People of the Lake and Forest: The Semelai of Tasek Bera
Semelai shelter in newly fired swidden
Kijay incense used in shamanic rituals

In 1980, Rosemary Gianno, then a graduate student in Anthropology at Yale University, made the first of a series of extended trips to Malaysia. Her purpose was to learn about the Semelai of Tasek Bera, their culture, their technology, their role in the trade of forest products — how, in other words, Semelai culture had adapted to the forest environment. Gianno's documentation of the Semelai way of life, compiled over the course of more than a decade, includes tape recordings of music, village life, and traditional stories. While at Tasek Bera, Gianno lived in a Semelai community, Kampong Bapak. This exhibit provides her perspective on Semelai culture, a perspective informed and enriched by her knowledge of the language and her experience living among the people of Tasek Bera, learning how they think about the world.

The Semelai of Tasek Bera

The Semelai are one of the aboriginal, or Orang Asli, peoples of central Malaya (peninsular Malaysia). They speak Semelai, a language belonging to the Mon-Khmer Family, probably the most ancient in mainland Southeast Asia. The Semelai who live around the sprawling lake call themselves Semaq Tasik, the "Lake People." These people have long focused their lives around the lake, Tasek Bera, while striking out away from it to farm, hunt, and collect forest products. Canoes have been their main form of transportation, other than walking, and long, elegant dugout canoes have been a ubiquitous presence. Most families have at least two such craft of different lengths: the smaller canoe allows one person to check traps or go line fishing in the early evening, whereas the larger version can hold up to four or five for group or family outings.

Many of the Semelai live around Tasek Bera, which is an equatorial riverine swamp, although many young Semelai today seek wage labor outside their traditional homelands. Indeed, much of what the Peabody Museum's "People of the Lake and Forest" exhibit depicts can no longer be seen at Tasek Bera. This lake might be thought of as an island of water surrounded by a sea of rain forest. For generations the lives of the Semelai people have revolved around this watery and luxuriant environment. Two mountain ranges flank Tasek Bera, curling in protectively around the lake as they follow the seacoasts and then gradually leveling out as they proceed south.

In Tasek Bera contrasting ecosystems merge. Approaching it overland, the traveler perceives a land gradually but grudgingly giving way to water. From firm highlands and majestic dryland forest, one enters a forbidding zone where only stunted forest remains and solid land gives way to a muddy solution of soil, decomposing matter, and water. This region is, in turn, succeeded by a sun-drenched belt of swamp rushes; the water is still hidden, concealed within the organically rich substrate. Finally the traveler enters the clear, benign central channel, with its open expanse of tranquil deep water. During the annual cycle of wet and dry monsoons -- those celebrated winds of this region -- the channel and its tributaries appear to pulsate as they swell with water, drowning the fields of rushes, and then recede. Frequently no current can be seen, making the water appear to rise directly from an invisible underground source.

The Southeast Asian rain forests have not only provided indigenous peoples with a context for agriculture; they are also rich with a wide variety of renewable raw materials and resources. Rattan palm vines, considered the muscles or veins of the forest by the Semelai, wind their way through the upper canopy. These have long been an important resource for export trade; if your home contains cane furniture, you may be a consumer of a Semelai product. Rattan is also important locally; for example, in Semelai houses, in the past, beams, houseposts, and roofs were lashed together with rattan strips.

Resin, another major forest resource harvested by the Semelai, is a secondary product mainly composed of terpenoids, a class of hydrocarbons produced by certain kinds of trees. (In everyday English, resin is often called "pitch" or "sap"; ambers, used in jewelry, are fossilized resins.) Some of the terpenoid constituents of resins are essential oils, which give them a balsamic fragrance. In New England, conifers, such as pines, produce resins, but in the tropics many types of broadleaf trees produce them as well. Resinous trees are particularly abundant and varied in the Southeast Asian rain forest. One species, Dipterocarpus kerrii, in the Tasek Bera area produces an oleoresin (resin with high essential oil content) whose oil fraction can be sold to be used as a base for perfume. Other tree species produce resins that harden much faster, forming stalactites that hang from trees. This kind of resin can be traded to varnish manufacturers or crushed to make boatcaulk or tinder.

 

Tools of the Lake and Forest

 

Technology is an important dimension of any culture and important to an understanding of it. Certainly Semelai technology is a critical aspect of their adaptation to Tasek Bera. The Semelai have long been accomplished forest farmers, practicing shifting cultivation (swidden agriculture). This type of forest management reflects a very extensive subsistence pattern, as distinct from the intensive wet rice cultivation practiced by some Malays. Swidden farming serves several purposes: it clears the area for planting; enriches the soil through the ash deposited; controls plant and animal pests; and softens the soil for planting. At any one time only a small percentage of the landscape is under cultivation; the rest of the forest is allowed to regenerate.

To clear swiddens in their forest/swamp environment, the Semelai use a wide variety of cutting implements and the expert use of fire as tools. A plot of ground in the forest is chosen and the trees and underbrush are felled and allowed to dry for a month or two. Then, on a hot, dry afternoon the swidden is set ablaze. After firing, the Semelai plant hill rice and other crops (including many varieties of manioc, bananas, sugarcane, legumes, yams, taro, pineapples, gingers, turmeric, and various herbs). as well as plants of ritual importance, and Derris sp., poisonous vines used to stun fish. As in most cultures, among the Semelai, fibers and weaving play an important role; Pandanus leaves and other materials are used to make containers for transportation and storage, baskets, and mats.

