This time of year, Malaysians are usually caught up with celebrations of the Chinese New Year, but there is also a celebration unique to Selangor that takes place at the same time.
Annually, the indigenous Mah Meri tribe who live in five villages on Carey Island, Klang, gather to celebrate “Puja Pantai” (Sea Spirits’ Day), which coincides with the lunar new year.
Traditionally known as seafarers, the Mah Meri hold the annual event to ask spirits of the sea for protection for their families and nearby community as well as for a good bounty throughout the year.
The festival takes place over five days and involves:
• Day One: Worship of the deity Datuk Panglima Hitam
• Day Two: Decoration of the Spirit Hall (Balai Moyang) with woven fronds
• Day Three: Ceremony to invoke ancestral spirits, purification of the Spirit Hall with scented rice flour
• Day Four: Parade to Teluk Tanjung River for the sea spirits’ birthday ceremony, feasting on food offered at home ancestral altars (Sangga) in Kampung Sungai Judah and seeking blessings from spirits of the sea and rivers around Carey Island
• Day Five: Parade to Bangkong Beach to celebrate the Sea Spirits’ Day and Jo’oh dance performances
The celebration reaches its climax on the fifth day (which coincides with the fifth day of the lunar new year) and is when the Mah Meri open the event to tourists.
Towards the end, the festival takes on a party-like atmosphere and culminates in the villagers’ performance of the Jo’oh dance for visitors.
The Mah Meri people are indigenous to Carey Island and have lived there for more than 300 years.
Today, there are five Mah Meri villages, including Kampung Sungai Judah which is nearest to the sea and the core location for Puja Pantai.
Mah Meri men are famous for their mask-carving skills and the sale of these masks used in rituals have been known to fetch thousands of ringgit.
Depicting the form of spirits, humans, plants and animals, Mah Meri carvings have been recognised by Unesco and each piece purchased from Carey Island comes with its own Unesco certificate of authenticity.
This year, a group of undergraduates from the Faculty of Arts and Cultural Management of the National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage (Aswara) documented the five days of Puja Pantai events for a documentary.
Its production was supported by Tourism Selangor, National Archives, National Heritage Department, Museum Department and non-profit organisation Kakiseni.
The documentary premiered on Jan 30 with a special performance by the Mah Meri dancers and musicians.
The short film can be viewed at youtu.be/fBaz-Mb4QLw
“The uniqueness of this Mah Meri festival needs to be highlighted by all parties so that it is preserved and regarded as a national treasure,” said Faculty of Arts and Cultural Management dean Dr Zulkifli Ab Rashid in a statement.
The Mah Meri tribe’s heritage of both tangible and intangible arts is invaluable and is a very important component of Selangor’s tourism.
Besides participating in festivals such as Puja Pantai, visitors can learn more about Mah Meri culture by visiting the Mah Meri Cultural Village on Carey Island, which is open during weekends.