Island Magic

Tony Farfalla takes a trip with his camera into the shadowy depths of Indonesian shamanism

Arts+Culture Feature
The Madura dukun perform a ritual

From the November issue of Dazed & Confused:

The young man stands firmly in front of me. His shirt has been removed and his arms are lifted towards the ceiling. The old dukun, or shaman, pulls the red-hot iron rod from the fire and plunges it into a bowl of water. Nobody in the room speaks as the boiling water is lifted to the young man’s mouth and poured down his throat. There is a prayer in the water, I’ve been told, and the young man will soon become invincible.  I ask one of the other men in the room how we will know when this happens. The dukun laughs as he takes a machete from the table and places the blade against the young man’s forehead. “I’ll show you how,” the dukun says, and begins pushing the blade into the skin.

I’ll show you how, the dukun says, and begins pushing the blade into the skin

A week earlier, I arrive on the island of Madura, looking for some of the most powerful dukun in Indonesia. It’s one of the most impoverished and underdeveloped areas in the archipelago, and Madura’s population has been migrating to other parts of Indonesia for decades. With them come stories of the island’s supernatural power, of the dark magic practised there. I alight at its easternmost point after six hours on a painfully hot, overcrowded bus. I am here for my own Madura dukun experience, and have no idea how easy it will be to find and how real it all is.

I meet Mr. Nasir at a small hotel near the town’s largest mosque. He is a small, elderly man with a grand smile of false teeth that click around as he speaks. He works various jobs, including a position at the local college, and occasionally smokes methamphetamines to keep up with the workload. A devout Muslim, he prays five times a day and has travelled to Mecca twice. He is also a firm believer in the practice of Maduran dark magic and relies on spells to guide him through life. He tells me of his current life crisis and how he plans to consult with a dukun for advice and possible supernatural assistance. For the next five days, Mr. Nasir will escort me around Madura to meet a variety of dukun and witness this supernatural assistance first hand.  

Visiting the Madura dukun of Indonesia

Indonesian dukun are held in high regard by their communities but are rarely revealed to strangers as magic practitioners. If their abilities are exposed, they could be killed by other dukun or hunted down and burned by the religious-extremist mob. They range from rain dukun, who keep bad weather away, to healing dukun, who perform spiritual surgeries, to the feared santet dukun, who place painful curses on their enemies and have the ability to kill through dark magic (ilmu hitam). Supernatural belief is deeply embedded in the culture. Nearly every financial and political decision is made with consultation from dukun. Indonesian television dramas work magic into their storylines, featuring dukun characters that cast love spells. Everyone on Madura seems to have their own tale of shamanistic thrill.

If their abilities are exposed, they could be killed by other dukun or hunted down and burned by the religious-extremist mob

The first stop in the search for my own thrill is the home of Amir, one of the most revered dukun in the area. Amir is a small, rather frail old man with glazed white eyes and weathered skin. He lives near the harbour and manages salt exports, and has four wives and several children. His home is small and filled with religious paintings daubed with large gold scripture. We sit down and he smiles. “I’ve been expecting you,” he says to me.

I wasn’t planning on discussing personal matters with Amir. I would have been perfectly content observing the exchange between him and Mr. Nasir, but now Amir begins to speak of my life at home in New York. He knows all about my career and the troubles I’ve been having. It’s beyond surreal. We speak at great length about events to occur in my future, including events that will come to fruition over the next few months of my life. Mr Nasir keeps laughing and nodding at me in an “I told you so” manner.

He points to his face and shows me the scars that grace his forehead. These are left by the worms eating my flesh

I ask Amir about his abilities and the source of this magic. He tells me it came from Allah. During his childhood, Allah spoke with him and gave him this gift. Through prayer and ritual, Amir was able to peek into the future and use his influence to change it. When asked if he had ever used this influence to harm someone he replies, “Yes. And it was through the power of Allah. But with a bath under the moon, I am cleansed of these sins.”

We say goodbye to Amir, who tells me that he will pray for me and that I should call him if I have any problems back in New York. I agree and with a light handshake and a hand to the heart, Mr Nasir and I move on.

The superstition that runs through the culture of Indonesia has a history in early island religion. Over the course of various periods of colonisation, the islands developed different modern religious belief systems. While the majority of islands operate under severe Muslim rule, some are governed by Catholic, Hindu and Buddhist laws. Yet despite the religious filter, belief in unworldly magic is common. Dukun have simply altered their ritual to fit the current religious landscape. In Madura, the power of Allah is the foundation for any magic.

After a day’s drive into the hills of central Madura, we arrive at a small home among a maze of cement buildings that composes a town in the jungle. The man living here is Aaban, a powerful dukun versed in the ways of the afterlife. It is after midnight when we sit with Aaban and several of his neighbours for coffee and cigarettes. The man next to me is consulting with Aaban in an effort to find his lost wife. Aaban leaves the room to pray, and moments later returns with a location for the man. The relieved visitor thanks Aaban and lays a pack of unfiltered cigarettes by the shaman’s lap – a gift for the spiritual guide.

