Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Prophet's Birthday: Procession

Like other Muslim communities the world over, the people of Home Island celebrate the birth of the Prophet Mohammad with celebrations and reverence. They also add their own Cocos Malay twist.

Men chanting

Birth of the Prophet

Muslims celebrate the birth of the Prophet Mohammad on a day called Maulud Nabi. Maulud Nabi occurs once every lunar year. In this blog, I describe the first part of the Maulud Nabi celebrations on Home Island.

Procession / Ngarak

The first part of the ritual was a procession (ngarak). Home Islanders began gathering for the festivities at the mosque from 7am. Then with a few announcements Mr Nek Shah got the the procession going.
An imam makes a few announcements before we set off. Behind him,
the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and Australian flags

At the front were the imam and wakil imam. Behind them were boys from the religious school (they study the Koran and Hadith after school everyday) carrying banners.

Imams at the front with wakil imam, and boys carrying banner behind them.

Further back marched the tambourine men (orang rebana) who chanted. The chanting was loud, joyful and welcoming. Unlike a Christmas pageant, there were few spectators. The emphasis was on joining in, rather than just watching the procession.

At the rear was the rest of the procession--Home Islanders and a few mainland Australians who had made the trip over from West Island to join in.

Women and children, further back in the procession.

The procession did a lap around the kampong (village). The pace was cracking initially, so the whole procession took about 25 minutes to complete, returning back to the mosque.
Procession comes to an end.

After that, the next part of the ritual involved readings and eating. I'll discuss that in my next blog.

Anthropological Analysis


Ethnomusicologists study music and dance in a larger cultural context. As I understand it, ethnomusicology is the anthropology of music and dance performance. Ethnomusicologists are not just interested in 'big ticket' ritual or ceremonial performances like the procession I've described in this blog. They also focus on things like mothers singing lullabies, humming around the house.


From ethnomusicologists we get a sense of the procession as a distinct form of ritual and that performance can be found in many cultures.  often accompany rites-of-passage. In Western marriage rituals, the bride walks down the aisle with musical background. In the famous New Orleans funerals of the past, the musicians accompany the performers. The term seems to be "processional performance".

Ethnomusicology of Cocos Malay culture

Other ethnomusicologists, Dr David Irving and Dr Jenny McCallum, are undertaking a research project on the history and practice of Malay music traditions among the Cocos Malays. This is not just on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands--they researched Maulud Nabi this year among the Cocos Malays of Katanning. Their research will form an important contribution to our understanding Cocos Malay culture.

Ethnomusicology in other contexts

You might also want to read at the work of Monika Winarnita, who is the other half of this research project on Cocos Malay culture. Her book specifically focuses on Indonesian migrant women's dance performances in Perth, Western Australia: Drawing on ethnomusicology, Monika shows how these women would like to perform their Indonesian cultural identity as migrants in Australia. Although mostly amateur housewives, they see themselves as cultural ambassadors, teaching Australians about Indonesian culture. They perform created dances which show their mixed identity--and as part of her participant-observation, Monika joined in. The dances are mostly performed at multicultural festivals. In doing this, they are trying to belong and 'reinvent' themselves as part of the Indonesian community in Australia.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Different kinds of parents

In my culture, you can expand your family by marrying or sexually reproducing. Cocos Malays also use other ways.

