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[Editor's Note: This entry is longer than most others in the volume, to provide information about the current state of indigenous peoples in Southeast Asia, especially in regard to their relationships with other dominant groups and national governments.]

ETHNONYMS: northern Sakai, Ple, Ple-Temiar, Tembé, Temer, Tmèèr, Tmiir, Tummior


Identification. The Temiar are one of the larger component groups of the Orang Asli (Malay, "original people," i.e., Aborigines), the name currently applied to the non-Muslim tribal (or recently tribal) populations of peninsular Malaysia. The name "Temiar" (Tembé, Temer, Tummior) has been common in the ethnological literature since the mid-1930s. Earlier the Temiar were usually referred to as "Northern Sakai" (primarily to distinguish them from the "Central Sakai," now known as the "Semais"). The ethnonym "Ple" has also been applied, usually in the compound form "Ple-Temiar," which refers nevertheless to a single population.

"Temiar" is an anglicized form of the Semai name (Tmiir) for the language spoken by the Semais' northerly neighbors. This word has no apparent meaning in any Aslian language, but it probably derives from the Austronesian etymon *tembir (edge) and implies that some earlier peninsular population saw the Temiar as geographically peripheral to themselves.

The Temiar have usually referred to themselves as "Sèn'òòy Sròk" (the people of the hilly interior) or "Sèn'òòy Bèèk" (the people of the forest) ; they call their language "Kuy Sròk" (hilly interior speech). Since the mid-1960s, they have also begun to refer to themselves by the name others call them, in the form "Tmèèr."

Location. Temiar occupy a continuous area amounting to some 5,500 square kilometers, situated between 4°30 and 5°25 N and between 101°08 and 101°52 E at its extreme points. This places them mostly in the interior parts of Perak and Kelantan states, with two or three villages in the northwestern part of Pahang State. The region is mountainous, and Temiar can be found living at elevations ranging from 100 meters to around 1,400 meters. Except where commercial loggers have recently denuded the forest, Temiar country is cloaked in large-tree primary tropical rain forest, changing to small-tree/dwarf montane forest at higher elevations beyond the inhabited areas. This rich growth sits on rather infertile lateritic soil, maintained by nutrients derived from the ground-level litter of fallen leaves. Although relatively uniform, the environment is extremely rich in plant and animal species, a high proportion of which have been utilized by the Temiar for food, medicine, construction, and trade. The many rivers provide a degree of localized diversity and are utilized as communication routes and sources of water and fish.

The area is under a tropical monsoonal regime that brings winds and rain from the northeast at the turn of the year and from the southwest in the middle of the year. Seasonality is so slight at these latitudes, however, that rain (amounting to around 200 centimeters annually) can fall or cease at almost any time. Dry periods are carefully monitored, as they are necessary to the swidden-farming cycle. The seasonal appearance of certain forest and cultivated fruits is also monitored, for these play an important part in Temiar religion and social organization.

At lower elevations, communication with the people of neighboring valleys is easy, and the downstream Temiar make considerable use of Malay-type dugout canoes for the purpose. At high elevations too, communication on foot with neighboring valleys is relatively easy. Throughout the greater part of the valleys, however, the steep terrain makes it rather difficult to get out of one valley and into the next. This topographical constraint has given rise to a degree of cultural conservatism. As a result, most of the population of each valley (i.e., those who inhabit the middle stretches) come to see themselves as differentiated from people in other valleys by certain diagnostic cultural features that they think of as attached directly to the land rather than to people. To some extent these valley populations take on the character of "demes"large-scale units tending statistically to endogamy, each consisting of many distinct, usually exogamous, local groups.

Demography. The Temiar numbered 11,593 in the census of 1980. They thus maintain an overall population density of about 2 persons per square kilometer, though local densities are higher. Until the recent residential shifts brought about by the government's relocation program, Temiar lived in small or very small villages, lying some few kilometers from each other. The modal village population was about 30, but ranged from 12 to about 150. In such circumstances, with kinship and relative age as the main principles of social categorization, relationships were necessarily of the "face-to-face" type: at the village level Temiar society has usually been highly solidarist in character.

Linguistic Affiliation. Temiar belongs to the Aslian Subfamily of Mon-Khmer, and hence to the Austroasiatic Stock; along with its closest relatives (Lanoh, Semai, and Jah Hut), it belongs to the Central (or "Senoic") Division of Aslian. Its wider affiliations therefore lie with the several hundred Mon-Khmer languages of mainland Southeast Asia. Temiar has also incorporated lexical and grammatical elements from a variety of Austronesian languages, including some that are no longer spoken in the peninsula.

There are two mutually intelligible major dialectsNorthern and Southernwith a few smaller variants on the western and southern parts of their area of distribution. Temiar is also spoken as a localized lingua franca by members of neighboring Orang Asli groups and by some Malays. It remains unwritten, apart from the private notations of Temiarlanguage radio broadcasters and some printed pamphlets circulated by Baha'i religionists.

All adult males can speak Malay, and most of the women have at least a passive knowledge of that language. Since the 1960s increasing numbers of Temiar children have attended government primary schools, and so a high proportion of younger Temiar is now literate in Malay. A smaller number have also learned some English at secondary-school level.

