06 Nov 2015: Legacy of the Rawas

raoThe stories behind culture and history should be read in as many languages as possible. A good part of Malaysia’s history has a direct and intimate kinship with the Rawas and an appreciation of the nation’s heritage would be incomplete without the written and oral testimonies in the mother tonguereplete with all the unique nuances and patois.

The inevitable forward march of progress, coupled with the passage of time, often impacts upon a community’s connection with their cultural heritage. What are the benefits behind the preservation of cultural heritage when contemporary society feels that time-honoured traditions are already archaic and irrelevant? The continuing observation of cultural practices—however ‘minor’ they may seem to outsiders—can forge bonds and a sense of belonging with others of the same community wherever they are, as well as a connection to shared histories, social values, and beliefs.

The topic highlighted by one of the featured Malay books concerns a tradition still actively practiced by the Rawas of Malaysia—the Adat Berjojak or Pantang Tanah—which describes a toddler’s first step upon the ground. During this period, the newborn is forbidden from eating fowl or wearing any gold jewellery until he or she undergoes the Adat Berjojak, failing which, or so the Rawa community believes, family members will be struck with sickness or misfortune. It is a widely held belief that the practice of Adat Berjojak is a must for Rawa descendants upon leaving Pagarruyung soil. The book’s compact size belies the wealth of information contained within—seven chapters and many photographs which describe the practice in great detail.

The second book covers the biography and important roles played by 33 historical and contemporary Rawa personalities stretching from the 16th century to the present day. Flipping through its 195 pages, Tokoh Rao: Sumbangan dan Jasa Terhadap Pembangunan Malaysia (A Biography of Rao personalities: Contributions and Services to the Development of Malaysia), one cannot be faulted for being unaware of many, or some of the names mentioned. They range from the familiar—like Tun Dr. Siti Hasmah Mohd. Ali (Malaysia’s second female doctor and wife of ex-Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir) and Ghazali Shafie (former Home and Foreign Minister) to the obscure—the mystic Tok Tua Sakti (founder of Tapah) and folklorist Pawang Ana. Their backgrounds and contributions are diverse—novelists, entrepreneurs, Sufis, village heads, journalists, sports figures or religious scholars—but what binds them together are their common ties to Rao (Rawa), a district in West Sumatra.

There is little doubt that the arrival of this book is timely, in this day and age of social media and passing interests—it does not merely give due recognition to the pioneering and innovative accomplishments of those who came before, but it also serves to inspire interest in the nation’s historical moments. A more detailed review of Tokoh Rao can be read here.

About the author: Zabidin Haji Ismail is a well-known Malaysian researcher on the Rao community who has written previously on the subject. His publications include Puisi Rao Nusantara (2009), Sekondakhati (2009), Biografi Tokoh Rao (2013), Masyarakat Rao di Malaysia Analisis Tentang Sosiobudaya (2013) dan Tanah Seribu: Kumpulan Sajuk Rao (2015).