The Magic of Traditional Medicine

Exhibition at Muzium Negara (15 Sep to 15 Nov)

by Maganjeet Kaur

Herbs, of the tongkat ali variety, usually spring to my mind when traditional medicine is mentioned.  Hence the ongoing exhibition on traditional medicine at Muzium Negara was a real eye opener.   Titled “The Magic of Traditional Medicine”, the exhibits range from conventional herbs (and maybe some not so conventional) to demon exorcism ceremonies.

On Monday 8 October, a group of us from Museum Volunteers were fortunate to be taken on a guided tour by Hayati, a curator with the museum who had been heavily involved in the research behind the exhibition.  Hayati explained that the exhibits were grouped into 7 main areas showcasing the different aspects of traditional healing including soul healing songs, incantations, dreams and meditation, physical reflection, trance and possession, charms for protection as well as herbs and other material used for recovery.  There is magic and there is science – both the rational and irrational are combined to make an exhibition that has something of interest to all.

In readiness for a spot of black magic

The exhibit on the right is what first greets visitors entering the exhibition.  It has nothing to do with healing but it depicts a magician preparing to summon evil spirits to help him fulfill the request of his client.  A must in this ritual is the skull of a pregnant woman who died while still carrying her first child.  Thankfully, as this requirement is not easily fulfilled, not too many of these ceremonies would have been performed.

Barasik Ritual

Main Puteri is a healing ceremony which used to be carried out in Kelantan and that uses music and dance in the healing ritual.  The bomoh (witch doctor), while dancing and acting out, communicates with the spirits that had been causing the illness of his patient.  The Main Puteri can be performed without the healing component as it is theatrical and as such, entertaining by itself.

Barasik healing is carried out by the Murut tribe from the Tenom district in Sabah. In this healing ceremony, the witch doctor known as the Babalian wears a special black gear (as shown in the picture on the right) that includes covering his face. Music is also key to this ceremony with the drum forming the main musical instrument.

Susuk witch doctors inserting the implants into their patients

The desire to look beautiful is universal.  Long before there was plastic surgery, there was Susuk, which is a process through which charms in the form of foreign substances are inserted into the body.  The implants include gold, silver, iron and even diamonds.  Unlike plastic surgery, susuk does not change the appearance of the patient but it makes the patient appear beautiful to others.

The picture on the left shows the implants being removed. They must be removed before death or the patient will suffer a slow, agonizing death.

Apologies if you were having a meal while reading this.

The group that attended the guided tour.  The curator, Hayati, is fifth from the left.

All in all, it was an excellent exhibition and a very good tour.  For MV volunteers, if you want to catch the tour, there will be another session on Monday 5th Nov at 10.00am.  Please do send an email to to book a spot.


Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

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