Different forms of parenting

Aside from 'biological' parents, Cocos Malays recognise three other common 'relatives' who look after children: breastfeeding parents (that is a wet nurse and her husband); adopted parents; and grandparents. Nenek's personal experiences of child-rearing incorporate all three. As she related to Monika, she has six biological children (3 shared with other mothers) and one 'milk son':
  • The milk son. Nenek said she had breastfed (i.e. wet nursed) another woman's biological son. The boy's mother requested because she did not produce enough milk, her "body was infertile" (tubuh tidak subur). The boy's grandparent and Nenek 's father are siblings. Nenek explained that the boy "is my son and I'm his mak susu" (wet nurse, milk mother). This sense of "son" and "mother" has a literal dimension. The boy could not marry any of Nenek's biological daughters because the daughters were, effectively, the boy's siblings. Anthropologists would say that the daughters are the boy's 'milk siblings'.
  • The adopted daughter. A local Cocos couple who had one son and no daughter asked if they could adopt one of Nenek's daughters. Nenek consented. This daughter would spend most of her time at her adopted parent's house but would go home to her biological parents house to sleep at night. The adopted parents had hoped by having Nenek's daughter as an adopted child they would be blessed with another child. 8 years later they had their own biological daughter.  The adopted parents still play a role in Nenek's daughter's life as an adult and they remain close. 
  • Another adopted daughter. Nenek has another daughter. She was adopted by Nenek's niece. The niece had been married for a long time but didn't have a child, so the niece adopted Nenek's daughter.  Now this daughter has two sons and a daughter; Nenek's niece is considered their grandmother and take oldest son's name (see my blog on teknonyms). When we arrived in 2016, the two mothers (biological and adopting) were waving goodbye to their daughter and grand-daughter who were heading to the mainland for a short trip. 
  • Adoption brings the two grandmothers together. The niece is working full-time. So the grandmothers divide up the labour of looking after the grandkids. The niece looks after the older two boys. Nenek looks after the granddaughter. Nenek explained that this granddaughter is important to her because she looked after this granddaughter since she was very young. On Tuesday when Moni was supposed to meet Nenek, Nenek cancelled because she had to help her granddaughter with her introduction day to kindergarten.
  • The breastfeeding mother. When she had her youngest daughter, Nenek had the opportunity to go on the Haj (pilgrimage to Mecca). She left her daughter with her family in Cocos. While Nenek was on the Haj, her grandmother gave her daughter to another woman to be breastfed for six months (as the grandmother thought the child was still quite young). It hadn't been organised before she left; Nenek only found out when she got back.
  • To summarise, Nenek has 6 biological children. 3 of them are 'shared': a daughter, who was adopted by another local couple; a daughter who was adopted by her niece; and a daughter who was breastfed by another woman while she was on the Haj. Nenek also breastfed another boy; becoming his 'milk mother'.
  • As she explained it; she didn't plan it this way; it was up to Allah; it's not really up to us humans. 
  • In most societies families are made through marrying people and having children. Many societies have yet other ways of making family. For the Cocos Malays, the kinds of parenting--adoption, milk parenting (wet nursing), adoption and milk grandparenting--are all common ways of caring for children and making family bonds.
In subsequent blogs, I will analyse these different kinds of parenthood in more detail.

Grandmas with their grandchildren. This is an end-of-year party for government school program. Called "Better Beginning" it is designed to prepare pre-school children for school

Anthropological Analysis


The first thing to say is that this blog is concerned with what anthropologists call kinship. If in English we say that "my cousin Jan is related to me through my father's side"; what we mean by "related" is the object of kinship studies. Or if you say, "family is everything"; what you mean by "family" is what we study in kinship. Kinship is, in basic terms, the anthropological study of what counts as 'family' or who counts as a 'relative' different cultures. As this definition implies; every culture has a slightly different understanding of who relatives are and what family consists in. I have already discussed an aspect of kinship in another blog. In that blog, I described some of the words--teknonyms--that Cocos Malays use to explain situate a person in terms of his or her family. As this indicates, the kinship of a society can have a variety of facets. Analysing these requires putting yourself in 'their' shoes.

Putting yourself in their shoes isn't easy...

Anthropologists try to 'put themselves in other people's shoes'. We try to understand the world from another culture's point of view; we try to see the world from the perspective of people who are different from us. Doing this is daunting; even for experienced anthropologists. This is especially the case when we try to understand customs which, when viewed from within our own culture's standards, seem strange or even offensive. For example, an Indonesian anthropologist might struggle to understand the culture of 'parties'  (replete with drinking alcohol, fornication, and violence) in Australia; or putting old people in homes. Conversely an Australian anthropologist might struggle to understand 'adoption' practices in Indonesia. Both anthropologists have to get beyond their own 'natural' assumptions if they want to understand what is going on. we use strategies.

