Friday, 9 May 2014

Circumcision Ceremony

On Sunday, May 3, a local family put on a circumcision ceremony. It was based in and around a marquis and metal pole that had been put up for the occasion. Nek Sofia explained some of the elements to me, as quoted below.


As is the practice in other Muslim cultures I have experienced, boys on Home Island have the foreskin of their penis removed. This process known in English as "circumcision" and in Malay as "sunat" (during fieldwork in Indonesia I recall the word "sunatan" being most common). 

The circumciser on Home Island used to be known as a bengkung. Nowadays, boys are flown to the mainland, Perth, to be circumcised by a medical doctor. As far as I can tell, Islamic and Cocos Malay ritual elements have been removed from this process. Many previously significant elements from the rituals of circumcision have probably been reduced. It seems the procession, which normally came before the removal of the foreskin, now occurs afterwards, once the boy returns from the operation in Perth. 


The ritual began with what might be called a procession. This procession involved the boy's mother, who was holding an umbrella over him. He was flanked by his sister. Behind, older men walking along the road were accompanying the newly circumcised boy. The chanting is called mengarak. They chant Koranic Arabic. Some men played the long drum with two heads (gendang) others played the a kind of tambourine (rebana).

As Nek Sofia explained it, they were "just chanting around so his friends and family can see; to show that he's been circumcised. Sometimes we do this to show that people are married ". In fact, most people know what has been happened so the display seems mostly symbolic. The other explicit purpose of the procession is to make the boy girang (excitedly happy). Actually, the boy did not betray any emotion, as would be appropriate in most island Southeast Asian locations.

Silat dancing

Still of older man (black hat, beige shirt, checked sarong) performing silat.

As the procession neared the marquis, older man performed silat. Silat is often thought of as self-defense, inner strength building, but it also "is like entertainment; a show for the bride and bridegroom or for the anak sunat".

Hanging presents / Gantong

Still of women reaching up, trying to tear down hanging presents

Following the silat  was the next stage of the ritual.  From the poles and struts of the marquis various presents (baby powder, cooking sieves, shampoo and the like) were hung in plastic bags. It is not easy to get them off so it presents a dilemma for the women who reached for them. On the one hand they wanted the presents, on the other hand they were, in the words of one group I filmed, "embarrassed" (malu) as they strained to obtain them.  Gantong (hanging of the presents), says Nek Sofia, "is something a bit new these days; like decoration; instead of balloons and flowers. These days there's more and more". This stage of proceedings was apparently of minor importance as many people were engaged in preparing for the next stage, bringing over more benches etc.


The eating part of the ritual had taken the most extensive preparation. I think there were about 150-200 guests. Us men brought out the food, dish by dish to the tables under the marquees. This took about 10 minutes. The food had been prepared by all the women attendees; those who are closer to the family apparently cooked at the home of the circumcised boy; those who are more distant prepared their food at home. My family (wife, kids and I) brought a carton of soft drinks, and many others seemed to have done this either in addition to, or instead of, preparing food. I have written in more details about this aspect of rituals in my blog "Ritual Meals on Home Island".


After eating there was some entertainment. To win an anchor, you needed to be able to lift a bottle using a nail tied to string.

Throwing gifts

After this, "They also throw things; we've got more and more of these things. We've got brothers, sisters, and friends throwing away gifts. They do it as a return from when the other family is doing it." This is also a form of entertainment as to get the presents,  people have to demean themselves by scrounging, scrapping and bumping each other as the scramble for cash notes and presents.

Greasy Pole / Tiang Bubutan

At the next part of the ritual, other boys attempt to climb a greasy pole (tiang bubutan). Apparently, the term bubut means "to lathe"--as in to use a spinning machine to carve or shape a piece of wood or metal.  The pole looks like it has been lathed, hence its name. Grease was applied and boys competed with each other to be the one who reaches the top. This amply entertains the guests. Adding to the excitement, Nek Tiara beat out a rhythm on the gendang
Zuhaili being helped up.

Zuhaili at the top. 
Zuhaili made it there first and threw down the presents attached at the top. Other children waited below, expectantly. From my perspective, it looked dangerously high. I think it is brave for a boy that young to be the center of attention of so many adults, performing a difficult and dangerous task

It seems this was once more than just entertainment, perhaps possessing greater significance in times past. Nek Sofia remembers that the smoke and aroma from the menyan was once used to 'bless', as it were, the greasy pole.

Circumcised boy

During all the activity that followed the procession, the circumcised boy was sitting impassively. This seems attuned to the Southeast Asian ideal that men should be balanced, free of passion and emotion, taciturn, or at least laconic.  He was wearing what is identified as a "traditional costume for the wedding and anak sunat [circumcised child]". The hat is called "stangan tanduk" (handkerchief horn)

The circumcised boy. 

Circumcision in the past

This image, apparently taken in 1941, can be found in Gibson-Hill (1947, plate 6 ). On p. 202 it is explained: "Three small boys dressed in the correct traditional costume on their way to the mosque to be circumcised. They are about six to eight years old, which was the usual age at which this rite was performed." With circumcision being a medical procedure in Perth, it would appear that this part of the ceremony is no longer performed. Possibly by the way the middle boy's sarong is protruding, it is possible he is wearing a cingkalak, but Nek Sofia thinks it's probably not. Nek Sofia says "this one was taken a day before the circumcision, usually late in the afternoon. The potong konek occurred the next morning before sunrise."

