Merapoh is a small Malay village in Pahang. It is home to an alternate entry point to the world’s oldest rainforest, Taman Negara. However, did you know that it is also where you can find an indigenous Batek tribal community?
The Batek are one of 3 main tribal groups within the Orang Asli, a Malay phrase meaning ‘original people’. There are around 12 Batek settlements in Malaysia currently, with many still living in close proximity to the rainforest their ancestors called home. Although each separate population holds their own traditions and practises, their core beliefs remain the same. Even with times changing the Batek have managed to adapt whilst still protecting their unique culture and traditions. Primarily their connection with the rainforest.
After years of collaboration with the incredible Kampung Becak Kelubi Batek through the Merapoh Rainforest Station, their culture is very close to our hearts. From my personal experience of working with the Batek, I hope to paint a picture of this fascinating society through a few interesting facts that we bet you didn’t know!
They are traditionally nomadic jungle dwellers
Historically the Batek are a hunter-gatherer nomadic tribe. Their spiritual views tie their existence to the rainforest, and so traditionally they led their nomadic life in the jungle. The Batek are the original conservationists! They appreciated the rainforest and all that it provided them with, moving periodically through the forest so to not deplete resources and allow the rainforest to regenerate. Although they no longer permanently reside in the rainforest, the Batek environmental views are still the same.
Men and women are seen as equal
Unlike many hunter-gatherer communities, the Batek are highly egalitarian. This describes a general equality between the sexes. Men and women are both equal food providers for the community and either sex can hunt or gather. This view even spreads to marriages, with free choice of partners and equal decisions within the partnership. Furthermore, in the Batek language boys and girls that haven’t reached puberty yet are simply called ‘child’. There aren’t any words for ‘boy’ or ‘girl’, and all children regardless of sex are treated the same.
The Batek believe in forest spirits
Unlike their Malay neighbours, the Batek reject Islam. Instead they have a unique way of viewing their world, mainly through Animism. This is the belief that all objects, places and creatures possess a spiritual energy. Their views are particularly connected to the forest spirits. Members of their community even wear flowers in their hair as a sign of respect when venturing into the rainforest.
They are known as the ‘peaceful tribe’
As mentioned before, every member of the Batek is viewed as an equal and they don’t believe in violence to settle problems. Therefore, any conflict between members is solved in the least confrontational way possible. If two members fall out, they try to sort out their problems themselves and if not possible, share their views with the community. Historically if conflict persisted, both members would temporarily leave the community till the problem is resolved, to maintain peace between their people.
The Batek conduct spiritual practises in the rainforest
Batek superstitions and practises vary between populations, but all link back to their animistic views. The Betak Kelubi community for instance practise respect for all living organisms in the rainforest and belief that if even a leech is harmed in any way, it will rain in retaliation. This communities’ spiritual views also involve rainforest rituals. For example, whilst trekking, a Bidan (Batek elder) was seen deliberately making a cut on her hand, dipping it in a river and then flinging the water in the air, in the belief that this will stop the thunderstorm.
They speak a unique language
The Batek language is another fascinating part of their culture. It is purely spoken and not written, and is completely distinct from Malay. It has many dialects depending on the group, with some dialects considered different enough to be separate languages. Finally, like with most of their beliefs, the Batek’s appreciation for nature and all living organisms is seen even in their language. For instance in the Betak Kelubi community, ‘les’ means ant, with a choice of about 20 words used after ‘les’ to distinguish the particular type of ant.
I have had an amazing experience learning about the Batek culture and history whilst interning for Ecoteer. If interacting with this incredible group yourself and experiencing their community life first hand sounds like something you might be interested in, have a look at our volunteer and internship opportunities at the Merapoh Rainforest Station.
Alternatively contribute to our fundraiser to help fund a permanent teacher for the Merapoh Batek community!
Photography by George Brill – Teacher Intern