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  • Izzuddin Ramli

Kenduri: Feasting, Ceremony, Commemoration

Kenduri is a feast of ceremony and commemoration for the inner life of the individual and the community.

A woman wrapping sireh pinang for the semah angin healing ritual. Photo by: Putra Othman @ PUSAKA

Since time immemorial, human beings have given precedence to the commemoration of special occasions—be it as individuals or communities. We commemorate and celebrate the universal human experiences of love, joy, success, sacrifice, as well as mark occasions of pain, sadness, and sorrow. It is one of the many ways we instil meaning to our lives and preserve our personal and collective memories.


In Kelantanese Malay society, coming-of-age celebrations such as birthdays, the coronation of the Sultan, berkhatan (circumcision), or commemorating a guru in menamat (recitation of the Holy Qur’an from the beginning to the end) is often done with a kenduri, a feasting ceremony. In Kelantan, the term kenduri is used interchangeably with bekwoh, a Kelantanese way of pronouncing the English term “big work.” By whatever name we call it, the process of preparing food for kenduri or bekwoh requires gotong-royong or collective work. In the kampung, to participate in a kenduri entails responsibility, perceived both as adat (tradition) and adab (manners), and failing to accept an invitation to a kenduri may cause terasa hati (offence).


However, for ceremonies, one is not supposed to serve everyday food such as ikan masin, ikan singgang, or budu. Back in the day, villagers would cross the Kelantan-Thai border or make their way to the jungle to gather special cooking ingredients. Even now, the price of beras pulut (glutinous rice) in the Patani district is much cheaper than the wet markets of Kota Bharu. Villagers would also borrow special cooking utensils such as kuali, periuk, pinggan, mangkuk and dulang from wealthier relatives or neighbours. Legend has it that Puteri Sa’adong, a queen of Kelantan who resided in Kampung Bukit Marak, grew upset and vanished to Gunung Reng because villagers borrowed her cooking utensils but never returned them.


For Kelantanese, kenduri refers to both the gotong-royong and the dishes or offerings served in the dulang (dowry tray). Kenduri is a way to commemorate the living and the dead, as well as ritual offering to cure illnesses related to body and soul—the seen and the unseen. It is sometimes held to menghalalkan ilmu (to bless the transmission of knowledge) from teachers and elders to students. Kenduri is also done to mengikat perjanjian (make a pact) with the penunggu (spirit guardian) before starting an initiative, for example opening a piece of land or building a new house. For some, kenduri is a way to remember one’s lineage.


The Inner Winds and Spirit


Kelantanese have maintained their strong relationship with nature and their ancestors since before the arrival of Islam. In a traditional Kelantanese village, almost every aspect of life begins and ends with ceremonies. Many of these ceremonies are intertwined with the traditional performing arts. Examples of traditional Kelantanese arts and rituals that are still present to this day are main puteri, mak yong, manora, sembah guru, semah angin, puja pantai, perlimau, as well as menamat. Enveloping these rituals are the concepts angin and semangat deeply rooted in the Kelantanese worldview. Carol Laderman, an American anthropologist who studied Malay shamanistic performance in the 1980s, referred to angin as ‘inner wind’, which is related in some ways to the Western concept of temperament.


Angin plays an important role in Kelantanese society. Kelantanese use terms such as naik (rising) angin, tohor (shallow) angin, berlaga (synchronised) angin, tersekat (trapped) angin, and perlepas (setting free) angin in their everyday conversations. They believe that the imbalance of angin in the body is the root of illness. If they are able to express their angin, they can lead untroubled and productive lives and will usually be respected for their strong, gifted characters (Laderman, 1991).


If someone wants to express the trapped angin, he or she may be encouraged to take part in a semah angin. This requires elaborate performing arts and rituals that involve elements of oral tradition, mantras, music, dance, drama, costumes, as well as offerings. Some ceremonies take days to complete. As for semangat, everything has its own semangat—the essence and the soul that breathes life into the body. Semangat needs to be respected and summoned.


Apart from music, drama, and dances, a kenduri serves as an element to play with angin and semangat. In this context, a kenduri refers to a feast of offerings such as pulut semangat, semangat sireh, and semangat buah. Ideally, seven types of offerings are prepared for a ritual kenduri. The number seven holds deep symbolic meaning in Malay society—seven represents the human body: the seven orifices of the human head; as well as the ‘seven bones’ of a Muslim prostrating in prayer: two feet, two knees, two hands, and one head. Islamic cosmology also speaks of tujuh petala langit (the seven heavens) and tujuh petala bumi (the seven layers of earth).


Pulut Semangat, Semangat Sireh, Semangat Buah


Among the many kenduri offerings present in Kelantanese traditional coming-of-age rituals, pulut semangat is the most important. Pulut semangat is made from glutinous rice and turmeric. Rice is a staple food and deemed sacred in Malay society. In the words of Pak Mat Jedok, a prominent Kelantanese tok puteri (Malay shaman), “jadilah beras, jadilah kita” (as rice is made, so are we). He believes that rice is a living thing, composed of zahir (form) and zat (essence).


