Photo essay: Communing with the spirits and sharing food

Photo essay: Communing with the spirits and sharing food
Published: Sep 15, 2014

Nicholas Herriman

The Malay population of Australia's Cocos (Keeling) Islands celebrate Hari Raya over several days. The accompanying rituals express many aspects of community life including two of the most important aspects; communing with dead ancestors and relatives and sharing of food.

Several hundred Malays live on Australia's Cocos (Keeling) Islands. They celebrate Hari Raya over several days. The rituals accompanying the celebration refer to two of the more important aspects of Home Island life; communing with dead ancestors and relatives and the sharing of food. Aside from family and neighbours, attendants at a ritual meal include, as depicted here, local imams and a visiting imam from Malaysia.

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Spirits of dead ancestors and relatives feature heavily. The feast for spirits of the dead preceded the fasting month. In this feast, food was ostensibly provided for the spirits--now at the conclusion of fasting food is again given to them. As soon as fasting was complete, on the first morning of Hari Raya, residents visited the graveyard and pray for these spirits. While at the graveyard they also make ritualised apologies to family and friends. In a sense, they make peace with all residents; living and dead. As depicted here, while at the graveyard a wife asks forgiveness of another wife, while their husbands do the same. Part of the apology is an expression of intent: that food and drink which has been shared has been accepted (dihalalkan). 

Food and drink are a central theme, because for the past month consuming them during daylight hours had been taboo. Yet throughout the fasting month, as indeed for the past year, people have been almost constantly giving presents. The gifts most commonly take the form of food. This can be in the form of simple presents but also in the context of ritual meals. Now, during Hari Raya rituals food and drink is shared, consumed and thrown away in proportions that are excessive compared to everyday usage.

Both food sharing and the spirits of the dead may be connected. In rituals, when food is shared, it is also on offer for the spirits. In the ritual context sharing food is a way of communing with the spirits. Sharing food is also a product of, and produces, community ties. Community, spirit and food are thus connected.

 

Nicholas Herriman (N.Herriman@latrobe.edu.au) lectures in Anthropology at La Trobe University. He is currently conducting fieldwork research into Cocos Malay culture on Home Island. Over 400 Cocos Malays reside on Home Island, one of two inhabited islands in the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. These atolls are located in the northeast Indian Ocean and are territories of Australia.


Inside Indonesia 118: Oct-Dec 2014