The Bruneian Haj

Alhamdulillah, by the time you read this, Brunei haj pilgrims this year would have completed their tasks, everyone would have performed the full obligations of the hajj and will soon be preparing to return home to Brunei.

What most people don't know is that prior to 1954, to go on haj means that you have to be assisted by the British Resident Office. Prior to the world war, going on haj is a more laissez faire affair. You go on your own and make all the arrangements yourself and it was a very difficult trip. My father in law who went in 1930s, I was told spent at least 4 to 5 months away just to go on the hajj and it wasn't a luxury trip like today. He spent more than a month just travelling on board ships (not just one - you probably changed ships in Singapore and other ports). Going on haj then means literally you wouldn't whether you would be coming back. It was such an ordeal that even when a pilgrim died on board the ship, his body would be lowered into the sea for a sea burial.

Nowadays, completing the hajj despite the millions of people going to Mecca is much easier because the Government has everything in place through Darussalam Holdings. Even those who went on private packages would not face that much difficulty. The Hajj Management Department of the Ministry of Religious Affairs is responsible for ensuring that Brunei Muslims who go on hajj will be taken care of. In 1954, the haj management was looked after by the Office of Royal Customs, Religious Affairs and Welfare (Pejabat Istiadat, Ugama dan Kebajikan). It wasn't until 1960 when the Religious Affairs Office was set up on its own was a proper haj management division formed. The Religious Department was headed by the Principal of Religious Affairs but the haj management was overseen by a Haj Advisory Body which remained till today.

Before 1965, intending haj pilgrims will go to Mecca using ships via Singapore - the most famous ships are known as the Angking and Anshon. From 1965, some pilgrims started to fly by aeroplanes but the ships were still being used. It wasn't until 1975 that the ships stopped being used to carry the haj pilgrims. In October 1986, with the formation of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Haj Management Department was officially set up.

However the management of Brunei haj pilgrims was still not as well managed as today. Until 1994, the majority of Brunei haj pilgrims will be looked after first by one of the Sheikhs of Mecca - Sheikh Ibrahim and Sheikh Ali Yassin were famous names in those days - all the pilgrims' bags would have those names written in huge jawi letters - and later by the Mausasah which is the organisation entrusted to look after all the pilgrims in Mecca. Then going on the mausasah was said to mean 'maha susah' (great difficulty) by the pilgrims. You would hear tales of pilgrims living in rundown buildings with no ventilation or extremely basic washroom facilities. The more well to do pilgrims go via private haj operators which was very expensive - even in the 1980s, it can cost more than $10,000 per person. However it wasn't until TAIB which was formed in 1991 and in turn formed the haj management agency Darussalam Holdings sometime in 1994, and only then the masses in Brunei get to enjoy better facilities as they enjoyed today.

Before our own airline Royal Brunei Airlines carry our own pilgrims, a number of airlines were used. I remembered in 1976 when my father was one of the haj officials, the pilgrims were flown using China Airlines. My wife who went in 1973 said she used a British airline and the flight attendants were all British. Nowadays, the Royal Brunei Airlines Boeing 767 are even fitted with ablution places so that pilgrims can pray on board the plane. The planes even fly direct to Medina and avoided the almost 6 hour bus trip from Jeddah to Medina.

Bruneians used to have interesting practises for pilgrims going on haj. Up to until recently, haj pilgrims would encased their bag in a net made up of ropes called the 'karut' (and the practise was known as 'mengarut bag') and I can tell you that it is very difficult to take off. This practise goes back to the days when pilgrims travel by ships and have their luggages thrown and needed the net to secure it from accidentally opening. Another practise was honouring the haj pilgrims. I remembered in the late 1960s when my late grandfather returned from the haj with his robe and igal and dark glasses, he sat on a chair and everyone else would just sit around on the floor listening to the tales from the holy land.

Other interesting practises include one where rooms of the pilgrims are undisturbed throughout the absence. In Kampung Ayer, this is taken to mean that even boats or sampans are not allowed to go under the house especially under the part of the house where the room was. The practise of building arches to commemorate the returning pilgrims was set way back and it is not a recent practise. In those days, practically all are handwritten but nowadays, some are professionally made.

Some practises which are no longer allowed include the 'puadai' - this is a long piece of uncut white cloth laid down so that the newly returned pilgrims step on it on the way to the house. There will be small scissor cuts every couple of feet or so, so that relatives can cut and keep the cloth the pilgrims step on. On the way, they will be feted with coins and rice thrown to the air and children would run to grab the coins. During the absence, their family members in Brunei would give or sedekah umbrellas, slippers and sugar canes in the hope that their relatives in Mecca would be well sheltered, shod and with ample water supply. I have also heard of practises of taking a clump of Brunei earth so that one will go back to Brunei and then the practise of taking small rocks and stones from the holy land.

There are many things related to the haj. It is after all as some described as 'small death' - you died and you are reborn after returning from the haj. Mudah-mudahan kesemua jemaah haji Brunei selamat dan mendapat haji yang mabrur. Amin. Selamat Pulang Ke Tanah Air to my cousin, Hajah Ramlah and her husband and also to Haji Nazri of MOD.

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