DUKUN: TRADITIONAL HEALERS IN INDONESIA
Dukun—traditional healers—continue to play an important role in health care, particularly in rural areas. Often, the services of a dukun are used in conjunction with Western-style medicine. In some rural areas, these healers represent a treatment option of first resort, especially when there is no community health center nearby, or if the only modern health care available is expensive, or the facility is understaffed. Ideas about healing differ greatly among the hundreds of ethnic groups, but often healers use extensive knowledge of herbal medicines and invoke supernatural legitimacy for their practice. [Source: Library of Congress *]
Dukun are common in rural Indonesia. There are different kinds of dukun, each with different specialties such as agriculture ceremonies, healing rituals or fertility rites. A dukun santet is a practitioner of black magic. Nicholas Herriman wrote in Inside Indonesia: Dukun are “men and women who can provide supernatural assistance in everything from curing a sore neck to finding a love mate or ensuring business fortune. They usually do this for a small fee, but some can become quite wealthy and even famous. Muslim scholars, who are exclusively male, called kyai, can usually provide similar services, although they make more of a point of insisting it all comes down to God’s will. [Source: Nicholas Herriman, Inside Indonesia, April - June 2013, Herriman lectures in anthropology at La Trobe University */*]
Dukun call on spirits and use the Koran and the power of Allah to do what they do. They claim they can cure everything from impotence to cancer and charge $25 to $150 depending on the severity of the illness. They also predict the future, give marital advice, perform exorcisms, send small magical knives called krises to bring good luck and insert gold under people's skin to make them look more attractive. [Source: Time, January 1999]
Treatments by Traditional Healers in Indonesia
Dukun are consulted on health matters, to find lost property and to ward off evil spirits. Some are herbalists, midwives and masseuses who specialize in healing using magic and spells. Their training involves fasting, prayers and training in silat. On the island of Siberut, healers are initiated a torchlight ceremony with ritual dancing and songs. Many Indonesians visit both Western-style medical doctors and dukuns if they have a problem Ronny Nitibaskara, an anthropologist at the University of Indonesia told the New York Times, “People fear them and respect them. Their mistakes are excused and their word is accepted even though it is wrong and it is nonsense.”
Traditional medicine is alive throughout the archipelago. Dukun deal with a variety of illnesses of physical, emotional, and spiritual origin through combinations of herbal and magical means. In north Sumatra, some ethnic curers specialize; for example, Karo bonesetters have many clinics. Herbal medicines and tonics called jamu are both home blended and mass produced. Commercial brands of tonics and other medicines are sold throughout the archipelago, and tonic sellers' vehicles can be seen in remote places.[Source: everyculture.com ^^]
Various forms of spiritual healing are done by shamans, mediums, and other curers in urban and rural areas. Many people believe that ritual or social missteps may lead to misfortune, which includes illness. Traditional healers diagnose the source and deal with the problems, some using black arts. Bugis transvestite healers serve aristocratic and commoner households in dealing with misfortune, often becoming possessed in order to communicate with the source of misfortune. In Bali, doctors trained in modern medicine may also practice spirit-oriented healing. Accusations of sorcery and attacks on alleged sorcerers are not uncommon in many areas and are most liable to arise in times of social, economic, and political unrest. [Source: Library of Congress *]
Miracles Performed by Traditional Healers
Indonesians have all heard stories about miracles performed by dukun. People say they have seen them turn peanuts into stones and head about instances in which they flew. The dukun sell patients magic pills and tell them to memorize verses to make them immune to bullets.
One dukun told the New York Times, “They say that I can fly, do you believe me? A helicopter flies like me. It’s not that I can’t disappear, but if I do I might not come back.” He then went on to say that the fact he could disappear might explain why he often got away without paying bus fares.
Training by miracle-performing dukun involves walking on fire, fasting at the bottom of wells and studying ancient secrets. Time magazine described one dukun who slept on his grandmother's grave for 1,000 days to enhance his supernatural powers and used incense, broken glass, flowers, nails and razor blades to perform cures. Some dukun write passages from the Koran and tell women to insert them in their bras for protection from black magic.
