IN the magic safe-guarding rice from seed-time to harvest survives the primitive ritual of the Indonesian race. Strip away the obvious accretions, the names of Hindu deities, the thin Muslim veneer, and the essence of the ritual remains intact in Malaya to-day. It deals with the soul-substance, human, animal, vegetable, with the spirits of dead magicians, nature-spirits and Father Sky and Mother Earth. Except for Sky and Earth the spirits invoked lack the omnipresence and individuality of gods, bear generic names and are indefinite in number. Their sphere is a particular district. They inhabit the rice-field, the thick jungle, the rays of the setting sun. No temples are erected in their honour. The customary and symbolic rites that persuade them to friendly relations with man can be enacted in a forest clearing, in the corner of a rice swamp, on the floor of a village barn. No shaman or priest of Siva or Muslim elder presides. The magician has the narrow scope of the spirits he serves. He belongs to one small village or humble district. Often the rites controlling the growth of rice are conducted by an old Malay woman, relic of the far distant past when man hunted and killed, and woman, the bearer of young, delved, lending the benign influence of her motherhood to make crops prolific. Among many aborigines this older custom is observed and the rites are celebrated not by a man but by a woman, fitting midwife for the rice-baby. Still in parts of the country agricultural implements are given by the Malay groom to his bride as a wedding present.
Before starting to fell a clearing for rice, the farmer takes a lump of benzoin on a plate wrapped in a white cloth as a present to the local magician, a survivor in Malay culture whose trust is "first in God, next in His Prophet, and then in the magicians of old, the ancestral spirits who own the clumps and clods " of the locality. This expert recites charms over the benzoin and returns it to the planter with traditional instructions. First he is to burn the benzoin in a bamboo conch and fumigate his adzes and choppers, praying to the guardian spirits, male and female, newly dead and dead long since, to be cool and propitious. Then he is to stand erect facing eastward and look round at the four quarters of the heavens; he is to notice at which quarter his breath feels least faint and begin to fell in that
[1. Except where acknowledgment is made to other sources, the following account is based on two manuscripts written for me by Perak Malay headmen twelve years ago. It contains certain interesting details hitherto not noted in the Peninsula.]
direction. After one or two hacks at the trees he must cease work for the day.
When the time comes to burn the clearing, the man gets more benzoin from the magician, furnigates his torches, lights them and cries thrice to spirits of all sorts, Indonesian, Indian, Persian, Arabian, to goblins with a Sanskrit name, to indigenous vampires, and goblins of the soil, saying that the magician has duly informed them of his desire to burn, that he himself has paid them due respect, and that trusting to the luck of his instructor he hopes for a favourable breeze. Very early in the morning after the burn he and his wife and children must hurry to mitigate the smart of the half-burnt clearing with water in which are steeped cold rice from last night's meal, a slice from the cool heart of a gourd, and other vegetable products chosen for their natural frigidity or appropriately cool names. Also a little maize should be planted. All this must be done before Grannie Kemang can get up and sow rank weeds that will flourish and provide hiding places for goblin pests. Before quitting the clearing, one should pile and singe three rows of the unburnt brushwood. Then one must go home and wait three days before completing the burn.
The next important occasion is the planting of the rice-seed. In Perak and Kedah the time for this is taken from observation of the Pleiades. "When at 4.30 a.m. or thereabouts a few grains of rice slip off the palm of the hand, the arm being outstretched and pointed at the constellation, or when, the arm being so directed, the bracelet slides down the wrist, it is considered to be time to put down the rice nursery." In some places the planter is guided by observation of the sun, calculating from the time when it is thought to be exactly overhead at noon. Others "keep the seed-grain in store for a certain definite period, that varies with the character of the grain and may be anything between four and seven months.... This period of rest is vital to the productive power of the seed." The flooding of some stream, the fruiting of certain trees also afford rough local indications to supply the defect of the misleading Muhammadan lunar calendar.
A seed plot is chosen where the soil smells sweet. It is partitioned off by four sticks into a square of a prescribed size. Here both Sakai and Malays sometimes practise a method of divination. Water in a coconut shell and leaves are placed within the square. If the next morning finds the leaves undisturbed, the water unspilt and the frame unmoved, the spot is auspicious; it remains only to plant rice-seed in seven holes within the square as custom ordains.
A stick, if possible of a special kind of wood (termed the "tortoise's chest") which has grown on an anthill, must be cut fresh on the morning of the ceremony to make the "mother dibble." It must be in length thrice the span between a woman's thumb and ring-finger and it must be peeled. A match or "twin" for the mother dibble must also be prepared, of any wood, unpecled, three cubits and three ring-fingers long. Another dibble is selected by the magician from the heap of dibbles brought by the planters. A pretty leafy shrub is got ready to make a " plaything " for the seed. The leader of the village mosque chants prayers for all souls. Then those present feast.
