Sewang - Orang Asli Temiar's symbolic defence of the environment

09 Aug 2022 10:54am
Along Busu, 75, wears a 'tempok' during the ceremony. - Bernama Photo
Along Busu, 75, wears a 'tempok' during the ceremony. - Bernama Photo
GUA MUSANG - An air of festivity filled an otherwise quiet village of Kampung Kaloi, home to 22 Orang Asli households from the Temiar tribe on June 14.

Sited 37 kilometres from Gua Musang town, some 70 villagers were busy making preparations for the Sewang ceremony through ‘gotong royong’ amid the hot weather.

Sewang, an integral part of Orang Asli culture, is a traditional dance performed to appease spirits, treat the sick or seek guidance on health and major decisions, and is now used to entertain guests. A Sewang which involves dancing to music produced from bamboo, brings everyone under one roof.

This writer together with three other colleagues from Bernama, Aslah, Mikhail and cameraman Shahrizan, took the opportunity to witness the Sewang ceremony despite having to travel as far as 62 km from Kampung Bering, a two-hour journey to Kampung Kaloi.

We were earlier on an assignment at Kampung Bering and were informed that Sewang is usually a closed event, but ours was a special case as it was organised to pray for our safe journey to their village.

For the record, we were guests of the Perkampung Orang Asli from June 14 to June 15, 2022.

Pray for safe journey

At Kampung Kaloi, our four-wheel drive stopped right opposite ‘Dewan Adat’ a traditional bamboo hut with a roof top weaved with bertam leaves, which serves as a ceremonial venue.

The hut also functions as a house of worship for the Temiar community who traditionally are animists and the practice of animism and the belief in the presence of spirits continue to influence their lives until today.
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On arrival at 5 pm, we were warmly greeted by Jimi Along, 48, a resident of Kampung Kaloi.

"This is the atmosphere in the village when Sewang is held. The ceremony is usually held for three consecutive nights in the dark, depending on the situation and purpose.

"But to entertain guests like all of you, it is only for one night,” he said.

Jimi said, based on the traditional practices of the Temiar ethnic group, no one is allowed to record or take photographs of the Sewang ceremony while in progress. However, we were allowed to do so provided we do not use the flash app during the event.

"Every Orang Asli village may have their own Sewang ceremony. For example, we do not carry out this ceremony in the dark, but instead switch on the lights when Tok Halak (Ketua Balai) has a problem with his eyesight.

"Based on the traditional Sewang, Tok Halak plays the role of dukun (shaman) who can communicate with the patient and the spirits,” he said.

Taboo for Sewang ritual

As I stepped into the Dewan Adat, I noticed a white cloth banner with these words written, ‘Warisan Bumi, Mesra Alam Hayati Tok Halak, Hukum Adat Orang Asli Suku Kaum Temiar’ hung in the hall and decorated with leaves.

Dinner was served with rice and a mix of dishes in a bamboo, the traditional cuisine of the Temiar tribe, before the start of the Sewang ritual at 9 pm.

There were some taboos and rules that must be adhered to throughout the ritual so as not to break their traditional customs.

"Our usual practice is to conduct the ceremony for four to five hours, and two hours later, we will break for 30 minutes to one hour, and continue with the ritual till late at night.

"Throughout the event, everyone must be in the hall and are not allowed to leave as the hall is already surrounded by ‘spirits’ and are waiting for their ‘turn’ to join the ceremony.

"It is feared that anyone who steps out of the hall will fall sick due to ‘disturbance’ from the spirits,” Jimi said.

At the veranda of the hall, all men will be asked to wear decorative hats weaved from palas leaves while the women, adorned their hair with flowers and leaves from the forest, including our group who were guests at the event.

The specially arranged bouquets of flowers called ‘tempok turut’ were handed to us.

"The tempok is used as protection against evil spirits that may enter the body while the ritual is ongoing,” explained Jaben Angah, 52, a villager of Kampung Kaloi who played the role of drummer during the performance.

‘Selected Group’

In the shimmering darkness, with only a ray of light in the hall, several villagers from Kampung Kaloi were seen entering the hall with bamboo sticks and palas leaves.