If you are new to studying anthropology, it sometimes seems like your lecturers and professors took up the anthropological perspective easily. It may seem they were born thinking and the way they do. But what anthropology teaches us runs against the grain even for lecturers and professor; things we assumed to be natural turn out to be, to a large degree cultural. This notion can be intellectually and emotionally challenging. So to help deal with the challenge, anthropologists (Australian, Indonesian, or from wherever) tend to employ several strategies, in particular; reflexivity, methodological relativism, and holism.
Dusk on Home Island


So here's how I would approach Cocos Malay kinship using reflexivity: I grew up in a culture where the bond between biological mother and child is thought of as natural. For instance, when I raised the topic of Cocos Malay adoption with an Anglo Australian mother, she said "if someone wanted my baby, I would be like, 'just try to get him off me'". This implies that she would do everything in her power to stop her biological baby being separated from her. Given my cultural background, this really resonated with me, so I think the attitude is common enough. Even though we talk about new families, and extended families, unconventional families etc. these seem to measured against a very clear norm. When we are not thinking like anthropologists, we assume it is 'natural' for animals, especially mothers, to protect their offspring. So adoption has many negative connotations for Westerners; the common idea is that biological family is solid, indissoluble unit--a shelter from the storm of modern society. The widespread practice of adoption and milk parents slightly breaches this Western ideal. But then, we do give our children to day care 9-5; then send them to to school. We entrust our children to teachers; sometimes to nannies and au paires. We formalise and depersonalise this through contracts and pay. The Cocos Malay have informal relationships based on lifelong care and connection, on a sense of personal obligation, gift-giving, and responsibility. When I think about it using the principle reflexivity, the kinship practices I'm describing in this an subsequent blogs, start to make more sense. Anyway, this is only one step. Principles like methodological relativism and holism will also be useful to putting oneself in the another's shoes. And though the goal of empathetic understanding remains most likely unattainable, we anthropologists hope that applying these principles will provide a solid basis from which the real business of anthropology--the analysis of cultural and social aspects of human life--can proceed.

Anyway, more about Cocos Malay kinship and anthropology in subsequent blogs.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

What kind of language is the Cocos Malay Dialect?

Cocos Malay is the mother tongue for the people of Home Island. It's older than modern Malaysian and Indonesian but shares the same roots as these languages. Here is a sentence you might hear on Home Island:
"Habis lonceng, dorang pigi belakang pulu" (Cocos Malay)
Rendered in Indonesian this might be:
"Setelah lonceng [makan siang], orang pergi ke belakang pulau" (Indonesian)
And translated to English:

 "After the lunch bell, they're going to the ocean side of the island"
The difference with Indonesian is not radical, indicating a family resemblance that I will try to unpack in this blog.

Where is Cocos Malay spoken?

Cocos Malay almost certainly emerged on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. But as Cocos Malays have emigrated, so has the Cocos Malay tongue. As far as I know, the Malay of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands is also spoken in the Cocos Malay diaspora, that is, in Christmas Island, Perth, Katanning, Port Hedland, Bunbury and in Tawau, Malaysia. It might be that the differences of the Malay spoken in these diverse locations outweigh the similarities. But for the meantime, it's probably safe to say it's the same language spoken in all these locations. As far as numbers; there are probably a little over 5000 speakers. They comprise about 4000 native speakers in Malaysia; 400 on Cocos (Keeling) Islands; 400 on Christmas Island, and a similar number on the Australian mainland.

What kind of language is Cocos Malay?

What language family does Cocos Malay belong to? I should first warn you, I'm a sociocultural anthropologist, not a linguist! With that caveat in mind, there are different ways of categorizing and bracketing the languages of the world. I think this is one way of doing it for Cocos Malay.

1. Austronesian

First, Cocos-Malay is an Austronesian language. We think that around four thousand years ago, one of the great migrations of human history occurred. The Austronesians began their grand journey. They probably started from Taiwan. First, they sailed to (maybe on their outriggers) and inhabited the islands of Southeast Asia. Then they head further east (to the Pacific) and a lot further west (to Madagascar). Such a widespread migration of a single people in pre-modern times is probably hard to match. I think the spread of the indigenous people through the Americas would come a close second.

This maps depicts the commonly accepted picture of Austronesian migration, spreading from its earliest point (Taiwan 3000 BC) to its most recent (New Zealand 1300 AD). It probably should include a small area of Cambodia, where Cham people speak an Austronesian language.
Anyway, the first point to make is that the language the Cocos Malays speak today is directly related to their Austronesian speaking ancestors from 4000 years ago.

