August 15, 2017
“Come” said Baja Toycot. “We go to cure a sick man. You come”.
The day had dawned gray and cloudy and it had been spattering rain most of the morning, with occasional downpours. Even the chickens seemed to have gone to ground. But the mood perked up around mid-morning. Two other shikereis had loped in from the forest and settled down to tea and talk. A healing ceremony was to take place in a nearby Uma requiring all three shikereis, and I was invited to tag along. I needed no second urging. They strode along and I followed in their wake, trying to perform the usual balancing act on slippery logs. My deplorable skills had improved dramatically over the past couple of days and I gave myself a mental pat on the back for not sliding into the mud.
The Uma was not very far and soon we squelched up the usual notched log. This was a much bigger Uma, with more people but identical in design. A newly built long platform stretched out in front leading to the open-sided room. Inside was a large room with a couple of open hearths. Pots bubbled on one while some women were busy preparing sago in another. More people lived in this Uma, but the numbers had swelled even more, thanks to all the family members who had come in for the ceremony. Hung from the rafters and draped from beams were dozens of skulls. A string of numerous pig skulls hung at the entrance. Even more were the monkey skulls, looking like tiny human ones. Added to the gory ensemble were a jumble of antlers and some other unidentifiable animal skulls. The age of an Uma seems to be in direct proportion to the number of skulls it is decorated with, no doubt a sign of prestige.
The owner Baja Somorut and his wife were both elderly and sick. They had requested the shamans to perform the ceremony. Tea and talk were dispensed with, and the diagnosis made. The verdict was unanimous. When the new platform had been built, the Baja Somorut had neglected to perform a ritual to propitiate the spirits. The shamans drew the obvious conclusion; they attributed his current sickness to the punishment decreed by angry spirits. So the first order of the day was to appease the angry spirits. The spirits of the trees, the wood, the twine and the vine used for the construction all had to be appeased, and asked forgiveness.
The three shikereis strode off into the forest to collect the herbs, leaves, twigs and flowers deemed necessary for the ritual and then then began what can only be called a dress-up session. Out came the big boxes that store ornaments. Beads and bangles were slipped on amid convivial chatter. It was apparently commonplace and nobody else paid any attention. It was only I who watched goggle-eyed. Bells in hand, they trooped out to the end of the platform and squatted. A palm stalk had been prepared before, the palm fronds rubbed with turmeric. It was this that seemed to be the focus now. Ringing of bells and chanting filled the air as they implored the spirits, and begged forgiveness. After some fifteen or so minutes of chanting, one particular shaman appeared to have, what seemed like a rational conversation with thin air. In a reasonable voice, he spoke to the spirit, coaxing and cajoling in the sort of tone one would use with a recalcitrant child. And then rose, sprinkling water from a leaf up and down the offending platform.
Spirits appeased, they trooped inside, and sat across from each other. They were preparing bunches of leaves and a basin of water scattered with herbs. Incantations murmured over them for purification and they were ready for the next part of the healing ritual. For the next ten to fifteen minutes, the sound of chanting reverberated from the walls as they swayed and weaved over the heads of the sick duo. The same ringing of bells, sweeping of branches signifying sweeping away bad spirits was performed energetically as the patients sat immobile beneath. Down squatted the shamans, this time, cupping water from the basin and bathing the patients while murmuring chants. The forehead, face, chest and arms were all wiped down, as they reached into the basin repeatedly. Cleansing the body with the now-blessed water, they did a thorough job, murmuring and talking to the spirits the entire time. Each of the shamans in turn, dripped a few drops from a leaf into the mouths of the sick; a concoction of their own making. And all was deemed well.
The cleansing ritual was not quite complete yet. An animal needs to be sacrificed at each such ritual and a pig was brought in. Trussed to the bamboo pole and lain on the floor, it lay squealing as the shamans embarked on yet more chanting. This time, asking forgiveness of the pig. In an almost explanatory tone, they spoke to the spirit of the pig. As they rubbed a leaf over the pig, they explained the need for slaughter. And slaughter it, they did. In one swift cut, the neck lay open, the blood collected in a large wok. Each of the shamans drank some of the blood and then examined the entrails. Nodding heads, I imagine, implied they agreed with what they saw. Despite asking, I did not quite understand what exactly they were looking for, nor what they saw.
The ritual was complete and the patients already claimed they felt better. How much of it is the placebo effect, I wondered. Several family members now busily set about cutting up the meat and preparing the meal for a communal feast. Bamboo tubes were brought forth and stuffed with the meat, to be cooked over the fire in the usual manner. Some of the meat I imagine was to be smoked and stored for future use. I too was given a share of the meat. Delicious it was, infused with the delicate flavor of bamboo and herbs.
Postscript: By happy circumstance, later at Muara Siberut, I met an anthropologist who was studying the Mentawai. Manvir had been living with the Mentawai for seven months and was kind enough to answer my many questions about the rituals, beliefs and ceremonies of these intriguing peoples.