Hari Raya Open House

Hari Raya © Adrian Cheah

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language describes an open house as "a social event in which hospitality is extended to all". This could be taken to mean that the diplomacy of inviting one and all to your house to celebrate an event is not an unfamiliar practice. But one could conjecture that nowhere else in the world would you find an open house event as big and as merry as the ones held in Malaysia.

Hari Raya © Adrian Cheah

Hari Raya © Adrian Cheah

Hari Raya Aidilfitri (known elsewhere as Eid) is a major occasion in the Islamic calendar. It marks the end of Ramadhan and the beginning of Syawal.

During Ramadhan, all Muslims must fast during daylight hours for at least 30 days. Because Islam uses the lunar cycle to determine important days, Ramadhan and Syawal occur in different months in the Gregorian calendar each year. While observing the fast, indulgence of any sort, like food, drink, or sexual activity, is forbidden. The sick and infirmed, and women who are pregnant, are excused.

Kapitan Keling Mosque © Adrian Cheah

During Ramadan special prayers (sembahyang Terawih) lasting some two hours are performed every night in mosques. After prayers, Muslims also spend some time reciting the Koran before retiring. The ideal is to complete the entire book before the end of the fasting month, and the arrival of Syawal.

During the month of Syawal (otherwise known as Hari Raya Aidilfitri or Hari Raya Puasa), many Muslims open the doors of their homes to welcome all, bringing together people irrespective of creed, culture and position to participate in the rejoicing.

Hari Raya © Adrian Cheah

An open house brings people together regardless of their religion, position or background. Local favourites like lemang,  ketupat (rice wrapped in coconut leaves), peanut sauce and rendang (a dry spicy beef dish) are served.

Hari Raya © Adrian Cheah

The above collage shows delicious curries prepared by Norliza née Elizabeth Cheah, the photographer's eldest sister for the Raya celebration. Coming from a big family, she starts cooking a day before to cater for family and friends who would come a-calling.

The family photos below were taken in 2019 and on the left, the photographer and his sister were all smiles for the camera! Although she was battling cancer that year, she made a great effort to celebrate life, making it count, knowing that time is precious and best spent with family and friends.

Hari Raya © Adrian Cheah

Hari Raya © Adrian Cheah

In the past, large-scale open houses, like those organised by political figures, were announced via the mass media. Due to the extraordinary volume of attendees, large-scale open houses are usually held at venues big enough to hold colossal events. A steady stream of visitors can be seen making their way to open houses during scheduled times, not only to eat and have fun but to meet the country's leaders. Tourists are most welcomed to such events.

Hari Raya Aidilfitri officially begins at the sighting of the moon on the last day of Ramadhan and is the most joyous celebration of the Muslim community. The sighting of the first moon of the following month, Syawal, by religious elders signals the eve of Hari Raya. The festival begins the following day.

Weeks before the big day, excitement mounts as the house is thoroughly cleaned and readied for the celebration with new furnishing and decorations, and the festive fare is feverishly prepared. Flight, train and long-distance coach tickets are quickly sold out as it is customary for Muslim families to celebrate Hari Raya Aidilfitri together, while others take advantage of the two-day public holiday to go somewhere or return to their hometowns.

Hari Raya © Adrian Cheah

On the morning of the first day of Hari Raya, it is customary for the men to attend special prayers at the mosques, followed by a visit the cemetery with family members to pray for the departed souls of loved ones. They then make their way home to receive visiting relatives and friends. The noble act of asking for forgiveness from each other for all past wrongdoings and grievances is a must on this day.

The "rumah terbuka" or open house concept is prevalent in Malaysian culture especially during major festivals and celebrations like the Hari Raya Aidilfitri, Chinese New Year and Christmas.

His Majesty, the King of Malaysia and Muslim government leaders also hold "open houses" for the public at their official residences.

The Prime Minister, Dato' Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohammad and his wife stood for hours greeting the thousands of well-wishers during his 2002 Hari Raya Aidilfitri open house. Visitors took the opportunity to shake hands and take photographs of the Prime Minister before his retirement in October 2004.

On 10 May 2018, Tun Dr. Mahathir was sworn in again as the Prime Minister, returning to office at the age of 92. That year, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and members of the Cabinet held an open house at the Seri Perdana complex on the first day of Aidilfitri. Dr. Mahatir was overwhelmed by the massive turnout. Malaysians, regardless of race, turned out that day, many in traditional Malay outfits. According to Malaysiakini, the crowd was estimated at 80,000.

Likewise in many homes throughout the country, family members visit each other and friends from different religious and ethnic communities are welcome to join in the celebration. Hari Raya Aidilfitri, is celebrated for 30 days and the festive greeting is "Selamat Hari Raya".

Hari Raya © Adrian Cheah

In 2020 however, Hari Raya was very different amid the Covid-19 pandemic with movement control orders, lockdowns and travel ban enforced in Malaysia. 2021 was no different from 2020. Large gatherings were banned as well as visits to family homes and the annual "balik kampung" exodus. It was a more subdued holiday with people observing social distancing and discouraged from leaving their homes. We hope 2020 and 2021 will be exceptions and a thing of the past as the grand Hari Raya Open House celebrations return in full swing again.

Written by Raja Abdul Razak in 2003
Photographed by Adrian Cheah
© All rights reserved
Updated 28 April 2022