Temiar - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practitioners. The Temiar have become famous among psychotherapists and dream researchers as the supposed inventors of the "Senoi dream therapy" currently practiced by several groups in the United States. The relation between these American therapeutic systems and the practices of the Malaysian Aborigines is now known to be tenuous, even spurious, but this revelation has left undisclosed the reasons for the high regard the Senoi peoples have for dreams and trance states. To the extent that the Temiars' propensity for dream-based activities has anything to do with their mental health, their mental well-being results not from any psychotherapeutic counseling techniques that they are reputed to have developed but from the way in which their trancing and (lucid) dreaming puts them in direct touch with what their cosmological notions lead them to think of as the fundamental basis of existence.

Like everyone else, the Temiar are forced to map less graspable notions onto a more familiar surrogate. The Temiar mode of surrogation represents the cosmos, and the religious and social relations that occur within it, not in terms of things or words but in terms of the direct experience that individual human beings have of their own subjectivity. This psychocentrism is founded, moreover, on a thoroughly dialectical orientation of attention as between self and other. Unlike more familiar modes of orientation, in which either self or other is suppressed as the explicit focus of attention, the dialectical mode takes as its starting point the very mutuality of self and other. In Temiar culture, this dialectic serves as the tacit, prereflective notion out of which coherence is constructed: the Temiar self can be perceived and discussed not as an autonomous entity but only in ways that also implicate the other (and vice versa).

This construction derives its plausibility from individual Temiars' experience of their own subjectivity as being simultaneously a controlling actor and an undergoing patient. The dosest they come to articulating this central unspoken mystery verbally is when talking of the various "souls" (i.e., subjectivities capable of communication) that are thought of as animating the people, animals, plants, and other salient things that inhabit their world.

In human beings these souls are the hup (heart) and the rwaay (head-soul), the corporeal seats of doing (or willing) and of experiencing (or undergoing), respectively. The same animistic imagery extends throughout the rest of the cosmos: any entity that appears capable of attracting to itself the attention of a human being is thought of as being able to do so by virtue of the simultaneously hup- and rwaay-like subjectivity that constitutes its essential core. The same holds, in reverse, for the supposed ability of nonhuman entities to become aware of and to act on the subjectivity of individual human beings.

This dialectical mutuality of actor and patient, subject and object, colors all domains of the Temiar worldview. Ordinary social relations (as already mentioned) exhibit a complicated balance between extreme communalism and extreme individual autonomy, which would be very difficult to maintain under any nondialectical mode of orientation. The cosmos itself is thought of as a subjectivity, linked somehow with thunder. It is simultaneously both the creator and the world it creates, constantly employing the "bootstrap" cosmogonic power of its own thought and imagination to maintain the differentiated character of the physical world as the Temiar know it. If human beings (or any other agency) should by their actions distract the cosmos's subjectivity away from this task, then it is thought likely that the world will dedifferentiate, through the agency of thunder (the cosmos's voice) and flood, into a muddy undifferentiated chaos. If that should happen, all things would lose their identity and disappear, through the cosmic merging of subjectivity and objectivity.

Plants and animals are thought to partake in this interplay just as fully as human beings. It is the temporarily disem-bodied upper- and lower-body souls of various mountains, animals, and plants (seasonal fruit trees, especially) that become the personal spirit guides to which Temiar direct their religious action. These souls are called by various special names, but they are uniformly reported to take the same shape when they appear in dreams or trances: upper-body souls become young men or women; lower-body souls become tigers.

Individuals enter into initial communication with their spirit guides through dreams. If they feel so inclined, they may then make their spirit guide's power-for-good available to the rest of the community by serving as a halaa' (an adept spirit medium). Mediumship centers on nighttime trance-dancing ceremonies involving one or more halaa', performing to the accompaniment of contrapuntally sung music. Each song is supposedly passed on by its composer (i.e., the spirit guide) to its initial performer (the halaa') in revelations that occurred while the latter was in a waking dream, most typically around dawn. The halaa' will often be called on to perform healing rituals on the sick during the ceremonies and also in nonceremonial circumstances during the daytime.

