SEMANG (NEGRITOS), SENOI, TEMIAR AND ORANG ASLI OF MALAYSIA

ORANG ASLI

The term Orang Asli (Malay for “original people” or aboriginals) is the term used to describe the tribal or recently tribal people that live in peninsular Malaysia. ‘Orang Asli’ are divided into three main tribal groups: Negrito (Semang), Senoi and Proto-Malay. The Negrito usually live in the north, the Senoi in the middle and the Proto-Malay in the south. Each group or sub-group has its own language and culture. Separating the Orang-Asli into three official “groups” is a bit misleading. There are in fact, 18 ethnic group are pressed into one collective term, and their cultural appearance is quite diverse. Some are fishermen, some farmers and some are semi-nomadic. In many cases these people were in present-day Malaysia long before the Malays but became subordinate to the Malays and in some cases were enslaved by them after Malays took control of the peninsula.

The traditional dances of the Peninsular Malaysia's Orang Asli are strongly rooted in their spiritual beliefs. Dances are commonly used by shaman as rituals to communicate with the spirit world. Such dances include Genggulang of the Mahmeri tribe, Berjerom of the Jah-Hut tribe and the Sewang of the Semai and Temiar tribes.

The government agency in charge of handling affairs with these groups is the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli, or JOA). The aboriginal People’s Act of 1954, revised in 1974, gives police the right to control who enters Orang Asli villages and gives the Malaysia government the power to allocated Orang Asli land. The JOA has brought schools. Health care and development to tribal areas but in many ways government actions are motivated by a belief that the Orang Asli are primitive and need to be civilized.

The British colonial rulers established laws to protect the Orang Asli. In 1954, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs was established in part to prevent the Orang Asli from joining the Communist insurgency. As a rule the Negritos have not got on well with the Malays.

Many Orang Asli groups were moved onto “relocation settlements” in the 1970s in part so the government could carry out anti-insurgency operations against Communist insurgents. In 1997, a campaign was launched to covert the Orang Asli to Islam. Robert K. Dentan, an anthropologist at the State University of New York in Buffalo told the New York Times: “Take away their land, their trees, the Orang Asli will no longer be able to support themselves or maintain distinctive culture. They will become either dependents of the state or a kind of landless proletariat, low-wage laborers at the very bottom of society.”

A very detailed summary of the political and social state of the Orang Asli today has been written by Colin Nicholas, Center for Orang Asli Concerns.

Early Indigenous People in Malaysia

The indigenous groups on the peninsula can be divided into three ethnicities, the Negritos, the Senois, and the proto-Malays. The first inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula were most probably Negritos. These Mesolithic hunters were probably the ancestors of the Semang, an ethnic Negrito group who have a long history in the Malay Peninsula. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Senoi appear to be a composite group, with approximately half of the maternal DNA lineages tracing back to the ancestors of the Semang and about half to later ancestral migrations from Indochina. Scholars suggest they are descendants of early Austroasiatic-speaking agriculturalists, who brought both their language and their technology to the southern part of the peninsula approximately 4,000 years ago. They united and coalesced with the indigenous population.

The Proto Malays have a more diverse origin, and were settled in Malaysia by 1000BC. Although they show some connections with other inhabitants in Maritime Southeast Asia, some also have an ancestry in Indochina around the time of the Last Glacial Maximum, about 20,000 years ago. Anthropologists support the notion that the Proto-Malays originated from what is today Yunnan, China. This was followed by an early-Holocene dispersal through the Malay Peninsula into the Malay Archipelago. Around 300 BC, they were pushed inland by the Deutero-Malays, an Iron Age or Bronze Age people descended partly from the Chams of Cambodia and Vietnam. The first group in the peninsula to use metal tools, the Deutero-Malays were the direct ancestors of today's Malaysian Malays, and brought with them advanced farming techniques. The Malays remained politically fragmented throughout the Malay archipelago, although a common culture and social structure was shared.

Anthropologists traced a group of newcomers Proto Malay seafarers who migrated from Yunnan to Malaysia. Negrito and other Aborigines were forced by late comers into the hills. In this period, people learned to dress, to cook, to hunt with advanced stone weapons. Communication techniques also improved.