Linguistic and archaeological data suggest that the Aslian-speaking peoples may have formed a separate linguistic division within Mon-Khmer for perhaps 4,000 years. Nevertheless, the Temiar are typical in many ways of the Mon-Khmer-speaking hill peoples of mainland Southeast Asia. They have followed their own religion in an area where the religion of civilization was formerly Mahayana Buddhism and is now Islam. They have lived, probably for millennia, by swidden (slash-and-burn) farming supplemented by hunting and fishing, while the plains dwellers have lived variously by wet-rice cultivation, collecting for trade, and coastal fishing. In addition, they have no recorded history or writing in a country where indigenous literary records extend back to the fourteenth century.

History and Cultural Relations

Interference by outsiders may well have been an ancient feature of Temiar life, but the evidence allows us to date it with assurance only to the second third of the nineteenth century. At that time some upland Malay leaders claimed authority over all the Temiar living upstream, presumably for reasons of their own aggrandizement. These Mikong (a word of obscure, possibly Thai, origin) intermarried with Temiar women and remained in place as a loosely knit alliance of hereditary chiefs until World War II. Their home settlements were at the river-mouth villages of Kuala Betis in Kelantan and Temengor and Lasah in Perak, locations that allowed them to control most of the Temiars' external trade. The mediative activities of these Mikong probably had much to do with generating the sharp social distinction between Temiars and Malays. There is evidence, however, that relationships between the two peoples were closer in earlier times and that Malays sometimes ventured more readily into the interior than most commentators have assumed.

The picture was not untroubled, however, for downriver Malays (aided on occasion by Temiars from other valleys) are known to have raided Temiar communities for slaves. The victims were taken against their will to serve as domestic servants in settlements outside Temiar country. The raids continued until the 1930s in some areas, and the folk memory of them persists today. Indeed, it is likely that the fear of enslavement helped to generate the relative shyness toward strangers and the intense local communalism that Temiar life still exhibits.

Since the 1950s, the role of the Mikong has effectively been taken over by other agencies, most notably by the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs (Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli, or JOA). The Temiar went along with these various arrangements, not out of any feeling of obeisance to authority, but simply to put their external relations on a stable basis. In 1948 the British established the Federation of Malaya; this was immediately followed by a Communist insurrection known as the "Emergency," which lasted until 1960. It was led mainly by Chinese guerrillas who were fearful they would be squeezed out of an independent Malay state. During the Emergency some Temiar village leaders gave the appearance of having become followers of the Communist insurgents, who sometimes accorded them letters of authority. As "tribespeople," it made sense for Temiar to play all sides in the game of maintaining their distance from all powerful outsiders with whom they nevertheless had to deal. The game has changed since then, of course. Individual Temiars, no longer "tribal" in outlook, are as likely as any other Orang Aslis to seek a place in Malaysian society through more symmetrical arrangements, the most important of which is the recently formed Orang Asli Association of Malaysia. The older institutions of headman and village leader are still utilized widely at the local level by officers of the JOA, however.

A major influence on Temiar relations with the wider world is the Malaysian Aboriginal Peoples Act of 1954, revised in 1974. This piece of legislation, among its other features, empowers the JOA or the local police to control who may enter an Orang Asli village, and it empowers state governments to decide on the allocation of land rights to Orang Asli. The original purpose of the legislation was to accord governmental protection to the Orang Asli during the period of the Communist insurgency, when protection was sorely needed. The legislation remains in effect, however, leading to a reduction in the intensity of contact that the more remote Orang Asli (such as the Temiar) have with the rest of Malaysian society. This has somewhat delayed their attainment of civic maturity, while doing little to guarantee their rights of ownership or usufruct over the land that they occupy.

Increasing economic peasantization, literacy, and improved health have brought the Temiar face to face with the evaluations that others hold of them. These opinions are potent elements in the formulation of the various policies and plans that now affect Temiars' lives. Upper-level officers of the JOA tend to see the Temiar as an economically backward community needing "development." Military officers have seen them as an interference in what they think should be a free-fire zone. The police (whose Field Force has had very close relations with the Temiar and to which several Temiars belong) have regarded them ambivalently as both "eyes and ears of the nation" and possible subversives.

Other government officers have focused on ethnological issues. In accordance with the official inclusion of the Orang Asli within the "Malay" census category, they have often seen the Temiar as incomplete Malays who should become more fully so (through conversion to Islam) as soon as possible. Officers of the Forest Department and lumbermen working for the many logging companies now operating in Temiar country have seen the Temiar simply as people who waste forest resourcesa particularly unjust evaluation.

Since the mid-1970s many Temiar have been living in "relocation settlements," furnished with permanent Malaystyle housing. These settlements were built by the JOA in response to the Malaysian security authorities' desire to leave the forested areas open for anti-insurgency operations.

The Temiar share a common genetic heritage with other Orang Asli populations, as well as with the now-dominant Malay population of the peninsula and the population of Southeast Asia at large. According to this view, the Temiar are the descendants of the people who produced the archaeological remains uncovered at several Hoabinhian and Neolithic sites within their territory. Temiar "origins" are in principle no more mysterious than those of the other indigenous populations of the Malay Peninsula, whether "aboriginal" or Malay. The Temiar form part of an ethnic and cultural array generated within the Malay Peninsula by sociopolitical processes relating to such issues as ecological differentiation and state formation.

