Malaysian tribe dance to the dead for another good year

PULAU CAREY - Donning a fearsome mask, Ejal stamps his feet and swings his hips to the beat of a traditional drum as his costume, made of woven pandan leaves, rustles in the tropical Malaysian heat.

Several others from the Mah Meri tribe also wear these carved wooden masks, akin to those made by Polynesian tribes, as they dance alongside women dressed in skirts, sashes and origami-like tiaras also made of pandan leaves.

The Mah Meri ("Jungle People" in their tribal language) perform the annual ritual, which visitors are welcome to watch, to honour the spirits of their forefathers on Hari Moyang, or "Ancestors' Day", before going before the village shaman to receive their blessing.

"I have been doing this for more than 30 years. We need spiritual blessings from our ancestors," said Maznah Anak Unyam, 46, who added that the women make their traditional dress themselves.

But while they have settled in 10 different villages on Pulau Carey island, on the western coast of Malaysia just 60 kilometres away from the capital Kuala Lumpur, little is known about their origins.

According to authorities, the Mah Meri were once a nomadic indigenous tribe but fled from the southern coast of Malaysia to escape attacks by pirates decades ago.

At least four generations have lived on Pulau Carey and are now known as sea gypsies, but their official numbers have dwindled to about 2,000.

They rely mainly on subsistence fishing supplemented by gathering marine products such as seaweed, shellfish and edible plants that grow on the island, which is separated from the mainland by the Langat river.

The Mah Meri observe Hari Moyang, which falls in the first quarter of the year, believing it will protect their precarious livelihoods.

The exact date is chosen by a council of elders, who are said to be given the appointed day when visited in dreams by the spirits of their ancestors.

Each village then gathers around a Spirit House on Hari Moyang to pay homage to their forefathers.