Archaeological finds from the Lenggong valley in Perak. Dating to 10,000-5,000 years ago- Neolithic (New Stone Age), show that people were making stone tools and using jewellery. In the Bronze Age, 2,500 years ago, more people arrived, including new tribes and seafarers. The Malay Peninsula became the crossroads in maritime trades of the ancient age. Seafarers who came to Malaysia's shores included Indians, Egyptians, peoples of the Middle East, Javanese and Chinese. Ptolemy named the Malay Peninsula the Golden Chersonese.

Semang

The Semang are a Negrito group of hunter-gatherers and shifting cultivators that live in the lowland rain forests in northern Malaysia and southern Thailand. There are only about 2,000 of them and they are divided into eight groups whose numbers range from about 100 to 850. Most Semang languages are in the Mon-Khmer group or the Aslian Branch of the Austroasiatic group of languages. Most also speak some Malay and there are many Malay loan words in Semang languages. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993)]

Other Negritos groups include the Andaman Islanders, the Veddoid Negritos of Sri Lanka and the Negritos of the Philippines and the Indian Ocean islands. The resemble other dark skinned, frizzy-haired people from Africa, Melanesia and Australia.

The handful of undeveloped cultures that reportedly have never waged war includes the Andaman Islanders of India, the Yahgan of Patagonia, the Semai of Malaysia and the Tasaday of the Philippines.

See Negritos under Minorities, the Philippines, Sakai Under Minorities, Thailand and Andaman Islanders under Minorities, India

History of the Semang

Negritos are of an unknown origin. Some anthologist believe they are descendants of wandering people that "formed an ancient human bridge between Africa and Australia.” Genetic evidence indicates they much more similar to the people around them than had been previously thought. This suggests that Negritos and Asians had the same ancestors but that Negritos developed feature similar to Africans independently or that Asians were much darker and developed lighter skin and Asian features, or both.

The Semang are probably descendants of the Hoabinhian rain forest foragers who inhabited the Malay Peninsula from 10,000 to 3,000 year ago. After the arrival of agriculture about 4,000 years, some became agriculturalists but enough remained hunter gatherers that they survived as such until recent times.

In the early days the Semang may have interacted and traded with the Malay settlers after the first Malays arrived but relations soured when the Malays began taking Semang as slaves. After that many Semang retired into the forests. The Semang and other similar groups became known as the Orang Asli in peninsular Malaysia. Even though they were considered "isolated" they traded rattan, wild rubbers, camphor and oils for goods from China

Semang Religion

The Semang have no religious authority or scripture and beliefs vary from group to group and even individual to individual. Even so there are similarities found among Semang and other Orang Asli. Most groups tend to see the world as a disk resting on the back of a snake or turtle. Above the earth is a paradise filled with flowers and trees. It is connected to the terrestrial world by stone pillars.

The Semang believe that a number of immortal superhuman beings live in the stone pillars and below the earth. Some were once humans and they occasionally return to earth and appear in people’s dreams. Many of these beings are grouped and linked with natural phenomena such as wind or fruiting trees. Important figures include the thunder god, who has the power to topple trees on Semang who break taboos; the “Grandmother” of the underworld, who helps the thunder god; and the snake that supports the earth, who can produce devastating floods.

Semang shaman are known as hala. They can be either male or female and often act as healers and receive some training through their dreams. These shaman use songs, massages, herbal medicines and spells to cure illnesses. Sometimes they go into trances in their healing ceremonies to cure diseases. The “big hala” is a supernatural being that can take the form of a tiger and scare off ordinary tigers.

Upon death, most groups believe the shadow-soul goes to an island in the afterworld in the western horizon. Before the shadow-soul departs it sometimes lingers as a malevolent ghost. Most Semang groups bury their dead in shallow graves. Much of a traditional Semang funeral involves going through rituals and setting up protective measures to protect people from the malevolent spirits. Some groups practice tree burial, in which the dead are buried on a platform in a tree. Sometimes shaman are buried with their head above the ground.

Semang Marriage and Family

Semang couples come together on their own accord; parents have little influence. There are some rules that discourage marriages of close relatives. A marriage is often defined when a couple starts living together. Sometimes there is a small feast and the groom gives some gifts to the bride’s family. Among more settled groups, the husband sometimes does a bride service for a year or two to the bride’s family. Couples may join the camp of the groom’s family or the bride’s family or alternate between both.