Despite this, much popular and scholarly writing still treats the Temiar (along with other so-called "Senoi" populations) as having origins distinct from those of both the Malays and the Negritos, who are both commonly thought of as the residues of distinct migratory waves coming from southwest China in earlier times. Few archaeologists or biological anthropologists now accept this "wave" view, however.


Currently many Temiar live in large relocation communities built on the modern rural Malay pattern, with raised zincroofed plank houses arranged in streets. Others still live in, or are moving back into, houses and villages of a more traditional kind situated in forest clearings along the major rivers. Houses herewhich follow no special pattern of orientationare raised off the ground on unshaped wooden pillars, to heights varying between 1 and 4 meters. The under-house space is used for work activities and as a shelter for domestic animals. The flooring is made of split-bamboo laths and the walls are of plaited bamboo strips or sheets of tree bark. This open construction allows air to circulate freely, unlike in the houses in the relocation communities. The overhanging roofs are of leaf thatch, which keeps out most of the rain and solar heat. The structure is held together with tightly knotted rattan strips, requiring a minimum of carpentry or tools. Temiar houses are generally rectangular (although circular houses are found in one valley). Internally, there is a common central floor space employed for cooking, dancing, threshing, and receiving visitors. The separate household compartments are situated on all sides of this central space, often separated by only knee-high partitions.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The swidden cultivation of cassava, rice, and other crops provides the main source of food and is the primary factor in shaping the preferred pattern of settlement and consociation. Where the rivers have not been disturbed by commercial logging, fishing (with drop net, barricade, or hook-and-line) also provides a regular food source. These foods are not usually shared beyond the household or household cluster. Trapping and hunting (with blowguns and shotguns) provide extra protein several times a week; larger catches are obligatorily shared throughout the village community and sometimes beyond. Apart from their chickens, Temiar normally cannot bear to eat livestock that has been raised in their own village, for they regard these animals as pets. They will sometimes sell them to others for meat, however.

There are four main sources of cash: "internal" bartering and trading of special locally produced items; the selling of forest produce to outsiders; paid employment (as laborers at inland administrative posts and tea estates, or as porters for forest travelers), either full-time or casual; and prestation from wage-earning friends and relatives. This last source (backed by special sanctions) ensures that money, clothing, and other items are widely shared within and beyond the village.

Industrial Arts. Temiar are locally renowned for the decorated mats, tobacco pouches, and grain storage bags that they plait from strips of pandanus leaf. Although these items are produced for domestic use, they are also sometimes traded in exchange for other items (such as homegrown tobacco). Occasionally a few pieces find their way into the tourist curio market, though not in any organized way. Basket weaving provides such items as storage containers or fish traps made of bamboo and rattan strips. A special long-internode wild bamboo is the source of the very fine double-tubed blowguns that Temiar men use for hunting arboreal game. Finished blowguns and unworked bamboo tubes are traded over long distances, among the Temiar and between them and other Orang Asli groups. Where the local conditions are appropriate, Temiar make dugout canoes and massive bamboo rafts. The latterwhich cannot be poled against the floware often sold to Malays at the end of a journey downstream for the valuable large bamboo pieces they contain.

Trade. The main item of trade has long been rattan cane, in a variety of species, gathered from the wild during the agricultural off-season. The canes are coiled up and rafted downstream in large quantities, for sale to wholesalersusually Chinese Malaysiansconnected with the rattan furniture industry. Also traded is the coagulated latex of a forest tree known as jelutong, which is used commercially as a cheap ingredient in chewing-gum manufacture. Until 1948, external trade was mostly mediated by local upstream Malays under the leadership of the Mikong. The JOA now plays a similar role. Some Temiar, however, have made tentative moves to place the manufacture of commercial cane furniture more directly in their own hands. A similar development has been the emergence of small-scale "adventure" tourism through Temiar country, in cooperation with a nationwide Orang Asli trading cooperative.

Locally and seasonally, Temiar sell fruit, wild game, and hill rice to non-Temiars. Fishing for trade has become available to Temiar living on the shores of the large lake formed by the damming of the Temengor River in Perak during the 1970s. Rubber is tapped and processed in a few areas; these plantations were established by the JOA, but the trees are owned by Temiars themselves. This has been a major influence in the development of permanent villages; however, the generally low market price of rubber in recent years has restricted the growth of this enterprise.

Nowadays Temiar seek to purchase much the same consumer goods as other Malaysian rural dwellers: canned food, tea, sugar, dry batteries, cooking vessels, radio sets, clothing, kerosene. This demand for goods has been a major force pushing them further into the cash economy. Formerly they relied on trade to supply them with such essentials as iron bush knives and ax heads, without which their farming activities would be impossible.

Division of Labor. The Temiar have not usually imposed a rigorous system of occupational specialization, although they do sometimes express generalized ideas about the different roles of men and women. Most activities, including farming, fishing, cooking, and child minding, are carried out indiscriminately by men, women, or children. Tree felling, shooting animals, and raising roof beams seem, however, to be exclusively adult male activities, while pandanus plaiting is thought of as typically female. Women and children do catch animals by other means, however, and men make baskets. Children are not normally prevented from undertaking adult activities if they wish to do so, even when the activities are dangerous.