2. Malayo-Polynesian

Second, among the Austronesian languages there are two major kinds:
  1. Non-Malayo-Polynesian. Basically, these are the indigenous languages of Taiwan otherwise known as Formosan.
  2. Malayo-Polynesian. This incorporates the languages spoken everywhere else in the Austronesian world. From Hawaii to New Zealand, the Philippines to Malaysia you can find Malayo-Polynesian languages, spoken by Austronesian populations.
So the Cocos Malay dialect could be grouped among the Malayo-Polynesian languages.

3. Western Malayo-Polynesian (WMP)

Third, among the Malayo-Polynesian languages, Cocos Malay belongs to the 'Western' branch. Malayo-Polynesian can be divided into:
  1. Eastern Malayo-Polynesian. This incorporates the Pacific Ocean or Oceania; Polynesia, Micronesia, and parts of Melanesia. It is the yellow part, "Oc", on the map below
  2. Western Malayo-Polynesian, the 'Malayo' part. This incorporates Madagascar, Malaysia, Indonesia. It is indicated as "WMP" on map below.
  3. Central Malayo-Polynesian. These languages are spoken in Eastern Indonesia, the small area just to the north of Australia. See "CMP" on the map below.
  4. South Halmahera West New Guinea. See the small area SHWNG squashed between the other three.
This map shows the Austronesian world, but divides it into 4 language areas. 

In the above map, the huge yellow area to the right incorporates Oceanic languages or EMP. The smaller WMP area is to the left. And squashed in between are SHWNG and CMP.

While Oceanic (or EMP) incorporates the largest area, but WMP incorporates by far the most speakers numbering in the millions.

(Note that in the areas with stars the indigenous peoples do not speak an Austronesian language, but rather the 1,000 or so Papuan languages.)

Several languages in the WMP have been influenced by, for example, Arabic, Sanskrit, Chinese languages, and subsequently colonial languages.

With only around 5000 speakers, Cocos Malay is not one of the largest WMP languages.

4. Malayic /Malay-Indonesian

Fourth, within the Western Malayo-Polynesian languages, one of the large branches is the Malayic (also known as Malay-Indonesian) languages. Cocos Malay is similar to modern Indonesian, Malaysian, and other varieties of Malay (such as spoken in Kupang and Bangka in Indonesia; Pattani in Southern Thailand). They all derive from a similar language Malayic or Malay-Indonesian language. Most probably this was spoken by the Melayu (Malay) people of Sumatra and peninsular Malaysia.


So there you have it. Cocos Malay is a Malayic language. Malayic languages belong to the Western branch of Malayo-Polynesian languages. The Malayo-Polynesian languages themselves belong Austronesian family. The next question is what distinguishes Cocos Malay from other forms of Malay, including modern Malaysian and Indonesian? I will take a more detailed look in a later blog.


This blog has situated Cocos Malay in progressively smaller language groups from the huge (Austronesian) to the small (Malayic /Malay-Indonesian). Personally, what really interests me is the maps. These indicate that a single culture complex united such apparently diverse cultures as from Madagascar to Hawaii.

That was at least until about 1500, when societies on the Western seaboard of Europe (Portugal, Spain, and later England, Holland, and then France) started colonizing the world. As a result, the majority of people in Hawaii and New Zealand now speak English and in several Oceanic nations French is spoken. In other places, 'creoles' or 'pidgin' languages prevail. Nevertheless, Austronesian languages survive and flourish.