Semangat is made up of a combination of elements such as rice, chicken eggs, coconut, lime, roast chicken, and Malay kuih. A pulut semangat is usually shaped like a mountain and decorated with a chicken egg at the top and Malay kuih to form three or seven levels that represent status and hierarchy in Kelantanese society (seven for larger occasions such as celebrating the birthday of the Sultan or three for the common people). The turmeric-stained yellow glutinous rice in pulut semangat symbolises unity under the umbrella of Malay Kerajaan. The white egg at the pinnacle represents sacredness.


Putu is one of the Kelantanese Malay kuih used in pulut semangat. Malays practice the pecah beras tradition for special occasions to make varieties of kuih such as onde-onde, lompat tikam, tepung apam, puteri mandi, dodol, bederam, bahulu and many more. The process includes grinding the beras to make rice flour, adding some sugar, and shaping it using sarang putu, a wooden mould.


Sireh (betel quid) is also an essential element of kenduri offerings. Semangat Sireh, served on a tepak (brass betel vessel) with kapur (chalk powder), pinang (areca nut), and gambir to welcome guests with a gesture of peace. Sireh junjung is served in merisik, a friendly visit to the family of a potential bride to declare intention of courtship, and meminang, a formal visit to propose marriage. Sireh binds the relationships between friends and families through a demonstration of good will and pure intention. In marriage, sireh also represents the ideal relationship for a married couple—sireh is interdependent on other plants, but is non-parasitic in nature.


Semangat buah are offerings of fruit, usually consisting of local fruits such as banana, mango, and lime. The art of making semangat buah is almost forgotten. In the past, semangat buah was elaborately decorated and crafted; nowadays it is simply arranged neatly in a tray. While semangat buah traditionally used local fruits, their seasonal nature at times meant that there was a lack of fruit harvests. Shamans like Din Puteri are open to replacing local fruits with imported fruits such as grapes, though many shamans prefer to retain traditional offerings.


Occasionally, prawn and squid are presented among the ritual offerings, ensuring that elements of land and sea are present. According to Pok Jue, a senior tok puteri from Jelawat, the sea is symbolically related to illnesses in the stomach. Another metaphorical manifestation of land and sea as the two realms of human life is the concept of asam dan garam (the sour and the salty). This is a particularly important symbol for the passing down of knowledge between master and student—during sembah guru and perlimau ceremonies, the master feeds the student a pinch of salt and asam keping. During this ritual, the student asks for blessings from the master and the master symbolically ‘salts the student’s mouth’, to instil the subliminal virtues of mulut masin, a Malay idiom that describes a person whose words become reality.


In a semah angin healing ritual, offerings of palm sugar, coconut, bertih (parched rice), water scented with kaffir lime, and roast spring chicken spiced with turmeric, are presented to cajole, and play with the inner winds. In the old days, free-range chicken was cheap, and villagers could not afford beef. The yellow turmeric on the roast chicken offering represents roh (the spirit).


According to Din Puteri, a young tok puteri, kenduri offerings traditionally need to be prepared in the panggung, especially in a sembah guru ritual. This is to reinforce the gotong-royong spirit and connect the circle of community. The lavish feast of kenduri offerings are not to be devoured whole by the community. During a kenduri ceremony, the tok puteri or master invites patient or student to “mengecapkan rasa, menghidukan bau” (to taste in tiny morsels and to smell the essence).


A Repository of Living Rituals


Although certain offerings are not a compulsory part of ritual ceremonies, Kelantanese believe that it is more beradab (appropriate) to serve them. Some kenduri offerings are not popular anymore as people are more accustomed Western food such as cakes for birthday celebrations.


The sweet and colourful putu, representing happiness and cheerfulness, is not so common today in kenduri. While putu is still easily available, the type of putu for sembah guru offerings—moulded with Malay Hindu-Buddhist kingdom of Langkasuka motifs—is rare nowadays. In an effort to keep old traditions alive, the young shaman Din Puteri is trying to revive this type of offering, with the help of cultural expert Saman Dosormi from Patani, Thailand.


The traditional performing arts of Kelantan are a repository of the long history and significance of kenduri offerings. These living rituals encompass the philosophy, worldview, and spirit of the Kelantanese. For Din Puteri, the kenduri symbolises Kelantanese identity itself, and is not restricted to the realm of Kelantanese traditional arts. Kenduri is a feast of ceremony and commemoration for the inner life of the individual and the community.



Further reading:


Laderman, C. (1991). Taming the Wind of Desire: Psychology, Medicine and Aesthetics in Malay Shamanistic Performance. University of California Press.



*This essay was first published in Penang Monthly, December 2022.


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