Status bears no obvious relation to specialization in work activities, except when a headman takes a coordinating role in decisions about communal work. Otherwise, headmen work just as hard as anyone else and for no obviously greater gain. This arrangement has been modified, however, where commercialized production is being followed, such as the processing of rubber and rattan for the wider market. The leaders of such enterprises need to be especially charismatic or thick-skinned to overcome a still widely felt egalitarianism.

Land Tenure. Under swidden farming, the cultivable soil around the village is depleted after two years. The community must then move, usually to a previously inhabited area of secondary forest that has been left untouched for fifteen or more years. Most such sites are barely distinguishable from the surrounding forest, although Temiar will recognize them by their untidy orchards of seasonal fruit trees.

Each of these fruit trees is, in principle, owned. The owner is either a particular individual or, if some time has passed since the tree was first claimed, a corporate group formed from among his or her descendants. The Temiar until recently had no concept of the ownership of land. Apart from movable goods, all that might be owned as heritable property were the products of the land (i.e., crops and individually claimed wild plants) or structures built upon it, such as houses or weirs. Of these, only long-lived trees would survive to bear witness to the linkage that once existed between the people of an earlier generation and "their" land.

It is only through this continued acknowledgment of proprietary rights to fruit trees that Temiar are able to talk in any determinate way about the relationship through time of social groups to specific localities. The similarity of the distribution of village sites to bounded plots of land or spheres of influence has led many observers to claim that these areas (sakaa ', from Malay pusaka, "inherited property") are the units of landownership in Temiar culture. But this belief results from a misunderstanding, at least as regards premodern arrangements. Nevertheless, ever since this misunderstanding became the basis of modern administrative practice, the Temiar have begun to accept the sakaa' concept, especially where relations with non-Temiars are involved. The notion of the ownability of land has consequently been spreading among them since the 1950s, but the idea is still communally rather than individually based, and no land registration has taken place. Under modern Malaysian law this means in effect that individual Temiar have as yet no recognized right to the land they and their ancestors have occupied for millennia. This is bound to become a problematic issue in the years ahead as roads are built, timber extracted, and valleys flooded without Temiar permission or with very smallor nocompensation payments.


Kin Groups and Descent. The tree-owning village core group previously described constitutes the operational aspect of a corporate cognatic descent group, or ramage. Any one individual may thus claim potential membership in several such ramages, through his or her mother, father, or other consanguines. The ramage associated with a person's natal village is usually thought of as his or her primary ramage, even if that person has lived elsewhere, such as in the spouse's village. In most situations, however, decisions about membership in local groups do not involve active acknowledgment of descent as such. It is one's continuing relations with the living, not the dead, that provide the basis for such decisions. Thus, while it is siblingship (and cousinship) that is concerned in the day-to-day operation of village membership, descent is brought into play only when the group's continuity through time or individual cases of village membership are in doubt. Ramages as such do not enter into alliances, either marital or political. They do, however, provide a basis for the allocation of political authority: the most able member of the senior core-sibling group in each community becomes in effect the village leader.

Kinship Terminology. The referential kinship terminology is thoroughly classificatory and bilateral; it is also basically generational in structure. Since cousins and siblings are referred to and addressed in the same way, the terminology is of the Hawaiian type. This overriding of collaterality applies to some other generations too, so that aunts might optionally be called "mother," uncles "father," and nieces or nephews "child"; however, distinctive terms do exist for these relatives, and they are frequently employed.

All Temiarand indeed all members of the neighboring Orang Asli groupsare regarded as potential kin. Two strangers will search their genealogical knowledge until they find one or more relatives in common, whereupon they will enter into an appropriate kinship relationship. In practice, for all except close kin, categorization reduces to just a few basic decisions: whether the other person is of the same or of an adjacent generational level, and whether he or she is related by marriage or by birth. Finer distinctions may then be made on the basis of the two kinspersons' relative ages ("older" or "younger") and, if they choose to be affines, relative sex ("cross" or "parallel"). With this simple calculus in mind individual Temiar can travel for 160 kilometers or so, even into Semang or Semai (and sometimes Malay) territory, building up a chain of kinship-based rights and obligations as they go.

Temiar thus have the means to extend their kinship links at will to considerable distances. They are able to do this because of the primary structural importance they ascribe to the sibling linkage, which underlies both the sociology of group formation (where a principle of sibling solidarity applies) and the cultural logic of kinship reckoning (where a principle of sibling equivalence applies). Analysis of the kinship terminology and of the personal naming system shows that both of these cultural paradigms embody the same model of social structure: the progressive generation of a group of siblings out of a set of affinal and filiative links that simultaneously undergo progressive degeneration.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Temiar marriage is characterized by the establishing of wider and highly marked affinal relations, and not just by the cohabitation of the two partners. There is little restriction on sexual relations as such, either before marriage or out of marriage, and a couple may live and sleep together without being regarded as "married." Indeed, there is no special word for "marry" in Temiar: the idea is expressed through a transitive or reciprocal usage of the verb "sleep." Despite this relative openness, senior members of the woman's community (such as her father, brother, or village leader) will usually seek to regularize the union by exacting public avowals from the couple that they will keep together. Some marriage gifts may be given, although there are no formal bride-wealth or dowry requirements.

The first months or years of marriage are usually spent in the wife's community. Thereafter the couple may move to the husband's community, or to any other community that is prepared to let them settle. Roughly half of Temiar couples stay permanently in one community, while the remainder move frequently between different communities. They usually try to occupy their own compartment in a communal house: compartments might contain more than one conjugal family, but only as a temporary expedient.

