In Yang Sani’s dream, the spirit of an elderly Bidayuh man – Pa’wi – told her that the black stone would give her the ability to combat muat (demons) while the red one would aid her in detecting and neutralising poisons or cursed foods.
‘Let those who believe in spirits speak for themselves.’ (Lewis, 1971: 29)
The shaman goes by many names in Sarawak – Manang, Dukun, Bomoh, Sin. Every linguistic group gives them their own title, a reflection of their centrality in these traditional cultures. They speak with spirits, smooth decision-making, settle conflict and heal the sick.
For those drawing from a Judaeo- Christian tradition and, in fact, those who imagine themselves from a modern world of Hollywood movies or rational science and mainstream spirituality, their existence might be shrouded in rumour, mystery, superstition and suspicion. The unfamiliarity and misconception is born out of a societal aversion to the unknown and unconventional. In most socio-cultural milieux which hold science and world religions dear, traditional spiritual beliefs are mysticised or shunned.
But in Sarawak, the boundaries are not so clear-cut. All Sarawakians know of them, most believe in them, many still visit them. They are both revered and reviled, as Sarawak grapples to reconcile a very recent past of animism and alternative spirituality with a rush to conversion and modernity.
Growing up, I had always pictured the bomoh in my elders’ tales with the blood-red teeth and bone- piercings of international adventure films. But, seeking to learn more about these individuals who tap into the resources of the spiritual realm (and to straighten out any personal misconceptions), I set out into a rural Bidayuh community by the Sarawak- Kalimantan border, searching for those from the dukun or bomoh circles who would be willing to speak with me about their origins, practice, and identity.
These are the stories of two dukun with whom I met.
YANG-SANI: Origins and Practice Sometime in 1980, Yang-Sani, a Catholic woman who had converted to Islam after her marriage to a Muslim man, found herself very ill. Despite seeking treatment for two years from doctors and dukun alike, her symptoms of fatigue, loss of appetite, and bodily pains did not leave her. In 1982, she went to visit her sister. They spent their day in the jungle where they had planned a picnic by the river.
While swimming in a lubok (waterhole), she felt drawn toward two stones upon the riverbank. One was smooth and black with a white layer running through its middle. The other was a rough, red stone which seemed to have a head and a tail. Taking a liking to the stones, she took them home to her sister’s house and placed them by her bed while she slept. That night, the spirit of an elderly Bidayuh man – Pa’wi – came to her and told her that the stones belonged to him. He told her that the black stone would give her the ability to combat muat (demons) while the red one would aid her in detecting and neutralising poisons or cursed foods. In the days that followed her encounter with Pa’wi, she found herself recovering. Yang-Sani then spent the next few years learning the ways of the dukun through her interactions with Pa’wi thus becoming a vessel for his powers of healing.
Barnabas uses a beliung (axe-head) tied perpendicular to a parang (machete) blade in what he jokingly calls his ‘axe-ray’ ritual.
Remarkably, I later found out that the combination of beliung and parang was used by adat tayu mediums and dayung manang (priestesses) to diagnose curses and kandam pinya’at in pre-Christian days.
My host in the field, Lawrence, used to visit Yang-Sani for treatment of kandam pinya’ at (spiritual sickness or curses). After multiple visits, his cousins, who would accompany him to the rituals, also fell victim to kandam pinya’ at. Upon sharing this with Yang-Sani, they were informed that the individual who had caused Lawrence to be attacked did not wish to see him recover and thus set out to curse those who sought to aid in his recovery. In response to this, Yang-Sani offered to include Lawrence’s cousins in the healing sessions.
Yang-Sani’s cure for them cost them ten ringgit each, in addition to three raw eggs, one per person. During the ritual, the egg would be coated in ritual oils1 and rubbed over the affected area of the patient’s body whilst Yang-Sani chanted and summoned her spirit. She would then ask Pa’wi, her kamang (spirit), to combat the evil spirit attacking the patient and to remove the presence of evil in their being. While similar extractions in shamanic rituals elsewhere have been more a ‘symbolic removal of the “spiritual essence”’ (Harner, 1980: 52), Yang-Sani’s egg rituals seemingly resulted in the production of physical objects. When the egg was then cracked into a bowl, it would reveal the spiritually planted object which was causing the affliction. In most cases this would be a fine needle wrapped in coloured thread (either red, black, or yellow). In other, rarer cases, miniature tiguno (figurines) would be produced by the ritual. Despite leaving no marks on the body or the egg, the needle is said to have left the body and entered the egg during the ritual.
