the beach and called Puja Pantai.
Moyang in the context of the Mah Meri refer to their ancestors and also their natural environment. The ancestors who are supposed to be present at Hari Moyang are Moyang Getah, Moyang Melur, Moyang Tok Naning, Moyang Bojos, and Moyang Tok Pekong Cina.
These ancestors are believed to protect the community’s happiness and are also capable of punishment. Thus, the Mah Meri believe in revering and appeasing them. The Mah Meri’s famous statuettes, carved in the form of figurines and masks, are closely connected to their ancestors and environment, and the statuettes’ names are derived from the more famous ancestors.
Here are photos from the Hari Moyang Festival in the form of a slide show:
I followed the Mah Meri’s customs and received blessings at the Rumah Moyang, and left a Bunga Moyang on the giant cone in front of the building to pay my respects to the ancestors.
The Mah Meri’s mask carvings are inspired by their spiritual beliefs and the natural environment, and display their artistic and abstract imagination. The carvings are based mainly on myths and legends.
Here are some of the interesting and enigmatic large masks hanging outside the walls of the Mah Meri Museum in the Mah Meri Cultural Village, Carey Island:
The masks are used in ritual dancing when worshiping their ancestors’ spirits. The masks are worn to represent the ancestors, who are believed to have extraordinary powers, and also believed to have been outstanding public figures during their lifetimes. The following are photos of some of the prominent masks inside the museum.
Here are some of my favourite figurines from the Mah Meri Museum.
The story of Moyang Puting Beliong revolves around a family with seven children. The youngest daughter became the spirit of a cyclone (puting beliong).
The story of Moyang Buaya was about a grieving man who vowed to become a crocodile when his brother disappeared in the river.
The origin of Moyang Pelandok was quite sinister and rooted in meting out punishment. A man was cursed into become Moyang Pelandok because he was always lying.
The legend of Moyang Sempuar revolved around a story of doom and gloom – a man drowned in the sea because he was taken by Moyang Sempuar.
The legend of Moyang Galak is somewhat similar to the story line of some of today’s horror movies. It was about the story of a child disturbed by Moyang Galak.
Meanwhile, on a positive note, Moyang Sauh is the guardian of fishermen who ensures that their anchor will never get stuck.
I have collated photos of the more interesting and captivating carvings from the Mah Meri Museum and Mah Meri Cultural Village in the form of a slide show:
Special 3D Origami
I was really touched that the Mah Meri let us view and participate in their festival, and I truly enjoyed the cultural experience. I found their masks, attire and intricate 3D origami particularly interesting.
Their origami is environmentally friendly and 100% biodegrable because they are made from Nipah palm (Nypa fruticans) leaves.
After the Hari Moyang ceremony, we were given the opportunity to learn how to make some of the basic origami.
Here are some of the 3D origami that I liked the most, which reminded me of hanging mobiles:
All in all, I had a lovely time with the Mah Meri community at their Hari Moyang Festival. Before we left, the villagers provided us with a hearty lunch as well, after which our group went back to Kuala Lumpur in the LokaLocal van.
I would love to come back again the following year, and will be looking forward to experiencing next year’s Puja Pantai.