Relations between husband and wife are expected to be warm, amicable, egalitarian, and based on free will. This is usually the case in practice, for there are few constraints to prevent an aggrieved or dissatisfied partner from simply leaving and ending the marriage. Many Temiar have been married more than once, engaging in what were effectively trial marriages. Spouses work together or in complementary ways in such activities as farming, gathering forest materials, and domestic work.

No rule of marriageability, positive or negative, attaches to the Temiar ramage as a unit. But Temiar frequently say that marriage is forbidden between people born in the same village, even though such marriages are not particularly rare in practice.

Thus several principles act together in guiding the individual Temiar as to whom he or she may marry: (1) degree of residential propinquity; (2) quality and degree of consanguineal relationship; and (3) prior affinal relationship.

Temiar marriage generates a new pattern of relations, not just between husband and wife but also between their relatives. Former "extended" consanguines become close affinesa change that adds a degree of complicatedness to their interaction, for formalized avoidance, joking, or respect relations now apply. Affines of opposite sex are especially constrained by these rules, which also apply (with some dilution) to the siblings and cousins of the affected parties.

Between "spouse's parent" and "child's spouse" of opposite sex, complete avoidance is expected. In contrast, a sexually charged joking relationship holds between opposite-sex siblings-in-law (mneey ). There is an institutionalized understanding that mneey may have sexual relations with each other if they wish, whether or not they are already married. The few polygamous marriages that occur are almost always between siblings-in-law, usually a man and two sisters.

Domestic Unit. It is usually possible to discern three levels of residential organization within each local community. First is the household, usually a single conjugal family. Second is the household cluster, a grouping of two or more closely related conjugal families who live in adjoining sections of the house, often sharing the same hearth, and usually stay together if they migrate to another village. And third is the village (Temiar, déék, which also means "house"), the total local community, which is usually thought of as a familial grouping too.

Inheritance. Traditionally, the Temiar were so little concerned with inheritance that they buried most of a deceased person's property, including money, along with the corpse. Nowadays, when personal property has come to include such items as electronic goods and permanent housing, this might be expected to change; but no reliable data are available as yet on recent changes. As previously described, the major corporate property consists of seasonal fruit trees. These are inherited by cognatic transmission between whole sibling sets. When a tree is claimed for the first time, it may be individually owned; after the owner's death, it simply becomes one of the corporately owned trees. Inheritance of status is not usually an issue: the senior surviving sibling of the senior generation of siblings is normally recognized as village leader. Where outsiders have intervened by instituting a more formal headmanship, this has tended toward the more patrilineal mode of succession favored by Malay political structures.

Socialization. Child rearing is shared so easily between the parents and other kin that it often seems as if all the villagers were jointly responsible for the care of all the children. Fathers undertake the same care-giving activities as mothers. Mother, father, and child are all bound by the same set of food taboos until the child is safely out of infancy. Children are allowed a great deal of freedom, and discipline is limited to verbal advice or warnings of possible intervention by the thunder deity. Physical punishment or constraint is strongly avoided, even when the child throws a tantrum. This nonviolent approach is absorbed into the child's emerging personality: children may threaten each other in play, but the blows freeze in midair. When they play soccer or other ball games, no teams are formedthey all cooperate in helping one of the players land a goal.

There is little educational or initiatory formality. Childbirth and first-menstruation rituals are private, and weaning is so gradual that even 6-year-olds will be breast-fed if they ask. There are no rites of adulthood. Children are allowed to learn by experimentation, whether it concerns using knives, building rafts, smoking, or having sex. Other matters are explained, as the need arises, by citing the appropriate portion of Temiar mythology.

Nowadays most Temiar children attend government primary schools set up within their own territory. These have achieved basic national-language (Malay) literacy, but little more as yet.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Viewed in its own terms, Temiar social organization is segmentary and nonhierarchical; each village community runs its own affairs. There are no formal rules of organization apart from the kinship and descent structures already described. More important than formal rules, however, are two dialectically conjoined values that pervade Temiar social life: noninterference in other individuals' wishes and a profound concern for communality. This dialectic is not always easy to maintain, but a variety of cultural mechanisms, rooted in language, religion, and kinship, serve to keep it embedded in daily life.

Political Organization. Two kinds of political role may be distinguished: leadership, which operates at the household cluster and village levels, and which relates primarily to autonomous day-to-day affairs; and headmanship at the village level, which operates in the context of external relations with politically dominant outsiders. A specialized form of headmanship, which we may call chieftaincy, operates at the supravillage level and depends on formal appointment through a letter of authority, issued ostensibly by a sultan.

As already noted, the Temiar village leader's main function is to act as the symbolic guardian of the descent group's estate. Any practical authority to run village affairs that he may possess depends entirely on his strength of character, not on his social position. His most important practical role lies in mediating discussion about such joint productive activities as farming, the collecting and trading of forest products, or the selling of village livestock to outsiders.