Next, with a white cloth about his head the magician squats, facing the east. The big toe of his right foot is above the big toe of his left, and he recites charms over benzoin. He fumigates the mother dibble, her "match" and the other dibble, and sprinkles them with rice-paste, does the same to the other tools, and the same thrice to the earth in the middle of the chosen square. He holds out to the four quarters of heaven seven packets of sweet rice, seven sugar-canes, seven bamboos containing rice cooked in them, the Malay's most primitive cooking-pot, and rice parched, yellow and white. He lifts the mother dibble in both hands, holds it across his head, its point towards the right. After reciting charms he holds it above his shoulder point to earth, and digs it into the middle of the square, withdraws it and then plants it firm and erect in the hole. Next he plants the twin or duplicate, and then the leafy shrub. He ties the mother dibble, her "twin" and the shrub together with bark, and decorates the mother dibble with a creeper whose name denotes increase. At the foot of the mother dibble he sets a bamboo containing rice from the freak ears most favoured for the rice-baby as certain to contain the rice soul, a rod of iron, a stone worn smooth in a waterfall, and three quids of betel. On the shrub he hangs seven packets of sweet rice, seven sugar canes, seven kinds of banana, seven sorts of jungle fruit, apparently to attract and keep the seven souls of the rice. He charms the third dibble and, before planting it also by the side of the mother dibble, uses it to make seven holes, saying as he makes them: "Peace be unto thee, Solomon, Prophet of Allah, prince of all the earth! I would sow rice for seed. I pray thee protect it from all danger and mischance."
After fumigating two handfuls of rice he holds it with his right hand above his left and sprinkles it with cool rice-water of the kind made for his burnt clearing and with the rice-paste used in all magical ceremonies. (In Negri Sembilan as he does this he recites a verse
Rice-paste without speck!
The rice-paste is taken from a coconut shell (or in modern days from a soap-dish!), in which there have also been steeped a nail and husked rice. It is applied with a brush of herbs whose vigorous growth or lucky names ("the reviver", "the full one") are calculated to benefit the seed, body and soul. Going to the first hole the magician cries: "Peace be unto thee, Solomon, Prophet of God, prince of all the earth! Peace be unto you, genies and goblins of the soil! Peace be unto my father the Sky and my mother the Earth! Peace be unto you, guardian father, guardian mother! I would send my child, daughter of Princess Splendid to her mother. I would bid her sail on the sea that is black, the sea that is green, the sea that is blue, the sea that is purple. For six months I send her, and in the seventh I will welcome her back. It is not seed I plant: it is rice-grain." Holding his breath, he puts the seed into the seven holes. When he releases his breath, he does it gently and with averted face.
The rice-paste he buries beside the mother dibble and turns the coconut shell, its receptacle, upside down on the surface of the ground, fumigating it and passing a censer three times round it. Then he rises from his task.
Children rush to pick the sweet offerings from the shrub, though one offering at least must be left on its branches. The leader of the mosque intones prayers in honour of the Prophet. Men seize the dibbles, women the seed. With shouts and laughter the sexes strive to outdo one another in speed at their respective tasks. Before he goes home the owner of the field removes from the square the bamboo filled with rice. This cereal is eaten for the evening meal by himself and his family, but no stranger may partake of it.
If it is dry hill rice, the seed has been sown over the field from the first and no transplanting is required. If the rice is to be planted in an irrigated field, the seed is sown in a nursery and forty-four days later the young shoots are transplanted. That wet rice cultivation is less primitive is perhaps shown by the omission in many districts of all charms at this function, though again seven bunches are planted first, along with a banana plant and three stems of the Clinogyne grandis, and a fence is built round them. (In Negri Sembilan the following invocation is addressed to spirits:--
O Langkesa! O Langkesi!
After this preliminary rite no work is done for the rest of the day. On the morrow the seedlings are planted out by women, who must neither drop the young plants nor speak. A wooden dibble is used in remote districts; elsewhere a dibble with a steel point that bears the euphemistic name of "the goat's hoof." "This instrument carries from five to nine seedlings at once and is used seven times in quick succession." While each of seven bunches of seedlings are being planted the tongue must be "pressed against the roof of the mouth." At this season a propitiatory sacrifice is sometimes offered to the earth spirits. If dry rice is being cultivated, this is done about the time the rice begins to swell. From about the fourth month of its growth no stranger may enter the field.
As soon as the ear has swollen large, the farmer cooks sweet rice in a bamboo and invites the magician, the leader of the mosque, and other worthies to the feast of "splitting the bamboo." Nightly now rubbish and stinking herbs are burnt to scare evil spirits.
