Temiar - Orientation

Identification. The Temiar are one of the larger component groups of the Orang Asli (Malay, "original people," i.e., Aborigines), the name currently applied to the non-Muslim tribal (or recently tribal) populations of peninsular Malaysia. The name "Temiar" (Tembé, Temer, Tummior) has been common in the ethnological literature since the mid-1930s. Earlier the Temiar were usually referred to as "Northern Sakai" (primarily to distinguish them from the "Central Sakai," now known as the "Semais"). The ethnonym "Ple" has also been applied, usually in the compound form "Ple-Temiar," which refers nevertheless to a single population.

"Temiar" is an anglicized form of the Semai name (Tmiir) for the language spoken by the Semais' northerly neighbors. This word has no apparent meaning in any Aslian language, but it probably derives from the Austronesian etymon *tembir (edge) and implies that some earlier peninsular population saw the Temiar as geographically peripheral to themselves.

The Temiar have usually referred to themselves as "Sèn'òòy Sròk" (the people of the hilly interior) or "Sèn'òòy Bèèk" (the people of the forest) ; they call their language "Kuy Sròk" (hilly interior speech). Since the mid-1960s, they have also begun to refer to themselves by the name others call them, in the form "Tmèèr."

Location. Temiar occupy a continuous area amounting to some 5,500 square kilometers, situated between 4°30′ and 5°25′ N and between 101°08′ and 101°52′ E at its extreme points. This places them mostly in the interior parts of Perak and Kelantan states, with two or three villages in the northwestern part of Pahang State. The region is mountainous, and Temiar can be found living at elevations ranging from 100 meters to around 1,400 meters. Except where commercial loggers have recently denuded the forest, Temiar country is cloaked in large-tree primary tropical rain forest, changing to small-tree/dwarf montane forest at higher elevations beyond the inhabited areas. This rich growth sits on rather infertile lateritic soil, maintained by nutrients derived from the ground-level litter of fallen leaves. Although relatively uniform, the environment is extremely rich in plant and animal species, a high proportion of which have been utilized by the Temiar for food, medicine, construction, and trade. The many rivers provide a degree of localized diversity and are utilized as communication routes and sources of water and fish.

The area is under a tropical monsoonal regime that brings winds and rain from the northeast at the turn of the year and from the southwest in the middle of the year. Seasonality is so slight at these latitudes, however, that rain (amounting to around 200 centimeters annually) can fall or cease at almost any time. Dry periods are carefully monitored, as they are necessary to the swidden-farming cycle. The seasonal appearance of certain forest and cultivated fruits is also monitored, for these play an important part in Temiar religion and social organization.

At lower elevations, communication with the people of neighboring valleys is easy, and the downstream Temiar make considerable use of Malay-type dugout canoes for the purpose. At high elevations too, communication on foot with neighboring valleys is relatively easy. Throughout the greater part of the valleys, however, the steep terrain makes it rather difficult to get out of one valley and into the next. This topographical constraint has given rise to a degree of cultural conservatism. As a result, most of the population of each valley (i.e., those who inhabit the middle stretches) come to see themselves as differentiated from people in other valleys by certain diagnostic cultural features that they think of as attached directly to the land rather than to people. To some extent these valley populations take on the character of "demes"—large-scale units tending statistically to endogamy, each consisting of many distinct, usually exogamous, local groups.

Demography. The Temiar numbered 11,593 in the census of 1980. They thus maintain an overall population density of about 2 persons per square kilometer, though local densities are higher. Until the recent residential shifts brought about by the government's relocation program, Temiar lived in small or very small villages, lying some few kilometers from each other. The modal village population was about 30, but ranged from 12 to about 150. In such circumstances, with kinship and relative age as the main principles of social categorization, relationships were necessarily of the "face-to-face" type: at the village level Temiar society has usually been highly solidarist in character.

Linguistic Affiliation. Temiar belongs to the Aslian Subfamily of Mon-Khmer, and hence to the Austroasiatic Stock; along with its closest relatives (Lanoh, Semai, and Jah Hut), it belongs to the Central (or "Senoic") Division of Aslian. Its wider affiliations therefore lie with the several hundred Mon-Khmer languages of mainland Southeast Asia. Temiar has also incorporated lexical and grammatical elements from a variety of Austronesian languages, including some that are no longer spoken in the peninsula.

There are two mutually intelligible major dialects—Northern and Southern—with a few smaller variants on the western and southern parts of their area of distribution. Temiar is also spoken as a localized lingua franca by members of neighboring Orang Asli groups and by some Malays. It remains unwritten, apart from the private notations of Temiarlanguage radio broadcasters and some printed pamphlets circulated by Baha'i religionists.

All adult males can speak Malay, and most of the women have at least a passive knowledge of that language. Since the 1960s increasing numbers of Temiar children have attended government primary schools, and so a high proportion of younger Temiar is now literate in Malay. A smaller number have also learned some English at secondary-school level.

Linguistic and archaeological data suggest that the Aslian-speaking peoples may have formed a separate linguistic division within Mon-Khmer for perhaps 4,000 years. Nevertheless, the Temiar are typical in many ways of the Mon-Khmer-speaking hill peoples of mainland Southeast Asia. They have followed their own religion in an area where the religion of civilization was formerly Mahayana Buddhism and is now Islam. They have lived, probably for millennia, by swidden (slash-and-burn) farming supplemented by hunting and fishing, while the plains dwellers have lived variously by wet-rice cultivation, collecting for trade, and coastal fishing. In addition, they have no recorded history or writing in a country where indigenous literary records extend back to the fourteenth century.

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