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  • Izzuddin Ramli

Manora: More Than a Ritualistic Dance

The Manora dance encapsulates human beings’ relationship with the mythical realm, and commemorates teachers, ancestors and elders.”

Manora Dance
Photo courtesy of PUSAKA, by: Cheryl Hoffmann

The cultural cross-pollination among the Thais and the Malays in the peninsula had already begun long before the 1940 Agreement was even in place. This agreement introduced a border pass for crossing between British Malaya and Thailand, thus reinforcing the formation of the modern nation-state. In the age of Kerajaan (kingdoms), the political borders were non-existent; the movement of people around the Indochinese peninsula was a regular phenomenon. Among them were monks, musicians, and common folk who had turned against their leaders and were in constant search for a new home. Today, in the Malaysian states of Kedah, Penang, and Kelantan, the culturally mixed Siamese communities continue to preserve their identities and cultural traits. One of the cultural traditions of the Siamese communities in this border region is the dance-drama Manora.

I came to know Manora or Nora when I was growing up in Kelantan, through word of mouth. The mysterious silhouette of a dancer adorned with an elegant kecopong (headdress) and canggai (long curved nails) came to life in my imagination, even though I had never witnessed a live Manora performance. In the late 90’s, it was a rare chance to get to see Manora performance. The ritualistic dance was traditionally performed at social festivities particularly in Buddhist temple ceremonies. According to Khun Amnuai, the principal dancer of the Cit Manit Manora troupe, in the early days of his involvement in Manora, there were only two Manora groups left in Kelantan — the Manora Nim group of Bukit Panau in Tanah Merah and the Manora Eh Chom Cahaya Bulan of Kampung Ju Bakar in Tumpat.

Interestingly, I watched my first Manora performance not in Kelantan, but many years later in Penang, at an experimental art showcase held in a small Siamese kampung in Pulau Tikus. I was struck by the sense of familiarity that enveloped me. The haunting cry of the serunai, the resonance of gong and gendang reminded me of the landscape I call home. These same musical instruments emanate their cacophony and lyricism in Wayang Kulit, Makyong, and Main Puteri, summoning the semangat of performers and audience.

The presence of Siamese culture formed an inextricable part of my childhood. I grew up under the care of Khadijah, my pengasuh, listening to the lilting tones of her Patani dialect as she chatted with her companions, Aminah and Mariam. Their conversations moved seamlessly between Malay and Thai, shaping my sense of what it means to be Kelantanese. My tastebuds, too, became attuned to the delectable treats offered by Kak Lah, a relative who lived and sold Thai kueh near the banks of Sungai Golok. Even the landscape of my childhood was coloured with Thai architectural forms. Siamese temples loom everywhere in Kelantan. From my family home in Kampung Kuchelong, it takes only a short drive to behold the magnificent Wat Photsikyan Phutthaktam and Wat Ariyakiri.

The Manora tradition is a microcosm of the cultural fluidity between the Siamese and Malay communities in Kelantan. More than just a dance-drama, it encapsulates human beings’ relationship with the mythical realm, and enacts a commemoration of teachers, ancestors and elders.

Fluidity and Confluence of Culture

My encounter with Kelantanese traditional music, particularly its performing arts, began with Wayang Kulit, Mak Yong, and Main Puteri—due to the relative visibility of these traditions in Kelantan despite decades of ban by the PAS state government. Kelantan cultural landscape is a confluence of many streams of civilisation, cultures and religions including Islam. This lush land is a cradle of Malay culture — with myriad art traditions rooted in the pre-Islamic era that still survive today amidst an overt Islamic identity.

My preoccupation with Kelantanese traditional arts seeks to understand how these pre-Islamic traditions negotiate with growing religiosity of Kelantanese society. Against a long history of contestation and adaptation, the question of how stories are passed down and reinterpreted through generations remains my subject of observation.

The variations of traditional narratives is evident in the Manora, with different versions of the Manora myth existing in the Kelantan and the north-western states. A distinctive version found in Penang and Kedah tells of a princess named Mesi Mala who was sent to an isolated island by her father on the advice of the royal shaman. He believed that if he kept Mesi Mala at the palace, misfortune would befall his kingdom. While in isolation in the jungle, Mesi Mala and her companions started creating their own music and dance, imitating the sounds of nature they heard and the movements of birds they saw. After many moons, word of these mysterious dancing maidens travelled far and wide. Mesi Mala’s father yearned to witness their performance and invited them to his kingdom. Stunned by Mesi Mala’s beauty, he attempted to take her as his bride but only to discover that she was his own flesh and blood, the daughter he had banished. From that day, Mesi Mala was welcomed back to her kingdom and given a stage to perform the Manora.

Manora Dance 2
Photo courtesy of PUSAKA, by: Mohd Faiz Abd Halim.

Manora performers in Kelantan inherit a different version of this legend, based on a Buddhist Jataka tale. Princess Manora, a heavenly bird-princess (kinaree) who lived in the celestial realm of Himavanta. She was abducted by a villager while bathing in the river and presented to a human prince, Phra Suthon, heir to the earthly kingdom of Uttarapancala. Manora and Phra Suthon fell in love and became husband and wife. However, some courtiers were jealous of Manora and began plotting her downfall. While Phra Suthon was away on a mission, the courtiers warned the king that a great misfortune would destroy the kingdom, unless Manora was offered as a sacrifice. Manora escaped and returned to her home of Himavanta. When Phra Suthon discovered that his beloved Manora was gone, he left his kingdom and went in search of her. Eventually, Phra Suthon and Manora were reunited in Himavanta.