Polygyny and polyandry are sometimes practiced but are rare. Divorce is acceptable in most cases, especially if the couple has no children. In most cases, the couple simply stop living together. For the most part the break ups are ultimately amicable and often divorced people remain in the same camps together.

In most cases parents and their preadolescent children share a lean-to. Adolescent girls stay in an adjacent lean-to. Adolescent boys from several families sleep together in their own lean to. Children are brought up by both parents although women usually devote more time to childrearing than men. Children tend to pick up skills through casual observation and participation rather than formal training.

Semang Society

The conjugal family is the most important social unit in Semang society. There are no descent groups and no bands that always camp together The camps are made of families that come together and break up as necessity and convenience apply.

The Semang are very egalitarian. Camp groups traditionally have not had head men or leaders and the individual autonomy of families is respected. Social control is exerted through informal social pressure. Some taboos are enforced by the belief that if they are broken the offender will be punished by the thunder god. The Semang abhor violence. Disputes are generally settled through negotiations or public airing of a grievance and seeking a decision by the group. Individuals who are not on friendly terms join different camps.

Most activities and chores are done by both men and women and work is often done in mixed groups or husband and wife teams. Although both groups dig for tubers women spend more doing this than men. Men do most of the hunting and heavy chores such as felling large trees.

Semang Life

The Semang have traditionally lived in temporary camps lasting from one night to six week. The camps are comprised of a cluster of lean-tos with frames made from branches and covered in palm thatch. Each lean-to is home to a conjugal family, a widow and widower or a group of unmarried boys and/or girls. Each camp has two to 20 shelters with six to 60 people.

The nomadic western Semang groups live in lean-to that are arranged in two rows, facing each other and forming a kind of tunnel. Semang who have settled, often have done so under pressure from the Malaysia government. They live in Malay-style bamboo and thatch houses, or cinder block houses built by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. Many of the groups that live in government settlements use their houses as bases from which the groups go into the forest.

Many Semang have been displaced by dam projects, development and logging. The Department of Aboriginal Affairs has attempted to persuade the Semang to take up commercial crop production and has trained them do so. Many Semang have resisted this.

The Semang enjoy singing. Both sexes sometimes put on flowers, leaves and pigments when the hold singing sessions. They don't like to say thank you when receiving a portion of meat because it is considered rude to express surprise at a hunter's generosity or to size up the piece of meat received.

Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his website on Southeast Asia music: “Among the Orang Asli, the “Negrito” always built an instrument to use it once and then throw it away. Their nomadic life made it impossible to carry around heavy gongs or instruments which are complex in structure and easy to break. Today, the nomadic life is over and this also regards to the appearance of Negrito musical instruments today. Besides from all “jungle stories” the shamanistic rituals found among the Orang Asli are one of the latest chances to study shamanistic traditions and philosophies. Here we find music that works as a “bridge to heaven”, with drums beating players into trance.” [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt from his website on Southeast Asia music]

Semang Hunting and Gathering

Traditionally, the Semang hunted and gathered wild foods and traded forest products for cultivated food and manufactured goods. Even the ones considered nomadic plant a few crops from time to time and work for outsiders. Often they help Malays harvest their rice crop in return for a portion of the rice crop.

The staple of the nomadic Semang diet is wild yams, which come in 12 varieties and are valuable year round. Wild foods consumed include bamboo shoots, nuts, seasonal fruits. Hunters have traditionally used blowguns and poison darts to catch monkeys, gibbons and birds, their primary sources of wild meat. They also dig bamboo rats out of their burrows and fish with nets, poison, spears and hooks and lines. They used to hunt large game with bows and arrows but gave that up. The seldom used traps. Groups had loose claims to a particular area but these claims were not so strong and they were difficult to enforce.

When the Semang raised crops they practiced slash-and-burn agriculture and grew dry rice, cassava, maize, and sweet potatoes. Food is generally shared after the harvest. Sometimes dogs are kept as guard animals. They are relatively useless in hunting monkey and birds. Some settled Semang raise chickens for food and keep dogs and monkeys as pets.

The Semang make blowpipes, cooking vessels, water containers and sleeping platforms from bamboo. Mats are baskets are made from pandanus, Belts and ladders are made from rattan. Cloth used to made from bark. Metal tools such as knives, spear points and digging blades and things like tobacco, flour and rice and cloth are obtained through trading forest products such as rattan, beeswax, herbal medicines, honey and resinous woods with Chinese and Malay traders.

