MH370′s Spirit Doctor

raja bomoh

Animism is alive and well in Southeast Asia

Murray Hunter, Asia Sentinel 

The visit of ‘Raja Bomoh Sedunia’ to Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) last week to assist in the search for the missing flight MH370, wielding coconuts and binoculars fashioned from bamboo, caused sniggers by many Malaysians and was ridiculed by the Chinese.

The flying carpet and coconut saga played out by the bomohs (shamans) has been the center of fun on social media and provided excellent fodder for local comedians to use in their programs. But although many Malaysians appeared embarrassed by the episode, it also seemed to pull some very emotional chords. The word “bomoh” was tweeted more than 200,000 times in the last week, with“bomoh apps” appearing on Google Playstore.

The metaphysical and superstitious realm in society where bomohs act as intermediaries, according to Prof Hashim Awang, a senior research fellow of the Academy of Malay Studies, University of Malaya, is inseparable from the Malay psyche.

Actually animism goes well beyond Malaysia and permeates Catholicism in the Philippines, Buddhism in Thailand and Islam in Malaysia and Indonesia. Bomohs are part of animist traditions present in the social fabric of the region before the influence of South Asian and Arab traders, and defiantly before the arrival of colonial powers to the region. Animism even dates back to before the little known and almost forgotten Srivijaya Period going back to the 7th Century.

Animism exists all over Southeast Asia from the highlands of Vietnam and Laos, Burma, to the plains of Cambodia. Communities around Angkor Wat believe the ruins have a powerful guardian spirit called Neaktabased on ancestral spirits which has potency to heal illnesses and solve social problems, through shamans acting as mediums.

Animism is also rife through the Indonesian Archipelago, where different groups worship non-human entities such as inanimate objects in the belief that these things possess some spiritual essence or power. Many believe that supernatural powers can be used to cast spells, so many illnesses are seen as being spirit-related, in which bomohs rather than medical doctors are sought for treatment.

In Thailand, shrines are ubiquitous outside most buildings, villages, and even next to trees and along roadsides to pay homage to local spirits that inhabit specific geographical areas. They must be pacified in order to ensure a harmonious life for the populace in a specific location. There are daily offerings of food, flowers, and red-colored soft drinks for the spirits that inhabit the shrines. Some of these shrines are extremely popular where people make a point of specifically visiting them to pay homage and respect, and request some form of good fortune. These shrines and rituals are testimony to the high regard and reverence for the power of these spirits.

On the Malay Peninsula, the Orang Asli — forest people — have traditionally been animists believing in particular objects and locations as having spirits residing in them. Further north along the mountain regions of Southern Thailand the Sakai, who still inhabit the forests, pay homage to the spirits of the land.

In Sabah, the Kadazan-Dusun people would worship Kinoingan or the rice spirit, which is the basis of the very popular Kaamatan or harvest festival, celebrated every year. Specific rituals are practiced each year by priestesses known as bobchizans, although there are very few left today. Even though most Kadazan-Dusun people have long converted to Christianity or Islam, they still celebrate the Kaamatan.

Across in Sarawak, the Orang Ulu, who live far inland, the Dayaks, and Ibans generally practiced different forms of animism. The Iban version is sophisticated and similar to the accepted Kaharingan religion practiced in Kalimantan, Indonesia by tribes like the Dayaks. The ibans hold the belief that all living creatures originate from the same processes and thus share a common origin where the earth exists in a very complex interdependence. In this view all seen and unseen coexist and influence each other.

Although many people have converted to Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam, over the region, animistic practices are still very much embedded, sometimes surreptitiously in the rituals performed or observed within their new religions. The Malay heartland is full of deep superstitious belief, which allows bomohs to flourish.