When the crop is ripe for harvest, the magician has to "take the souls of the rice." For two evenings he walks round the edge of the field, coaxing and collecting them. On the third he enters the field to search for their host, looking about for ears of royal yellow, certain types of freak ear reminding one of a veiled or laughing princess, ears on stalks interlaced, ears from stalks with a lucky bird's nest at the root. When he has found a suitable host, he ties seven stalks with bark and fibre and many coloured thread having a nail attached to it, and slips the nail into the middle of the bunch. Thrice before the cutting of the seven stalks is performed the magician walks round them bidding malicious earth spirits avaunt:--
"Goblins of latter days! Goblins of the beginning! Goblins one hundred and ninety! Goblins under my feet and subjection! Goblins that creep into baskets and round stalks! Goblins of hill and mountain and plain! Goblins mine! Get ye back and aside or I will curse ye."
Early the next morning the leader of the mosque mounts a covered shelter in the field and intones prayers in honour of the Prophet. A feast follows. When evening is about to fall, the magician and an assistant and the farmer walk up to the plant chosen the day before. A puzzle ring is carried to hang on the stalks. The magician, his head covered with a white cloth, draws near. Taking care lest his shadow fall on the seven stalks, he fumigates them and, sprinkling rice-paste, grasps them gingerly, hiding in his palm a tiny blade, whose handle is carved in the shape of a bird for disguise. He bows his head to the ground and mutters a traditional invocation:--
Soul of my child, Princess Splendid!
Clearly the four seas must symbolize the black earth of the newly-tilled fields, and the carpet of green rice-plants changing tint from light to dark until the harvest.
The magician lifts his head. Skyward and all around he gazes for the advent of the rice-soul. With the sound of a breeze it appears either in the form of a grasshopper or other insect or in the shape of a girl, Grannie Kemang. If it fails at first to come, the repetition of the most coaxing lines of the invocation three times is certain to fetch it. The magician holds his breath, shuts his eyes, sets his teeth, and with one cut severs the ears from the seven stalks. Like a midwife holding a new-born child, he puts the ears in his lap and swaddles them in a white cloth. This rice baby he hands to the owner of the land to hold. He cuts seven more clusters of grain from round the plant whence "she" was taken and puts them along with an egg and a golden banana into the basket prepared for the baby. The rice-baby is cradled among brinjal leaves, a stone and a piece of iron, and under a canopy of cool creepers and bark and fibre and coloured thread. The magician smears the seven stalks from which the ears were cut with clay, "as medicine for their hurt from the knife," and hides them under neighbour stalks that are whole. Then facing the east, he touches the maimed stalks and cries:--
Ho ancestresses whose rice-fields shone at the coming
of our first king!
The magician kisses the rice-stalks and heads the procession carrying the rice-baby home. The farmer is addressed as the father of the baby and his wife as the mother. She and her children are waiting and, as she takes the basket from her husband, the woman exclaims:--"Dear heart! My life! My child! How I have longed for your return from your voyage! Every day of your absence, every month, all the year I've missed you. Now you've returned safe and sound! Come! Your room is ready." She kisses the rice-baby three times. The magician fumigates and sprinkles a spot for the cradle. Then he takes the egg out of the cradle and breaks it. If there is an empty space at the top of the egg, it is a poor omen; if at either side of it, a good; but if the shell is quite full, the omen is so good that it must be greeted with an offering of yellow rice and a spatchcock. The egg and the golden banana must be eaten by the farmer and his family, and no one else may taste them. For three days the household must keep vigil, the fire may not be quenched, the food in the cooking-pots may not be finished, no one may go down from the house or ascend to it. Thus all the precautions fitting for a new-born child must be observed. During the three days following these birth tabus, one small basket of ears a day may be reaped, and the reaper must work silently, not gaze around, and guard against his shadow falling on the plants as he would guard against another's shadow falling on his own. On the seventh day reaping may begin in earnest, but the yield for that day is devoted to a feast in honour of the spirits of dead magicians, the forebears who have charge of the district.
The rice won on the seventh day is trodden out on a mat, and winnowed in a sieve. Then the grain is placed on a mat in the middle of the garden along with brinjal leaves, a stone from a waterfall, an iron nail, a candle-nut, three cockle-shells, a creeper and the inverted rattan stand of a cooking-pot on which is put a coconut shell full of water (to quench the thirst of the parching grain). Around this stand the grain is spread, nor may it be left unwatched until the sun has dried it.
