Arriving at Carey Island, some 70km from Kuala Lumpur city in the district of Kuala Langat, my friends and I were briefed on the Dos and Don’ts prior to entering Mah Meri Cultural Village. Even so, we set foot into the grounds with trepidation. Like the other eighteen aboriginal tribes in Peninsular Malaysia, the Mah Meri tribe is also steeped in customs and traditions and nobody wanted to antagonise their nature spirits.

 entrance to Mah Meri Cultural Village

entrance to Mah Meri Cultural Village

Mah Meri means “People of the Forest” but they were originally called the “Bersisi”, which means “People of the Sea”. About 4,000 people from the Mah Meri tribe call Carey Island home. Incidentally, the island was named after Valentine Carey, a former British civil service officer in Malaya. Prior to the arrival of the British, the island was known as ‘Teluk Gunjeng’. As you can tell, Carey Island was a bay and not an island, although today, the island is separated from the main Selangor coast by the Langat River.

palm leaf origami

palm leaf origami

The village, nestled within the oil palm plantation island a quarter the size of Singapore, was purposely established to bring Mah Meri’s rich cultural heritage back to life. Officiated in July, 2011, the project is a joint venture between the Federal Government and the local Mah Meri community. It is open to anyone who would like to indulge in the ancient culture of the Mah Meri tribe, where the marital ritual, sea nomad ceremonial ritual and other sacred rituals can be witnessed.

The peace-loving and friendly Mah Meri people welcome guests by symbolically washing their feet, after honouring them with a crown of palm leaves each.

Visitors to the village are encouraged to check out the Mah Meri historical gallery where tribal heritage is explained in depth with dual-language documentation in both English and Bahasa Malaysia. Also on display are a great number of face masks and wood sculptures of animals, some of which were awarded with the UNESCO Seal of Excellence for creativity and artistry in craftsmanship.

The ingenious Mah Meri people, still pretty untouched by modern civilisation, adopt a mystical cultural heritage steeped in the spirit of animism. They believe that spirits live in humans, animals, plants and also inanimate objects. Therefore, many of their spiritual wood carvings were based on interpretation of dreams, which are also signs of the future.

Rashid Esa explains the tree bark cloth

Rashid Esa explains the tree bark cloth

To date, the Mah Meri people have translated some 720 different images into sculptures and masks, each taking at least a month to sculpt.

writer gets her hair done for the mock wedding

writer gets her hair done for the mock wedding

As the Mah Meri Cultural Village is a cultural learning centre, guests are able to take part in a number of rituals and workshops. One of the more significant events at the village is the Mah Meri wedding ritual.

part of the wedding ritual

part of the wedding ritual

For the Mah Meri people, men and women are treated equally. Since they are not dictated by social norms, a monogamous relationship holds no special significance to them. Even though couples were betrothed as babies, the bride and groom have the final say during one of the seven wedding rituals called “sorok pengantin” or the hiding of the bride.

 wedding ritual - writer is second from left - with 'groom' Edgar from the Philippines and bridesmaids from France

wedding ritual – writer is second from left – with ‘groom’ Edgar from the Philippines and bridesmaids from France

At this village, visitors, through a mock wedding, learn how a groom chooses his bride and how she can accept or decline the partnership by marriage. The intriguing wedding ceremony is one of the most auspicious celebrations of the Mah Meri tribe based on beliefs passed down from generations ago.

 writer as bride in the mock wedding kissed by bridesmaids from France

writer as bride in the mock wedding kissed by bridesmaids from France

Another major celebration for the Mah Meri people is Hari Moyang or Spirits Day. It is observed over four days to appease the spirits and to seek their blessings with offerings. Hari Moyang is typically celebrated about one week after the start of Chinese New Year, with the date chosen by spirits through dreams of the elders. However, the celebration may be cancelled or postponed due to unfortunate circumstances such as death or calamity.

The Jo-Oh mask dance is one of the most well-known dances of the Mah Meri tribe. It is a traditional dance performed to invite ancestral spirits, or moyang, to join in the festivity. It is believed that the mask bestows spiritual powers on the wearer during the dance ritual as it represents the souls of their ancestors.

Besides taking part in these rituals, visitors can attend workshops to learn palm leaf origami, tree-bark cloth making, thatched roof making and timber sculpting.

To really enjoy the Mah Meri experience like a native, one needs to set aside at least 4.5 hours. Transportation to and from Kuala Lumpur can be arranged for a small fee. Entrance ticket to Mah Meri Cultural Village is as low as RM5 only.

Note: An edited version of this article [People of the forest] was published as cover story on 23rd October, 2015, in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.

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