Sacred Texts  Shamanism  Index  Previous  Next 


To protect the soul-substance of his staple food-plant the Malay peasant, conservative as agriculturists all the world over, is content with the primitive ritual of the animist, covered for decency's sake with a thin veneer of his later religions. Courts and ports, where new faiths first found acceptance, are more open to liberal influences, and to safeguard the body and soul of man the Malay has added to the practices of the animist all the magic that Hindu and Muslim could teach him. Like all primitive peoples, he believes that evil spirits are especially active on the abnormal occasions of life, so that birth, puberty and marriage are invested with the most lavish ceremonial. For the dead he accepts Muhammadan rites almost unalloyed.


As soon as a Malay woman is with child, she and her husband have to observe certain rules and abstentions, so that no vampire may injure the expectant mother, no prenatal influence affect the unborn, and nothing impede or mar a safe delivery.

To frustrate evil spirits the woman must carry a knife or iron of some sort as a talisman, whenever she ventures abroad. If her husband stir out of his house after dark, he may not return direct but must visit a neighbour's house first to put any chance vampire following him off the scent. At the time of an eclipse when spirits prowl, the woman must hide under the shelf in the kitchen, armed with a wooden spoon and wearing as a helmet of repulsion the rattan basket-stand that is used for the base purpose of supporting the round-bottomed cooking pots. Every Friday she must bathe with limes, a fruit distasteful to devils, and drink the water that drops off the ends of her tresses.

To avert untoward prenatal influences great circumspection is required. In the event of an eclipse the Malacca or Singapore woman will bathe under the house-ladder, so that she may not give birth to a parti-coloured child, half black half white. If a Malay husband blinds a bird or fractures the wing of a fowl, his offspring runs the risk of being born sightless or with a deformed arm. As this last prohibition would involve a vegetarian diet in humble homes, modern husbands get over it by the convenient fiction that, if the death of an animal is compassed deliberately, there is no startling of the child in the womb and so no fear of harm. Before the end of the sixth month, when the foetus acquires personality, and especially before the third month, the Patani husband may not even cut down a creeper, and if he slits the mouth of a fish to remove a hook, the child will have a hare-lip.

At a Perak house where there is a pregnant woman, no one may enter by the front door and pass out at the back or contrariwise, probably because there is one exit only from the womb, the house of birth. Guests may not remain only one night, perhaps because any form of hurry is likely to induce miscarriage. Neither husband nor wife may sit at the top of their house-ladder, a rule wide-spread in the Malay Archipelago, for any blocking of a passage protracts delivery. An unplaned house-pillar indented by the pressure of a parasitic creeper that twined round it when it was a living tree will exercise a like obstructive influence. After the engagement of the midwife in the seventh month, the Malay husband (like the Brahmin) may not have his hair cut, for fear the afterbirth break.

In Upper Perak another rite precedes the customary lustration in the seventh month of a first pregnancy. Apparently it is an example of imitative magic, designed to facilitate delivery. A palm-blossom is swathed to represent a baby with a child's brooch on the bosom. This doll, adorned with flowers, is laid on a tray and the tray placed in a cradle made of three, five or seven layers of cloth according to the rank of the prospective parents. Midwife and magician sprinkle rice-paste on doll and cradle. The midwife rocks the cradle, crooning baby songs. Then she gives the doll to the future mother and father and all their relatives to dandle. Finally the doll is put back into the cradle and left there till the next day, when it is broken up and thrown into water.

Everywhere when a woman has gone seven months with her first child there is performed a ceremony, observed also by Indian Muslims. In Malaya, today, it is begun with chants in praise of the Prophet. Next morning husband and wife, arrayed in holiday attire, are escorted down to the river. Incense is burnt. Toasted, saffron and white rice and a cooling rice-paste are sprinkled as at every momentous business of Malay life, at seed-time and harvest, at birth, at the shaving of a child's head, at circumcision, in sickness, on return from a long journey, at a chief's installation, at a warrior's preparation for battle. Now it is sprinkled on water for lustration. The couple are bathed, a white cloth is stretched above their heads, coconut palms are waved over them seven times, and they are drenched with water specially charmed to avert evil and procure wellbeing, as at the lustration after marriage. Two candles are lit and carried thrice about their heads, and they must face the light with direct glances to avoid any chance of their child being squint-eyed. Then the procession returns to the house, where the couple sit together in state as at a wedding. Shawls are spread on the floor (seven if the patient is a raja), and the expectant mother lies on her back with the shawls under her waist. The midwife seizes the ends of the first shawl and rocks the woman slowly as in a hammock, removes it, seizes the ends of the next shawl and repeats the performance seven times. Among the presents given to the midwife as her retaining fee on this occasion is a betel-tray. The contents of this she empties: if all of them drop together, it is a sign that delivery will be easy. In Negri Sembilan betel-nuts are cut into pieces and thrown like dice, inferences being drawn as to the sex of the unborn child according as more flat or rounded surfaces lie uppermost.

The magician "chooses an auspicious place for the birth and surrounds it with thorns, nets, rays' tails, bees' nests, dolls, bitter herbs and a rattan cooking-pot stand, to keep the spirits of evil from molesting mother and child in the perilous hour of their weakness. He selects the suitable spot by dropping a chopper or axe-head and marking the place where it first sticks upright in the ground. Thorns and rays' tails are thought to be dangerous to the trailing entrails of the vampire; bitter herbs are unpalatable to every one; dolls may be mistaken for the baby; nets and bees' nests are puzzling to spirits because of their complexity, and sometimes a much perforated coconut is hung over the door to bewilder ghosts by the multiplicity of its entrances and exits." Most of these demon-traps are set under the floor of the house. But over the patient's head is hung a fisherman's net and a bunch of the red Dracoena, whose tough vital power denotes its strong soul-substance. By some midwives imitation weapons of lathe are suspended from the roof. The midwife may dress as a man. All locks on door or box are opened, the sufferer's hair is unbound, and any knot in her clothes is untied.

