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Mah Meri tribe of Malaysia

Mysterious Mah Meri tribe of Malaysia conduct ritual dance to the dead for another good year

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Members of the Mah Meri tribe of Malaysia have just completed their annual ancestor-worship ceremony, an elaborate ritual involving dancers with intricately-carved masks who perform the historic Main Jo-oh dance for the annual Hari Moyang festival in Pulau Carey, 90 miles from the capital Kuala Lumpur. The local people use the festival as an opportunity to offer prayers and blessings to their forebears, as well as thanking ancestors for good fortune in the past and hoping for future prosperity.

This year, the festival was performed on 1 st March. However, the date of the festival changes every year, and is influenced by the lunar cycle. The exact date is chosen by a council of elders, who are said to be given the appointed day when visited in dreams by the spirits of their ancestors.

There is much mystery surrounding the Mah Meri people (“jungle people” in their tribal language) – very little is known about their origins. Known by the locals as ‘sea gypsies’ or ‘sea nomads’, the Mah Meri are said to have been a nomadic indigenous tribe that fled from the southern coast of Malaysia to escape attacks by pirates, settling in 10 different villages on Pulau Carey island, on the western coast of Malaysia. Their numbers have dwindled to about 2,000.

The Mah Mari rely mainly on subsistence fishing supplemented by gathering marine products such as seaweed, shellfish and edible plants that grow on the island, which is separated from the mainland by the Langat river.

On the day of Hari Moyang (‘Ancestor Day’), each village gathers around a Spirit House, which is filled with flowers, incenses and food, to pay homage to their forefathers. The mixture is burned, the smell of which is believed to alert the ancestral spirits to the gift. Then the dances begin.

The men don expressive masks carved from wood, which are similar to those made by Polynesian tribes, and wear a costume made of woven pandan leaves. The women dress in skirts, sashes and origami-like tiaras also made of pandan leaves.

Mah Meri jo’oh dancers

Mah Meri jo’oh dancers in traditional dresses, with their symbolic leaves woven mountain. Photo credit: Ooi Chooi Seng .

"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. The dancers honour the spirits of their forefathers before going before the village shaman to receive their blessing.

Featured image: Mah Meri dancers wearing traditional masks. Photo source .

By April Holloway

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