Sunday, 22 June 2014

Feast for Spirits of the Dead

A ritual meal is directed at the spirits of the dead

On June 21st, I observed a feast ritual for the spirits of the dead. Most people I spoke to called it kenduri arwah. "Kenduri" means "ritual meal" and "arwah" means "spirits of the dead", hence the title of this blog.*  As it was explained to me, this ritual occurs in the month of Sya'ban, which precedes the fasting month of Ramadan.  

Footwear is removed before entering  the mosque

The explicit purpose of the ritual was to help the spirits of the dead (grandparents, parents, brothers, sisters etc.). According to a local man knowledgeable in these matters, the dead are in their graves waiting for judgment day (kiamat), when they will be sent to heaven or hell. In the meantime, angels (malaikatare punishing the deceased for their mistakes. Others I spoke to concurred that the object is to pray for these people, to help them.  It was unclear to me whether this is to lighten their punishment and/or to help them to realize their wrongdoings.

Some, but not all, local men gathered in the mosque for this ritual. It had two main parts; chanting and praying inside the mosque and then eating outside the mosque.

Chanting and Praying

The ritual chanting and praying occurred between sunset prayers (Maghrib) and dusk prayers (Ishya). 

Praying in the direction of Mecca during sunset prayers

During the sunset and dusk prayers, all men prayed in the direction of Mecca (as is always the case).

Chanting in a circle during the ritual

However, between sunset and dusk, while the first part of the ritual was held, men chanted in a circle. A  small offering was placed in the middle of the circle, close to the iman. This offering is sometimes called "bukti" (testament). It is for the spirits. 

Bukti: offering in middle of circle

It comprises a pitcher/jug (kendi) full of water; a glass to pour the water into; water to wash hands; and a saucer (called a selawat). I've only spoken to a few people about what actually happens; they believed spirits might actually consume the bukti. The consensus was "maybe" the spirits are in the mosque during the prayers.

Man reading chant

 While the men were chanting and praying, their wives and other women in the family lay out food for the living.

Women laying out food

The food was mostly snacks and sweet treats.

Sweets on offer

After dusk prayers, the men filed out of the mosque. 

Eating outside the mosque

The eating part of the ritual began with a small blessing being recited over the food.

Men selecting from the food on offer

Then the men selected some of the sweets. Some of the food was in containers, allowing some to gather extra to take home. Then it was the women's turn to eat. The mood was laid-back, and I was frequently exhorted to eat, even though I hadn't taken part in the preparations or chanting. Eventually, I relented and took some chocolates and other deserts back home for my children. 

Anthropological Perspectives

One aspect of the anthropological approach is comparison. Mostly the 'comparing' anthropologists do is implicit. For example, anthropologists use the word "ritual" to describe symbolic action in various societies. (Generally speaking, drinking a toast is a ritual; drinking from a tap because you're thirsty is not a ritual.)  So when I used the word "ritual" in this blog, I was implicitly comparing the symbolic actions I observed on Home Island with symbolic actions elsewhere in the world. 

I now want to break with anthropological convention and make some explicit comparisons. First I want to consider a village in Sabah, Malaysia, which is inhabited by the descendants of  Cocos Malays who emigrated there in the 1940s. The village is called "Balong Kokos" [Cocos (Pond)?]. The connection with the Cocos (Keeling) Islands is not just in the name.  Many local residents of Home Islands are the children of emigres who have returned. Home Islanders often go to Balong Kokos to visit their relatives. Anyway back to the Feast for the Spirits of the Dead. After I attended the Feast for the Spirits of the Dead on Home Island, our host Aisyah showed my wife pictures on Facebook of a Feast for the Spirits of the Dead which had just occurred. The pictures depict a similar chanting circle that occurs during the ritual meal. So a connection between the two communities is established through Facebook.

Outside  the Malay world, the comparison that immediately springs to mind is the Mexican Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos). This annual festivity honors the departed. However, anthropologists are wary about making such comparisons as underlying superficial similarities maybe be deep with complex differences.

Anthropologists tend to do comparisons by using the concepts of anthropology.

Aside from the concept of "ritual" another concept that can help explain the Feast for the Spirits of the Dead is "syncretism". Anthropologists use the term "syncretism" when they see a  world religion (e.g. Catholicism) mixed with local beliefs (e.g. those of the Aztecs, or indigenous Meso-Americans).  The Cocos Malay ritual for spirits of the dead also mixes local beliefs and practices with those of the world religion (i.e. Islam). So we could also see it as an example of syncretism. 


* Others called it "selamatan" (a ritual meal)


For podcasts on anthropological concepts, you can listen to my brief presentations on iTunesU; the course is called "The Audible Anthropologist". If you are a visual learner, I cover the same ideas and in more detail on YouTube in my 25 Concepts in Anthropology series.

For an anthropological study of The Day of the Dead ritual in Mexico, refer to the book by Stanley Brandes titled 'Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead: The Day of the Dead in Mexico and Beyond' or his article The Day of the Dead, Halloween, and the Quest for Mexican National 

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