The headman (twaa ', tunggò' ), by contrast, has virtually no role to play in village affairs. Even a Temiar "senior chief," regarded by some outsiders as the ruler of a thousand or more people living in some dozen villages, dresses exactly like the other men of the village and is accorded no special deference by his fellows. The ranking that this appears to generate, and that some writers have claimed was an indigenous feature of Temiar social organization, is a chimera. The roles of headman and chief were created more to bolster the importance of those outsiders who were forced to have dealings with the Temiar (such as the local Malay chiefs or the British military authorities) than in response to needs arising within the Temiar community.

Despite the headman's relative insignificance in day-today affairs, the institution of headmanship has allowed certain structural notions (such as hierarchy by rank and patrilineal succession to office) to enter Temiar culture. These have served as alternative models of social organization, available for use if the political situation seems to demand it. Under the social and ecological changes that the Temiar are currently experiencing, these ideas could become more significant. It is more likely, however, that the relinquishment of a "tribal" outlook will make this a less attractive option than the espousal of an altogether more individualistic mode of operation.

Conflict and Social Control. The main sources of conflict are: (1) sexual jealousy, occasioned by the permissiveness of Temiar "in-law" joking relations; (2) differences of wealth within the community, generated by differential involvement in the cash economy; and (3) pulling out of the village to live elsewhere, instead of giving long-term help and commitment to village activities. Because of a general reluctance to enforce one's wishes on others, there is little that can be done about these circumstances. Gossip and complaining behind people's backs are quite common, but direct confrontation is rare. Things may sometimes get so bad, however, that a communitywide meeting is called by the village leader. Even here, moralizing rather than direct accusation fills the speeches. If discussion does not solve the problem, one of the disputing parties will usually move away to live elsewhere.

Temiar social interaction is underpinned by a general anxiety that one's actions might cause someone else to suffer unsatisfied desires, for this is thought to leave that person open to accident, disease, or misfortune. An assortment of diffuse sanctions is aimed at reducing the likelihood of such an occurrence. One should always share food; one should accede to a direct request for a service or object; and one should avoid setting up a definite future meeting for fear that the promise cannot be kept. These ideas are linked closely to Temiar religious attitudes.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practitioners. The Temiar have become famous among psychotherapists and dream researchers as the supposed inventors of the "Senoi dream therapy" currently practiced by several groups in the United States. The relation between these American therapeutic systems and the practices of the Malaysian Aborigines is now known to be tenuous, even spurious, but this revelation has left undisclosed the reasons for the high regard the Senoi peoples have for dreams and trance states. To the extent that the Temiars' propensity for dream-based activities has anything to do with their mental health, their mental well-being results not from any psychotherapeutic counseling techniques that they are reputed to have developed but from the way in which their trancing and (lucid) dreaming puts them in direct touch with what their cosmological notions lead them to think of as the fundamental basis of existence.

Like everyone else, the Temiar are forced to map less graspable notions onto a more familiar surrogate. The Temiar mode of surrogation represents the cosmos, and the religious and social relations that occur within it, not in terms of things or words but in terms of the direct experience that individual human beings have of their own subjectivity. This psychocentrism is founded, moreover, on a thoroughly dialectical orientation of attention as between self and other. Unlike more familiar modes of orientation, in which either self or other is suppressed as the explicit focus of attention, the dialectical mode takes as its starting point the very mutuality of self and other. In Temiar culture, this dialectic serves as the tacit, prereflective notion out of which coherence is constructed: the Temiar self can be perceived and discussed not as an autonomous entity but only in ways that also implicate the other (and vice versa).

This construction derives its plausibility from individual Temiars' experience of their own subjectivity as being simultaneously a controlling actor and an undergoing patient. The dosest they come to articulating this central unspoken mystery verbally is when talking of the various "souls" (i.e., subjectivities capable of communication) that are thought of as animating the people, animals, plants, and other salient things that inhabit their world.

In human beings these souls are the hup (heart) and the rwaay (head-soul), the corporeal seats of doing (or willing) and of experiencing (or undergoing), respectively. The same animistic imagery extends throughout the rest of the cosmos: any entity that appears capable of attracting to itself the attention of a human being is thought of as being able to do so by virtue of the simultaneously hup- and rwaay-like subjectivity that constitutes its essential core. The same holds, in reverse, for the supposed ability of nonhuman entities to become aware of and to act on the subjectivity of individual human beings.

This dialectical mutuality of actor and patient, subject and object, colors all domains of the Temiar worldview. Ordinary social relations (as already mentioned) exhibit a complicated balance between extreme communalism and extreme individual autonomy, which would be very difficult to maintain under any nondialectical mode of orientation. The cosmos itself is thought of as a subjectivity, linked somehow with thunder. It is simultaneously both the creator and the world it creates, constantly employing the "bootstrap" cosmogonic power of its own thought and imagination to maintain the differentiated character of the physical world as the Temiar know it. If human beings (or any other agency) should by their actions distract the cosmos's subjectivity away from this task, then it is thought likely that the world will dedifferentiate, through the agency of thunder (the cosmos's voice) and flood, into a muddy undifferentiated chaos. If that should happen, all things would lose their identity and disappear, through the cosmic merging of subjectivity and objectivity.

Plants and animals are thought to partake in this interplay just as fully as human beings. It is the temporarily disem-bodied upper- and lower-body souls of various mountains, animals, and plants (seasonal fruit trees, especially) that become the personal spirit guides to which Temiar direct their religious action. These souls are called by various special names, but they are uniformly reported to take the same shape when they appear in dreams or trances: upper-body souls become young men or women; lower-body souls become tigers.