Dukun Crab Remover
Some dukun are faith healers who reportedly remove animals and objects that cause ailments from the bodies of their patients. Seth Mydans of the New York Times met one who removed crabs, frogs, bats, cockroaches, screws, hinges, sea shells, chicken bones, twigs, nails and other objects. He performs much of his healing at his home, where he keeps pet birds and monkeys. The treatments usually involves and evening diagnosis and prayer and morning surgery.[Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, August 27, 2001 <>]
Describing the treatment by one dukun on a male patient who complained of pain in his head and a burning sensation in his nose, Seth Medans wrote in the New York Times, “In his all-black outfit and black gaucho hat, his stethoscope around his his neck and his medical tools—a dagger and two Philips screwdrivers—he seemed an unlikely medicine man....With a casual flourish...he pulled his hand from under his patent’s gut and held up the crab, wet, whitish, wriggling slightly, about three inches long...‘It didn’t hurt when it went in, so it doesn’t hurt when it comes out,’...explaining why there is no exit wound.” <>
Describing another treatment, Medans wrote, “He poked at the back of another patient. ‘There’s something in there, feel it?’ he said and some the people who tried said they could. Mr. Sukari buried his hand beneath the man’s rib cage and came out with a handful of rubble: three pebbles, a small crystal and a rusty nail. With the flip of a hand he tossed them on to the ground.” <>
Diagnosis by a Dukun Crab Remover
For a diagnosis, Mydans wrote: “He pokes with his fingers, slaps with the side of his dagger, scribbles on the skin with a ball point pen. He listens with his stethoscope and prods with his screwdrivers. One lights up with a small red light when he pushes button. The other makes a beeping sound...’Not much nutrition in the blood,’ he said....’Dirty blood, difficult to get blood pressure.’” [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, August 27, 2001 <>]
The key diagnosis came when the patient lay on his back and an egg was placed on his stomach. ‘Instead do using an X-ray,’ he the dukun said. ‘I use a chicken egg to find out what’s going on inside.’” He then explained that X-rays can’t pick up the objects he finds because they are “invisible to modern science.” <>
One happy patient of the crab-removing dukun told the New York Times, “I used to be crazy. I stopped people in the marketplace and threatened them with machetes. I’ve been coming here for a year now and I feel better as long as I don’t eat meat.” <>
Traditional Treatments in Indonesia
To reduce stretch marks after pregnancy women have traditionally employed a combination of massage, body wraps, and tonics. Following childbirth, women in many parts of the archipelago engage in “roasting.” Although different ethnic groups have different explanations for the practice, it usually involves the seclusion of the mother and her child for a period following childbirth—from a few weeks to months—so that she might submit herself to prolonged exposure to the warmth of a hearth or other source of heat. In general, it is believed that this speeds the process of recovery, but many believe it helps replace a woman’s lost blood, returns her body to a trim and fit shape, and helps “dry her out.” [Source: everyculture.com ^^]
Bekam, or blood-letting by use of suction cups, is similar to Chinese moxibustion. According to expat.or.id: Kerok “is the name given to the custom of rubbing a coin on a person’s back in combination with the application of balsam or lotion in order to relieve aches and pains known as “masuk angin” or “wind coming in”. It can be quite shocking to see one of your staff members with red welts or dark red marks showing on their neck or back. As the coin is rubbed hard in a pattern of lines in order to break blood vessels under the surface to “release the wind”. It actually does not hurt the person who is suffering “masuk angin” but provides (to their way of thinking/believing) relief from pain, headache or flu symptoms.” [Source: expat.or.id ]
Traditional Medicines in Indonesia
Many Indonesians use herbal cures, known as jamu, made from secret recipes of roots, herbs, and spices. They are consumed to treat a host of illnesses and are often taken to make the user feel more attractive and stronger. The author of book on jamu wrote, “All concoctions are simple, practical , exotic and rarely expensive”. Influenced by Indian, Chinese and Arab medicines, and the traditional medicines of different Indonesian ethnic groups, they often contain ingredients harvested from the rain forest and follow recipes that have been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. [Source: Slobadan Lekic, AP]
Many jamu are made at home and sold on the streets by young women vendors from wicker baskets strapped to their sarongs. In recent years the jamu industry has become dominated more and more by commercial concerns and large companies. Many consumers but jamu because they can’t afford anything else. Western medicines are far too expensive. Typical ingredients include varieties of ginger, nutmeg, cardamom. cloves, chilies, and fruits. The most popular mixtures treat fatigue, muscle and joint pain, infertility, high cholesterol, skin problems and indigestion.
