by Jean-Marie Metzger
Wherever you go in Malaysia, be it countryside, villages, cities, or golf course, you will often encounter little red shrines on the side of the road, or at the entrance of houses or temples, or at the boundaries of a land plot. Sometimes these shrines are empty with only some inscriptions that, of course, unless you are fluent in Chinese, you will not understand. However, even if the shrine is empty of any statue, offerings are still present, which are witness of a cult to some kind of deity or spirit. Fortunately for the layman, mostly if he is not Chinese, a statue will be present and…surprise! It is clearly a Malay figure. So who is he? How comes a Malay is present and worshipped in a Chinese shrine?
It seems this is a direct legacy of early animism that infused Malay and Chinese religions. Called Dato’, or Datuk, in Malay, often associated with the word keramat, it represents a spirit of the place. Dato’ means ‘grandfather’ in Malay and the earliest presence of this word dates back to Srivijayan times. What does keramat mean? It is related to the miracles accomplished by Muslim Sufi saints or more generally to “high places” (places of worship according to Mr Bellamy in the Selangor Journal, quoted by W. W. Skeats, “kramat may be roughly translated prophet or magician”).
Altogether, the Dato’ can be associated with either early pre-Muslim animism, to Sufi Islam, or to Chinese Taoism, some also relate it to Hindu-Buddhism.
When the first Hakka immigrants arrived in Malaya in the early 15th century, they paid respect to all the ‘earth spirits’ (tree, water spring, rock or hill – the penunggu of early Malay culture) that were worshipped by the locals. This was not far different from the practice of Taoism which, linked to nature, worships its different spirits (the shen). The Dato’ Keramat, either legendary figures once human, or prominent persons, such as famous silat warriors, pious Muslims, or even shamans (bomoh), later become deities. This was very similar to the Taoist practice by which a famous figure may become a shen and worshipped as such (for example Guan Di –general of the Three Kingdoms–, or much later Sin Sze Ya).
Therefore, it was not difficult for the Chinese immigrants to adopt local practices which led to worshipping a Malay-Muslim figure in a typical Chinese shrine.
While the Dato’ Kong (Na To Kong or La To Kong in Chinese), which means ‘great Grandfather’, is generally associated with trees, or more generally is considered the protector of the place where it stands, the tradition of Dato’ Keramat, often also called Datuk Panglima, lists nine of them:
- Datuk Panglima Ali (Ali)
- Datuk Panglima Hitam (Black)
- Datuk Panglima Harimau (Tiger)
- Datuk Panglima Hijau (Green)
- Datuk Panglima Kuning (Yellow)
- Datuk Panglima Putih (White)
- Datuk Panglima Bisu (Mute)
- Datuk Panglima Merah (Red)
- Datuk Panglima Bongsu (Youngest)
Associating colours with the deities is a legacy of Hinduism, while the Tiger attribute may refer to Shiva; colours could also refer to the five elements and directions in Chinese belief: white=metal/west, red=fire/south, yellow=earth/centre, green=wood/east, black=water/north.
Apart from these, there are numerous Datuk. Some consider that there are 108 Datuk, identifying them with the 108 Ruesi of Hindu-Buddhism, characters who are gifted with spiritual and magical powers (Buddha, as well as Shiva, are considered Ruesi).
At the KDE Golf club in Ampang, there is a Datuk Panglima Hussein shrine. This shrine may be related to Nakhoda Hussin, quoted by W. W. Skeat in Malay Magic as a jin presiding over water, rain, and streams, who has a kramat, or holy place, in Bukit Nyalas (Johor). This would be consistent with the fact that a stream runs across the premises of the club.
Dato’ Kong shrines are generally situated outside buildings, be it a temple or a house. In some cases, it may be placed inside a tower, but often at the entrance of the car park, as is the case with Integra Tower in KL (is this because fortune flows in at the toll barrier?). When the statue of the Dato’ Kong is present in the shrine, which is the most frequent situation, it cannot be mistaken for any other deity, as it has all the attributes of a Malay: he usually wears a songkok or a haji white hat, sometimes a tengkolok, and often holds a keris. This Malay attire does not exclude holding a Chinese gold ingot, to bring the appropriate wealth to the worshippers, or showing the long ears of Buddha as a symbol of wisdom.
In Penang and along the coast of Perak, there are female Datuk, called Nenek.
Offerings may vary (betel leaves, bananas, eggs, chicken…cigars and coffee are much appreciated by Datuk Panglima Harimau), but, of course, pork and alcohol are strictly forbidden!
Now, what can we learn from the omnipresence of Dato’ Kong in Malaysia:
- That the Chinese immigrants respected the local culture
- That the Chinese pray to whatever may work and bring them good fortune
- That Malaysia has always been a land of syncretism and mix of cultures throughout the centuries
- The Three Chinese Wisdoms (in French), Cyrille J.D. Jarry, Ed. Albin Michel (2010)
- Malay Magic, Walter William Skeats (1900)