In some parts of the Peninsula there is a "harvest dance that forms part of the procedure of gathering in the rice. The performers are a band of some fifteen or twenty young children, both boys and girls, who carry winnowing-sieves and other tools of the harvester. The troop is invited forward by an old woman taking up her position on the threshing screen and singing to the children, who respond by dancing and putting questions for the old lady to answer in verse. When the spectators are weary of the dancing and singing the performance is brought to an end in the following very curious way. The girl-leader of the children's chorus sings a verse that purports to be a charm ' making all things brittle.' Having done so (doubtless with the idea of making the threshing easier) she leads her band of dancers to the screen by way of testing the efficacy of the magic. The children tramp and stamp on the screen; and when a lath has shown its brittleness by breaking, the charm is supposed to have done its work and the dance ends."
The next process is to pound the rice in a wooden mortar. Again the mortar must be hung with bark, black fibre, coloured thread and cool-named leaves. Allah and the Prophet are invoked. The pestle crushes the grain slowly three, five or seven times, and then may work at ordinary speed. The rice crushed, the "eldest child of the year," is cooked in a spray-hung pot and eaten at a feast.
The last and biggest feast of the rice year is "the Malay harvest home. Each planter keeps open house in turn, when all his friends come to help him tread out his grain. Even the reverend elders assume for the time the manner of children and verses are bandied with the gentle licence characteristic of Malay junketings." Games, theatricals (and formerly buffalo-fights) formed part of the celebrations. Tithes are paid to the mosque and fees to the magician.
The magician presides over the first storing of the grain in the barn. Again, brinjal leaves, a stone from a waterfall, a piece of iron, a candle-nut or better three candle-nuts, a plant with a fine healthy name, three cockle-shells, a piece of torch, all covered with the ancestral rice-measure and the measure covered with the rattan stand of a cooking-pot hung with bark and fibre and coloured thread-on these solid soul-strengthening foundations he pours the grain from the three basketfuls of rice cut near the sheaf whence the rice-baby was taken. The shepherd of souls has performed his final task and the remainder of the grain is left for the farmer to pile.
Some of the ears that go to make up the rice-baby will be mixed with next year's seed and some with next year's magic rice-paste used at all functions by the Malay magician.
This account of the ritual of the rice-year in the Malay Peninsula can be supplemented from other sources. Nearly a century ago in Province Wellesley the seed was twice measured before being sown in the nursery "in order to ascertain that none had escaped preternaturally." There, too, sometimes seven stalks were cut for the rice-baby, sometimes two only, a male and a female, on each side of which a gold or silver ring was tied before they were wrapped together in a white cloth. The most notable point in the Perak account is that the farmer and his wife are regarded as the father and mother of the rice-soul. In Malacca the sheaf from which the baby is cut is called the mother, treated like a woman after childbirth and reaped by the farmer's wife. In ancient Greece there was confusion as to the moment when Demeter, the corn-mother, changed into Persephone, the corn-daughter, and in many other countries the bucolic mind has glozed over this difficulty.
The charming of hatchets, the dibble cut from a special tree likely by sympathetic magic to influence the quality of the rice-plant, the dibbling of seven holes in a special plot, the holidays prescribed after felling and sowing and reaping, the seven ears for the rice-soul, the various communal feasts throughout the rice-year, all these are found among the Proto-Malay tribes of Malaya.
In Negri Sembilan, where matrilineal custom laughs at the proscriptions of Islam, girls and men bandy Malay pantun, half verse half riddle, one with another as they work in the fields. Comparison with planting rites in other lands has suggested that riddles are a survival of a tabu language, employed not to frighten the soul of a cereal by direct reference to the processes of agriculture.
The symbolism of the ritual will be clear to any one who has grasped the primitive Malay notion of the soul. The soul of the rice in the field is of the same stuff that villagers' are made of and, figured in anthropomorphic form, is treated with the care lavished on a new-born child.
The recognition by the animist of souls that may inhabit stock or stone, man or plant, and quit its host to assume the shape of tiger, grasshopper or girl, leads naturally to belief in disembodied spirits that may enter man and make him sick, enter drum or stone and make it a fetish, and act as capriciously as animals or human beings. The idea of the survival of the soul apart from the body leads also to the worship of ancestors. So in the ritual of the rice-field there is continual reference to ancestral spirits and goblins of the soil, the hill, the plain. Accordingly, every three or four years before clearing their fields for planting Malay husbandmen have a mock-combat to expel evil spirits. Sometimes banana stems are the weapons wielded. Sometimes the two opposing parties hurl thin rods with pared flat ends like that of an old-fashioned stethoscope across a gully until a blow makes the face of one of the combatants bleed and ends the fray. It has been suggested that originally one of the parties in such mimic battles represented the forces of evil. In Negri Sembilan the magician opens the proceedings with this conjuration:--
In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate!
Another incantation follows to open the doors of the seven heavens and the seven earths:--
Genies infidel and Muslim!
This expulsion of demons, these incantations, this reference to an altar introduces the shaman with his confident control of the spirit world, his séances and periodical sacrifices for the public welfare.
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