Nek Sofia cast his mind back to circumcisions in the past, I have paraphrased and edited a bit: 
It took years of preparation to save up for for a circumcision. The circumcision was conducted outdoors. The men would hold a tikar (woven pandan leaf) covering to keep the operation private. Inside was the circumciser, the bengkung, with one or two helpers. Before the operation, they would give the boy some puffs on a cigarette. Then they would use bamboo to pinch it and then cut it with a knife. They tried to get it over at once. Sometimes they cut too much; sometimes they cut too little. Outside people were playing drums (gendang). There were also three or four guys who cut the neck of the chicken right off at the same time as foreskin was cut. Ladies would cut the chicken open (it was an ayam hutan [wild chicken], I think it was a rooster) and collect the heart cook it and feed it to the circumcised boy. We don't know what the belief was. Afterwards, a ceremony took place with food or drink, that included whiskey and brandy. Blood would drop into a clam shell. The foreskin was stored in a coconut I think. A cingkalak made from bamboo was used to hold up the sarong so it didn't brush against the wound. The next day, the boy would sit down with lollies on one side, bananas on the other. Sometimes the boy would take two or three weeks to get better.  If it was swollen or took longer to heal, they would put us in the sea water. I'll have to check, it's been a long time since we have done circumcisions like that. But as for the costume, they are still doing it.

Phallic symbolism

Ritual involves symbolic action. In other words, during rituals and ceremonies, our actions have meanings. This ritual, which involves the cutting of the phallus has, unsurprisingly, phallic symbolism. The greasy pole, it would not be too much of a leap to suggest, is one such example.  

Picture of a jukung in taken 1977, available from NAA.
White hull with blue and yellow stripe painted above.
A connection also must be made with the jukung. The jukung is a sailing boat once commonly used by the Cocos Malays, but now almost entirely replaced by small boats with engines. Jukung mostly fulfill only symbolic actions now, such as being used in races, which are still held to celebrate Hari Raya, the end of the fasting month. Jukung are painted white at the bottom and yellow and blue stripes above (near what I would call the gunwale). The boy's dress, being white below  (pants) with blue (shirt) and yellow(sash) above, thus resembles a jukung. 
Cracked and faded, the blue and yellow paint on a
weathered, old jukung made by Nek Sofia's father.
The jukung itself seems to have phallic significance. For example, the back end of a jukung is called a "konek".  The same term is used for the foreskin. Thus, aside from the verb "menyunat", the phrase "potong konek" (cut the foreskin) can also be used to mean "circumcise". Using a crude symbolic schema, we could say that jukung=phallus=boy=pole=boy's phallus.

Back end of sailing boat (jukung).
The konek is circled in red.

In the past, it seems there may have been more to it. The cutting of a male chicken at the same time as the foreskin makes an immediate symbolic connection. The male chicken is often thought of as a penis in Southeast Asian cultures--an idea that might not appear too strange to English speakers familiar with the term "cock". 

The kulit kima (clam shell) symbolizes the female genitalia. For example, trepang (sea cucumber) and kima (clam) are sometimes equated with penis and vagina. Last night, as a man explained to me that he would be going out trepang collecting, other started teasing him. It's part of the standard joking repertoire that Moni and I have come across. Or, I've been told, if someone's going out to get clams from the sea, someone might tease them, saying, "why are you going out to the ocean for see clams (kima laut), it's easier to get land clams (kima darat)!" But the symbolism is not always salacious. Babies are placentas are also stored along with ash in the clam shell. Nek Sofia tole me that the father used to take shell to the lagoon in a jukung, the further he took the clam shell out, the more independent and brave the child would be. 

Circumcision Worldwide

Circumcision is a widely occurring phenomenon. Most people realize it occurs among Jews and Muslims. But as an entry by Biedelman in the Eliade's famous Encyclopedia of Religion shows, circumcision is more widespread than that

Pop anthropologist, the great Joseph Campbell, author of Hero with a Thousand Faces, feels that through such rituals on boys may make a health psychological development. In the West, he lamented, men fail to properly grow up without such mechanisms. Man-making only occurs in the lounge next to a psychologist. Actually, Levi-Strauss, one of academic anthropology's greatest thinkers, had a similar kind of idea. He thought psychoanalysts were effective because they mimic the work of shamans.

Leach moved the focus from the individual's psyche to that of the group. He did this by analyzing the role of lingga (phallic symbols) and yoni (vagina symbols) of South Asia as explicitly sexual. He argued that such explicit symbols are not about the individual. His point was that if psychology has something to say, it is about the individual, not the society. However, the symbols anthropologist concern themselves with do not express unconscious individual desires, rather they express conscious social desires. 

Not very much in vogue these days are such explanations. But neither, I suppose, will contemporary trends hold much attraction to the anthropologists 50 years from now.

Main Point

One thing, I guess, all would agree upon is that the ritual is about preparing a boy for manhood. He is ready to be a man, as Nek Sofia explained it, now he can move on and get married. 

Further references

Morton, John. "Totemism Now and Then: A Natural Science of Society?"
Roheim, Geza. The Eternal Ones of the Dream. (I haven't read this, but I've heard it's fascinating!)
Sackett, Lee, "Punishment in Ritual:" Man Making" among Western Desert Aborigines"

Again, thanks to our wonderful hosts, Nek Sofia (Datok & Perempuan)! Thanks also to John Morton for stimulating my interest in this topic generally, and for his ideas specifically related to this blog. 

1 comment:

  1. Interesting Nicholas. My father worked as a Doctor in the Cocos Islands in the 1970s. After he died I found a bamboo circumcision knife, pisau bambu, which was used for both circumcision and cutting the cord. It was made by the dispenser's father according to the writing on it. Cutting was over a coconut. I just happened to be researching it when I came across your blog. Thanks for filling in the gaps. Sally