Was there a uniquely Austronesian culture? Initially, the Austronesian migrants probably spoke a single language, Cribb explains in his Digital Atlas of Indonesian History. For survival:
The Austronesians brought with them the technologies of pottery, outrigger canoes, and bows and arrows, as well as domestic pigs, fowl and dogs, and they cultivated rice and millet, along with other crops. Rice and millet at this stage were crops suited to temperate and sub-tropical climates, and they apparently did not become established in [in the tropical climate of] Indonesia until somewhat later; their place in the Austronesian diet was [initially] taken by taro, breadfruit, bananas, yams, sago and coconuts.
Austronesian religion probably included animism (the belief that spirits inhere in local trees, hills, streams, etc.); ritual meals to feed and reward these spirits; and maybe other things. For instance, dolmens, However, it's difficult to sustain the argument of a uniquely Austronesian culture-complex, because we find these things elsewhere in the world and not always in Austronesian cultures. Still, when in 1497 Vasco de Gama set sail around the Cape of Good Hope; and, in 1521, when Magellan, coming from the other direction, rounded the Magellan Straits, there may have been a definable culture-complex linking these cultures of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

But actually, this large scale type thinking is not part of my anthropological background. I have been more influenced by the detailed study of small places. In particular, this the anthropology from Malinowski (say 1920) to Geertz (1970) tended to have microscopic focus. Anthropologists looked at big themes (e.g. kinship) in little places (e.g. a village) in relation to specific issues (e.g. gift-giving).
The context in which I learned anthropology was skeptical about considering a culture as a cohesive and unique single entity, and even more wary of the idea of a larger cultural complex.

But anthropology hasn't always been like that. In the early days (1880-1920), anthropologists Tylor and Frazer tried to search for the original forms of all human culture (an approach which could be called 'Origins and Evolution'). Boas studied how one culture influenced another (an approach known as 'Diffusionism').  In the 1960s, Levi-Strauss, taking his structuralist approach, treated indigenous cultures of North, Central, and South as a single Amerindian culture complex. 

If you want to look at more recent examples large, big-picture anthropology you could look at Europe and the People without History, in which Eric Wolf uses a Marxist approach to talk about swathes of the world in a single breath--and it works! Scott, also using a Marxist approach, takes a grand view of a huge area of Asia in The Art of not being Governed. Tim Ingold and Marshall Sahlins are two other original and exciting thinkers who take a step back and try to apprehend the larger scene.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Quarantine Station--Cocos (Keeling) Islands

What was it like working on the Cocos Quarantine Station? On Monday, November 28 2016, I was lucky enough to join my daughter's social science class at Cocos Islands District High School as they tried to answer this question.

National Library of Australia photo of Ostriches at Quarantine Station taken in 1995

These Grade 2-3 social scientists are uncovering local history. The topic of concern this week--the defunct Quarantine Station--once formed an important part of what we now call the 'biosecurity' of Australia. By joining them, I had the chance to learn a lot about life on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

Nek Diana (Nek Didi); Mr Wicks (Pak Tali); Mak Maesha

The field trip was organised by Social Studies teacher Mr Wicks. Fortunately, Nek Diana, a former employee at the Quarantine Station, agreed to give us a tour. The children had prepared all the right questions; Nek, Mak Mia and Mak Mae helped translate and keep everything running smoothly; I simply had to relax and learn.

National Library of Australia photo of Quarantine Station taken in 1995

Quarantine Station

Basically, the West Island quarantine station provided animal quarantine. Animals being imported to Australia were temporarily kept there. The animals were destined for farms and zoos. Vets could work out if the animals had diseases which could spread to Australian animals. Mostly the animals were healthy, but the workers at the station had to keep them healthy by washing, exercising,  and feeding them. The Quarantine Station apparently operated from 1981. A set of stamps was even issued, in 1996, to commemorate the Quarantine Station. 

Cocos (Keeling) Islands Quarantine Station First Day Cover

The Quarantine Station seems to have wound down in the 2000s. However, 8 elephants were housed here before being cleared for transportation, in 2006, to zoos in Sydney and Melbourne. (You can see them on Cocos in a documentary entitled Flight of the Elephants at around the 34:00 minute mark.) And, more recently, the excellent buildings were put to good use in 2012, housing Sri Lankan asylum seekers. 

Nek Didi

Nek Didi
The Quarantine Station was mostly staffed by workers from the Australian mainland. However, two Cocos Malays, in particular, worked there for many years: Nek Didi and Nek Kaya. So I was very lucky to join in Nek Didi's tour. 

The concrete for the brick buildings was laid by the Cocos Co-op under Nek Ainul and Nek Jamil. Workers from Australian mainland helped build the structures.

