Swee Hee and Siva equipped for a magical mystery tour.
If you happen to have an hour to spare on a dreary afternoon, you could do worse than poke your duck into this touring exhibition of Jamu at the NUS Museum in the University Cultural Centre (that shining glassy building overlooking the AYE).
It seems many people here associate Jamu with notions of sleazy little herbalist outfits based in Joo Chiat near the Malay Village. It may well be that the vital task of making one's duck big, strong and squirty is a part of the Jamu practitioner's herblore, but there is much more to this world of savoury scents and spiritual balance than just concoctions that promise to lubricate nocturnal trysts.
The Hindu Goddess of Science and Beauty, Dewi Saraswati, holding a chain of beads and a lontar (a script written on palm leaves).
A pair of ancient stone carvings depicting Ken Dedes, a goddess of beauty. She was the wife of an ancient king. According to one tale, a rival ruler, Ken Arok, happened to see her when a wind blew up her gown. A vision came to him that she must become his wife. A pesta sandiwara ensured. The reliefs were originally placed back-to-back but were probably positioned side by side for the exhibit to ward off any perverse ideas that visitors might conjure.
Beneath its Muslim veneer, life in much of Indonesia retains facets that have survived the collapse of earlier empires: the Hindu Majapahit kingdom that spawned a refugee whose heirs still overlook the stifled straits; the cursed domain of Singhasari; the vast Buddhist realm of Srivijaya; and the alluvial deposits of Sailendra that shone as Rome faded. It's likely that if one scratches the underlying layer of assimilated faiths, traces will appear of even earlier credos that link life and death to the fickle forces of nature that govern this land of spewing fire and surging water.
A shaman's asmat chair from which the dukun intones his benedictions. It doesn't look particularly comfy, but try not to sit on it anyway. You never know what that woody guy might do....
The word Jamu has its origins in the ancient Krama Javanese tongue that defined "magical formulas" as Jampi. It's a curious observation that the ancients from Java to Sparta regarded balance as an essential trait of human health. The Greeks (and Europeans up to the late Middle Ages) sought to heal by rectifying imbalances that result in an excess of one or more of the four temperaments: the sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic. The Book of Tao regards a harmonious and interdependent interaction between the yin and yang forces as the key to physical well-being.
The boxy thingy is a 'thumb piano'. It looks more like one of those ancient Chinese torture devices to me. But that may well be the result of trying to play it.
Similarly, the early irrationalism of ancient Indonesia gave rise to a syncretism that ascribes power over life and fate to an invisible force that permeates the material world. When disturbed or neglected, illness results which is soothed with the aid of individuals – dukun or balian – who have the gift of transcending the physical sphere with offerings and supplications to appease and mend the disruptions of a parallel realm. Some even take to harnessing these forces – bred in the shells of unborn babies – for goals good and foolish. Others assume the guise of storytellers who beguile the nights of fragile villagers with leathery reenactments of heroic times and the otherworldly rhythms of ringing gamelan. Later, it was thought that certain objects such as kris daggers, amulets and magical paintings could, with the right ritual, endow protection upon the living. The bioactive brews of indigenous plants and animals were also brought into play, having powers both real and imagined to raise the thermal sensibilities of chilled souls or stem the overheated passions of fevered spirits. Whatever the means, the desired end was one where the worlds of men and domains of gods and demons encircled each other in a dance of dynamic harmony.
It's believed that up to 80% of women in Indonesia have used Jamu formulas to heal, thrill or even kill. Even today, perceptive visitors to the archipelago's thronging cities can glimpse occasional ibus with a basket of bottles on their backs, ferrying to the doors of humble citizens the premixed remedies of folk wisdom. It's also thought that the high reliance on balms that beautify and charms that cast amorous spells stem in part from the ease with which local men could divorce their wives, who as a result sought manifold means to secure their menhood, or sow the retribution of spurned spouses. It must have been a dangerous time for many ducks...
A basket used to put sick
monkeys babies in.
The wise few who have mastered the art of treading between the worlds of the visible and ethereal became, and still are, indispensable overseers of life's vital milestones. Dukun bayi were present to ensure the infants and mothers were safe from assaults from jealous, unchilded spirits, while the dukun hujan possesses the means to evoke showers of harvest blessing from the parched heavens. One class of dukuns specialise in the reassembly of broken bones. There are also, of course, general practitioners who dispense elixirs of hope and healing to those plagued by common depressions.
And to this day, despite the influx of Wahhabi winds, the invisible force that grants a measure of control and clarity over nature's will continues to seeps through the lives of modern homes in this land of lost islands. Does mrs budak recall our sighting of a medicine man who with a whisper and flick turned youths on hobby horses into knights frothing with fury? It seems that just beyond our doorsteps, the magic and mystery is still out there, unveiling its might at moments of enchantment.
This carving was placed near entrance to the exhibition. I suppose its fitting, as it has the clear ability to enchant, despite its age...