If delivery is difficult, the magician may be called to lift the end of the woman's tresses and blow down them. Or he may recite charms or write a text from the Quran on paper and tie it round waist or thigh. The husband will be summoned to step to and fro across his wife or kiss her, thus condoning any sins she may have committed against him. If the woman is a Raja, chiefs will make vows of a goat or other offering for her recovery. To register each vow, the midwife ties a ring round the wrist of the patient. Should the throes be prolonged, husband or mother puts dollars under the sufferer's back to be distributed in charity when her peril is past. If the afterbirth will not follow, a portion of the umbilical cord is cut from the child and tied to the patient's thigh as a kind of sympathetic attraction. A boy born with a caul is considered very lucky. Immediately after birth the umbilical cord is tied with seven circles of black fibre and severed with a bamboo knife: later, when the cord falls off, a poultice is applied, mixed with pepper to make the child brave. In Negri Sembilan it is believed that if the severed cords of a woman's successive children are preserved together, these children will not quarrel or be disunited when they grow up.

Her trouble over, the mother is laid on a platform and toasted frequently during forty-four days of seclusion. The toasting is a primitive and widely spread custom, still surviving in Hindu ritual with invocations to Agni. As for the seclusion, "the contagion of woman during the sexual crises of menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, is simply intensified, because these are occasions when woman's peculiar characteristics are accentuated, these are feminine crises when a woman is most a woman." The savage dreads the contagion of her effeminacy, weakness, timidity and hysteria. And survivals of this dread may be traced in the observance of continence by Malay warriors and fishermen, in the notion that menstrual blood can cause leprosy, in the custom of husband and wife feeding separately except on the occasion of their marriage.

A baby's first cradle is a tray on which are placed a bit of iron and a peck of unhusked rice. In Perak "when the baby is promoted from this tray, the rice whereon he has lain is measured to foretell his future; if the measure is brimming, he will be rich; if it is short, poor; the balance of the rice is thrown to the chicken to avert ill-luck."

A brush is dipped in a black mixture made of burnt coconut shell, and the eyebrows and outlines of the nose, chin, and other features are marked in black so that demons may not recognise or desire the infant. A cross is put on the forehead and a spot on the nose. In Selangor a girl's forehead is marked with a cross, a boy's with a mark recalling the caste mark of the Hindu. The mother, also, is daubed on nose and bosom.

In some parts the moulding of the child's head, due to the process of birth, is reduced by massage or a constricting cap.

A tentative name is given to a child before the umbilical cord is cut. "In Upper Perak names suggested by some local circumstances are given at birth, and girls, for example, are called after a butterfly, a fish, a plant. Later the parents will consult a religious elder to take a horoscope and select a Muhammadan name for the child according to the date of the birth. This name may be adopted temporarily or permanently. The original pagan name may be used still but will be changed for another in the event of sickness. . . . In Kelantan five or seven bananas are dubbed with persons' names: they are laid before the infant and he is given the name allotted to the particular banana he grabs first." The Perak Malays have a series of conventional names for their children in order of seniority. A Malay, as we have seen, will often drop his own name and be called "Father of Awang," or whatever is the name of his first-born. Like the Brahmin, he refers to his wife never by name but as "the person in my house," or, when she is older, as "the mother of Awang or so-and-so."

If the child is a raja, young mothers of good family suckle him or her in turn, their own children thus becoming foster brothers or sisters of the infant. The royal mother may confirm this by suckling the infant of the foster mother.

Muslim custom prescribes the seventh day for the formal naming of the child, the shaving of its hair, and the sacrifice of two goats for a boy and of one for a girl. This is followed in Malaya. One lock of hair is left on a boy's head as on the head of Brahmin children and of Egyptian Muslims, but it is a custom of primitive Malays also to leave a lock unshorn as a refuge for the child's soul. Sometimes this tonsure ceremony may be deferred for girls until marriage. At one such deferred ceremony the headman and the girl's nearest relatives clipped the ends of seven locks with seven strokes of the scissors, an exact though unconscious imitation of Brahmin ritual. When the head of a royal baby is shaved, the wives of the great Perak chiefs each snip a few hairs in turn according to their rank. Notable, too, is the opening of the child's mouth by a ceremony performed also in Arabia and Egypt, but perhaps dating back to Brahminical India. A gold ring is dipped in a mixture of betel-juice and sugared and salted water, and an elder utters a Muslim adjuration of which the original occurs in the Rig-Veda: "In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate! May he lengthen your life! May he teach you to speak fittingly in the court of kings! May he give to your words the attractiveness of betel, the sweetness of sugar and the savour of salt!" The gold ring is tied to the child's wrist.

