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August 27, 2014

Appeasing the Spirit World

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – There are two worlds here in Borneo. The one is of everyday life, in which people go to work or school, live in kampongs or longhouses, and paddle the boats up the river practicing for the races. This is the earth you and I are familiar with; the living, breathing and dying of humankind.


The second world is of spirits and ghosts, still very much alive and well here in Borneo. It is where there is a division between life and death, a nether world with many rituals in this life for the one that will come for us all.


Islam and Christianity have made their mark here. There are mosques and churches everywhere with the Malays being mainly Islam. A riverine people, who controlled the goods coming down the estuaries and now speak to the people as the stewards of the government.


The majority of people are known as Ibans. Many of them embraced Christianity and occupy the hinterlands, the deep jungle. They have since moved out and embrace towns and cities, gone overseas and have become a tribute to the nation of Malaysia.


However, both the Christian Ibans and the Malay followers of Islam have a lingering belief in the old animistic traditions. Among the Malays, the placenta is buried in a ritual, Hantu Tinggi, the ghost that lives in the cradle of the ferns in the highest trees, and others wander around the kampongs.


Fort Margherita is a white edifice built in 1870 to guard Kuching against anyone coming up the river. It has never been used except for executions and drills for the military. Hanging in a small tower, facing the water, was a basket of skulls.


Who the four or five men were is not known. They could have been from the Chinese Rebellion of 1858, or from World War II when the Rajah authorized the taking of heads again. Two were crumbly, just pieces, while two were intact. One of them had a bullet hole through the brain, possibly the size of a musket ball.


In a dryer more stable climate, one could guess they were from the 1850s; but here in Borneo, with a strong tropical sun, heavy humidity and constant rain, they just as well could have come from World War II. We did determine, however, two of the skulls were Asian; but, because the other two were in pieces, we could not tell their race.


We were very fortunate, mainly by accident, to attend the ceremony moving them back from the Museum to the renovated Fort. We attended a lecture by a doctoral candidate, and she explained the methods of preserving rock art. (More on that later.) The Miring ceremony followed and we were invited to attend.


In the spirit world there are ghosts that wander around and need to be satisfied. They can cause bad dreams, misfortune and generally make a nuisance of themselves. They also have friends, who join them in causing misfortune unless those of us in this world appease them.


The Miring ceremony started with the unrolling of an ancient rug known as a Pua Kunbu. It was decorated with abstract figures, long faded away. Next to it was a small bamboo one where the ceremony was to take place. Two girls dressed in colourful dresses, with a fan of silver coins on their heads, and three others with bright art-like vests officiated.


Next, 16 small plates were arranged in a sort of three order. They held seri (a kind of tobacco), eggs, rice, glutinous rice cooked in coconut oil and wrapped in palm leaf (what we would call cookies), and other gifts for the spirits. All were of a white in color. Ajai Jailani, the medium, began by chanting ancient verses. Next, he cracked an egg into a glass and rolled it around spilling a potion and then drank some of the raw concoction. This was to strengthen the spirits and a symbol of bravery.


A live chicken was then brought forth. It was cut and its blood spilled out onto the bamboo mat. Feathers were plucked from the wing to sweep away the bad omens or spirits, leaving only the good ones. There was more, louder chanting. The spirits appeased, the skulls were wrapped in another basket and sent back to Fort Margherita where the journey began. An offering was left there two years ago to inform the spirits that they would be away for only short time. We were all offered a sip of Tuak, a rice wine.


There could be world where these spirits, omens and other creatures live and need to be appeased. I, for one, do not believe in them, but I am glad somebody else takes care of them.


...Life is good. . . . .


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