Before the tour began Nek Didi explained to us that the animals' blood would be tested. This would ensure that sick animals would not make it to the mainland. Either they would be cured at the Quarantine Station or put down. For larger animals, Nek Didi told us, they would use a gun. The area of the Quarantine Station is large because the animals needed space to exercise.

The tour

First, Nek Didi took us to the barn where they had a machine for making animal food. This machine mixed and pressed grass clippings to make food pellets for the sick animals.

Then we looked at the composting area, where all the waste and dead carcasses were transformed into fertiliser for the fields of the station. The composting area was behind the shed where all the hazardous materials were stored.

Shed for hazardous materials, behind which the composting occurred.

After that, Nek Didi took as into the barns where the animals were washed.
Barns for animal washing? 1995

Mr Wicks and students inspect the same (?) washing facilities in 2016.
Following this, we went to what I think is called the stocks or a stockyard, where a herd of animals is sorted into a single file, leading, ultimately, to the stocks.

At the stocks, the animal is held still for the sample to be taken.
Then we saw the animal hospital and laboratory, where the blood samples were analysed.

Bacteriology desk

Finally, we headed up to the mess and single men's quarters. The mess, as the students learned, is a place where people eat. Quarters are places to live for a short while; these quarters were for men who did not have their wives with them, or were unmarried. Nek Didi sometimes resided in the single men's quarters during his working years, because his family lived on Home Island.

Mess hall
The Sri Lankan asylum seekers were temporarily housed in the single men's quarters in 2008; and they used the mess hall and kitchen.

I think this was Pak Didi's favourite part of the tour. Maybe he liked that it was all well maintained. Maybe it was because he had so many nice memories from the time after 'knocking off' (finishing work) for the day. He was very happy to see the BBQ and remember the good times

Mess hall 

Analysis: Social Studies and Social Sciences

Social studies at school typically includes history and geography. At university, students and lecturers branch this out to study political science, anthropology, sociology, politics, archaeology, and so on. Along with history and geography, these studies are called 'disciplines' at university. So, for example, politics is known as one of the disciplines. At university, some people also use the word 'social sciences' to cover all these disciplines.  

Generally, social sciences are distinguished from the 'hard sciences' such as maths, chemistry, and physics. The social sciences are concerned with human life The way social scientists work is basically the same as social studies in school. When social scientists try to understand something, like what life was like working in the Quarantine Station--they start out asking 'who, what, when, where, why, and how' questions. They try to find out how things looked to people involved; like asking Pak Didi about his life working there. They try to visit place that they write about, like going to the Quarantine Station. So whether in social studies and social sciences we use the same techniques to try to understand human life better.

Mess kitchen
One thing that my social studies experience taught me was how much life for Cocos Malays changed as they increasingly became part of Australia. I could see this in how different life was for Pak Didi. Prior to working at the quarantined station, he told me he had collected coconuts as part of the Clunies-Ross's economy. He remembered how hard his life had been; waking while it was still dark, sailing out alone on his jukong, working all day alone collecting coconuts; returning exhausted; only to be paid in the despised plastic tokens. He seemed bitter and disconsolate when remembering that life. He it was like being a fish in a tank

The contrast with work on the Quarantine Station was palpable. He was sad to see the run down state of the animals' area. But he came particularly nostalgic and content when we came to the mess and single men's quarters, which are still in pretty good shape. So I could see how Pak Didi's life experience formed a small part of the large transformation that the Cocos Malays have undergone during Pak Didi's lifetime.

The social studies trip to the Quarantine Station with Nek Didi was a great learning experience for me. It was all thanks to the planning and insight of Mr Wicks, the assistance of Mak Mae, Mak Mia and Nek; the enthusiasm of the social studies students; and, most of all, the expert guidance of Nek Didi. So thank you to Cocos District High School for allowing me join the field trip

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Burial on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands

This blog is an account of fieldwork Monika Winarnita and I have undertaken, with our kids, in 2011 (for two weeks), 2014 (for six months), and 2016 (for one month). Here are photos and notes from a burial in 2011.
Reading prayers graveside

My friend, Nek Su, is a repository of many Cocos Malay traditions. He instructed us and others in Cocos Malay dancing. He also catches fish to order--his wife, Ayesha--simply requests one kind of fish, and Nek Su goes out to the lagoon and catches. 