Upon entering the hall, we were invited to our seats. While seated, I noticed that several materials were placed in the centre of the hall for use during the ceremony such as drums, candles, betel leaves and cooking pots filled with charcoal incense.

Along Busu, 75, that is Tok Halak who will lead the Sewang that night, greeted us before proceeding to the centre of the hall together with 10 men who played the role as dancers for the ritual.

A group of women were seated on the floor while holding two bamboo sticks opposite us, playing the role of musicians for the event.

"Only the chosen men and trained by Tok Halak alone can sit in the centre and participate in the ritual as dancers or better known as ‘nyuk’.

"We believe that that spirits reside in the earth, rivers and trees. These are the ‘Raja’, ‘Naga’ and ‘Datuk’.

"As such, while Sewang is in progress, those in the centre will be chanting mantras before they are possessed by the spirits,” said Jimi as he whispered to me and colleagues.

With a racing heart, I looked around wildly, fear gripping my stomach and looked away for a moment. I could sense that the rest of my friends were all tensed while the event was taking place.

(We spent the night in the hall amid heavy rain. My fear subsided as my mind was distracted by the heavy rain and the leaked roof).

Highlight of Sewang

About five minutes later, candles were lighted, with smoke of the incense permeating the hall with a strong woody smell. Along or Tok Halak then whispered to a man beside him to signal the start of Sewang.

In the still of the night, the coarse voice of a young man suddenly broke the silence as he shouted out loud in Temiar language.

Without knowing what he was saying, I managed to capture a few words such as ‘rahmat’, ‘berkat’ (both meaning blessing) and ‘selamat’ (safe) which means that Tok Halak was reciting some mantras.

After communicating with the spirits in the forest, Tok Halak stood and started to sing and was accompanied by the ‘orchestral’ sound of a woman hitting two bamboo sticks on hardwood to an upbeat tribal beat in the hall.

The dancers -both men and women - repeat every line their leader sings while stomping their feet on the floor.

Based on Temiar beliefs, every line and verse in the Sewang songs were chosen as chorus for the people to communicate with their forefathers and the spirits in the forest.

Here, just as what their ancestors have done for generations, the Temiar tribe conducts a Sewang to consult ‘higher powers’ for guidance and help.

In the centre of the hall, a group of male dancers were immersed in the rhythm and sounds of the musical instruments called ‘smer’. The bamboo floor was suddenly curved and swayed across our seats at times due to the heavy stomping of the dancers.

"They are all in a trance, the spirit has entered their body,” whispered Jimi to us.

The atmosphere in the hall was enlivened with decorative leaves hung around the dance hall, while items for appeasing the spirits such as glutinous rice and boiled eggs were placed near the windows.

We were occasionally taken aback when some male dancers had gone into a trance, swaying to the drum’s rhythm and started to bang their heads with the bouquet of flowers.

"Don’t emulate their acts as they can be dangerous for ordinary people as these people are all trained since they were young,” said Jimi.

After almost two hours that is at 11 pm, the event ended with prayers by Tok Halak.

Logging threat to Orang Asli

Meanwhile, Hasmawi Along, 28, who was among the dancers during the Sewang ceremony told, the large-scale logging in their surrounding forests, have made it difficult for them to look for essential materials for the ritual.

"Previously, palas leaves and flowers for Sewang were easily available, just at our own premises. Now, we are forced to walk for two hours from our village to get them.

"This is because the trees in the forests have all been felled by irresponsible loggers. They indiscriminately cut our trees, with no respect to our customary land. This is the land of our ancestors for hundreds of years,” he said, adding that logging in the surrounding areas of Kampung Kaloi started about 10 years ago.

Hasmawi expressed concern that one day the Temiar community’s identity may be wiped out and their customs and traditions will no longer be passed down to their future generation due to uncontrolled logging.

"When forests are cut, we lose our identity and our main source of livelihood,” he said.

"We want our future generation to inherit our identity and culture, at least let them know the uniqueness of our heritage as practised by our ancestors more than 100 years ago,” he said.

Sharing similar sentiments as other villagers from the Temiar tribe, Hasmawi urged the government to control these large scale logging activities by gazetting the permanent reserve forest. - BERNAMA