Martin (1905, pp. 720 ff.; vide Bodenheimer 1951, p. 270) mentions that the southern groups of the Senoi and the Semang devour everything edible although vegetable food prevails. His statement that some insects are not eaten suggests that some insects are eaten. Bristowe (1932, p. 388) was told by the Semang that they ate queen termites and the larvae of a greenish coconut beetle.

Senoi

The Senoi are a group of slash-and-burn farmers that live in the rain-forested mountains and foothills of the Main mountains range which bisects the Malaya peninsula, primarily in northeast Pahang and southeast Perak. There are about 20,000 of them. Their language is classified as members of the Aslian Branch of the Austroasiatic group of languages. Most also speak some Malay and there are many Malay loan words in Senoi languages. Many have never traveled further than a few kilometers from the place they were born. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993)]

The Senoi are believed to have arrived o the Malaya Peninsula about 8000 to 6000 B.C., perhaps mixing with the Semang people’s who were already there. The Malays arrived millennia later. At first they traded peacefully and mixed with the Senoi but as they grew powerful they carved Malaysia into small states. The Senoi became dependants and second class citizens. When the Malays converted to Islam they labeled the Senoi as pagans and enslaved them, murdered adults and kidnaped children under the age of nine. The slave practice didn’t end until the 1930s. The policy of the Malaysian has been to “civilize” the Senoi by converting them to Islam and making them ordinary people.

The Senoi appear to be a composite group, with approximately half of the maternal DNA lineages tracing back to the ancestors of the Semang and about half to later ancestral migrations from Indochina. Scholars suggest they are descendants of early Austroasiatic-speaking agriculturalists, who brought both their language and their technology to the southern part of the peninsula approximately 4,000 years ago. They united and coalesced with the indigenous population.

Senoi Religion

The Senoi believe in gentle spirits and use taboos to maintain control. Mankind is viewed as alone and vulnerable in the world. The Senoi go through great effort to not offend spirits and the heavenly god that cause thunder and lighting. Religious specialist are usually chosen on the basis of their contact with the spirits in their dreams.

Spirit possessions involving trances are common. The spirts, the Senoi believe, love fragrances and are often attracted with flowers and fragrant leaves. Most ceremonies last two to six nights and are organized to cure illnesses. The biggest festival is held after the rice harvest and is tied in with Chinese New Year celebrations.

The Senoi believe everyone has several souls, including shadow souls that can be malevolent ghosts. The dead are usually buried on the other side of a stream from where people live because it is believed that ghost can not cross water. The dead are buried with some possessions, but they don’t have a clear concept of the afterlife. Six days after the burial feast marks the “close of the grave.” The mourning period last a week to a month and involves taboos on music, dancing and generally having a good time.

Senoi Society

The nuclear family and to a less extent extended families are the most important social units in Senoi society. There is talk of descent groups but they do not seem to play a big role in how society is organized.

The Senoi are very egalitarian. The Senoi fear violence and have respect for individual autonomy. Groups traditionally have not had a strong head men. Groups form and break up as need applies. The government has encouraged them to chose leaders. When they did the leaders were chosen more on the basis of their verbal skills than wealth or family background.

Marriages are generally fairly casual; divorces are common and sometimes brothers practice a form of wife swapping. Some practice modified Malay wedding ceremonies. Some require a bride price form the groom. After marriage the couple generally lives first with the wife’s group and later with the husband’s group. Some activities and chores are done by both men and women. Men do most of the hunting and heavy chores such as house building and felling large trees. Women do most of gathering and basket fishing.

Senoi Life

The Senoi have traditionally lived in settlements with 30 to 200 people set up on the high ground above the junction of a stream and a river. They live in single family or extended family homes set up around a long house that serves as a community meeting place. Their traditional houses are made of wood, bamboo and bark and haven wove, palm-frond shingles. The houses are built on stilts between one meter and 3½ meters high. In places where there are tigers and elephants they can be up to nine meters high.

Traditionally the Senoi settled in one area for three to eight years and then moved on after the soil became exhausted. These days more are settled. Some live in permanent villages where wet-land rice irrigation is used. Some live in semi-permanent settlements and move to slash-and-burn sites during the planting and harvest season. They get around on the rivers in bamboo rafts.