2011 was a time of deep bereavement for Nek Su as his father, aged in his 90s, passed away. As Monika and I were undertaking our first fieldwork visit, I took some photos and asked questions to learn about mourning in a Cocos Malay community. 

I was told that there is a committee which is responsible for washing the corpse at funerals and has duties at other festivities.

Prior to the burial, the corpse is washed. This is an Islamic cleansing ritual called "wudhu".

Then the men make a "payung" (shade, umbrella) This is sprayed with water. I asked one of the mourners why, he responded "I don't know, maybe our ancestors did it that way" ("tidak tahu kenapa mungkin nenek moyang begitu").

Before leaving for Pulu Gangsa

Then corpse is then transported to the cemetery Pulu Gangsa("The Island of the Geese"). Actually this is no longer an island, as the name "pulu" [island] would suggest. Pulu Gangsa it now connects with Home Island. So the mourners used the local form of transport, 4 wheelers and golf buggies, to take themselves and the corpse to the cemetery.

Men, dressed in white, and shading from the heat with umbrellas, perform prayers graveside.

At the graveside, the mourners recite a prayer for the spirit of the dead ("bacakan doa arwah"). I observed that, like cemeteries in Indonesia, frangipani had also been planted, and a mourner explained that "Frangipanis are [used?] but that's not religion, it's tradition" ("Kembamg Cambodja dibawa bukan ugama, tapi adat").

A mourner takes some time out.

The corpse, wrapped in a white shroud, was placed in the grave and then covered with soil, in accordance with Islamic practice.

Mortuary rituals

Anthropologists call funerals and other ceremonies associated with the dead "mortuary rituals". In many cultures, the final disposing of the body can be delayed for days, weeks, months, or even years. The 'disposing' varies; the corpse can be burned, left to decompose, parts of the corpse might be consumed. In other cultures (Jewish and Islamic) the body should buried as quickly as possible. Aside from 'disposing' of the body there are usually attendant rituals both before (think of the Irish wake, which comes before the burial) and after (in Java people celebrate the 1000th day of bereavement with a ritual meal.

Mortuary rituals as rite of passage?

Generally, we understand mortuary rituals as a kind of rite of passage. Rites of passage, it will be recalled, change a person's ritual status from being, for example, unborn to born; or unmarried-married; or child-adult; or undergraduate-graduate. All of these relate to what most Westerners would equate with physical life, so it might seem strange that dying is also thought to be rite of passage. 

One way to understand this is to look at it from the perspective of those involved. They understand that there is a spirit that still survives. This spirit needs to be transformed from being in a living body to another kind of body (possibly, we could say, a dead or decomposing body) or leaving the body altogether. The mortuary rituals, including a funeral, are part of that. 

Even in a Western context I am familiar with this. I have been to funerals with avowed atheists who say, "I think he [the dead person] is looking over us right now". 

Reasons for mortuary rituals

Even if we do not think of mortuary rituals as a rite of passage, there are obvious psychological functions (dealing with grief) and social functions (bonding the mourners together). 

Sunday, 10 August 2014


Jukung in 1977 (NAA)

Jukung are small yachts. They used to have significant practical function. Now, their importance is mostly symbolic.

Jukung in 1977 (NAA)

Jukung in the old copra processing shed.

Cocos Jukung are whaleboats, not outriggers

Jukung 1977 (NAA)

Cocos Malays have their own kind of yacht called jukung (also rendered "jukong"). Although its practical uses are limited, it still possesses, I think, an important symbolic role. 

On the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, the jukung used to be the preferred mode of transport across the atoll. Unlike in Indonesia, where the term "jukung" usually refers to a sailing boat with outrigger/s, on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, the "jukung" has no outrigger. Indeed, its design could be equated with what, in the European tradition, is called a "whaleboat".

Viewed from the outside, the jukung has a white bottom (hull), over that are blue and yellow stripes, and then the top of the side (gunwale) has a varnished wood finish. It has a single and a detachable steering plank (rudder) at the back.  It also possesses only one upright pole  (mast) to hold up the sails. Jukung are of varying lengths.