Individuals enter into initial communication with their spirit guides through dreams. If they feel so inclined, they may then make their spirit guide's power-for-good available to the rest of the community by serving as a halaa' (an adept spirit medium). Mediumship centers on nighttime trance-dancing ceremonies involving one or more halaa', performing to the accompaniment of contrapuntally sung music. Each song is supposedly passed on by its composer (i.e., the spirit guide) to its initial performer (the halaa') in revelations that occurred while the latter was in a waking dream, most typically around dawn. The halaa' will often be called on to perform healing rituals on the sick during the ceremonies and also in nonceremonial circumstances during the daytime.

Trancing and (lucid) dreaming are altered states of consciousness in which one becomes simultaneously one's own subject and object, since one is then undergoing whatever one is doing. In Temiar terms, these are activities in which one's rwaay is experiencing what one's hup is simultaneously willing into existence. Trance, for example, is talked of as "forgetting one's hup"; but the trancer still retains his or her own rwaay, or there would be no means of experiencing the trance. Lucid dreaming, on the other hand, requires one to retain one's hup, as the locus of one's active participation in whatever is going on in the dream (which is thought of in turn as being located in one's rwaay's experience). Thus the rwaay/hup dialectic is founded on the trance and lucid-dream experience of simultaneously undergoing and controlling the products of one's own imagination, as if those products were autonomous "real-world" entities. By giving themselves over to trance and lucid dreaming, Temiar are thus able to experience directly the selfsame subjective processes that the cosmos itself is thought to employ in keeping itself going. But that experience is ineffable in character, formed of notions, not concepts. It involves the dreamer or trancer in a symbolic condensation that fuses mind, body, social relations, and the world into a dialectically self-transforming, indescribable (and hence unspoken) unity. Relatively few Temiar become specialists in these activities, but virtually all seek to enter into trance and lucid dreaming on occasion, if only once in their lives. They thus disguise the surrogational character of their psychocentrically constructed cosmos by fusing it with what for them is the "really real": the direct experience of controlling and being controlled by the creatures of their own imagination. They thereby provide themselves with an authentically unmediated experience of the very state of mind that supposedly holds everything together on both the cosmic and mundane levels.

Such a complicated way of approaching the world poses a problem, however. Unlike the easily expressible ideas of the various monotheistic religions, the traditional Temiar conception is far too complex to be put into words and talked about explicitly. It is therefore hard to share with others and far from easy to maintain in one's own mind. Many younger Temiar have responded to this situation in recent years by embracing more easily catechized and apparently "rational" religions. The highly monotheistic Baha'i faith found many adherents during the 1970s, especially among Temiar looking for a religion comparable to those that the Malaysian authorities had been urging people to follow. This suited these younger Temiars' desire for an easily explained religion and for one that better fitted their emerging sense of individualistic modernity.

Paradoxically, although Baha'i sees itself as an autonomous religion, some Malaysian authorities regarded it as an Islamic heresy, not appropriate for adoption by a population seen as Malay-like. Some Temiar, on the other hand, complained that Islam was being offered to them by individuals who made a poor job of explaining it and that, while Baha'i employed the national language (Malay), Islam employed a language (Arabic) that neither they nor their would-be teachers could understand. There are reports, nevertheless, that many Temiar have lately become Muslimshow spontaneously is not clear.

Ceremonies. The ceremonial centerpiece of Temiar life consists of public performances by spirit mediums, at night within the house, involving choral singing, dance, and trance. (These have continued even in communities that have adopted the Baha'i religion. Trance is not always present, however.) Performances are put on when there is a demand for shamanic healing rituals or when someone's spirit guide has indicated in a dream that it wishes to be entertained. The sessions are known as gnabag (singsongs). Most of the community is involved, with the women and children singing responses in overlapping canon to the lead verses sung by one or more mediums. The song lyrics are considered to be the spirit guide's own, sung throughnot bythe medium.

A much rarer kind of performance involves tiger shamanism, performed by a medium squatting within a special palm-leaf hut set up inside the house. This is performed only by a "big" halaa', without dancing, with the fires extinguished, and with distinctively minor-key melodies.

Other rituals are performed more casually and on a small scale. These include the pouring of warmed (i.e., enculturated) water over a newly delivered woman or into the post holes of a new house, or the special treatment accorded to some specially selected rice grains at the beginning of the planting season.

There are also what might be called antirituals. These are an open-ended collection of rather oddly chosen acts that must be avoided if the thunder deity is not to strike. One should not laugh at butterflies, display colored mats outdoors, dress animals in human clothing, laugh too loudly, and so on. Such acts are classed as misik (probably from the Malay bising, "disturbing noise"), and seem to have in common only the property of attracting undue attention. As already explained, one should avoid disturbing the cosmos's subjectivity for fear of causing disastrous floods and storms. If such disasters do nevertheless occur, then individuals who feel themselves guilty of having committed misik might slash their shins with a bamboo sliver, gather up some blood, mix it with water, and throw it up as an appeasement offering to the thunder deity. This blood sacrifice is also found among other Orang Asli groups (especially the Semang), but it is very rare among the Temiar. Another such rite involves slashing at the ground with a knife, sometimes while hammering a lock cut from one's own (or one's child's) hair into the soil; this is still sometimes done by Temiar during violent thunderstorms.