This legend of Manora and Phra Suthon was so popular in Kelantanese Manora that the principal dancer was associated with the figure of Phra Suthon, and over time became known as ‘Pak Sitong’. Although the legend is no longer enacted during a performance, the Pak Sitong (principal dancer) embodies characteristics of both Phra Suthon and princess Manora. The gender fluidity found in Manora also informs other Kelantanese traditional arts, where the convergence of masculinity and femininity reveals a complex and layered understanding of human nature. The legendary Manora dancer, the late Pak Eh Chom of Kumpulan Cahaya Bulan, was said to have been raised for a few years as a girl in order to cultivate the required femininity for a Pak Sitong.

While Siamese communities in southern Thailand continued to perform the Manora dance during festive days such as Loy Krathong and Songkran or to celebrate the birthday of the head monk, Siamese migrants who settled in villages in Kelantan began to collaborate with the locals. Both Kelantanese Malay and Siamese began to improvise the tradition particularly by adopting the Malay language and Kelantanese musical instruments. Before the state government ban, Manora troupes were itinerant performers, travelling through towns and villages upon the invitation of temples, affluent individuals and communities. For centuries, Siamese temples in Kelantan have been a vibrant community space, contributing significantly to sustaining the Manora tradition.

The confluence of Kelantanese Malay and Siamese cultures gave birth to a distinct variation of the Manora, emerging from the amalgamation of two age-old civilizations. Kelantan Manora has in many ways incorporated characteristics of Kelantanese Malay performing arts. While the lengthy invocations and the kinaree-like dance has retained much of its original form, the improvised lakon (drama) segment of Kelantanese Manora absorbed the style of the Makyong tradition. The adoption of Kelantanese Malay dialect not only testifies to the versatility of the Manora performers, it also reveals the cross-cultural nature of the local audience.

Perhaps, the confluence of cultures was ushered by the flexibility and interplay between Kelantanese art practitioners and musicians who, more often than not, practice multiple art traditions. Music is a primal element of Kelantanese performance traditions including Manora, forming a distinct magical realm in the subculture of Kelantanese traditional arts. Performers of Manora, Wayang Kulit or Mak Yong must collaborate with experienced session musicians who in most cases are Malays. One of the most renowned gendang masters in Kelantan is Md Gel Mat Dali, known affectionately as Pak Su Agel. Here, with his musical prowess, the sound of phi nai, the Southern Thai Manora reed instrument, metamorphoses into the hypnotic sound of Kelantanese serunai. The gendang, geduk, gedombak, gong, canang, kesi and cerek dance to the angin of Siamese and Malay aesthetics.

I find that improvisation and reinterpretation are common characteristics across Kelantanese traditional performing arts, which occur organically in the kampung setting. The Manora is usually passed down within families, with each lineage carrying a distinct interpretation of the tradition. Hence, the role of the guru (master), as the fount of wisdom and knowledge, is paramount in the Manora tradition.

Between Worship and Sembah

While the ban on Makyong was ostensibly lifted in 2020, allowing it to be performed under strict conditions, the Manora tradition was not part of the state government’s revisionist posturing. It is still deemed syirik, a vessel of polytheism that goes against the teaching of Islam. Once known as a splendour of Kelantanese Siamese and Malay culture, the Manora folk dance is now confined to the walls of Siamese temples. Even so, some temples refuse to hold ceremonies that involve the Manora dance, partly due to the involvement of Malay-Muslim musicians. Over the years, Manora dancers like Khun Amnuai have witnessed a decline in the number of Manora practitioners and students in Kelantan.

Meanwhile in Southern Thailand, the birthplace of Manora, the drama-dance has become the emblem of Patani identity and sees the participation of Buddhist Thais as well as Muslim Malays. To ensure that the Manora dance is preserved as national heritage, the Thai government pushed forward the tradition to be listed in the UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The Thai government is implementing a comprehensive programme to sustain the Manora tradition, with instruction offered in schools and encouraging prospects for young people to become professional Manora dancers.

In Kelantan, the cultural politics of the last few decades has created a misunderstanding of the terms pemujaan and penyembahan which are often equated with the word “worship”. While the term ‘sembah’ literally translates to ‘worship’, in the context of Kelantanese traditional arts, ‘sembah’ is more accurately understood as ‘honouring’. A prime example of this worldview is the sembah guru ceremony, practised across Kelantanese cultural traditions, which is held to honour the lineage of masters.

In the same vein, the ritualistic aspects of a Manora performance involve the commemoration of teachers and elders, yet this has been interpreted by religious authorities as ‘worship’ or ‘casting spells’. The khun khru incantations that open Manora performance, are verses that have been passed down for generations, not a recitation of religious scripture. For Pak Su Agel, a gendang master who plays with Manora Cit Manit musical ensemble, there is no “jampi serapah” (spells) or “pemujaan” (worship) in khun khru, it is simply the Pak Sitong paying respect to his elders.

This reverence for teachers pervades my own memories of rites of passage in childhood. I remember offering pulut kuning (yellow glutinous rice) to my tok guru during my khatam Al-Quran and witnessing perlimau rituals that my late grandfather Hassan, a silat gayong master, used to host at his home. These two ceremonies reflect the unbreakable bond between master and disciple, between me and my gurus. The opening verses of khun khru in Manora express this universal relationship and sentiment profoundly and poetically:

“Khun khru nak mearn park nam phark khong kha… chom-chom cak eii héng… yang lau ko lei ma… yang mei ru sin mei ru sut…”

“The knowledge and teachings of the master are like the River Ganges, which flows without end/ through monsoon and drought, it keeps flowing, without complaint.”

*Note: The khun khru verse was translated by Amnuai Eler and Pauline Fan.

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


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