“During the course of the ritual, I will come to know if she is a virgin. But I will never tell. No matter how the family begs me, I will not say. I must keep this to myself. This is the ethics of the Mak Andam.”
Potong Andam is a hair cutting ritual that is traditionally performed on Malay brides. It involves cutting the baby hairs on the forehead in a manner which is believed to make the bride appear more radiant (this is distinct from the beautification process which involves make-up).
The radiance is believed to last up to 3 months.
It is a dying tradition.
The practice is originally a Hindu custom which became adapted to Muslim beliefs when Islam became dominant in the region. You still see the Hindu influence in the costumes and rituals.
Makcik Saniah’s family is originally from Padan, Sumatra. But she was born in Pontian, Malaysia and came to Singapore as a girl. She is the 3rd generation of Mak Andams – teachings handed down from her grandmother.
“You can teach the craft of make-up and beauty to anyone. But to perform the spiritual rituals, you need to be descended from the correct line, to have been brought up in the tradition and to have the right temperament.”
Her granddaughter, she says, might be able to carry on the tradition when she is older “and a bit calmer.” And she would need to be married as the rituals can only be carried out by married women.
“As a girl she came with me many times and is familiar with the custom. It would be easy to teach her.”
But her granddaughter, studying in Australia, seems unlikely to follow in granny’s footsteps.
Traditionally the wedding ceremony would be be long and regimented. The preparations would include spiritual practices to protect the newlywed couple and hosts from black magic – sent possibly by family rivals or jealous parties.
“But people don’t tend to do the spiritual rituals as much these days. There is less belief in them now.”
And there is a clash with Islam which doesn’t recognise black and white magic.
So these days wedding packages are tailored to the desires of the wedding couple and much of the old ritual is eliminated.
However the beautificant (make-up) and potong andam (for radiance) are still often requested.
Makcik Saniah remains active and travels to many “ulu kampungs” in Malaysia on request. “Sometimes I need to get there by sampan.”
She has wedding packages that include wedding gowns for both newlyweds, headdress, chairs for the dais, beautification, potong andam, henna and food catering.
Some people believe that the Mak Andam also performs a virginity test for the benefit of the family in order to “avoid scandal.”
That’s not quite right…
“By spending time with the girl and doing the ceremony, I will know. I just know. But I will not tell.”
She is very discreet about the privacy of the ceremony.
“Do you think life is better for women these days?”
“Yes. Last time girls were very fearful and had no education. But now with education, they are much braver! But sometimes too brave!”
She would have gladly followed her granddaughter to Australia to chaperone her. But her son, the child’s father, smiles knowingly.
“She needs her freedom. Times have changed.”
(Note – the entire interview was conducted in Malay and the quotes are paraphrasing).