Trancing and (lucid) dreaming are altered states of consciousness in which one becomes simultaneously one's own subject and object, since one is then undergoing whatever one is doing. In Temiar terms, these are activities in which one's rwaay is experiencing what one's hup is simultaneously willing into existence. Trance, for example, is talked of as "forgetting one's hup"; but the trancer still retains his or her own rwaay, or there would be no means of experiencing the trance. Lucid dreaming, on the other hand, requires one to retain one's hup, as the locus of one's active participation in whatever is going on in the dream (which is thought of in turn as being located in one's rwaay's experience). Thus the rwaay/hup dialectic is founded on the trance and lucid-dream experience of simultaneously undergoing and controlling the products of one's own imagination, as if those products were autonomous "real-world" entities. By giving themselves over to trance and lucid dreaming, Temiar are thus able to experience directly the selfsame subjective processes that the cosmos itself is thought to employ in keeping itself going. But that experience is ineffable in character, formed of notions, not concepts. It involves the dreamer or trancer in a symbolic condensation that fuses mind, body, social relations, and the world into a dialectically self-transforming, indescribable (and hence unspoken) unity. Relatively few Temiar become specialists in these activities, but virtually all seek to enter into trance and lucid dreaming on occasion, if only once in their lives. They thus disguise the surrogational character of their psychocentrically constructed cosmos by fusing it with what for them is the "really real": the direct experience of controlling and being controlled by the creatures of their own imagination. They thereby provide themselves with an authentically unmediated experience of the very state of mind that supposedly holds everything together on both the cosmic and mundane levels.

Such a complicated way of approaching the world poses a problem, however. Unlike the easily expressible ideas of the various monotheistic religions, the traditional Temiar conception is far too complex to be put into words and talked about explicitly. It is therefore hard to share with others and far from easy to maintain in one's own mind. Many younger Temiar have responded to this situation in recent years by embracing more easily catechized and apparently "rational" religions. The highly monotheistic Baha'i faith found many adherents during the 1970s, especially among Temiar looking for a religion comparable to those that the Malaysian authorities had been urging people to follow. This suited these younger Temiars' desire for an easily explained religion and for one that better fitted their emerging sense of individualistic modernity.

Paradoxically, although Baha'i sees itself as an autonomous religion, some Malaysian authorities regarded it as an Islamic heresy, not appropriate for adoption by a population seen as Malay-like. Some Temiar, on the other hand, complained that Islam was being offered to them by individuals who made a poor job of explaining it and that, while Baha'i employed the national language (Malay), Islam employed a language (Arabic) that neither they nor their would-be teachers could understand. There are reports, nevertheless, that many Temiar have lately become Muslims—how spontaneously is not clear.

Ceremonies. The ceremonial centerpiece of Temiar life consists of public performances by spirit mediums, at night within the house, involving choral singing, dance, and trance. (These have continued even in communities that have adopted the Baha'i religion. Trance is not always present, however.) Performances are put on when there is a demand for shamanic healing rituals or when someone's spirit guide has indicated in a dream that it wishes to be entertained. The sessions are known as gnabag (singsongs). Most of the community is involved, with the women and children singing responses in overlapping canon to the lead verses sung by one or more mediums. The song lyrics are considered to be the spirit guide's own, sung through—not by—the medium.

A much rarer kind of performance involves tiger shamanism, performed by a medium squatting within a special palm-leaf hut set up inside the house. This is performed only by a "big" halaa', without dancing, with the fires extinguished, and with distinctively minor-key melodies.

Other rituals are performed more casually and on a small scale. These include the pouring of warmed (i.e., enculturated) water over a newly delivered woman or into the post holes of a new house, or the special treatment accorded to some specially selected rice grains at the beginning of the planting season.

There are also what might be called antirituals. These are an open-ended collection of rather oddly chosen acts that must be avoided if the thunder deity is not to strike. One should not laugh at butterflies, display colored mats outdoors, dress animals in human clothing, laugh too loudly, and so on. Such acts are classed as misik (probably from the Malay bising, "disturbing noise"), and seem to have in common only the property of attracting undue attention. As already explained, one should avoid disturbing the cosmos's subjectivity for fear of causing disastrous floods and storms. If such disasters do nevertheless occur, then individuals who feel themselves guilty of having committed misik might slash their shins with a bamboo sliver, gather up some blood, mix it with water, and throw it up as an appeasement offering to the thunder deity. This blood sacrifice is also found among other Orang Asli groups (especially the Semang), but it is very rare among the Temiar. Another such rite involves slashing at the ground with a knife, sometimes while hammering a lock cut from one's own (or one's child's) hair into the soil; this is still sometimes done by Temiar during violent thunderstorms.

