My first ever encounter with the Malaysian tribal people was one that will be ingrained in my mind of quite some time to come. They are called ‘OrangAsli’ (Aboriginal people) in Malay. I was traveling to the grand rainforest of Taman Negara in Malaysia and the whole purpose of my trip was a getaway. On the trip I came across the ‘Bateq’ tribe living in the forest. Dwelling in homes made of bamboos, Bateq are hunter-gatherers living a nomadic lifestyle in groups of about 10 families or less. My first interaction however was extremely brief and disappointing, as we had to pay to visit the tribe. It felt extremely commercial and organized tours and activities were set up for tourists. This kind of treatment felt unsettling to say the least.
I did not understand a single word they spoke. I was told that apart from the Bateq language, they also spoke Malay. The younger generation seemed happy and well accustomed to the civilization, but I strongly felt discomfort and sadness amongst the older people, especially around the tourists.
I believe they were extremely unhappy with their surrounding. It was very unnatural to them. The Bateq who live like nomads, hunting and wandering around, were trying to earn a living. It seemed as though they were in display for the tourists.
After this brief encounter, I developed a keen interest in learning about the life of these Tribal people. According to the recent stats, there are only about 750 of them in the jungle. Until 1970, the Bateq were widespread, but their turf has since been reduced to Taman Negara as the Malaysian jungle was deforested for logging
My curiosity led me to visit this intriguing tribe again. This time I went to Kuala Koh, another part of Taman Negara. This experience was completely different from the previous one. It also gave me a better picture about the lifestyle of the Bateq.
The moment we entered the village, I noticed the brick houses made by the government for the tribal people. But due to their nomadic lifestyle, they refuse to live in these homes and choose to reside in the jungles instead.
The Bateq do not have a concept of land ownership, so they just make use of the land immediately around the place they settle. Once the resources within the area are exhausted, they move to another spot.
We met different groups of this tribe in three different places. The first group we met, lived in and around the brick homes.
For the other two groups we had to walk into the jungle barefoot as the roads were extremely muck ridden due to heavy rainfall. We came across the second group on the way, but we decided to walk further inside the jungle and find the third group. We were carrying some food, clothes, sweets and other necessary items for them.
They prepared a meal for us and we had lunch together. In a world where civilized people are suffering from xenophobia, territorialism and selfish greed; and have become slaves of technology, these people welcomed us with big smiles, slight shyness and extreme generosity.I was highly overwhelmed by the power of their simplistic existence. I was moved by the profound urge to photograph them. Never before have I felt so compelled to capture an image.
I was amazed by the beauty of these people, with such sharp features, beautiful skin and lovely hair. I envied their fearless attitude and their ability to learn very quickly. They could pick up songs and rhymes in a foreign language in just few minutes.
There was a drastic difference between the old and the young. While I witnessed an old man making arrows for his blowpipe, for hunting purposes, I also witnessed a young boy playing a wonderful tune on a guitar. Also the young boys played a sport that appeared very similar to volleyball.
After spending some time with these people, I am now eager to go back. It was wonderful experience. It felt like going back to the basics and I have not enjoyed photographing anyone more than capturing the portraits of the Bateq.
Written and photographed by: Mithila Jariwala