Sizes of jukung

Preparing for race 2014
Jukung come in different sizes. Smaller ones, especially those designed for a single sailor, are called jukung kolek. The jukung club lists the following numbers of  jukung: 16 jukung in the 19'2"-19'8";  7 in the 19'7" - 19'20" [sic.] range; 14 in the 20'1"-20'3"; 12 in the 20'4"-20'6" range; and 2 in the 20'7"-open range. Thus, a total of 51 racing jukung were listed; all around the 19-20 foot range. The picture on the left shows a racing jukung about to head off in a race after Hari Raya

Deteriorating jukung and the shed to house them.
Additionally, many jukung are lying around Home Island, gradually disintegrating. I think this a matter of consternation for many, so the safe storage of jukung has become an important issue for locals. Indeed, when I write this in August 2014, a large shed was being constructed to house them, as depicted on the right.
 Like boats in other traditions, each jukung has its own name.

3 uses for jukung

Jukung 1982 (NAA) . 

Jukung have had three main uses. 
First, the jukung used to be used for transport (people, coconuts, etc.) around the atoll. The image on the right, for example appears to depict a coconut collector ("nutter") taking a sack of nuts from his jukung to be processed on Home Island.

Second, the jukung was used for hunting (spearing fish; sailing to Keeling Island to catch booby birds, catching turtles) and fishing (both line and net fishing).  It was not uncommon, for example, for men to sail a jukung, alone, to Keeling Island and sail back navigating by the stars. Haji Wahiib, for example, remembers waiting at night for his dad to return from Keeling Island.  The photo below seems to depict fishermen returning with a haul.
Plenty of fish in a jukung. Photo courtesy of John Clunies Ross

For various reasons, its first two uses have become obsolete. The coconut industry collapsed in the 1980s; Booby Bird has been banned by Parks Australia; turtles are now considered unfit for eating (i.e. they are thought to be haram). More importantly, for practical sailing, the jukung has been replaced by the internationally favorite small boat, the metal dinghy, otherwise known as "tinny" in Australian English. As a result, many jukung lay rotting around Home Island when I visited in 2014. 

Jukung racing
Spectators watch the 1st day of racing

The third use of jukung continues to the present; namely racing after Hari Raya. In 2014 There were five days of racing using progressively larger sails and boats. The races lasted from about 9am-10am. I have written about the races in my blog on Hari Raya .

A small amount of prize money was available for each race. Some of this had been donated by the shire. Some had been raised by the jukung club. The races were competitive, keenly fought affairs. I've put up my shonky recording of a tight finish on YouTube.

These races hold a special place for the community on Home Island. They could be compared to the The Boat Race for Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Nevertheless, according to local residents, the number of competing boats declines as the years go by. 

Fundraising for the jukung club

Market under cyclone shelter

As stated, some of the prize money for the racing had been raised through the jukung club.  They put on a market on Saturday, June 7, under the cyclone shelter. 

The till, manned by Nek Fifi and Nek Sofia
Wives prepared food for sale in plastic containers. Aside from this, Nek Su made some spears. In total, several thousand dollars were raised.
Fish'n'chips tastes better when fried on a wood fire

Symbolism of jukung

Yellow and blue stripes

I'm not sure if this is something that Cocos Malays explicitly dwell upon, but it seems that the jukung symbolism encapsulates much of what is important.

Yellow and blue strips are painted below the gunwale on every jukung I have seen, exactly as in the photo on the right.

Circumcised boy in yellow and blue

Cocos Malays identify yellow and blue as the colors worn by the bride and groom at marriage.  

School colors
The boy who is circumcised wears these clothes too. As I described in a blog on circumcision ceremonies, the ritual 'officially' states that the boy is ready to marry (although in practice this is delayed for several years at least).

Yellow and are also the colors of the school and its students' uniforms. 

Aside from the yellow and blue, it's possible, as my blog on symbolism speculates, that the jukung symbolizes the phalus or fertility. The back part (stern) of the boat, where the steering plank (rudder) connects, is called the konek (foreskin).

The boat is thus connected with with getting married and producing offspring. I think these two goals remain central to Cocos Malay culture, even as the place of the jukung changes.

Returning to shore after the jukung race, part of 2014  Hari Raya celebrations