When the forty-four days of purification are complete, the midwife throws away the platform on which the young mother has been roasted and the ashes of the fire that has burnt without cease by her side. And now, just as the Brahmin takes a child out formally to see the sun, so the Malay introduces his child to "Mother Earth and Father Water." The midwife carries the baby to the top of the stair or house-ladder, recites incantations and marks a cross on the soles of the infant's feet with lime. She descends and puts the child's feet first on iron (the blade of a wood-knife or the head of a hoe), then into a tray containing gold and silver (usually a ring of each metal) and lastly on the earth. That is the custom in Upper Perak, but details vary in different places. In Kelantan a raja's child has to be taken down from the house by three steps, no more, no fewer. He is carried through a line of women holding lighted candles to a spot where seven gold plates are placed. The first plate contains herbs, the second unhusked rice, the third husked rice, the fourth rice-paste, the fifth yellow turmeric rice, the sixth earth from a grave, and the seventh sand from the sea. Into each of these plates the child's feet are pressed before they are allowed to tread the earth. Then the baby raja is carried up a seven-tiered stand and bathed. After the lustration, the stand is thrown, with the spirits attaching to it, into the sea.

Next the Malay infant is carried down to the river. A candle is lit and stuck on a boulder or bamboo staging. Mother and midwife descend into the stream. The mother bathes the hair of the midwife and then the midwife performs the same service for the mother. An offering is made to the water-spirits: an egg, a quid of betel, seven long and seven square rice-packets. The usual three kinds of rice and rice-paste are sprinkled over the surface of the river. The child is passed through the smoke of incense. Then a live fowl is placed in the water and the child made to tread on it, so that he may have power over all domestic animals. Next a sprouting coconut seedling is set afloat and the infant's feet are placed on it, so that he may have power over all food plants. Lastly a jungle sapling, usually a rattan creeper, roots and all, is put in the stream and the setting of the little feet upon it gives the child dominion over the forest. A palm-spathe bucket and a banana-flower are turned adrift. If the baby is male, a boy catches a fish with a casting-net; if the baby is female, a girl should throw the net. Finally a man casts the net over a group of the midwife, mother and infant, and a crowd of tiny children representing fish.

After this ritual introduction to earth and water, the infant is laid for the first time in a swinging cot fashioned of black cloths hung from a rafter. Into the bunt of the cot are put a cat, a curry-stone, and an iron blade to mislead and terrify evil spirits. Then the midwife lifts the baby into his new home. Pious old ladies croon lullabies. Muslim prayers are recited. There is a feast on curry and rice.

In the water for a baby's ablutions arc steeped the same collection of strong-souled substances that are put beside the garnered grain of the rice fields. If the attacks of spirits have made him sickly, the leaves of a plant called the Genie's Tongue (Hedyotis congesta) may be infused in his bath. If the baby cries continually, he may be "smoked over a fire made of the nest of a weaver-bird, the skin of a bottle-gourd, and a piece of wood that has been struck by lightning." It is unlucky to praise the health or beauty of a child.

Great care is taken of the placenta, the child's "younger brother" (or sister), which is kept for a while and then buried, generally under a tree. If the new born child is royal, boys of good family, five to seven years old, are chosen for this function. Their leader envelopes his head in a black cloth and on it carries the placenta in a new earthen pot to a place selected for the burial. Sometimes the boys ride there on elephants. In Perak the coconut seedling used at the infant's introduction to water is planted to mark the site. Head and face still enveloped, the leader of the band returns to the royal cot, greets its occupant with the Hindu Om and hails him as brother of himself and his followers.


Magical precautions accompany circumcision, teeth-filing and the boring of girls' ears. Even the observances at handing a child over to the care of a religious teacher and at the conclusion of his studies, Muslim as they now are, may be a survival of Hindu ritual or some more primitive initiation ceremony.

Circumcision is regarded as a Muslim obligation. A boy undergoes it at any lucky and convenient age between six and twenty. Often it is done immediately after the celebrations at the conclusion of his religious studies. At the Perak court, amid great festivities, a young raja is clothed like a bridegroom in State dress. The State magician pours oil upon water in which the acid juice of limes has been mixed. From the pools of oil that float in the shape of moon and stars, he tells if the moment is propitious for the ceremony, and if the boy will later marry a girl of his own class. Then he rubs the mixture on the forehead, hands and feet of the boy and of his companions who will undergo the operation at the same time. Feasting may last for days. Royal candidates are borne in procession-in Perak on painted elephants or men's shoulders, in Negri Sembilan in the ruler's processional car, in Patani on a huge coloured model of a mythical bird. In Patani, too, sham weapons of wood are carried in front of them. In Kelantan a torchlight procession goes seven times round the house of the chief where the function is to be held; wooden or palm-leaf walls are removed and the procession perarnbulates the house without descending to the ground. In Perak sometimes the boy is seated on a bridal dais, has a dance with lighted candles performed before him and his fingers stained with henna. There, too, a raja is covered with a silk cloth, his body sprinkled with saffron rice and cooling rice-paste, and his mouth stuffed with a lump of glutinous rice and three grains of parched rice. A hen is placed on his body and encouraged to peck up any of the grains of rice that may be sticking to his mouth. If she is slow to peck, it will be long before the boy marries. Two coconuts and a small bag of rice are rolled over him from head to heel. Just before the operation the boy is escorted to river or well, where the same offerings are thrown to the spirits of the water as when he was first introduced to that element. The boy bathes along with his parents, and the one long lock of hair that has been a symbol of childhood is shorn by his mother or nurse or the man who later is to circumcise him. During this tonsure a mock fight is started with bundles of rice, till the water resounds as if buffaloes were fighting in it, a custom recalling the mock combat to clear the rice-fields of demons. The final ceremony then takes place indoors. The boy is seated on the stem of a banana or on a sack of rice, and at the Perak court a swordsman stands beside him so that if aught goes wrong "the plug for the wound and the dressing may be taken from the operator's corpse." At the same court throughout the various stages of the ritual, at the taking of the omens, at the procession to the river, and at the operation, the royal drums are beaten and the royal flutes and trumpets blown. The sufferer's food consists of dry fish or buffalo meat and his plate is lined with a parched banana-leaf, the dryness of diet and leaf having a hornoeopathic effect on his unhealed wound. Till the wound is well, he may not wear a cap. For months before the operation he is warned not to eat tough meat. These and other rules are dictated by mimetic magic. If he was born with a caul, a piece of it preserved from his birth is often given him to eat in a banana.

