Malay Folk Remedies Live On

The therapy room at Bekam Klinikal Pulau Pinang.

THE MALAY PROVERB tak lapuk dek hujan, tak lekang dek panas – not weathered by rain, not scorched by heat – signifies the continued strength of traditions. Even with the ever-evolving nature of modern medicine, traditional remedies including those of the Malay community, never seem to disappear from public consciousness. This is especially true during a health pandemic, when we are all reminded of our vulnerability.

Provided here is just a taste of what Malay medicinal practices remain popular.

Bekam Therapy

Cupping therapy dates as far back as to ancient Egypt and China, and was believed to cure all kinds of sicknesses. Islamic practitioners of this art made use of elephant tusks, camel bones and bull horns. Today, this form of therapy, or bekam as it is locally known, is part of traditional Malay medicinal practices, due in no small part to the close connection to Islam.

The bekam therapy is noted for its detoxification benefits. It reduces levels of uric acid and cholesterol, and corrects acidosis.1 Dead red blood cells that clump together and form unwanted toxic substances causing diseases are also removed using this therapy. But not all patients are eligible for the treatment; those who are on blood thinners, on menses or pregnant are advised against using the therapy.

“Depending on the number of cups, the whole process takes about 30 minutes to an hour,” says Bekam Klinikal Pulau Pinang owner Mas Ayu Sahak@Ishak. Each session uses three different cupping methods. “Slide cupping uses low vacuum power cups that are slid along the affected body areas which are then massaged using wood made from the horn of a bull. These steps are to improve blood circulation.”

The treatment continues with dry cupping for 15 minutes. High vacuum power cups are placed on areas determined by the patient’s “health complications”, and on removing the cups, iodine is applied. “For wet cupping, mild cuts are made on the spots using incision knives, with the cups functioning as suctions.” Most patients prefer disposable cups to reduce the risk of infection, but bruises are to be expected post-cupping. “Their visibility depends on the blood circulation of the area that is cupped. If there is blood stasis, the bruises will be darker. But they will usually fade within a week,” says Ayu. Some, however, regard the bekam therapy with skepticism for a host of reasons. Intense pain, contracting infections and developing addiction are some of the worries. “My customers come from all walks of life,” Ayu says, adding that the growing number of cupping therapy clinics in Malaysia is evidence of public acceptance. “A lot of bekam therapy enthusiasts now attend anatomy and physiology classes before becoming practitioners. I wager there will be more cupping therapy clinics in the future.”

Confinement Practices

Midwife Fazilah Ismail.

Midwife Fazilah Ismail is convinced that massages are the backbone of all Malay confinement practices. “Nothing can’t be solved with a good massage,” she says. The constant pain and sores from pregnancy takes a toll on the mothers’ bodies and to “refresh” the physique, traditional postnatal massages are recommended. “The first three to four days begin with light massages on the face and head, to slowly ease the tension of muscles, before the body is fully massaged.”

Keeping mothers stress-free during confinement is crucial for positive outcomes. To illustrate, the traditional urut susu is used as remedy for first-time mothers who have complications with breast milk production. “From my experience, nine out of 10 mothers are able to overcome the issue after being given the massage. It also helps with the volume increase and reduces the swelling of breasts,” Fazilah explains.

Sengkak is another form of postnatal massage believed to help elevate the position of the womb, preventing it from sagging. This lower abdomen massage is given towards the end of the confinement period.

Bertungku, or herbal compress, using herbal leaves, a large river stone and a piece of cloth, is applied for mothers to regain their figures. Rather interestingly, communities in northern Malaysia use “a thin rectangular-shaped metal for compressing instead,” says Fazilah. “But both the stone and metal serve the same purpose of disintegrating blood clots to allow for better blood circulation.” The herbal compress is applied twice daily, and the stone or metal must first be heated on a stove before it is wrapped with the herbal leaves and cloth. According to Fazilah, the importance of herbs in bertungku cannot be stressed enough. “The essence of galangal, pandan and mengkudu, when combined with the heat from the compressing tool, are absorbed and heals the skin.”

Daily herbal baths are also encouraged throughout the 44-day confinement period; and if the practices are religiously followed, mothers will be able to regain their pre-birth figures and energies in due time.

Herbal Petua (Tips)

Herbal advocates are of the opinion that herbal remedies and medicines are generally safe for consumption since they come from natural sources. But Fazilah warns that not all are suitable for eating. “The rarer ones are also costlier, which is why traditional medicine is pricier in comparison.”

Even with the ever-evolving nature of modern medicine, traditional remedies including those of the Malay community, never seem to disappear from public consciousness.

A herbal aficionado herself, Fazilah advises her customers to regulate their intake of herbal remedies. “You can judge the remedy’s suitability based on how your body responds to it. Jamu, for example, if not accepted, causes a spike in body temperature or bad headaches. It is best to start with small doses when trying out new remedies, despite what is recommended on the product’s label.” Herbs like ginger, lemongrass, fenugreek and pandan leaves are typically made into refreshing drinks. Other traditional petua for skincare uses blended tapioca flour and cucumber as face masks;2 and homemade lulur scrubs remove dead skin cells, leaving the skin soft and supple.3

Fazilah says she is confident the practice of traditional remedies will continue well into the future. “My only concern is if not taught properly, there will soon be only a handful of us practitioners remaining.”  

1 Acidosis describes a high acid content found in body fluids.

Aliya Abd Rahim is (racially) a fusion of "sambal belacan" and "tandoori". She enjoys photography and is a Star Wars enthusiast.

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