Sun, Aug 10, 2014 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: Malaysian shamans brave Islam’s ill winds


Feeling dejected and drained, Che Esa consulted not a doctor, but her local Malay shaman, who diagnosed a repression of her angi, a metaphysical “wind” affecting spiritual and emotional health.

Her treatment — known as main puteri — included tussling with two men, enduring pokes, taunts and even slaps from the shaman and, finally, a rousing Malay song and dance by about 50 fellow villagers.

“The past 10 days it had gotten so bad I couldn’t get out of bed. After the main puteri, I feel refreshed,” Che Esa said.

Found mainly in Malaysia’s Kelantan State and neighboring areas of southern Thailand, main puteri is an animated healing spectacle that draws on a range of local cultural touchstones and legendary figures to “raise the spirits” of patients.

It has been frowned upon by authorities in the rapidly modernizing Muslim-majority country as a heathen relic of a pre-Islamic past.

However, many Malays — the country’s majority group — see main puteri as a slice of their heritage increasingly needed in an emotionally challenging modern world, and are working to revive it.

Main puteri revolves around the belief that depression, chronic fatigue and other emotional or psychological problems stem from disturbances in metaphysical forces.

“We raised her spirits again. She is like a commander or chieftain, who are hot-blooded,” shaman Zailani Che Moh, 48, said of Che Esa’s now-restored inner essence.

Main puteri means “playing princess,” believed to refer to Puteri Saadong, a legendary 17th-century Kelantan princess driven insane by her husband’s marital infidelities.

Her spirit is now said to watch over Kelantan and she is regularly invoked as the ultimate emotionally troubled main puteri patient.

However, conservative Islam has steadily gained sway in the historically moderate country, and religious bodies have issued edicts forbidding a range of animist spiritual practices as idolatrous.

Kelantan, in the largely rural Islamic heartland of peninsular Malaysia’s east coast, has gone even further since an Islamist party won state power in 1990, banning several traditions including main puteri. Violators face up to a year in jail.

“In main puteri, there is worship of other beings. In Islam, we only worship Allah,” said Nassuruddin Daud, Kelantan’s minister in charge of Islam.

Practitioners were driven underground or to other states, where sanitized versions are performed.

However, pure main puteri as a healing tradition is re-emerging in Kelantan villages, a rebirth that authorities appear to be quietly tolerating so as not trigger a public backlash.

A sarong-clad shaman, or tok puteri (“master of the princess”), diagnoses patients with the help of a musician who plays a traditional Malay fiddle and acts as an interrogator as the holy man enters a trance-like state.

Shamans like Zailani — called “snake man” for his contortions — twist and dance around, acting out a mix of legendary or traditional characters such as Puteri Saadong.

His tone veers from sorrow to mocking to aggressive as he scuffles with the patient before breaking into song, trying to find the approach that will “heal” a particular sufferer.

Some patients claim the ceremony restores their zest for life.

Ironically, suppression is boosting main puteri, said Eddin Khoo, founder of Pusaka, a non-governmental organization that works to document and protect traditional Malay arts.

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