An analogous but merely nominal ceremony of a very private nature is observed for girls also, either in infancy or early youth, a midwife being the surgeon.

Puberty brought also for both sexes the practice of filing and blackening the teeth in order to substitute for sharp white fangs, "like those of a dog," an even row of teeth, black "like the wings of a beetle." One of the incantations recited is for personal charm and pre-eminence and shows signs of travestying the Sufi's "perfect man." In a folktale called "Awang Sulong" the operation was done with one rasp of the file a day and one a night for nine days and nights, and the beauty of the glossy black stumps of the hero made folk ask

Whose the cock that struts so bravely,
His lips a shore beset with bridges,
Bridges of black shining palm-spikes,
Teeth as stems so sharp and knitted,
Mouth a boatful of red nutmegs,
Ebon teeth like bracelet circle?

The object of this practice, as of circumcision, was, it has been surmised, to sacrifice a part to save the whole. Blackening of the teeth has died out, but filing is still practised, even after marriage, to beautify the teeth and prevent their decay.

Girls' ears are bored either in early childhood or at puberty, with the usual magic ritual to worst evil spirits. At the Perak court in the eighteenth century two nights were devoted to henna-staining before the ears of a ruler's daughter were pierced, and on the second night she was escorted on an elephant seven times round the palace. The needle employed is threaded with cotton of many colours, having at the ends turmeric cut in the shape of a floweret; two of these flowerets adorn the thread left in each ear. just as the boring begins, those present throw money into a silver bowl, perhaps to drown any cry or murmur. After this, large ear-studs used to be worn during a girl's maiden days but are now donned only at her wedding to be discarded formally on the consummation of the marriage. At the Perak court the ceremony is concluded with a feast and prayers in honour of the Prophet and of the parents and ancestors of the ruler.


There is little or no magic about a Malay betrothal. It is a contract to be ratified before headman or elder, and to be published abroad by the despatch to the girl's relatives of two elaborate betel boxes, one of them containing one, or in Negri Sembilan two, rings wrapped in betel-leaf. If the youth is guilty of breach of promise, the girl's people keep the ring or rings: if the girl is guilty, her parents return them with cash their equal in value. In parts of Perak the betel boxes are replaced by trays, one of which is adorned with a paper tree; and, when the bearers arrive, yellow rice is strewn. The boxes or trays are proffered only if negotiations for the marriage are successful. Nowadays girls are seldom married before they are fourteen or fifteen, or boys before the age of seventeen: often both are older. Like the Hindu, the Malay considers a hairy person unlucky. The Brahmin student may not feed "the husband of a younger sister married before the elder, the husband of an elder sister whose younger sister was married first, a younger brother married before an elder, an elder brother married after a younger," and in Malaya, also, the request for a younger sister's hand before her elder sisters are wedded is universally disliked. In the figurative language of Malay betrothal verses the suitor comes, like the Esth wooer, "in search of a lost calf," just as among the Finns he wants to buy a bird, and among the Sardinians to ask for a white dove or a white calf. The suitor accepted, his mother is invited within, where she slips the ring (or two rings) on the finger of her future daughter-in-law. Songs and feasting conclude these preliminaries.

Seven days later the suitor and his friends resort to the girl's house and stay singing and feasting for two days and two nights. Before leaving, the suitor does obeisance to his future mother-in-law. When harvest time comes, he and his friends are invited to help, and the rice that will be eaten at the marriage is trodden out to the accompaniment of songs bandied between men and women, the two parties of groom and bride. But in Negri Sembilan a youth is ashamed to meet either of the parents of his future bride, even accidentally on the road.

Favourite times for weddings are after the harvest or after the season of rice planting, not only because those are days of leisure but probably because so the child in the womb and the grain in mother earth are likely to develop simultaneously. The festivities may occupy two or four or five days if the contracting parties are humble peasants, seven or forty days or even months if they are rajas. Astrological tables are consulted to determine a lucky time to begin them.

