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July 20, 2016

Siti Sambas and Islamic Mysticism

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – The mystical, the world between death and beyond, the metaphysical and the spirit world have all become part of the history I am trying to write about the Sarawak River Valley located on the island of Borneo. To travel here is to shake apart ones understanding of the world formed by a life time of scientific thinking.


We came across an Islamic grave. The grave was the only one next to the river, askew because it had to face west to Mecca. The grave was built up to about 7.8 inches with bathroom tiles of white with blue around the edges The middle was an oblong space which went down to the remains. The headstone told us, well, my wife who told me, that was it was a woman. Nothing else.


Probably the only person who was interested in the grave was me. It was on private property next to a small road that terminated at the river. You could walk to it without any barriers, like a stroll through the park. We met the direct relative of the person in the grave, whose name was Siti Sambas. She lived about five generations ago. The problem is that westerners like me view one generation equals about 20 years. They believe one generation equals 70 years. That would make the grave built in 1915 or 1695. Take your pick. The only thing the descendant knew was her name.


We had tried to find the local Bomoh, or shaman. It took us over five years, what with our travelling to the States and life itself. We finally found his phone number and called. It took three different appointments to finally see him. A Bomoh is a person who knows local medicine. He knows how to communicate with people who have died. He is conversant in charms, fires and stones. We finally met him.


I expected a wild eyed individual, dressed in a sarong holding bones and speaking in a tongue I had never heard. He was my wife's classmate and she assured me he wasn't like that. He was dressed in a tan pants and shirt holding car keys and smoking cigarettes. His hair was combed back. Nothing like what I expected.


He knew about Siti Sambas. She was a white woman. Now, I have to be careful here. She could have been very light skinned because she was mixed with Chinese. She could have been an albino. It is very doubtful that she was a westerner; but, in this part of the world, one never knows. Never.


According to the Bomoh, her name was Dang Putih or Siti Dang Putih. Dang means she is part of the royal family from old Sambas, a town on the Indonesian side. She had a white complexion, white skin and white hair which leads one to believe she was an albino. You could even see the water travel down her throat when she drank. She could predict what was about to happen even at a distant place.


According to the Bomoh, she slept with her cousin. According to her, they slept head to head and not side by side making sexual congress impossible. She was accused of having sex with her cousin by the town’s people. She was then murdered by her fiancée.


After her death, the truth came out. Her grave was considered to have karamat (Islamic mysticism), containing a supernatural power. People came to her grave from all over to pray. The canoes could pull up close to the grave because it was along the river.


And that is the story of Siti Sambas.


...Life is good. . . . .


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