Senoi Economics and Agriculture

The Senoi have traditionally practiced subsistence slash-and-burn agriculture, primarily growing rice, maize and manioc, and hunting and fishing. For income they sell forest products like rattan, resin and wild bananas. Settled communities maintain fruit groves. In some places, encouraged by the government, they grow rubber. The government does not recognize Senoi land rights. Among slash-burn practitioners, groups only had rights to land while it was being cultivated.

The Senoi grow crops in such a way that they can harvest them year round and always have a food supply no matter what happens. Pests include rats, grain-eating birds, deer and elephants. There are also problems with lalang grass. Basket traps are the primary fishing device. Poisons, weirs, hooks, spears, corrals and baskets are also used. The Senoi are very fond of the honey of wild bees.

Hunting used to done with blowguns and poison darts. Now most animals are caught with snares, spear traps, birdlines, and deadfalls. Valued catches include deer, wild pigs, pythons and civets. Chickens are raised for food. Goats and ducks are raised for sale to the Malays.

The Senoi make mats and baskets and other products from bamboo, pandanus and rattan. They used make cloth from bark but now clothes made from such materials are only used in ceremonies. Metal tools such as knives, spear points and machetes and things like tobacco, flour and cloth are obtained through trading fruits, lumber, butterflies, resin and rattan with Chinese and Malay traders.

Semai

The Semai are a semisedentary people living in the rainforest in center of the Malay Peninsula. They speak Semai, a Mon-Khmer language. The Semai belong to the Senoi ethnic group. It is thought that the Semai are the remnants of the original, ancient and widespread population of Southeast Asia. According to Keene State College’s Orang Asli Archive, in 1991 there were 26,627 Semai living on the Malay Peninsula. This number has increased in recent years with the advent of better nutrition as well as improved sanitation and healthcare practices. These numbers, however, do not include other peoples of Semai or mixed descent, most of whom have assimilated into other cultures and have abandoned their ancestral tribal lands in order to seek better employment and education opportunities, especially in the larger cities. [Source: Wikipedia +]

A genetic study conducted in 1995 by a team of biologists from the National University of Singapore has shown a close relationship between the Semai and the Khmer of Cambodia. This is in line with the linguistic situation of the Semai, whose language belongs to the Mon-Khmer family. Furthermore, the Semai seem to be more closely related to the Javanese than to their Malay neighbours on the peninsula. +

The Semai are known especially for their nonviolence. Hunter-gathers such as the Bushmen of the Kalihari and Semai are regarded as the world's most non-violent societies. "If a child hits another child, the Semai have a parliament of children. All the kids in the community get together in a big circle and talk about what happened, how it started, how to prevent it from happening again." Children learn that fights have an impact on everyone not just those doing the fighting.

The Semai are among the indigenous peoples of Malaysia (Orang Asli) who have been pushed into the hills and mountains by later, more technologically powerful incoming peoples. They have no police and no government per se. According to Dentan, adults appear to be controlled primarily by public opinion. The Semai themselves say "There is no authority here but embarrassment." Although popular and verbally facile individuals are influential in public affairs, the Semai have no formal leaders.

The animist traditions of the Semai include a thunder deity called Enku. A small eyeless snake is called Thunder's headband. One of the most important beings associated with thunder are the Na-ga, a group of huge, subterranean dragons that ravage villages during thunder-squalls and are associated with rainbows. Chuntah is a ritual performed to make the evil spirits leave. Chuntah is performed in the middle of a storm where a man collects rain in a bamboo container until it is nearly full, then gashes his skin and lets the blood run into the container. +

The Semai world of animals includes cheb that has feathers and flies, ka' has rounded scales or moist skin and lives in or near the water, menhar lives on the ground or in the trees, menhar also includes fungi. The Semai usually have restrictions on eating animals that straddle two groups. Snakes are usually not eaten because moving menhar have legs, but snakes live on land, so the Semai consider this "unnatural." +

Semai Culture

The Semai are horticulturalists who have a gift economy. The Senai used wear reed loincloths. Semai have a strong craving for meat. When they say “I haven’t eaten for days,” it usually implies they haven’t eaten meat for days.