Toward the end of our conversation, Yang-Sani reached out to me and offered to give me a few lessons in carrying out rituals. When I declined, citing personal beliefs, her response drew to my attention to the way in which dukun conceptualised their identities. “It’s ok, I’m Muslim and also a dukun. I can be both” , she said (paraphrased from Malay).
BARNABAS: A Syncretic Identity ‘Masuklah, masuk!’ (‘Come in, come in!’). Barnabas enthusiastically waved at me, inviting me into his home. He and his friend, Mang-Migu, re-entered the house in which the former conducted his healing sessions. I followed suit and entered a room with a woven mat in the middle and an altar to one side. It was dimly illuminated by what little sunlight penetrated the drawn curtains.
In this warm glow, I could see that his altar was extensively decorated with Catholic paraphernalia. Barnabas motioned for me to come closer to where he and Mang-Migu had taken their places on the mat. As we began conversing, he told me that on Sundays he uses a beliung (axe-head) tied perpendicular to a parang (machete) blade in what he jokingly called his ‘axe-ray’ ritual. With the help of an assistant, the contraption is balanced between their right index-fingers and raised and lowered repeatedly while Barnabas asks Jesus and the Holy Spirit questions regarding the patient. An affirmative answer is manifested by the beliung-parang spontaneously turning and falling off their fingers to the floor, while a negative answer is assumed if it remains still.
‘Demo, demo!’ Barnabas called out as he reached under the altar cloth and pulled out the beliung-parang. With Mang-Migu’s assistance, he began a demonstration. They rhythmically lifted and lowered the contraption while Barnabas called upon the Holy Spirit and asked if my presence in the kampung would bring good fortune to the community and to me. Seconds after he completed his question, the axe-head and machete blade spun and clunked to the ground. He turned to me and with a wide smile gave me a thumbs-up, pleased with his demonstration and the answer.
Remarkably, I later found out that the combination of beliung and parang was used by adat tayu mediums and dayung manang (priestesses) to diagnose curses and kandam pinya’at in pre-Christian days. The use of this traditional spiritual device by one who claimed to be a Catholic healer in front of an altar adorned with images of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary perfectly embodied the crossroads between cultural heritage and present religion at which many dukun find themselves.
Including Barnabas and Yang-Sani, I met six dukun and healers and all identified themselves as either practicing Christians or Muslims. None of them saw their work as being at odds with their respective faiths as they believed that their abilities came from God or Allah. Some went on to further distinguish between the cultural aspect of their work and the religious aspect of their faith, stating that neither ought to encroach upon the other. For them, adat and agama are two separate spheres of life.
A famous quote by author H.P Lovecraft states that, “the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown” . Perhaps this explains the attitudes that many have towards those who practice spiritual healing. The peripheral nature of their unconventional methods gives rise to many misconceptions and assumptions. Having spent time with some practitioners and patients, it would appear that the phenomenon is more complex and real than my pre- conceptions had me believe.
The study of religion and religious experience is, as Lewis states, ‘sensitive to subjective judgement’ (1971: 29) and the search for objective truths is therefore unlikely to bear desired fruit. However, this was not the intention I set out with. Instead, all I – and I presume those greater minds of the field – seek is that, through attempts to understand the Other and that which is foreign, we make the strange familiar, and the familiar strange. Through this, we may navigate and form our own ideas of what makes us who we are.
Josh Wong-Tendahal is an Anthropology graduate and foodie who believes that the best way to know a culture is to live in it and to taste it.
Harner, M. 1980. The Way of the Shaman. Bantam Books. New York. Lewis, I.M. 1971. Ecstatic Religion: An Anthropological Study of Spirit Possession and Shamanism. Penguin Books. Middlesex, England.