In the village, food is normally prepared and cooked indoors, except on ritual occasions when communal cooking requires a larger space. In small, one-room houses, butchering and food preparation take place on a square corner hearth made of packed clay. While women tend to do most of the cooking, both for ordinary meals and ritual occasions, men can easily take on these tasks. Living on the shores of a swamp as they do, the Semelai learn to become expert fisherfolk; their fishing technology is quite elaborate — even including a Semelai version of a fly-fishing rod! Semelai technology has also created animal traps of a truly astounding variety and complexity. In the past, the Semelai set traps in the forest and in their swiddens to capture animals for meat or to protect their crops. Blowpiping was also an occasional hunting technique, though the Temoq, neighbors of the Semelai, were much more adept both in making blowguns and poison and in using them. In fact, most Semelai who owned blowpipes acquired them from a Temoq; sometimes the Semelai would simply exchange agricultural produce or money for game killed by Temoq blowpipe hunters. In the past, too, the Semelai used spears when hunting with dogs or just carried them in case prey were encountered. Today, most Semelai hunting is done with shotguns licensed by the government.

The Forest of Ghosts

The Semelai employ an elaborate cosmology and healing ritual system to understand the causes of life, death, and sickness. In it, for example, the souls of those who are dying of natural causes enter the bri kmuc, the "forest of ghosts" in the underworld. The forest is extremely beautiful and seductive, with many flowering and fruiting plants and trees, colorful birds and a stream plentiful with fish. The farther the soul travels along the road through the bri kmuc the closer it is to death.

When a person is sick, the Semelai shaman performs a trance ritual in which his soul leaves his body to search for the soul of the patient; Semelai shamans can draw detailed maps of these journeys. The all-night ritual includes man dozen different drumbeats; each drumbeat signifies the shaman's arrival at a different location in the Semelai universe and honors a particular plant, animal, spirit, or place that either abets or interferes with the shaman's journey. The prowess of a shaman can be measured by how far he has managed to penetrate into the bri kmuc and return alive.

At death, the souls of those who die of natural causes are believed to reside in srga (derived from Sanskrit surga, "heaven"), which has been described as a bandar ("town or city"). This conveys a sense of the place of the dead as a foreign culture, recalling the ethnic landscape of the Malay Peninsula where the village-dwelling Semelai have traditionally gone down to larger towns inhabited by Malays and Chinese to trade. Those who die violent deaths go to the lawot darah; they become paqreq, very dangerous spirits that can cause epidemics and other calamities. The road that looms above is nrakaq, similar to the Christian concept of Hell.

The Changing Semelai Way of Life

Historically, the Semelai have lived in either nuclear or extended families, not in larger longhouses or communal groupings. Because they tended to move to new fields every year or two, they also had no need to make houses that would last. Often there were no more than two or three households with associated swiddens at a particular location. Nowadays, because the Semelai have been pressured by the government to settle down, their people build sturdier houses within much larger villages; many of these houses have been influenced by Malay or Chinese designs.

In general, while Southeast Asian cultures have defined roles for men and women, there is also a high degree of "crossing-over," that is, instances where men perform tasks generally done by women and vice versa. Among the Semelai, moreover, social roles have been changing as they adapt to their new circumstances. As late as 1980, for example, both men and women were practicing midwifery in Tasek Bera. By 1992 all the female midwives had died or stopped practicing; only men remained, and all the new practitioners were men as well. It is unclear why this particular change has taken place, since male dominance of midwifery is very rare cross-culturally. Nor has it been adapted from neighboring cultures -- both Malays and Malaysian Chinese continue to have female midwives. The phenomenon may be related to a more general tendency: greater male focus, status, and power where capitalism has been recently introduced and Islamic influence is felt.

Living in close proximity in Peninsular Malaysia, a territory a little smaller than the state of New York, is a remarkably diverse range of cultures. The principal, most populous groups, the Malays, Chinese, and Indians live in towns and cities; agriculturally the Malays have practiced wet rice cultivation, a labor- and land-intensive practice. The Semelai who engage in shifting cultivation have been much less sedentary. Others of the eighteen Orang Asli peoples on the peninsula, such as the Semang, have been highly nomadic gatherer/hunters.

Until recently, Tasek Bera was surrounded by a lush, incredibly diverse lowland tropical rain forest dotted with agricultural clearings. Now, this ancient and prolific ecosystem is vastly diminished. Since Malaysia's laws concerning logging have not been effectively enforced, little of the lowland forest remains. The area around Tasek Bera, because of its swampiness, had been one of its last refuges. Today, most of the countryside surrounding Tasek Bera is dominated by cash crops. Palm oil, which is extracted from the fruit of the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), is exported, mainly to industrialized countries like the United States, where it is added to many processed foods. Rubber (Hevea brasiliensis) plantations are also widespread. Thus, while there are still many trees, they now lack variety.


Rosemary Gianno teaches at Keene State College in New Hampshire. The artifacts were collected for the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, Connecticut; she retains the rights to her photographs. The exhibition was jointly created by the Peabody Museum of Natural History Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, and the Thorne-Sagendorph Art Gallery Keene State College, Keene, New Hampshire. This exhibition would not have been possible without the support, assistance, and friendship of the Semelai of Tasek Bera, especially Hokin Sujin, Eng Tek, Baki Hoken, Nujen Tokgunung, Layang Mali Sahat Sipin, Nayan Pandak, Nonek Sin, Kak Hakek, Atai Tokdun, Pitok Hai, and Yanah Sujin. To them Rosemary Gianno and the two museums express their deep gratitude. The exhibition and accompanying programs received substantial support from The Connecticut Humanities Council and The New Hampshire Humanities Council.