Disputes in the Semai community are resolved by holding a becharaa, or public assembly, at the headman's house. This assembly may last for days and involves thorough discussion of the causes, motivations and resolution of the dispute by disputants and the whole community, ending with the headman charging either or both of the disputants not to repeat their behavior lest it endanger the community. The Semai have a saying that "there are more reasons to fear a dispute than a tiger." [Source: Wikipedia +]

Semai children are never punished or forced against their will. If a parent asks a child to do something and the child says "I don't want to," the matter is ended. However, Semai parents use fear of strangers and violence in nature such as thunderstorms and lightning to control children's behavior if ever it becomes necessary. A concept similar to karma is also prevalent where children are told stories of sprites (mambang in Malay) and forest spirits who will take retribution if their sanctity is violated. Children also appear to be taught to fear their own aggressive impulses. The concept of mengalah or giving in is most cherished where children since young are taught to 'give way' to others so as to preserve the peace and harmony of the village. +

The games Semai children play are non-competitive. These games include forms of sports that encourage physical activity and exertions so that the body becomes tired and are therefore made ready for sleep and the subsequent dreaming. One game involves hitting at other children with sticks; the sticks, however, always stop short a few inches from their target so that no one actually gets struck. Modern games are also played but with significant modifications. A game of badminton for example uses no partition nets and keeps no score. The shuttlecock is deliberately hit so that it could be easily intercepted by the other player and passed back, and so forth. The objective seems to be purely for exercise. +

With regards to space and dominion, there appears to be no distinction between the public and private realms, and thus, "the Western concept of privacy, domestic or otherwise, is not to be found.". This concept is also shared by the rural Malays, of whom, many are descended from mixed marriages with the Semais and other Orang Asli people. They carry with them the wisdom and lore of the Semais, including their non-violent and pacifist tendencies, harmonized with other prevailing religions of their adoption. +

The Semais live in villages and most of the structures are built with wood, bamboo with weaved walls and thatched roofs using palm leaves. Semai houses have no visible bedrooms, especially for the children, as they all sleep in the main hall. The only separation seems to be in the form of wooden-beaded curtains for the parents' chambers. This form of separation is also adopted by the coastal Malays, who use instead curtains made of seashells, and deutero-Malays, who use the batik cloth to form the curtains. There are no locks or otherwise, usual devices used to preventing an unwanted entry into any of these rooms. A simple way of telling that an entry is unwanted is by drawing down the curtains. To allow entry, the curtain is drawn to the sides and tied to form an opening. Expressed permission must be requested in cases where entry is needed when the curtains are closed. An entry without permission is a transgression and entails some sort of natural retribution. +

Temiar

The Temiar are a group of slash-and-burn farmer that live in the rain-forested mountains and foothills in a 5000 square kilometer area in the interior parts of Perak, Pahang and Kelantan states in peninsular Malaysia. There are about 32,000 of them or so and they widely dispersed. There is a population density of about two persons be square kilometer, where they live . Their language is classified in the Aslian Branch of the Austroasiatic group of languages. Most also speak some Malay and there are many Malay loan words in Temiar languages. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993)]

The Temiar are a Senoic group indigenous to the Malay peninsula and one of the largest of the nineteen Orang Asli groups of Malaysia. Many live on the fringes of the rainforest, while a small number have been urbanised. The Temiar are traditionally animists, giving great significance to nature, dreams and spiritual healing.

The early history of the Temiar is similar to that of the Senoi. See Above.

Temiar Religion

The Temiar put a great deal of emphasis on “lucid dreaming” and trance. Some of their customs have become the inspiration for “Senoi dream therapy” practiced by several groups in the United States. Religious specialists are usually chosen on the basis of their contact with the spirits in their dreams and ability to go into trances.

The Temiar believe that people have several souls. These include souls connected with the head and heart. The also believe in a large numbers of spirits associated with living things, natural phenomena and inanimate objects, which are believed to act as guides for individuals and appear in their dreams. As is true with the Semang and Senoi, the thunder god is of particular importance.

Spirit possession involving trances are common. Most ceremonies last two to six nights and are organized to cure illnesses. They often feature a great deal of singing and dancing. The Temiar also have a long list of seemingly arbitrary taboos such as not laughing at butterflies or dressing animals in human clothing. Breaking such taboos, they believe, could trigger ferocious storms or floods. To make amends for breaking such taboos individuals can mix some of their blood with water and offer it to the thunder god.