On the first day the magician takes steps to protect the groom, and a matron to protect the bride from all jealous spirits. In Upper Perak this preludes a most elaborate marriage ritual. The magician ties a ring on a white thread round the bridegroom's neck; lights a candle on cup or tray; burns incense and invokes all spirits and the sacred dead to be kind. He scatters saffron rice, sprinkles the groom with the usual cooling rice-paste and dresses his hair. A matron does the same service for the bride. If her shorn fringe lies close to the forehead, it is a sign that she is a virgin; if it sticks up, then "the flower has been sipped by a bee." At the Perak court the midwife first waxed and clipped seven long hairs: if the stumps moved or the tips fell towards the girl, she had been deflowered. On either side of the house-door a red and a white flag are stuck. The magician descends the house-ladder, sprinkles the earth with yellow rice and rice-paste, and offers betel. to the spirits of the soil. The bride is bathed in her house. The groom is conducted down to the river. A white flag with a candle fixed on its shaft is planted on the bank. Near by, two large candles are put on the ground. Incense is burnt in three bamboo cressets, to which are tied three candles, three quids of betel, and three native cigarettes. On a vertical frame is fastened a palm-blossom. Again rice is scattered with appeals to all the spirits of earth and water. The palm-blossom is broken open that the dew in its heart may be mixed with limes and rice-powder for bathing the bridegroom. During the lustration he stands in the river facing downstream and has water thrown into his mouth. The white thread is broken from his neck and he is dressed in a raja's garb: a scion of the Perak royal house will be lent the armlets and jewellery used at the installation of the ruler. Then, mounted on elephants with painted foreheads, the procession wends its way with religious chanting and song to the house of the bride. An umbrella is held over the bridegroom's head and his attendant fans him. On arrival the groom steps down into a tray of water, in which are a stone, a ring, a razor, and a dollar. He is sprinkled with saffron rice and seated on a dais. For three nights, singing and firing crackers, youths encircle a "henna tree" in a bowl containing henna and stuck with lighted candles. The experts seize and dance with it in turn until one of them carries it up the house-ladder, where girls receive the "tree" and take up the dance. To extinguish the candles during inversions and gyrations is the sign of a boor. On this first night both bride and groom are stained with henna in private, and the formal marriage before an authority from the mosque may now take place. All the fingers of the girl are stained; three of the man's, counting from the little fingers. On the second day a Perak princess of the highest rank used to be taken in procession with flags, umbrellas and music, seven times round the palace. On that night the fingers and palms and toes and the sides of the feet of the married pair are stained with henna in public. Dramatic shows, dancing girls, and feasting entertain the guests. The rice for the confarreatio on the morrow is brought out, piled in tiers on an octagonal platter, topped with a tinsel tree and stuck with dyed eggs on skewers. The couple sit in state, and guests pay homage to the bride now and to the husband at the sitting in state on the following day.

On the third day there are chants in praise of Allah and the Prophet. A buffalo is slaughtered. The girl's relatives escorted by music present decorated rice, coconuts and firewood to the relatives of the groom. The bridegroom is escorted thrice each way round a circular dome-shaped frame containing incense, that is, in a passage between its mat sides and a white cloth held up by those present. Afterwards he is placed inside the frame and censed for the space it takes a dancer with a branched candlestick to circle the structure three times. Next the bride is brought out to undergo the same ordeal. The bride goes to her room. A duenna guards the door. There is a mock combat between the sexes. The magician demands entrance for the bridegroom, and is admitted after presenting a betel-box that contains a ring and some cash. His instructor lifts the groom's left hand and puts it on the bride's head. The couple have to feed one another with betel. Then three, five or seven old people paint the palms of the couple's hands with henna and sprinkle them with rice. After that they are stripped of their finery, led three times in each direction round an inverted rice-mortar and seated upon this symbol of sex and fecundity. They are lifted thrice before they arc declared duly seated. The magician pours fresh coconut oil into a bowl of water, and after throwing five grains of rice on the oil, drops the wax of a lighted candle on to the mixture. The pair are bathed with this compound, together with water from blossoms of the areca and coconut palms. Coconut fronds are waved seven times above their heads. Bathing accomplished, vari-coloured string is dropped round and over the heads of the pair three times while they step forward, and then under their feet and upwards three times while they step back. After that the string is lowered to their chests and severed over the right rib of the groom and the left of the bride. If the front piece is longer, the wife will obey her husband; if the back piece is longer, the "rudder will be at the bows," that is, the wife will rule the roost if the two pieces are equal, both will hold their own. The next ceremony obtains everywhere. Husband and wife don royal costume (or nowadays the man may wear Arab dress)-this, it has been surmised, "shows both the tabu character of bride and bridegroom, and also an attempt at disguising them by fictitious change of identity." The couple then sit in state on a dais, the husband on the right of the wife. Sumptuary custom fixes the number and colour of mats and pillows allowed, according to the rank of the contracting parties. There is an exercise in Swedish drill, where the performer has to sink slowly down into a squatting posture, straighten his knees and stand erect. This exercise the embarrased pair have virtually to fulfil, until after three efforts they are seated simultaneously as custom ordains. The floral pyramid of rice on the octagonal platter is broken and the pair have to feed one another three times with clots of the rice held in their fingers. After that they must remain motionless, like a ruler at his installation, while those present do obeisance to the "royalty for a day." Guests throw money into a bowl. Muslim prayers may be read. At last the principals are allowed to retire. Each guest is given a dyed egg out of the rice pyramid to take home.

On the following days there is more lustration and feasting.

Throughout all these ceremonies bride and groom remain silent and no glances are exchanged between their downcast eyes.

If a husband is disappointed in the virtue of his bride, he may advertise his disillusionment by appearing without headdress or creese and he can claim back half the dowry. But a marriage is not consummated for three nights or more. So it is not usually till the seventh day that, with little fingers interlaced or both holding one handkerchief, the couple are bathed again with all the precautions described for the bathing on the third day. The seven fronds waved over them are dropped for bride and groom to step to and fro across them three times, after which the fronds are cast out of the house taking ill-luck. A censer is passed about the pair and a cord of vari-coloured thread is tied around their necks joining them. At this ceremony the guests, also, are drenched with water from buckets and bamboo squirts. (At royal weddings, before they are bathed, the pair are carried in procession three or seven times round a storeyed pavilion built for the lustration.) After being bathed, both don finery once more and sit in state.

