Syncretism of cultural beliefs
Writer: Sharyn Shufiyan
Published: Fri, 01 Mar 2013
WHEN different groups of people exist in the same environment, integration often takes place.
The integration is not merely assimilation, but involves cross adaptation and adoption of certain aspects of these different cultures. Language, cultural practices and food are some of the common aspects that are often interchanged.
In some areas, foreign culture is introduced to the local people by missionaries or settlers.
Sometimes, they are introduced by force like during the Japanese Occupation. The local people may accept these “new” practices or beliefs without much alteration, but they could also modify it to make it truly their own, as we can see with Trobriand Cricket.
Cricket was first introduced to the Trobriand Islands by Christian missionaries in early 1900s. At first, the game was intended to discourage warfare amongst the villages but soon it evolved into a version unique to the Trobriand. Instead of the usual 12 players on a team, the game played in Trobriand could involve the whole community! Instead of jerseys, the players would dress in their traditional warfare outfit when they play. Rituals, dances and chants are also incorporated into the game.
Language is also susceptible to modification when exposed to foreign influences. Especially when trade activity is vibrant in a specific geographical area such as old Malaya, the local people intermingled with foreigners that do not speak the local language.
Pidgin, a simplified language, is then developed to facilitate trade. Creole language is the product of mixing two languages and becoming a new language by itself. It has become the native language of children whose parents speak Pidgin.
Examples of Malaysian Creole include Chetty, Baba and Kristang.
Cultural syncretism could also be in the form of religious beliefs. Buddhists in Malaysia would be familiar with the Dato Gong deity and its shrine can be found at almost every construction or building sites.
I first stumbled upon a Dato Gong shrine at Jaya One and got curious as to why the deity is holding a keris – a predominantly Malay symbol.
Doing some digging, I came across a Youtube video called “Lagenda Dato”, a coursework documentary project by students from The One Academy. The video provided great insights into the origin of Dato Gong, a product of syncretism between traditional Malay and Chinese belief.
I could not ascertain when the belief in Dato Gong emerged, but it could well be before Islam arrived on our shores.
The merger between Pre-Islamic Malay beliefs in Keramat (holy) and Chinese heaven-earth worship is believed to have given birth to Dato Gong.
The name “Dato” was derived from the Malay word “datuk” for grandfather, while Gong is an honorific used to refer to a respected person.
A friend of mine explained that Dato Gong is a guardian of the land, hence its shrine is often found at construction sites. It is not surprising that the ‘guardian’ tends to be a Malay person; in the past, land was usually owned by the Malays and it is believed that their spirits still guard their land.
Worship usually begins when a medium is granted vision of the Dato’s spiritual form.
To appease the spirit, a shrine is erected and offerings are made to the spirit.
The offerings are very “Malay” in nature – betel nut leaves with lime paste, betel nuts and tobacco.
Pork and alcohol are prohibited while meat offered must be slaughtered by a Muslim.
A few weeks ago, my friends and I visited a Dato Gong temple in Banting. What’s particularly interesting with this Dato is that the guardian spirit is believed to be of Sultan Abdul Samad, the fourth Sultan of Selangor.
The temple is being cared for by Mr Tan, who had been involved with the temple since he was only 12 years old.
The original temple was initially smaller and situated deeper in the hill with a small road leading to it.
From public donations and support, the temple today, has undergone four renovations and an extension is planned for next year, which will include an orphanage and an old folks’ home.
When he was a child, Mr Tan was enticed to explore the hill behind where the temple is now located by rumours of “treasures” and found incense holders dated back to 1897. Along with his archaeological finds were a keris and a gold chain. He told us that he no longer has the gold chain, but he still has in his possession the keris, which he kept in a glass case.
Mr Tan first mediated the Sultan in 1953. He had solicited the Sultan and offered to channel his messages.
Mr Tan explained to us that when he’s in trance, some other deities may manifest; it depends on whether the Sultan wants to appear or not, or if he has a message to relay.
In accordance with Malay custom, The Sultans are owners of the land. Sultan Abdul Samad’s Royal Mausoleum is located just a few hundred metres away from the temple.
Peninsular Malaysia has her history as an important trade hub and settlements of various peoples took place. Hence the local people are constantly exposed to foreign influences. Our culture is constantly evolving and reshaping itself. We should not fear syncretism, instead embrace it; it is important that we understand this and take ownership of our rich history of integration.
It is unfortunate that we are retreating back into the shells of ethnic supremacism; that one ethnic group is superior to the other and the rest are merely “add-ons” to multiethnic Malaysia – to be appeased for votes. Our relationship with each other goes beyond that.
I need not spell it out any more than it is obvious; we are, and always have been, the product of mixed cultures and there’s absolutely nothing wrong that.
The problem arises when we try to hide this fact or deny it for pious or supremacist reasons and that is exactly where we will lose ourselves.