A piece of burning sandalwood fills the air with incense as the Mah Meri procession walks towards the beach on Feb. 20, 2018. Women wear traditional outfits made from palm fronds and tree bark. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu

A Malaysian animist group gives thanks to spirits of the sea

CAREY ISLAND, Malaysia (RNS) — The Mah Meri, an indigenous people who hold animist beliefs, are one of the few groups left in Malaysia that celebrate a day of thanksgiving for the spirits of the sea.

Traditionally seafarers who are believed to have come from southern Thailand, the Mah Meri arrived in Malaysia thousands of years before the Malay people.

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They number around 4,200 and live on the shores of the Malacca Strait, one of the busiest naval routes in the world. 

Every year, on the fifth day of the Chinese Lunar New Year — this year the fifth day fell on Feb. 20 — the Mah Meri observe Puja Pantai. Similar versions of the ritual were observed by other fishing communities around the same time, after the crop harvest and before the beginning of the fishing season. But many disappeared over time, and in the 1960s the ritual was banned as un-Islamic. The Mah Meri  — somewhat removed from areas undergoing Islamization — were able to continue their observance.

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The ceremony takes place over four days, in which shamans and villagers visit different points on the rivers and seashores where boats have sunk in the past. These spots are marked with colorful flags that also serve as navigation aids for boats to avoid treacherous sandbanks. In each place, prayers are said to honor and appease the spirits of the sea. Puja Pantai culminates with a ceremony near the spot off Carey Island where the Mah Meri legend has it that a ship was miraculously pulled to safety by the spirit Moyang Getah (the Rubber Spirit).

“The significance of this ritual is far-reaching for the Mah Meri, as it serves both worlds,” says Rashid Esa, director of the Mah Meri cultural village. “It not only recognizes the powers of the spirits but it is also a reminder to the villagers of the dangers they face at sea.”

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