Some of the bestsellers are ones that claim to improve sexual performances, Varieties marketed for men claim to “stimulate sexual function, enhance zest, desire and energy, and prolong youthful function.” Women’s versions “increase desire and harmony between husband and wife.”Tonics and powders that promise to help users get rid of wrinkles, lose weight, and cure of baldness are also popular.
Royalty and Traditional Medicines
Many Indonesians believe that many of Indonesia’s traditional medicines, known as jamu, were originally concocted in the royal courts of Solo and Yogyakarta, where health and beauty treatments were a big part of court life. These medicines were not available to the public until the 1830s when their secrets began to trickle out. One member of the royal family who started a jamu company said. “Our lives revolved around jamu. We would prepare, drink and talk about jamu from morning to night. It was an obsession.”
The royal courts employed an army of herbalists to ground and prepare the often bitter-tasting jamus. They used more than 400 different plants and often added sweeteners like cinnamon, fennel, mint and palm sugar to improve the taste. Women used an elaborate combination of lotions, potions and massage to keep their hair and skin beautiful.
'Islamic Medicine' in Indonesia
Denis Gray of Associated Press wrote: “A 47-year-old housewife who recently started using Islamic medicine emerged tearfully from an exorcism, speaking of newfound tranquility after a turbulent period. Also, her abdominal pains are finally easing. Suratmi, who suffers from an ovarian cyst, has been taking a mix of herbal medicine harking back to the dawn of Islam, as well as undergoing exorcisms at a clinic in Jakarta. She is among a growing number of Muslims in Southeast Asia turning away from Western medical care in favor of al-Tibb al-Nabawi, or Medicine of the Prophet, a loosely defined discipline based on the Quran and other Islamic texts and traditional herbal remedies. "I heard that so many people have been healed, so I hope Allah can help me. I followed His path here," said Suratmi, who like many Indonesians goes by one name. [Source: Denis Gray, Associated Press, September 26 2011 ~/~]
“The Islamic medicine trend is often associated with fundamentalists who charge that Western, chemically laced prescriptions aim to poison Muslims or defile them with insulin and other medicines made from pigs. Members of terrorist groups have been involved in Islamic medicine as healers and sellers, while some clinics are used as recruiting grounds for Islamist causes. But the bulk of those seeking out Islamic clinics, hospitals and pharmacies, appear to be moderate Muslims, reflecting a rise in Islamic consciousness worldwide. "Islamic medicine carries a cachet that, by taking it, you are reinforcing your faith - and the profits go to Muslims," says Sidney Jones, an expert on Islam in Southeast Asia with the International Crisis Group. ~/~
“Islamic medicine, toiletries and beauty products have become a big business and industry's advertising can be just as gimmicky as any in the West. Capitalizing on the popularity of U.S. President Barack Obama, who spent four of his childhood years in Indonesia, one company produces a popular anti-stress concoction called Obahama - in a corruption of an Indonesian phrase for herbal medicine. Siwak-F, also exported to the Middle East, is hailed as "toothpaste just like the Prophet used to use." ~/~
“What is termed classical Islamic medicine developed in medieval times when it far outshone that in Christian Europe, and exerted a significant influence on it. Practitioners say many ingredients in today's treatments were used in Mohammed's time, including honey, olive oil, bee pollen, dates and black caraway - which one ad claims is "a cure for every disease but death." Brury Machendra, secretary-general of the Traditional Herbal Medicine Association of Indonesia, says most Indonesian Muslims don't doubt conventional medicine. But he says Indonesia's health services are so poor and expensive that many people seek out alternatives. Jemaah Islamiyah, an al-Qaida-linked militant network that is essentially banned in Indonesia, is believed to have links to some herbal manufacturers and operate many of the country's Islamic medicine clinics, International Crisis Group says.”~/~
“In Indonesia, traditional medicine really took off after a government promotional campaign in 2009, says Brury Machendra, owner of the Insani Herbal Clinic in suburban Jakarta where Suratmi and up to 400 other patients per month seek treatment. Only one such clinic existed in the Depok suburb two years ago, but now there are 20, with 70 others waiting for government permits. His clinic offers herbal medicine, a bloodletting treatment known as bekam and exorcisms in which a white-gloved therapist places a hand on a patient's head while chanting verses from the Quran.
