Ritual Kedurai bumai and Mdundang Binea (Book Review) by Thomas Psota

Thomas Psota has studied the traditional agricultural rituals of the Rejang in the highland valley of Lebong (province of Bengkulu). Rituals were performed on the occasion of the opening of forest land for slash-and-burn farming (a ritual called kedurai bumai in Rejang) and during the rest of the cycle of rice cultivation (on ladang and sawah). Rituals also accompanied the collection of non-timber forest products, but there were no rituals pertaining to the more recently introduced cultivation of cash crops, notably coffee.

The most important ritual, mdundang binea', was performed just before the sowing of rice. On this occasion the rice goddess, Nyang Serai, left the rice and the village and went to heaven in order to take care of the rainfall. The festivities included a dance performed every evening by seven boys and seven girls from different clans as an expression of clan exogamy. Mdundang binea' was an expensive ritual held over seven days, and used to be performed only once every three to seven years. In other years seed was blessed by a smaller ritual, membasuh binea'. The ritual cycle ended at the harvest, when Nyang Serai returned to the village and ensured that the rice spirit would not leave the rice being stored in the barns. The ritual cycle strengthened social cohesion in the village and indicated the right time for certain agricultural activities to be carried out.

The introduction of high-yielding varieties (HYVs), which give two rice harvests a year, left no time for the collection of forest products or the cultivation of coffee, an activity which Psota calls 'complementary production' (komplementare Produktion). After the introduction of HYVs the rituals were, neglected, social cohesion diminished, and the synchronization of agricultural activities disappeared. A side effect was that fields ripened one after the other, instead of simultaneously, and mice and other pests moved en masse from one field to the next, destroying all yields. After several harvest failures, the peasants in some villages returned to the old rice varieties and revitalized the old rituals. In other villages the revaluation of rice and ritual has remained a disputed topic. The return to ritual after the harvest failures confirms Victor Turner's theoretical notion that rituals are performed as a way of facing crises.

The body of the text is an ethnographic work featuring many emic Rejang terms and long excerpts of ritual texts. The 'classical' character of the book is both its strength and its weakness. Such a work will probably attract few readers now, and particularly in Indonesia it is almost inaccessible because it is written in German. In contrast to more trendy works, however, a wellgrounded ethnography remains valuable forever, and Psota will be consulted by future anthropologists, yet to be born, who wish to make a diachronic study of Rejang ritual.

Psota himself - and this is my main criticism - does not discuss the time dimension explicitly, despite the fact that he repeatedly compares the results of his own fieldwork of 23 months with the work of M.A. Jaspan in the 1960s, the Midden-Sumatra Expeditie of the 1870s, and William Marsden in the 1780s. It remains unclear whether Psota refers to the older works in order to analyse historical change, or to demonstrate a continuation of the ritual praxis. Sometimes I was even in doubt as to whether a ritual under discussion is still prevalent, or a thing of the past. Only in the last two chapters does the author reveal that since Indonesian independence the mdundang binea' ritual has been performed only three times: in 1963 (witnessed by Jaspan), and in December 1987 and January 1988 (observed by Psota himself). The 1987 ritual was a perverted version staged on the initiative of the local state government. There was no proper shaman, HYVs were used instead of the local rice varieties, and the evening dance consisted of a girl, in the role of Nyang Serai, stepping from a fake Rafflesia flower (symbol of the province of Bengkulu).

The traditionalists, displeased by the way the state had appropriated their ritual, performed a 'real' ritual the next month, but for want of funds this lasted only two days. So at the end of the book it becomes plain that the most important ritual, mdundang binea', is still almost moribund. The revitalization (Revitalisierung) of ritual that figures so prominently in the book's title concerns the smaller kedurai bumai and membasuh binea' rituals. This critical note, however, should not distract from the fact that the book is a valuable and rich piece of documentation.

Thomas Psota, Waldgeister und Reisseelen; Die Revitalisierung von Ritualen zur Erhaltung der komplementaren Produktion in Südwest- Sumatra. Berlin: Reimer, 1996, 203 + 15 pp. [Berner Sumatra- Forschungen.] ISBN 3.496.02579.4.


