Letter From Jakarta

The kris was perfect. It had real presence on the wall of the ramshackle attap house.

The wavy blade – the most important part of the Javanese bronze dagger – had three curves to symbolize fire, ardour and passion.

Hindu-inspired images of the mythological Garuda graced its burnished metal surface, while carved raksasa or demon figures writhed on the hilt and scabbard to ward off evil spirits.

For 32-year-old insurance agent Yuli Mardi who owned the kris, it was no ordinary knife. It was an integral part of his formal dress on ceremonial and festive occasions.

More importantly, he lived assured that its strong supernatural powers protected him and his wife and six-month-old child from danger.

His father had given it to him 10 years ago as an heirloom, to draw upon the powers of his ancestors stored in the sacred weapon.

Once every year, Mr Yuli cleans the 20-cm blade with flowers, lime and water in an elaborate ceremony attended by family members and close friends. Taking care of it, he said, would only strengthen its mystical power.

Age-old practices and tradition are still strong in Indonesia.

The Javanese burn incense to their ancestors and believe that the natural world is full of spirits.

They believe that the dalang or shadow puppeteer has supernatural powers, and they visit the dukun or local medicine man-cum-sorcerer to solve their problems.

A prominent healer in Yogyakarta, the spiritual centre of Java, employs the Koran to fight everything from cancer to impotence.

Depending on the severity of the problem, he will also insert slivers of gold under his clients’ skin to make them appear more beautiful or help resolve other difficulties.

For a fee, the dukun will also mail small magical krises to his clients for good luck.

In Jakarta, middle class clients line up to see the dukun for everything from marital problems to exorcisms. To effect a “cure” the spiritual healers employ a diverse range of weapons, including incense, broken glass, flowers, nails and razor blades.

One particular dukun is said to scribble messages from the Koran and instructs women patients to wear them in their bras to fend off black magic.

This ingrained belief in the spiritual world while prevalent in most urban centres is most conspicuous in the desa or villages in Java and to a lesser extent in Bali, Kalimantan, Sumatra and Sulawesi.

The dukun is treated like a king in the village. The average Javanese, however poor, would rather pay for the spiritual adviser to treat his sick child than to see a doctor for free.

In some villages, there is also a wise woman, called nini towok, on whose shoulders fall the task of protecting the community from thieves and other evildoers.

At planting and harvesting seasons, all the farmers of a desa, on the advise of the local dukun, would gather under an ancient holy waringen tree, bringing with them offerings, which they place at the base of the tree.

Food offerings would also be placed on little altars near the earth banks surrounding rice fields for spiritual protection. The makeshift altars look like toadstools. The top is a round tray made of woven split bamboo, into which cakes, sweetmeats and rice are placed, along with sprigs of flowers as decoration.

The villagers see no incompatibility between their efforts to appease the “field spirits” and their belief in Allah.

The One True God, they argue, has great things to attend to, such as pilgrimages to Mecca. How then can he be expected to keep his eye on rice crops in the Purwokoto village, and those of all the other millions of farmers in Java?

So, it is a matter for the Rice Goddess Dewi Sri and the field spirits under her to look after them.

Their respect for – and fear of – spirits is manifested in other ways. The Javanese make offerings also to the spirits of volcanoes.

In times of epidemics, crop failures or other adversities, they place their gifts near the mountain top. Some are even prepared to sacrifice their lives by leaping into the crater in the hope of appeasing the angry gods.

In some remote parts of Java, Indonesians believe that some people can transform themselves at night into matjan gadoengan or tigers. It is said that these people are recognisable during the day because of one tell-tale sign – they have no cleft on the upper lip.

Belief in these weretigers has forced many to cower in fear at home at night.

The legend goes that the lucky ones who escaped becoming dinner for these creatures were those who recognised them for who they were and were able to address them by their human names. The spell broken, the weretigers morph back into humans.

In the islands beyond Java, the superstition varies. In parts of Lombok, the gadoengan becomes not a tiger but a crocodile. In the Malukus, locals believe such a people can change themselves at will into all sorts of animal forms to spy on their neighbours.

Among the many strange beliefs the Javanese hold in connection with animals is that anyone who eats the flesh of a white water buffalo will become an albino.

While the black buffalo is killed rarely in Java, being too valuable as a draught animal, its white brother is in lesser danger of facing the butcher’s knife.

Three decades of modernisation in Indonesia has led to a cultural schizophrenia: McDonalds and the thumping rhythms of discos of the MTV generation against the drone of the traditional gamelan and ancient feudal rituals.

The resurgence of Islam in Indonesia continues to be tempered by this Javanese mysticism that has adapted and absorbed elements of Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity through the centuries.

About 90 per cent of Indonesians are Muslims. There are santris or Muslims who adhere to a strict interpretation of the religion’s tenets but a large number of Indonesians mix Javanese superstitions with Islam.

The latter – the abangans – in Java are as Javanese as they are Muslim.

The kris is still vital in Mr Yuli’s conservative Javanese household. But so is his Nokia handphone and the IBM clone connected to the Internet.

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