Sometimes on the night before this final lustration the groom's friends tear him from the dangerous fascination of his wife's arms by lighting a smoking fire to bring him to the door, whereupon he is carried off to his parents' home and only escorted back next day for the bathing ceremony.

Everywhere it is usual for the husband to live in his bride's home for some while after the marriage. Among the matrilineal Minangkabau colonists of Negri Sembilan he lives in it permanently.

The ritual of Upper Perak on the border of the Siamese Malay States contains some novel details. The circumambulation of a structure containing incense and the lustration of the couple before the day when the big sitting in state takes place have not yet been recorded from the south.

The order of marriage ceremonies varies according to locality and the means of the parties. Sometimes the Muslim service is performed just before the sitting in state. Sometimes the mimic combat for the bride's person, a custom practised in ancient India and in Europe, takes place on arrival at her house and is repeated before the bridal dais.

The throwing of rice over the head of a bridegroom is commonly observed by Indo-Germanic peoples. Confarreatio, or eating together, is a worldwide usage. In many parts of India and Europe and in Muslim Morocco the bridegroom is treated as a king on his wedding day.

The Code of Manu lays down that among the elements of a Brahmin's wedding are the leading of the bride three times round the sacred fire, each time with seven steps, and the binding together of the wedded pair by a cord passed round their necks. Again, "On the second or third day of Brahmin marriage ceremonies," says Thurston, "sacrifices are performed in the morning and evening and the nalagu ceremony. The couple are seated on two planks covered with mats and cloth, amidst a large number of women assembled within the pandal. In front of them betel leaves, areca nuts, fruit, flowers and turmeric paste are placed on a tray. The women sing songs they have learnt from childhood. Taking a little of the turmeric paste rendered red by the addition of lime, the bride makes marks by drawing lines on her feet. The ceremony closes with the waving of water coloured red with turmeric and lime, and the distribution of betel leaves and areca nuts. The waving is done by two women who sing appropriate songs." In many parts of India bridegroom and bride are seated on mortar or pestle or grinding stone.

A custom of Hindu origin is for a Malay raja to remain away and send his creese or his handkerchief to represent him when he marries a wife of humble birth. An obsolete raja custom was to send a creese to parents who were reluctant to give their daughter in marriage, with a message that the suitor was ready with dower and presents doubled: if they remained obdurate, the creese had to be returned with double the dower offered. Another method, with a Sanskrit name, was for the suitor to force entry into the house, secure the girl, and drawing his creese defy resistance. If the ruse succeeded, the man had to give twice the usual dower, present two garments instead of the customary one and pay double the ordinary fines for trespass. These two ways of wooing are probably of Indian origin.

The painting of the couple with henna to fend off evil influences, the first night in private, the second in public; the dance with the henna bowl and lighted candles-these ceremonies occur at Muslim marriages even as far away as in Morocco. Islam has added items to the ritual of Malay marriage but has failed to banish others incompatible with its tenets. The sitting in state and the lustration of the pair before mixed audiences of men and women offend the strict, but retain so strong a hold on the Malay imagination that a bigoted chief, whom I knew, reluctantly observed them, but in a loft under the roof, where guests could not scale!

It should be added that when the bride is a widow, particularly a childless widow, the marriage rites are greatly curtailed and often confined merely to the short legal service before the Kathi.


It is no part of the plan of this book to describe the ordinary Muslim rites for the disposal of the dead. But certain Malay superstitions require notice.

In Selangor and Negri Sembilan, when a practiser of black magic lies dying, dissolution of the powerful soul from the wasted body is helped by the making of a hole in the roof. Everywhere a dagger or a pair of betel scissors or some other symbol of iron is placed on the chest of a corpse, and watch is kept especially to prevent a cat from touching the body and electrifying it to an awful travesty of life. Lights must be lit and incense burnt and the bed where the deceased slept in life arranged for seven days after a death. In the neighbourhood of the house no rice may be ground, shots fired or music or dancing performed. After the demise of an important member of a royal family no gong or musical instrument may be struck for forty days. It is forgotten that originally silence was kept in order not to guide the deceased back to his temporal home, and such silence is now regarded only as a mark of respect.

The body of an important person is escorted under umbrellas to the place of ablution where men or women, according to the sex of the deceased, support it on their extended legs. The corpse of the chief of Jelebu is "washed by all the mosque officials in the district together with the Hajis." This chief's retainers hold his insignia round his corpse, which is laid upon a dais of the type prepared for all formal functions. As the corpse is being shrouded, forty Hajis offer prayers. For it is believed that among every forty who offer the prayers there will be a saint whose request will be heard.

A chief's bier is a huge platform, which it may take a hundred men to lift. At the obsequies of the last Sultan of Singapore eighty hired bearers and numerous volunteers carried this structure, at the corners of which stood four men scattering yellow rice and flowers mixed with pieces of gold and silver. A bier may be of several storeys. The bier of the commoner chief of Jelebu, for example, is of five storeys; the bier of a raja is of seven. At the Jelebu rites a lad chosen from a particular tribe scatters coin from the topmost bier; nine maidens of the same tribe are seated on the litter, eight keeping the corpse in position with their extended hands and the ninth holding a young plantain tree as a symbol that "the broken grows again " and the chieftainship of Jelebu never dies. At the funeral of royalty sixteen girls used to support the body. Outside the Minangkabau colonies of Negri Sembilan the tree symbol is not found in the Peninsula. Children are made to pass under a parent's bier before it is carried to the grave, not only as a token of respect but to prevent them from pining for the deceased.

