Circumcision in Old Brunei

In Brunei and in Indonesia, circumcision is known as bersunat but in Malaysia, berkhatan. In the earlier days, bersunat is considered as the mark of a true Muslim. Immediately just before the circumcision, the boy would be asked to recite the ‘kalimah sahadat’ which is the recitation every Muslims or would be Muslims undertake to declare themselves as Muslims – thus by saying it just before the circumcision, made him a true Muslim.

Bersunat or circumcision is the procedure that removes the foreskin of the boy's organ. The word circumcision comes from two Latin words which mean to 'cut around'. A variation to this 'cut around' was practiced in one Brunei community more than 50 years ago. During the ceremony the ‘penyunat’ (the circumcision master) would go to the base of the organ and snip a little nerve. The nerve connects to the foreskin and the foreskin as a result would ‘pull back’ – thus ‘circumcising’ the boy. You still reached the objective of not having the foreskin at the tip.

As to the ceremonies, there are variations as to when it is held or how elaborate it is. In some cases, the boys would be required to take a bath where someone would pour scented water over the boys. In more elaborate cases, the boys would be undergoing a ‘lulut’ where one would be scrubbed with scented powder and water. After the ceremony, the boys would be dressed nicely. This would mean the normal ‘baju melayu’ with a ‘kain pelikat’. The boys might also wear songkoks complete with a decorative motif known as ‘kopiah berpisnin’. They would be led to sit straddling a banana tree trunk - the trunk supposedly makes one feel cool. In Kampong Ayer, the boys would be sitting in the lap of their fathers or someone elderly. On some of their foreheads would be a white smear – a white powdered lulut being placed on there.

The penyunat would use a ‘sembilu’ which is sharpened bamboo but as time progresses, a sharpened knife was used. The knife generally is a folding type. There is no anesthetic. The circumcision would be done raw and the boys are held by others so that they can not move. The skin would be stretched out and cut away. The knife is very sharp and by the time the deed was done, there was hardly time to feel pain. Though there have been cases where the boys screamed their heads off. In Temburong, the pulled skin will be held by a piece of split bamboo before being cut off.

The cut would be bandaged straight away for it to heal in about a month. Sometimes the wound is bound together with powdered coffee beans and some with sugar too to stop the bleeding. The coffee beans supposedly have certain ability to make the wound heal faster. In most cases, the bandages are left on and will only be taken off in a few days time. For the Kampong Ayer boys, they would be asked to go into the water and the bandages would come off there.

The cut skins are dealt differently. For those on land, they will be buried in a piece of cloth with or without ashes. For Kampong Ayer, the skins will be dropped into an ash filled coconut shell and floated down the river. Why ashes? In those days, there many instances of people suffering from inability to urinate and this is said to be due to their skins being ‘disturbed’ by pontianaks. So one way to avoid this, would be to keep them in ashes. After the circumcision or before the circumcision, there would be a berzikir ceremony. For the boys, it would be particularly painful as they have to walk around the berzikir crowd getting ‘blessed’ by them.

As usual there were many pantang larangs. One particular one which stands out is not to have ladies walk in front of the boys. This one is more practical than the others. In those days, most boys would be around 15 years old before they undergo their circumcision. And at 15, they are fairly mature and the last thing you want to do when you are recovering with a wound to your sensitive area is to have stimulating thoughts.

PS. This is part of the article that I wrote for The Brunei Times which appeared on 24th March 2007. E-mail me if anyone is interested in the full article in pdf format.


Nonnie King said…
Ouch! It sounds so painful!

Thanks for sharing, I never knew such thing.
Anonymous said…
Gives me Shivers everythime I think about it.. Brrr

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