Native Religion in Malaysia: An Introduction


Native Religion known generally as paganism, is one of the many religions of Malaysia. Referred to locally as “agama asal”, it is practiced largely by the complex and diverse communities that comprise the indigenous minority of Malaysia.

It is a comprehensive system of beliefs closely connected to nature and the earth. Elements of nature are often included in its rituals and symbols. In general, nature is often regarded as the base of life, as the earth where the soil, rivers, trees, rocks and animals are seen to possess a form of “life” that is similar to human beings. Nature is even regarded to have its own language that only the followers of the native religion can understand, even though this “language” is not verbally communicated in words of human understanding. The practitioners of native religions believe that nature is moved by a very powerful cosmic energy. Humans cannot live without nature but nature will endure even without humans.


The sharing of space with nature leads the practitioners of native religions to be in awe and respect towards rocks, trees, rivers and soil. This is expressed by conducting traditional rituals as a sign of gratitude towards nature for providing them life. This is why practitioners of native religion usually inhabit near the mountains, forests and river areas to be close to these natural resources.

The Protecting Spirit

As an introduction to this series, my article will be describing native religion with particular focus on the Dusun Tindal tribe in Kota Belud, Sabah, which is the tribe I am from. We have, in essence, developed a very close bond with nature, especially with forests, rivers, animals and trees.

We believe that trees possess spirits that can communicate with humans. As an example of this point of view, I will share a story that was told to me by my grandmother.

During the War with Japan, villagers were not allowed to go out to a river or to hunt.  However, my grandmother had a son named Buko who had somehow mustered the courage to go to the river on his own, as it was near a tree where he had often played.

As he was playing by the river, Buko was surprised to see the trunk of the tree suddenly produce an image that resembles a human face with eyes, nose and mouth. It scolded him for going out to play at such a dangerous time and ordered him to go back home. The tree acted to protect Buko.

This story illustrates the importance and closeness of human and natural interaction that is assumed in native religion. There is a sense of understanding between them.


In addition, practitioners of native religion believe that nature has powers to heal mental and physical diseases.

For example, my grandmother would often use a type of water called ‘Wonod’ which is taken from the roots of a tree that circles around other bigger trees. ‘Wonod’ can heal fevers and sore throats.

Practitioners of native religion are therefore knowledgeable about herbal medicines. As another example, a type of leaf called ‘Totopis’ is also used to cure swellings on the neck and face.

Worship Rituals

The Dusun Tindal tribe also practices various kinds of traditional rituals. The main ritual is called ‘Tombilon’ which refers to a ceremony to summon or communicate with the spirit of nature called ‘Himbou’. Himbous are the angels on the sky that possess healing and visual powers. Even Himbous worship the most powerful spirit of nature called ‘Kinorohingan’, which means God.

Through Kinorohingan, Himbou gets the supernatural powers to aid the natives in their worship. For example, the Tombilon ceremony is usually performed to see the internal pains of a person, be it physical or mental, whereby the healer can see the causes of the ailments through dreams.

Himbous lead similar lives to human beings, though they live in a different world of villages and families. Himbous also have surnames with languages that can only be understood by the practitioners of Tombilon.

Collective ownership

The Dusun Tindal live by a principle called called ‘Mitatabong’ which can be translated as ‘collective ownership’. It is to us a form of harmony, as we believe it is also by the spirits.

During the hunting and harvesting seasons we would all partake in tasks without being paid, and the yields collected would be shared even with the spirits through a ritual whereby they would be thanked, for we believe that the food that grew out of the soil were granted by them.

As practitioners of native religion, we regard the spirits of the land with much respect, where we would even ask for their permission before settling at new lands. It is truly an extraordinary cosmic relationship with nature.

Religion or Merely Belief

Practitioners of native religion are usually aged around their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. Those below 50 do not seem to be practicing the religion as much.

One question that can be raised is: is everything I’ve described really a religion, or should it be considered simply as a belief system? I will reflect on this question in my upcoming article.

Lindu Livan is a youth environmentalist activist based in Sabah, East Malaysia.