Pa­pau tribe hopes to re­tain mummy rite

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

CRADLING the cen­turies-old re­mains of his mum­mi­fied an­ces­tor, tribe leader Eli Ma­bel lays bare an an­cient tra­di­tion that has all but van­ished among the Dani peo­ple in the Pa­puan cen­tral high­lands.

The tiny, black­ened, shrunken fig­ure he car­ries was once Agat Mamete Ma­bel, the chief who ruled over this remote vil­lage in In­done­sian Pa­pua some 250 years ago.

Hon­oured upon death with a cus­tom re­served only for im­por­tant el­ders and lo­cal he­roes among the Dani peo­ple, he was em­balmed and pre­served with smoke and an­i­mal oil.

Nine gen­er­a­tions on and his de­scen­dent is the cur­rent chief­tain in Wogi vil­lage – an iso­lated ham­let out­side Wa­mena that can be reached only by hik­ing and ca­noe.

Ma­bel said the ex­act age of Agat Mamete Ma­bel was not known, but told AFP this an­ces­tor was the last of the vil­lage to re­ceive such a fu­neral. Once com­mon among his fore­bears, the rit­ual method of smoke em­balm­ing is no longer prac­tised, he ex­plained.

Chris­tian mis­sion­ar­ies and Mus­lim preach­ers en­cour­aged the tribes­peo­ple to bury the corpses, and the tra­di­tion has faded as the cen­turies drifted by.

But Ma­bel is de­ter­mined to re­tain the an­cient rites and ri­tu­als for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

“We must pro­tect our cul­ture, in­clud­ing the cer­e­monies for the mummy, the way we treat it, and main­tain and fire for it,” the Dani tribesman told AFP.

The mummy, dec­o­rated with pig tusks slung around the torso, a feath­ered head­piece, and tra­di­tional pe­nis gourd rests in a hut known as a honai. This wide domed, thatch-roofed hut is tended year round by a se­lect few vil­lagers who keep a fire burn­ing to en­sure the corpse re­mains dry and pre­served.

The duty of car­ing for the mummy of­ten falls to Ma­bel, he said. He spends many nights sleep­ing alone in the honai, en­sur­ing no harm be­falls his an­ces­tor.

Even­tu­ally, the duty of car­ing for the mummy will be passed to oth­ers, he said. Ma­bel hopes his own chil­dren will bear some re­spon­si­bil­ity for keep­ing their cus­toms alive, but wor­ries they are far away.

“I have told them they must take care of the mummy at some point in their lives,” Ma­bel said of his four chil­dren, some liv­ing in faroff prov­inces in In­done­sia’s more pop­u­lated cen­tres.

The an­cient Dani tribes in In­done­sia’s half of the is­land of New Guinea were cut off from the out­side world un­til well into the 20th cen­tury. Their home­land in the Baliem Val­ley was iso­lated by steep, rugged val­leys and dense high­land for­est.

To­day, the re­gion re­mains one of the poor­est in In­done­sia. Many tribes rely on tourism, their unique cus­toms, tra­di­tional dress and ri­tu­als at­tract­ing vis­i­tors to their remote vil­lages. –

The Dani tribe re­lies heav­ily on tourist dol­lars that stream in for an­nual rites and fes­ti­vals, such as this month’s Baliem Val­ley Fes­ti­val, where tribes­men re-en­act tribal war­fare.

Pho­tos: AFP

Eli Ma­bel, a vil­lage chief, cra­dles his an­ces­tor Agat Mamete Ma­bel, a vil­lage chief from 250 years ago that has been mum­mi­fied with a spe­cial smoke em­balm­ing process.

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