Wolfgang Marschall, Michele Galizia, Thomas M. Psota,

Simone Prodolliet and Heinzpeter Znoj; edited by Victor T. King: The Rejang of South Sumatra. Hull: Centre for South- East Asian Studies, 1992, iii 93 pp., ill. (Occasional Papers no. 19: Special Issue). ISBN 0.85958.586.7. G.E. MARRISON This collection of papers represents part of the results of research conducted by a team from the University of Berne in the Rejang-Lebong area of the Bengkulu uplands of Sumatra from 1987- 1990, concerning market and related systems among the Rejang. The publication of this volume by the Centre for South-East Asian Studies, University of Hull, reflects a link with the Rejang through the late Professor Mervyn Jaspan, some time Director of the Centre, and a major authority on the Rejang. His collection of linguistic and anthropological materials relating to them is now in the Brynmor Jones Library, University of Hull and was drawn upon by some of the workers in the Berne Project. Professor King's preface and Professor Marschall's introduction set out the background of the work and the co-operation between the two Universities. There are three field papers: the first is by Michele Galizia: 'Myth does not exist apart from discourse: or the story of a myth which became history'. He is concerned with the local tradition that the Rejang people derived their civilization from four brothers who came from Majapahit to Sumatra in the fourteenth century. This became accepted by Rejang scholars, and by Dutch administrators, so that it has been widely taken as historical. Another tradition derives Rejang culture and power structures from the rulers of Pagar Ruyung in Minangkabau, but this is less pervasive. Galizia addresses the problem of reconciling myth and history, and the manner in which this is approached in Indonesia today. Thomas M. Psota discusses: 'Forest souls and rice deities: rituals in hill rice cultivation and forest product collection'. Rituals directed towards Nyang Serai (the Rejang name for the rice goddess = Indonesian Dewi Seri) are performed at the opening up of forest for dry rice cultivation, and for the cultivation and harvesting of the crop. Rejang texts are given for Kedurai bumai, the beginning of forest clearing, and Kedurai meketpoi, the tying of ritually planted rice. Psota explains these with English summaries, and detailed descriptions of the offerings, which mostly consist of a variety of vegetable products. The collection of forest products also required appropriate rituals before the work was begun. The cultivation of wet rice by the Rejang is a much later development, and is not attended with the Same concern for ceremonies. Similarly the collection of forest produce has been largely displaced by cash crop cultivation, and so the ritual cycle is not observed in the way that it once was. Simone Prodolliet and Heinzpeter Znoj consider: 'Illusory worlds and economic realities: a contribution to the history of Rejang-Lebong'. From ancient times, Sumatra had been famed for its gold, and Rejang-Lebong was one of the major sources of the metal. However, it was not til1 the end of the nineteenth century that large scale gold mining by modern methods was introduced by the Dutch, and until the Second World War, the region produced about a third of al1 Indonesian gold. The mines were worked by European companies, largely with labour imported from Java and Singapore. After Indonesian independence, production was restarted, but on a lesser scale, and with Rejang participation, but for the Rejang involvement in this enterprise has been ancillary, but not centra1 to their economy. The varied history of gold-mining in the region is reflected in the mixed terminology relating to gold and its mining, deriving from Malay, Dutch and other sources, which are discussed in detail by the authors. They also consider the character of the transient mining community, outside the structures of traditional Rejang society, and the interaction of the two. The publication of this collection is to be welcomed as part of the corpus of research on the Rejang undertaken by the Berne team, and now in the process of editing. It is welcome too as evidence of co-operation between two Universities sharing a common interest in one sphere of Indonesian studies. The volume is dedicated to the memory of Professor Jaspan. Now that the catalogue of his collection has been published in Hull, his material could be put to further use to these ends, for it contains texts in English, Malay and Rejang relating to al1 three articles, which would make it possible to compare in detail the situation of thirty years ago observed by Jaspan with what was found by the young scholars of Berne in recent times.

source: rejang-keme.blogspot.com

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