Arts. The designs woven into or inscribed on mats, pouches, the walls of houses, and bamboo dart quivers are abstract and geometrical. The greatest degree of indigenous aesthetic attention is directed to the tightly woven rattan caps that cover the geometrically decorated bamboo quivers in which Temiar men carry their blowgun darts. Unlike some other Orang Asli groups, the Temiar do not produce representational images of any kind. Music, dance and storytelling, however, are cultivated with enthusiasm, and certain individuals gain considerable local fame for their abilities in these domains. The women's singing, in particular, is among the finest indigenous choral music to be heard in Southeast Asia. Appreciation for this art form is now so keenly developed among the Temiar that they make and circulate among themselves homemade tape recordings of their own musical performances. This activity was stimulated initially by the example of Malaysian Radio, which has been airing field recordings of Temiar music since around 1960 as the major component of its Temiar-language broadcasts.

Medicine. Indigenous Temiar ideas about disease relate mainly to fears of improper interpenetration between domains or agencies that should remain separate. This can occur between spatial domains, or through soul loss and spirit invasion. The attendant symptoms do not always fit tidily into a biomedical framework of analysis, though they certainly are often real enough. Thus goutlike or arthritic symptoms are often explained as the result of letting one's leg get trapped in mud: human beings belong in the domain of off-the-ground, not in-the-ground. Depressive or neurotic symptoms may be regarded as resulting from rwaay loss; more severe psychosislike behavior may be thought to have been brought about through an invasion by the disembodied soul of an animal. Contravention of food taboos (most of which are either completely personal or affect young children together with their parents) is often blamed for convulsions and other symptoms.

Treatment includes herbal and mineral remedies ingested or rubbed on the body, enforced shady segregation within the house, casual "blowings" performed through cupped hands by anyone with halaa' powers, or full ceremonial shamanism performed in trance by several halaa' acting together. Some of the herbal remedies undoubtedly have pharmacological effect, but they have not been investigated systematically. Jennings's work on dance and Roseman's on music has gone a long way to explaining the efficacy of Temiar mediumship as therapy.

Modern treatment is also available to the Temiar, through the medical section of the JOA. This started in the late 1950s and two special hospitals for Orang Asli have been in operation for several decades. Tuberculosis and fungal skin diseases, once the scourges of Temiar communities, have become rare as a result of these services; malaria and childbirth are considerably less dangerous than they were formerly; and, most important, the medical service has provided regular paid employment (and even a career) for young Temiars.

Death and Afterlife. Burial takes place on the day of the death, usually at a site across the river from the village. The body is wrapped in matting and placed in an alcove within the grave, on a split-bamboo platform. More split bamboo is placed on top, to ensure that the body does not come into direct contact with the soil when the grave is filled in. The grave is usually oriented in line with the sun's track, in accordance with the belief that the deceased will be transported to an afterlife in a special "flower garden" situated at the sunset.

Most of the deceased's possessions are buried with the body, and mourners also leave some of their own prized possessions (such as money or watches) in or on the gravethus effectively blocking property inheritance. For the first few days after the burial, lights or fires will be placed on the grave. Eventually, however, the grave is left untended so that the forest may reclaim the site; Temiar thereby avoid the development of any memorial cultan idea they regard with unease. They also firmly avoid uttering the name of a deceased person, referring instead to "Old Man X" or "Old Woman X," where X is the place-name of the burial site. In this way, detailed genealogical accounting of earlier generations is lost, for distinct individuals come to share the same burial name after they die. Genealogies thus become recitations of formerly inhabited village sites, enabling the cognatic descent-group structure (described previously) to function in a less ambiguous manner than it otherwise would.

In another expression of the wish to put death behind them, Temiar villagers used to burn the deceased's house to ashes the same day and move immediately to a new site a short distance away. This custom has now become rare, as the ownership of material goods has put a premium on staying in place.

Alternative patterns of disposal exist. "Big" halaa' are ideally left on a platform in a tree when they die; dead babies may be left suspended in a bag from a tree. These practices probably represent the remnants of the formerly more wide-spread Southeast Asian custom of tree burial, for the pattern of burial now usually followed by the Temiar seems to have been learned from the Islamic practices of the Malays.

See also Semang; Senoi


Benjamin, Geoffrey (1968). "Temiar Personal Names." Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Landen Volkenkunde 124:99-134.

Benjamin, Geoffrey (1970). "Headmanship and Leadership in Temiar Society." Federation Museums Journal (Kuala Lumpur), n.s. 13:1-43.

Benjamin, Geoffrey (1985). "In the Long Term: Three Themes in Malayan Cultural Ecology." In Cultural Values and Human Ecology in Southeast Asia, edited by Karl Hutterer, A. Terry Rambo, and George Lovelace, 219-278. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies.

Jennings, Sue (1986). "Temiar Dance and the Maintenance of Order." In Society and the Dance, edited by Paul Spencer, 47-63. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Noone, H. D. (1936) "Report on the Settlements and Welfare of the Ple-Temiar Senoi of the Perak-Kelantan Watershed." Journal of the Federated Malay States Museums 19:1-85.

Roseman, Marina (1991). Healing Sounds: Music and Medicine in Temiar Life. Comparative Studies of Health Systems and Medical Care. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.