Malaysia’s Mah Meri

“Of men with masks and tigers in chains”

If you are looking for culture, intrigue, art and ethnicity, the Mah Meri cultural village on Carey Island is an exceptional source of inspiration, and an amazing personal experience.

Mah Meri (meaning “jungle man”) is a group of indigenous people or “orang asli” living on Carey Island, about 28km south of the city of Klang in Selangor state, and just a couple of hours’ drive from Kuala Lumpur. There are five Mah Meri villages on Carey Island with total population about 4,000. Mah Meri is indeed a subgroup of the Senoi ethnic group of indigenous people in Malaysia. Senoi are generally found in the central part of the Malaysian peninsula, and are believed to have come originally from Yunnan via Southern Thailand around 10,000 years ago.

Also known as the “Mask Men of Malaysia” due to their wood carving skills, the tribe still preserves ageold heritage and culture. The Mah Meri are thought by many to be among the best mask-makers in the world. Still practicing anismism, it can be noted that most of their wood carvings features animistic characters; one of the factors that contributed to the works receiving the UNESCO Seal of Excellence. And while the men are highly skilled in wood sculpting, the women have exceptional abilities in the art of leaf origami.

Carey island has been home to the Mah Meri for a little over a hundred years, following an intriguing past for this people, during which they had once been seafarers, travelling around the Southeast Ocean and living on sampans, before permanently installing themselves on the Malaysian mainland. Today, they remain fishermen and traders, while living in small wooden houses in the forest of Selangor, with minimal modern conveniences or interaction with the outside world.

THE MEANING OF MAH MERI MASKS AND SCULPTURES
Masks: Mah Meri culture predates modern religions. They believe in two parallel worlds: the human world, which is 24 hours a day, and the spirit world which is 12 hours (midnight to mid-day). One day every year, the gates open between the two worlds. This is a festival day and traditional masks are worn by men as they celebrate the event, while other tribe members wear special costumes while offering gifts and blessings to their ancestors.

Sculptures: Mah Meri sculptures depict how a person or an animal became a symbol to be worshiped by the tribe. The sculptures are created to replace something that has been destroyed, as they believe that everything, whether living or inanimate, has a spirit. Each carving is crafted from the nyireh batu trees, which can be found in mangrove swamps.

THE MAH MERI ARE THOUGHT BY MANY TO BE AMONG THE BEST MASKMAKERS IN THE WORLD

Perhaps the most famous and certainly the most complex is the sculpture of the spirit of “Harimau Berantai” – the Tiger in Chains, depicting a tiger, which was caught in a trap and left to die by villagers because they were too frightened to release it. Its design is perpetuated today by Husain Pion, son of the master creator, Pion anak Bumbong, who passed away in May 2014. It is a highly sophisticated sculpture with 7 interlocking rings, and a moving sphere in the mouth. The ball inside the mouth means the “stone of power”. The 7 interlocking rings depicts the “sequence of events”.

ABOUT THE MAH MERI CULTURAL VILLAGE
A gallery/museum and traditional house in the village compound is open to visitors, where one can admire a large number of masks and carvings and learn about the tribe’s rituals.

The village is open throughout the year, but the best time to visit Pulau Carey‘s Mah Meri Cultural Village is during Hari Moyang (Ancestor Day), which takes place around March or April each year, Puja Pantai (Oceanic Healing) or during a wedding ceremony. During the festival, the tribesmen and women wear intricately carved masks and perform the mystifying Tarian Jo-oh (Jungle Dance) and Tarian Topeng (Mask Dance), which are main features of the festival repertoire.