Wednesday, 18 June 2014

First Haircut

A ritual hair cut on a child's 40th day helps initiate them into the community.

On June 14, a local couple put on a ritual for their 1st child; Kalilah. I'll just call it "First Haircut". It occurs 40 days after birth.

One of the cakes prepared for the First Haircut, made by Hajah Attie - a female relative.

According to the speech by the imam , the ritual was to pray for God's blessing on the child. Of those who attended, one identified it as an Islamic ritual of initiation--"it's a kind of sign she's become a Muslim" ("macam tanda dia menjadi orang Islam"). Another also felt it came "from our ancestors" ("dari nenek moyang kita [sic.]"). For more on this, see context below.


The last preparations for the First Haircut began earlier in the day. In a similar manner to other nulung (helping out), wives help the family prepare dishes. Those who are closer to the family did this at the hosts' house. Others prepared dishes at their own homes. Following advice, my wife, Monika made mini-cakes to bring. I took a carton of drinks and a selawet ("prayer",  in the form of cash in an envelope). All this was before mid-afternoon prayers (Ashar).

Seven bowls of porridge and three plates of yellow rice with roast chicken

After the Ashar prayers, a small ritual prayer session was held.  I missed this, but I have included footage from the same ritual held on June 5 for a child named Zahir at a house over the road (for footage, click here). In the middle of the room were three plates of roast chicken and yellow rice; and a plate with bowls of rice porridge.* Tradition/custom (adat) presecribes that there must be an odd number of bowls of porridge. According to the imam, from a religious perspective, you can do this but you don't have to (boleh buat, boleh tak ada).  The food offering used to be called rasul (messenger) and, I'm told, some older people still use this term.

Women waiting for the men to finish eating

Then a large ritual meal began. As is the practice, the men ate first, followed by the women. Then the men got up to eat the cakes, again followed by the women. This lasted a little over an hour. One of the special features of this ritual meal was the amount of cake, which exceeded that of other rituals I have attended. (But as I haven't attended a wedding yet, this might not be saying much.) After the eating was finished, this stage of the ritual was complete.  Most men went there separate ways for sunset prayers (Maghrib).
Prayers handed out

Chanting before cutting

After sunset prayers, the men gathered again at the hosts' house for the next stage of the ritual, which lasted just over an hour. Copies of the prayers to be chanted were handed out to the men, who formed a 'circle' around the walls of the room. The imam explained the reason for the ritual--blessing the child (for footage, click here). Then began chanting that was to last throughout the ritual. Kalilah's dad brought her into the room at times.

Kalilah and her doting father

Cutting the hair

Next came the pinnacle of the ritual. A procession made its way around the room to every man present. At the front was Kalilah being held by her father. Men passed scissors around. Each took a turn at cutting the baby's hair. Behind the father was a man carrying a bowl with water on the plate. The water was dabbed on the baby's head so that the piece of hair stuck up making it easier to cut. This, the imam later told me, is a kind of selawat (prayer/invocation)The men did this very gently and carefully. Her cut hair was also placed in the water bowl. The last man in the procession carried a kind of scented confetti, which was given to the men after they cut the hair. 

The procession

Some of the men whispered a prayer to the baby in addition to, or instead of, cutting the hair. 

Maz whispers to the baby 

Other men chose not to do either.

Presents for everyone

Towards the end of the ritual, bags were circulated to all the men.

Presents from the bag

The bags contained presents for a little child. As depicted, in the middle there are prayer beads. The left of this is a little bottle of perfume. And to the left again a miniature prayer mat. Moving clockwise, there is a plastic coin bag with lollies and chocolates. Then a prayer book, Surat Yasin. Finally, there is an envelope inscribed with the words, "Thank You from Kalilah's family"-these envelopes are also called selawat (prayers/invocation).


After this was complete, those present enjoyed another ritual meal out the back of the house.

The rest of the baby's hair was to be shaved off the next day I was told; but I'll need to find out more about that.

Cultural and religious context

The ritual can be placed in the context of other Malay cultures, where one can find ostensibly the same ritual. On Home Island, the  ritual  is called "Gunting Rambut" (lit. "Scissoring Hair"). Another term is"Marhaban" [Welcoming???]. I also heard "Syukuran" (thanksgiving) used. In other parts of the Malay world, a similar hair cutting ritual at 40 days is often called "Cukur Rambut" ("Hair Shaving"). It's popular also because it's believed to make the baby's hair grow thicker; an important aesthetic trait.

The ritual of this sort is usually thought to be prescribed in Islam. According to one of the Hadith (Stories about the Prophet): "A baby is being pledged for his Aquiqah [Akikah], sacrifice is made for him on the seventh day, his head is shaved, and a name is given him". Akikah is the name given to the sacrifice of the animal.

Anthropological approaches

40 days seems a significant number in a variety of cultures. Like Malays, Greeks have a special ritual 40 days after the funeral. It could be coincidence, but if not, how do we understand it? Diffusionists, scholars who believe that we should first consider how ideas and practices spread, would say that these ideas spread from the Middle East and Mediterranean to Southeast Asia. Structuralists, scholars who believe that we should first consider ideas and practices as part of meaningful system within a culture, would argue that the number "40" stands in particular relation to other numbers. This might include "28" (days=a lunar month); "9" (the number of lunar months in a pregnancy). A number of other similarly unique ways to understand the prevalence of 40 present themselves. However, in isolation the persistence of "40" seems trifling compared with deeper issues in the ritual.

One way to approach the deeper issues is to focus on the social function. Durkheim pioneered the functional approach. He wrote:
rites are ways of acting that are born in the midst of assembled groups and whose sole purpose is to evoke, maintain or recreate certain mental states of those groups
His point, I think, is that we get into a kind of mood in which we are receptive to the ideas which are represented in the ritual. Call the ideas that are represented "religious representations". Now Durkheim writes, "religious representations are collective representations that express collective realities". The point here is that the community forms a group a collective. The ritual represents that collective to those participating. It reminds them of the importance of community and of perpetuating community; community is now passed on to its newest member, who will one day also be responsible for passing it down. Something like that, I guess, is what Durkheim might say. 

We can also analyse the events using terms like "ritual", "tonsure", "ablution", "initiation" . For example, hair cutting (often called "tonsure" by anthropologists) features in a variety of contexts (entering the army; finishing the haj pilgrimage; coming of age in Thailand). It is usually associated with the adoption of a stricter more ascetic lifestyle, but anthropologists debated the issue through the 1950s-1980s. Water as a form of cleansing (usually called "ritual ablution" by anthropologists) also occurs in different settings (baptism in Christian churches, Jewish preparation of the bride for marriage and for conversion, Islamic preparations for prayer). So tonsure and ablution feature in this ritual. But to what end? 

I guess the ritual transforms status and initiates the infant. This is the first life-cycle ritual in Cocos Malay culture. At some point, a baby must be accepted as a member of the community; with a name and a role. Some Catholics, for instance, believe baptism turns the child into a member of the community of Christendom;  an unbaptized child may not enter heaven.  Indeed, many cultures possess rituals which transform newborn babies into community members. Putting this another way, we can see that the function if the ritual is to transform ritual status. The infant's ritual status is transformed from outsider to a member of the community.  Among the Cocos Malays, the ritual which achieves this is the "First Haircut" . 

Thank you to Pak and Mak Kalilah for inviting my family to celebrate their first child's hair cutting ceremony.


*In Java this porridge is called Red and White porridge and some Javanese attach symbolic significance to the colors.


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