The dead are usually buried on the day of death on the other side of a stream from where people live because it is believed that ghosts can not cross water. The dead are buried on bamboo platforms in the forest with most of their valued possession, thereby negated the need for inheritance. The grave is oriented towards the path of the sun because it believed the dead reside in a “flower garden” at the sunset horizon. For several days after the burial fires are lit at the grave site. After that the forest is allowed the reclaim the site. Sometimes respected shaman are buried on a platform on a tree and dead babies are hung in a bag from a branch on the tree.

Temiar Marriage

Marriage are generally fairly casual; and premarital and extramarital sex are common. In many cases a couple becomes “married” when they start sleeping with one another and equivalent word for marry in the Temiar language is:to sleep with.” Sometimes gifts are exchanged but there are generally no significant bride price payments from the groom. If a couple is unhappy with each other they simply move part, Re marriages are common. Sex and joking about sex among siblings-in-law is Temiar custom.

After marriage the couple generally lives first with the wife’s group and later with the husband’s group. Some activities and chores are done by both men and women. Men do most of the hunting and heavy chores such as house building and felling large trees. Women do most of gathering and basket making. The mother and father, their kin and often the whole village shares in child rearing in a libbtz-like manner.

Temiar Society

The nuclear family and to a lesser extent extended families are the most important social units in Temair Society. There is talk of descent groups but they do not seem to play a big role in how society is organized. In some cases tree-owning rights are passed down from one family member to another.

The Temiar are very egalitarian. Individuals are allowed to what they please as long as they don’t hurt anyone. Children are allowed to run free and even experiment with knives and sex if they so please. Even with these things being they case they usually avoid violence of any kind and even avoid competition. When they play games and sports—even soccer—they play in such a way that everyone helps the group.

The Temiar abhor violence and have respect for individual autonomy. Groups traditionally have not had a strong head man. When they did the leaders were chosen more on the basis of their verbal skills than wealth or family background. The government has encouraged them to chose leaders. These men are best viewed as intermediaries between the Temiar and outsiders rather than leaders within the community.

Temiar Life

The Temiar have traditionally lived in small villages of 12 to 150 people set up in a clearing in the forest along a stream or river. Their traditional houses are made of wood, split bamboo and bark and have woven, palm-frond shingles. Spaces are left between the split bamboo to allow for the circulation of cooling air. The houses are built on stilts and are between one meter and 4 meters off the ground. The whole structure is held together with tightly knotted rattan strips and requires minimal skills or carpentry tools to build.

Within a traditionally house is a central area for cooking, dancing and threshing. Outside these are smaller compartments for individuals, partners or children. Often they are only separated from the main room by a waist-high partitions. These days most Temiar are settled in Malay-style relocation communities They get around on the rivers in Malay-style dugout boats and bamboo rafts that are only good for going down river.

The Temiar produce abstract and geometrical designs on mats, pouches, walls of houses and blowgun darts. Temiar women are famous for their choral singing. Sometimes they pass around cassette tapes of recordings they made themselves. The Temaire believe illnesses are caused by the improper mixing of contradictory forces. Treatments involve herbal remedies, shaman rituals and special shaman “blowing.”

Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his website on Southeast Asia music: “Among the Orang Asli music, the Temiar music has become mostly recognized as “healing music” worldwide, but the reasons are questionable, because this “dream music” is often used and sold from the “New Age”and esoteric scene. It also shows a paradigm of the Orang Asli, as they still are classified as leading an “romantic existence” in the jungle, only dependent on the things which nature spends everyday, but this is far from reality, of course. *-*[Source: Ingo Stoevesandt from his website on Southeast Asia music ]

Temiar Economic and Agriculture

The Temiar have traditionally practiced subsistence slash-and-burn agriculture, primarily growing rice and cassava, and hunting and fishing. For income they sell forest products like rattan and jelutung (a coagulated tree latex used in some chewing gums). In some places, encouraged by the government, they grow rubber. The Temiar traditionally have had no sense of land ownership although they sometimes did lay claim to fruit trees.

Hunting has traditionally been done with blowguns and poison darts and shotguns. Now most animals are caught with snares and traps. Valued catches include deer, wild pigs, pythons and civets. Chickens are raised for food. The Temiar have problems eating other animals because they regard them as pets. Their animals are often sold to the Malays. They fish with drop nets,, barricades and hooks and lines.

The Temiar make mats and baskets and other products from bamboo, pandanus and rattan. Metal tools such as knives, spear points and machetes and things like tobacco, flour and cloth are obtained through trading forest products with Chinese and Malay traders.

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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