Heritage Snippets of Sarawak
By Heidi Munan
Superstition, customs, spirits, and all that—in Sarawak!
WHERE does superstition end, and custom start?
Some people avoid the number 13, or want the lift to stop at Level 3A, not Level 4. One car owner pays extra to get the number plate ‘8383’, another flatly refuses anything with a ‘4’. Are these good folk superstitious, or have they simply ’always been told’ about these things?
Investigating the subject scientifically, and separating local superstitions from local customs, would fill a fairly thick book which I am not qualified to write. I will just share my observations over the years, randomly.
Some superstitions only affect selected segments of the population (hunters, specialized crafters and artists etc), but everybody has to eat. The kitchen is a veritable hotbed of superstitions!
A girl who sings in the kitchen will be fated to marry an old man. If the cook drops an utensil three times, ‘a ghost wants it’ so it has to be left on the floor for a short time. Shouting or quarreling in the kitchen is always bad, but it’s fatal if a batch of tuak is brewing; the drink will spoil and turn to vinegar!
Rice grain (beras) has to be scooped from the rice jar into a little basket, and then carried to the cooking vessel. Measure six half-cups of rice grain rather than three full ones ‘so the rice spirits won’t think we’re greedy.’ As for dropping rice, raw or cooked—don’t do it! The tiny deity who protects the paddy, Ini Bulan, will see to it that your farm won’t thrive in the coming season.
Visitors are always offered a drink, a smoke or the sireh (betelnut) tray. In the old days this was a matter of common kindness—all transport was on foot or by paddled boat. The visitor had probably come a long way, and he’d be hungry and thirsty. So the custom became a superstition, to the extent that if a visitor who wasn’t offered refreshments has an accident on the way home he can blame his negligent host.
This system works in the reverse too. It is rude as well as foolhardy for a visitor to refuse proffered food or drink. Touching the glass or dish with two fingers of the right hand is the polite way of saying ‘thank you, I have symbolically drunk or eaten what you so kindly provided’. Omission of this simple gesture can have serious consequences: the visitor may have an accident on the way home, or an encounter with a snake or a scorpion.
The rule about offering refreshments applies to ALL visitors. If a bird accidentally flies into a house, open doors and windows so it can safely fly out again. Then prepare a quid of sireh and toss it out after the ‘visitor’; a sweet or a biscuit will do if there’s no sireh handy.
Babies and all that
There must be hundreds of superstitions around pregnancy, childbirth and child-raising. A pregnant lady is not supposed to look at anything ugly. She mustn’t kill or tie any animal. She should stick to a special restricted diet. The expecting father is under similar taboos, especially when it comes to tying or killing anything.
In the old days, people were inured to loving at least some babies soon after birth; this probably accounts for the superstitions hedging in new-born infants and their mothers. If the resident mother-in-law is a person of strong character, she can keep the young mother in complete confinement for one month. No open windows, no baths, definitely no shampoo, no walk outside, no ‘cold’ food, no ‘heaty’ food either. Just to be on the safe side, refer to the baby as ‘worm’ or something similar, ‘so the evil spirits won’t realize there is a baby in the house, and try to harm it!’
There is a whole science devoted to observing and interpreting omens; I don’t know to what extent these are still observed nowadays. There’s a story that Rajah Charles got somewhat impatient with his troops when they insisted that they couldn’t travel today ‘because we heard a bad omen bird.’
“I am your omen bird!” he is reported to have said, majestically outlawing all omen-taking while on campaign.
It is still etiquette to ask travelers encountered en route “where are you going, where did you come from?” It’s considered bad manners not to answer. In the old days it was probably more than just gauche. A traveler who didn’t want to talk was suspect. He could have been a spy, maybe the advance guard of a war raid!
One vestige of this custom has lapped over, even into the 21st century. You whizz upstream in a boat, another boat comes from the opposite direction. The engines are too noisy to exchange the customary courtesies, but each driver points in the direction he is heading. ‘We’re going upstream!’ – ‘We’re going downstream!’
And having shown good manners and observed the good old custom, we may hope to reach our destination in safety.
Heidi (Adelheid) Munan was educated in Switzerland and New Zealand. She has been studying the material culture of Sarawak for over 50 years. In her capacity as a private researcher and Hon. Curator of Beads at the Sarawak Museum she has had ample opportunity to study and learn from indigenous experts and foreign scholars in this and related fields. Besides an active involvement in tourism and handicrafts promotion, she has published books, articles and papers on various topics related to the history and material culture of Sarawak and Borneo.
“Heritage Snippets of Sarawak” is a fortnightly column.