Batu Berendam, Melaka: Recollections of early kampung days
By Wan Chwee Seng
The early morning sound sent a ripple of excitement through the kampung ( village). Housewives, busy with their household chores, paused to listen. Attracted by the sound, two barefoot kids with catapults in hands were already hurrying down the dirt track that led to the main road. Other kids too had abandoned their errands and other activities and were heading down the same path.
The tranquility of the morning was filled with the sound of lively music from an unseen source. Then a gaily decorated bullock cart rounded a corner and it was followed closely by other decorated carts. As the carts drew nearer, the kids could hear the rhythmic throbbing of drums, followed at intervals by the sharp cadence of gongs and the resonance of violins. The strains of dondang sayang, with snatches of pantuns that were being exchanged by their occupants floated down from a few carts. The kids waved at the slow moving procession and happy, smiling faces waved back at them. They watched the procession until it disappeared from view and then made their way home.
|A mandi safar procession|
Later, they found out from the adults that the people were participating in the annual mandi safar festival and the procession was most probably making its way to the beach at Tanjung Kling where the participants would take part in the religious cleansing of the body and soul.
In the small kampung of Batu Berendam, Melaka where I grew up in the early 1950s, there was hardly any form of entertainment. Any celebration, festival or even an unusual event would generate a lot of excitement and usually provide the villagers with a reason to rejoice.
Another annual event which attracted much interest was the Hindu festival of Masi Magam with a procession which would start from a temple in Melaka City and wind its way to a temple in Cheng. The kampung folks would usually wait under the shade of a huge tree which used to stand just before the present Taman Melaka Baru. Before the start of the procession the kids would be warned not to stand too close to the road or else the 'hantu tetek’ ( breast demons) would smother them with their pendulous breasts. The 'hantu tetek’ were two tall, grotesquely decorated figures who would walk ahead of the silver chariot.
|'Hantu tetek' walking ahead of the procession|
Although, we were told the 'hantu tetek' main task was to drive away evil spirits, they also helped to clear the way for the chariot and the devotees. There would usually be screams and shrieks as the ‘hantu tetek’ made a pretense of catching the few stubborn or mischievous kids who stood too close to the road.
Every year on the 15th night of the 7th month of the lunar calendar the Taoists and Buddhists in the kampung would celebrate the Hungry Ghosts Festival. During the 7th month they believe the gates of the lower realm will be opened to allow the wandering spirits to wander the earth in search of food and entertainment. In our kampung, prayers and various food offerings for the spirits were held at a temple which is located at the present Batu Berendam Chinese School. Sometimes, a Chinese opera would be staged for the ‘special guests’ and kampung folks.
|A Chinese Opera held on the night of The Hungry Ghost Festival|
We, kids, were usually not allowed to venture out during this particular night as we were told kids who were unfortunate to encounter the malevolent spirits could be lured to the netherworld.
My brother and a cousin can still recall vividly the night they sneaked out of the house to view the night’s festivities at the temple. On their way home, they were walking along a dirt track when in the dim light of dusk they spotted hundreds of 'snakes', a mass of writhing and glistening bodies, endlessly criss-crossing their only path leading to the house. Both made a desperate jump over the murky, serpentine form.
|'Snakes' criss-crossing their path|
They managed to escape unscathed from the incident, but my cousin fell sick and had to seek the help of Ali Mat, the kampung bomoh or shaman.
In our kampung the doors of the houses were usually left wide open and only shuttered at dusk. Neighbours and friends could move freely in and out of the houses. However, on rare occasions, mother would ask us to close the windows and doors long before dusk and we were all told to stay indoors. Those were nights when some of the men in the kampung would perform the ’upacara menghalau hantu or driving away the evil spirits, a ceremony perform to protect the kampung from any misfortune. Huddled together in the silence and stillness of the sitting room, we would listen to the night wind carry the long lingering shout that sounded like the howl of a dog on a moonlit night.
Today, the mandi safar and the upacara menghalau hantu have been banned. The Chinese opera is gradually being replaced by the modern stage show known as Ko Tai. The Masi Magam and the Hungry Ghost Festival are still held annually, but with the availability of television, computer games and other forms of entertainment, they have drawn less interest among the kampung folks.
While some of the festivals have become a thing of the past, others we hope will stand the test of time.