“An exorcism costs about $12, while Machendra's government-certified herbal products such as the anticancer BioCarnoma and anti-diabetes BioGlukol go for no more than $5 for 60 capsules. He acknowledges that clinics such as his benefit from traditional Muslim rules forbidding certain ingredients and that many fundamentalists "tell people not to go to infidel doctors and say that buying Western medicine is forbidden." ~/~
Indonesian 's Lie on Railroad Track for “Electric” Cure
Advocates of 'electric therapy' lie on tracks so they can get a jolt from trains. The practice caught on after a suicidal stroke victim changed his mind upon feeling rejuvenated by the electric current. Reporting from Jakarta, Kate Lamb wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Each afternoon, Abdul Rachman indulges in his favorite way to reduce the stresses of the working world: He sits on the railway tracks not far from home. Rachman, a 32-year-old security guard, says the unorthodox practice is intended to prolong his life, not end it. "Many people say I want to kill myself because I do this," said the stocky man with a thick mustache, who has suffered from rheumatism and fatigue. "People can say what they want. I do it because I want to be cured." [Source: Kate Lamb, Los Angeles Times, September 9, 2011 |^|]
“Rachman is among scores of advocates of railway "electric therapy," a treatment some Indonesians believe cures such ailments as strokes, asthma, high blood pressure and rheumatism, not to mention a hard day at the office. The practice took off last year after a man suffering from the effects of a stroke reportedly lay down on the track in an attempt to commit suicide but jumped off after feeling rejuvenated by the oncoming train's electric current. Now others flock to the spot near the Rawa Buaya Station in west Jakarta, along a litter-strewn riverbank that reeks of sewage. |^|
“Ignoring the makeshift bamboo fencing that's meant to keep people off the tracks, they lie on the ground, splaying their limbs over the rails. Some lie with their necks and ankles exposed on the iron ribbons, while others like Rachman sit cross-legged gripping the rails with both hands. Believers say that as trains pass on adjacent racks, they administer a string of low-voltage electric shocks that jolt away whatever ails people. So far, at least, officials say, no one has been struck by trains. Rachman says his muscle pain is gone and that he sleeps better. Almost evangelical about the therapeutic merits, he has made daily sojourns to the tracks for three months and even knows the train timetable by heart. "It just feels so good," he said. "If you're tired or have rheumatism, you touch the rails and all the tiredness vanishes. Your whole body feels lighter." |^|
Not everyone is buying the instant cure. "I don't believe the treatment can cure rheumatism or high cholesterol. There is no data, no research," said Oki Kadarusman, a Jakarta physician. "Mystical reasons are driving [people] to things like railway therapy." Skepticism has led the local government to ban the practice, and officials have posted hand-painted signs along the tracks asking people not to "sleep on the rails." But the measures have had limited success. "I worry that someone will get electrocuted or the children will get hit by a train when their parents are doing the therapy, but we can't force them to leave. All we can do is warn people about the dangers," said Suardi, head of the Rawa Buaya Station, who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name. |^|
Although the ban has reduced the number of adherents, many still flock here to see what all the fuss is about. "I know there is a sign saying we mustn't do this, but I still come because I want to be healthy," said 66-year-old Elan, who lives in a concrete apartment block next to the tracks. She said the visits have improved her health, reducing her blood pressure and cholesterol. Many Indonesians practice a form of Islam that is mixed with superstition and traditional beliefs, including voodoo-like treatments to ward off spells and illnesses. |^|
“Still, rail therapy seems to be a case of economics rather than black magic. With more than 31 million Indonesians living below the poverty line, proper healthcare is a luxury not everyone can afford. Agus Purwadianto, a Health Ministry spokesman, said officials don't condone the practice, but he acknowledged that the national healthcare system might be stretched too thin. "It is very dangerous and there is no proof in conventional medicine that it works, but still they continue. I think people use this electric treatment because the national health system is insufficient," he said.” |^|
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated June 2015