Visiting the Madura dukun of Indonesia_

Aaban died over ten years ago. There was a funeral, he was buried, and a tombstone was placed over his corpse. Then, seven days later, he arrived home, wrapped in his white burial sheet, with maggot holes in his head. He was very much alive.

According to Aaban and his wife, he certainly did die; the grave is still on display at the cemetery. But after his burial, he traveled to the underworld of the dead where he gathered a great deal of knowledge. During this time his family and friends prayed for his return, and after seven days he clawed himself out of his grave. He points to his face and shows me the scars that grace his forehead. “These are left by the worms eating my flesh,” he says. His smile is warm, his eyes are calm and the scars are real.

Aaban can turn men into this form. When I ask if he has one to show me, he laughs and pulls out a small box from inside a drawer

Aaban can communicate with the dead, and has the extraordinary ability to turn men into jenglots. A jenglot is a mythical creature of tiny proportions that performs tasks under the direction of its master. They are sought after in Indonesia and can give their masters great wealth and protection. But they require a great deal of maintenance, including weekly offerings of blood. The stories say these small creatures are men who reached a point of knowledge and power beyond that of the human world and are condemned to the eternal form of a jenglot. Aaban can turn men into this form. When I ask if he has one to show me, he laughs and pulls out a small box from inside a drawer.

The variety of dukun practice and involvement is immense, changing to fit the abilities of each practitioner

Inside the box sits a small, dark, doll-like form about 4” in length, with coarse white hair and long fingernails. Two long teeth jut from each side of its head. It is not a pleasant thing to look at, but Aaban insists that I take it out and hold it. He places it in my hand and I feel the oily skin against my palm. “This jenglot protects my home,” he tells me. “It keeps the other dukun away.” This is the only jenglot Aaban owns, because the blood they consume costs a considerable amount of money (it is often purchased from the Indonesian Red Cross). Despite his high spiritual status, Aaban must sell tofu each morning to survive. He never asks for any money for his magic. “It is the power of Allah,” he says. “I cannot ask for money.”

I witness kesurupan — possessed dances — and healers taking on ghost energies from sacred swords

We bid farewell to Aaban, who promises to pray for me and asks me to return to Madura when I can. Before I leave he mentions three women that will be coming into my life. “The tall woman will teach you the most,” he tells me, laughing. I’m still sorting that one out.

The following days are filled with late nights in strange homes with some of the most powerful shamans I’ve encountered. I witness kesurupan — possessed dances — and healers taking on ghost energies from sacred swords. The variety of dukun practice and involvement is immense, changing to fit the abilities of each practitioner. And while these spirit workers denounce their abilities in public, they are sought after by their neighbours constantly for advice, guidance and intervention. They are an essential part of the community.

My last night in Madura is spent with Aasim, a truly dark practitioner with the ability to perform heavy spirit invocation (kesetanan). Aasim lives in a dilapidated mud home miles outside of Sumenep. Mr. Nasir is uneasy about going to see this man, who is known to perform a unique spell that makes a man invincible — completely immune to harm. He learned it from an old dukun many years ago and will perform it on any man for a small payment. This is the first time I have encountered a dukun that requested money for his service — a reflection of the magic’s intent. 

The arm of a man is slashed by a Madura dukun, yet
Photography by Tony Farfalla

We sit in Aasim’s dusty home as he explains the process to me. He tells me that I can be the strongest man alive, able to enter any battle without fear. The only condition is that I must not have sex with any woman other than my wife. I tell him I am not married, which confuses him terribly. I ask what happens if a man sleeps with another woman after the spell is complete. “They will suffer severe cuts all over their body,” he answers. I pass on the ritual, but offer to pay for another man to take part.

Within minutes we locate the willing young man who will participate in the ritual. He takes off his shirt and stands in the centre of the room. Aasim places the iron rod on the fire and begins to write an Arabic phrase – the prayer to bring in the power of Allah — on the back of a stone bowl, which he then fills with water. Once the iron rod is glowing red he places it into the bowl, bringing the water to a quick boil. When the boiling water is poured down the young man’s throat he does not flinch.

I wince as the machete is drawn down his forehead

Next, the dukun takes the stone bowl, stands behind the young man and slams it into his shirtless back, directly between the shoulder blades. The blow throws the man forward. Again, Aasim strikes him with the bowl, pushing him to the ground. As he stands up, a final blow is delivered, knocking him down once more. As he regains his footing, his eyes are filled with tears, his pupils dilated. Aasim tells him to hold his hands up and breathe in the spirit, then takes hold of the machete lying on the table and places the blade against the man’s forehead.

I wince as the machete is drawn down his forehead, nose and chin, then down his chest. There is no blood. The man’s face is calm and without lesions. The dukun draws the blade against the man’s back, then raises the machete and slashes at the man’s arm. There are no shouts or cries, only the soft chop of the blade against flesh. Aasim places the knife back on the table and sits down. The man stands in front of me, unharmed besides a small trickle of blood trailing down his left arm.

My thought is that the blade is not sharp, so I ask Aasim if I may see the machete. His eyes light up as he hands me the knife. It is old and rusted, but as I draw my finger down the blade, I pull back quickly. A cut appears on my finger. I look at Mr. Nasir then Aasim, and the dukun says: “The magic only works if you believe in it.”

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