In many places strips are torn from the pall and worn by relatives of the dead on arm or wrist to keep them from undue longing for the departed. This is the practice in Negri Sembilan and at the obsequies of a Sultan of Perak. The Malay Annals record an instance where the pall of a tributary prince was despatched to his suzerain with the news of his demise. Generally Malay mourners wear workaday shabby clothes, a custom still followed at the Sri Menanti court. But in some places, like Malacca, European influence has led to the adoption of black garments. Again, the old custom was for mourners to go without headdress and with dishevelled hair, and at a royal funeral it was expected that all a ruler's subjects should exhibit these signs of grief. For three days after the death of the chief of Jelebu no man may wear any headdress except a white cap, Hajis must discard their turbans and women their veils. When the most famous ruler of Perak in the eighteenth century came to the throne, for seven days the royal drums and trumpets were silent in honour of his predecessor, and on the eighth the new raja's headdress was brought on an elephant by the Bendahara, the chief who rules temporarily during the interregnum between ruler and ruler; Sultan Iskandar 'Inayat Shah donned it. and only then did his courtiers cover their heads. (The new Sultan dismissed from office and broiled in the sun many persons who had failed to arrive for the obsequies!) Sometimes for forty days after a ruler's death no headdress is worn. But in place of the baring of the head, Perak Malays have introduced a very popular fashion of wearing a white band round the hat.

At a ruler's funeral the State drums are beaten and the state trumpets blown. Then for seven or even twenty or forty days they are silent. After the death of a great chief his royal master may order that they keep silent for five or seven days. This custom also was probably designed to avoid guiding and recalling the departed to his earthly home.

It is considered unlucky to attend the funeral of one who has died a bad death, or of one whose corpse turns a dark livid hue, and mourners hurry away. There are some who will not partake of a funeral feast, especially on the third and seventh days after the death, because demons have often been seen pouring into rice and curry water that has run off the corpse at the final ablution. Take a strip of the shroud, a chip of the coffin-plank, and a broad leaf to hide behind, and one can see them, some with children on their backs, like human beings, catching the water in jars!

Temporary wooden posts are often planted at a grave, until permanent stones can be got. If the deceased has left a child frantic with grief, then every night for three or seven successive nights a vessel of water is tied to the temporary tombstone by a shred of the shroud, and every morning the child is bathed in the water. In Perak, on the hundredth day the temporary posts are cleansed with limes and rice-paste, thrown into the river and have water sprinkled over them thrice to drive away evil influences.

Sometimes over the tomb of a saint or ruler there is fixed a mosquito-net or a light frame and canopy or a palm-thatched roof under which lamps and candles are lit.

Everywhere Muslim burial is the rule now, though there survive shadowy traditions of older rites. Cremation was practised in mediaeval Malacca. The Dayaks of Borneo carry into the forests the bodies of those who have met a violent death, and lay them on the ground; their priests they honour by exposure on a raised platform. In the Malay Annals and the tale of the Malacca hero, Hang Tuah, there are allusions to leaving bodies on the ground, but only those of traitors or enemies. In the north of the Malay Peninsula suspension of the dead between trees is practised by the Buddhist Malayo-Siamese, both as a permanent form of burial and as a preliminary to cremation, and the northern Sakai dispose of the bodies of their magicians in the same way. "Among some of the Sakai-Jakun tribes of Pahang it appears that not only is a settlement deserted when a death occurs but the corpse is left unburied . . . in the abandoned house, for, if they put a corpse into the ground, the spirit would not be able to make its escape upwards."

Are there signs of former aerial burial among the civilised Malays? Many of the grave-stones of rulers of Perak are on raised platforms. And it was not uncommon in the past for rajas and chiefs to be left unburied for days, their successors having to be elected before the interment. Sultan 'Ali of Perak, who died in 1871, was left unburied for forty days, because his lawful successor feared to come upriver, "and the presence and proclamation of the new Sultan are essential features of the burial ceremonies of the old." A similar case is recorded from Jelebu.

The Proto-Malays of the Peninsula have perhaps been influenced by the civilised Muslim Malay. Anyhow they bury their dead. "The body lies about three feet underground, the tomb, which is made of earth beaten smooth, rising about the same height above the surface. A little ditch runs round the grave, wherein the spirit may paddle his canoe. The body lies with the feet pointing towards the west. The ornamental pieces at each end of the grave answer to tombstones " and have a Malayo-Arabic name. "On the other side of them are seen the small, plain, upright sticks, called soul-steps, to enable the spirit to leave the grave when he requires. There are four horizontal beams on each side of the grave, joined in a framework, making sixteen in all, laid on the top of the grave and so forming a sort of enclosure, in which are placed, for the use of the deceased, a coconut shell, a torch in a stand, an axe-handle and a cooking-pot, while outside this framework hangs a shoulder-basket for the deceased to carry his firewood in." Thus is described the grave of a Johore aboriginal chief who died in 1879.

Expensive and well-built houses are killing the ancient custom of abandoning a home where a death has occurred. But Sultan Iskandar 'Inayat Shah of Perak removed from Brahmana Indra and built a new palace at Chempaka Sari because he "disliked hearing the royal music near the grave of his predecessor," and Sultan Mahmud, his successor, removed from Chempaka Sari to the Big Island Indra Mulia. Nowadays a wooden house is sometimes taken to pieces and erected on a site more lucky.