Arts. The designs woven into or inscribed on mats, pouches, the walls of houses, and bamboo dart quivers are abstract and geometrical. The greatest degree of indigenous aesthetic attention is directed to the tightly woven rattan caps that cover the geometrically decorated bamboo quivers in which Temiar men carry their blowgun darts. Unlike some other Orang Asli groups, the Temiar do not produce representational images of any kind. Music, dance and storytelling, however, are cultivated with enthusiasm, and certain individuals gain considerable local fame for their abilities in these domains. The women's singing, in particular, is among the finest indigenous choral music to be heard in Southeast Asia. Appreciation for this art form is now so keenly developed among the Temiar that they make and circulate among themselves homemade tape recordings of their own musical performances. This activity was stimulated initially by the example of Malaysian Radio, which has been airing field recordings of Temiar music since around 1960 as the major component of its Temiar-language broadcasts.

Medicine. Indigenous Temiar ideas about disease relate mainly to fears of improper interpenetration between domains or agencies that should remain separate. This can occur between spatial domains, or through soul loss and spirit invasion. The attendant symptoms do not always fit tidily into a biomedical framework of analysis, though they certainly are often real enough. Thus goutlike or arthritic symptoms are often explained as the result of letting one's leg get trapped in mud: human beings belong in the domain of off-the-ground, not in-the-ground. Depressive or neurotic symptoms may be regarded as resulting from rwaay loss; more severe psychosislike behavior may be thought to have been brought about through an invasion by the disembodied soul of an animal. Contravention of food taboos (most of which are either completely personal or affect young children together with their parents) is often blamed for convulsions and other symptoms.

Treatment includes herbal and mineral remedies ingested or rubbed on the body, enforced shady segregation within the house, casual "blowings" performed through cupped hands by anyone with halaa' powers, or full ceremonial shamanism performed in trance by several halaa' acting together. Some of the herbal remedies undoubtedly have pharmacological effect, but they have not been investigated systematically. Jennings's work on dance and Roseman's on music has gone a long way to explaining the efficacy of Temiar mediumship as therapy.

Modern treatment is also available to the Temiar, through the medical section of the JOA. This started in the late 1950s and two special hospitals for Orang Asli have been in operation for several decades. Tuberculosis and fungal skin diseases, once the scourges of Temiar communities, have become rare as a result of these services; malaria and childbirth are considerably less dangerous than they were formerly; and, most important, the medical service has provided regular paid employment (and even a career) for young Temiars.

Death and Afterlife. Burial takes place on the day of the death, usually at a site across the river from the village. The body is wrapped in matting and placed in an alcove within the grave, on a split-bamboo platform. More split bamboo is placed on top, to ensure that the body does not come into direct contact with the soil when the grave is filled in. The grave is usually oriented in line with the sun's track, in accordance with the belief that the deceased will be transported to an afterlife in a special "flower garden" situated at the sunset.

Most of the deceased's possessions are buried with the body, and mourners also leave some of their own prized possessions (such as money or watches) in or on the grave—thus effectively blocking property inheritance. For the first few days after the burial, lights or fires will be placed on the grave. Eventually, however, the grave is left untended so that the forest may reclaim the site; Temiar thereby avoid the development of any memorial cult—an idea they regard with unease. They also firmly avoid uttering the name of a deceased person, referring instead to "Old Man X" or "Old Woman X," where X is the place-name of the burial site. In this way, detailed genealogical accounting of earlier generations is lost, for distinct individuals come to share the same burial name after they die. Genealogies thus become recitations of formerly inhabited village sites, enabling the cognatic descent-group structure (described previously) to function in a less ambiguous manner than it otherwise would.

In another expression of the wish to put death behind them, Temiar villagers used to burn the deceased's house to ashes the same day and move immediately to a new site a short distance away. This custom has now become rare, as the ownership of material goods has put a premium on staying in place.

Alternative patterns of disposal exist. "Big" halaa' are ideally left on a platform in a tree when they die; dead babies may be left suspended in a bag from a tree. These practices probably represent the remnants of the formerly more wide-spread Southeast Asian custom of tree burial, for the pattern of burial now usually followed by the Temiar seems to have been learned from the Islamic practices of the Malays.

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