The selection of a ruler is supposed to be made before his predecessor's body is consigned to the grave. In one Malay folk-tale, where a king has died childless and his successor is chosen by a sagacious elephant (as in many Indian stories), the prince selected is bidden to sit beside the corpse of the deceased, while guns are fired and the drums and trumpets of the royal band are sounded seven times. In Naning and in many parts of Negri Sembilan, a chief's successor must mount the bier; failure to achieve this is regarded as a bar to election and, if there are more claimants than one, they scramble on to the hearse together or one after another. At his installation a new commoner chief of Jelebu has to sit on the dais on which the body of the last chief was washed for burial.

The formal installation of a ruler is made some while after the obsequies of his predecessor. There are festivities for seven days or forty days. Then the prince is bathed ceremonially and dons robes of state. A Perak Sultan wears a gold neck-chain, dragon-headed armlets of gold, and a creese in his belt; in his head-kerchief is thrust the royal seal, and from his shoulder hangs a sword with an Arabic inscription, reputed to have been the weapon of his ancestor, Alexander the Great! Seven times he is taken in procession round the royal domain, to the thud and blare of the state drums and trumpets, escorted by courtiers carrying flags and pennons, creeses, lances and swords. On his return to the palace, he listens to a herald reading a proclamation from an unintelligible version of an old Sanskrit formula. He is cooled with rice-paste and sprinkled with rice. About him clusters a retinue, holding umbrellas, weapons, and betel-caskets. The Sultan's pages rest swords and creeses on the right shoulder; the pages of the heir to the throne may not lift his insignia above their arms. His Highness enters the hall of audience, mounts the throne, and has to sit motionless " while the royal band plays a certain number of times. . . . The number should not exceed nine or be less than four. Any movement by the Sultan would be extremely inauspicious." At this moment the genies of the State are apt to make the sword of Alexander the Great press on the royal shoulder. Into the Sultan's ear, the king's secret, namely, the real Indian names of the divine founders of his house, is whispered by a descendant of the herald who came out of the mouth of a bull when first the bearers of those Indian names alighted on earth and required a pursuivant. His subjects in the hall bow to the earth seven times in homage.

In Negri Sembilan the Yamtuan's regalia comprise sets of eight, eight weapons of each kind, eight umbrellas, eight betel-boxes, eight tapers, eight water-vessels, eight handfuls of ashes, and a bowl with one strand of human hair. When all is ready for the installation, chamberlains invoke the archangels to send down the divine power of kings by the hand of angels. "The weapons are taken out of their yellow wrappings, the royal umbrellas are opened, the royal candles lit, the water-vessels and betel-boxes are lifted up on high for all to see. A copy of the Quran is set down before these mighty regalia, and ewers filled with every kind of holy water are arranged before them. One ewer contains water mingled with blood; another contains water with a bullet in it; another may have water mixed with the pure rice-paste that sterilizes all evil influences. A censer is waved. . . . The great chiefs are about to swear allegiance to the king. The presence of the holy regalia, the water crimsoned with blood, the water that washes the lead or iron of war-all these things lend additional terror to perjury." The herald who proclaims the election of a new Yamtuan "is expected to stand on one leg with the sole of his right foot resting against his left knee, with his right hand shading his eyes, and with the tip of the fingers of his left hand pressing against his left cheek!" The chiefs sweep forward on their knees, raise folded hands seven times to their brows, kiss their overlord's hand thrice and retire. Again incense is burnt, "and the word of God as written in the Quran is believed to come down and is repeated in Arabic in the hearing of the people, 'Lo, I have appointed a Caliph to be My vicegerent on earth.'"

When a commoner chief is installed by the Sultan of Perak, he stands at the entrance to the palace under a large banana leaf, while a herald reads over him the chiri, that unintelligible Sanskrit formula "in the language of the genies." Then the oath of allegiance is taken. Drums clash. An old man steps forward, and using a grass brush sprinkles rice-paste down the banana leaf that covers the candidate's head. The brush and the leaf are cast away and the rice is scattered over his body. When the new chief has doffed his creese and crawled up to the throne to do homage, the Sultan moistens his brow with rice-paste, tucks a bunch of yellow chempaka bloom under his head-kerchief and sprinkles him with rice. The chief retires backwards, doing obeisance as when he came. A curtain is dropped midway across the hall and he goes out. He must cross water and may not look upon the Sultan or his palace or his elephants or anything that is his for one week. Violation of this rule may cause death to chief or ruler.

To the primitive patriarchal and matriarchal communities of the Malay race kings and royalty were foreign. The description in Malay romance of royalty's silks, seamless, fast of dye, iridescent, of gossamer muslins tangled by a dewdrop, and of other wonderful raiment, are only the hyperbole of village rhapsodists marvelling at the luxurious novelties of the court and winning favour by lauding them. The yellow umbrella of the Malay ruler was imported from China. Court sumptuary laws for cloths, weapons, and houses came from India. Among Malay regalia, the sword and the seal are foreign, and the names of half the drums and trumpets are Persian. The idea that a ruler can slay at pleasure without being guilty of crime is not Malayan. The word Raja is Sanskrit; the word Sultan introduced with the religion of Muhammad. The divinity that hedges a modern ruler is Muslim and conferred by Allah during the recital of the text: "Lo! I have appointed a Caliph to be My Vicegerent on earth." The white blood of Malay princes is that ascribed by Muhammadan mystics to certain saints.

Next: X. Magician and Muslim