Storytime: Java

The concept of horses in trance is not isolated to Haiti or African countries. While traveling in Indonesia in the late 90’s, I witnessed a similar ritual in Java called Kuda Lumping. I experienced other events in the archipelago, primarily Sumatra, that involved speaking to the dead, telepathy, and displays of physical dis-associative behavior that involved sharp objects and eating glass.

My traveling companion had set us on a hunt throughout the islands of Indonesia for a look at the sacred Kris and the Serune Kale. Though almost everyone in Indonesia was packing some sort of blade *the knife culture is strong in this land* we knew we could only look and not buy due to our constant travel – the problems that arise when you are carrying a blade in your back pack. We decided instead to search for the Serune, one that was made diligently and masterfully; it held some power. It was not a game here.

Our query led us to schools, tiny shops hidden in alleys of bustling Indonesian towns, and now a neighborhood park in a small town in East Java that we had just arrived at a few hours earlier. We probably would have skipped coming here, however – we had been told in a town before this that some of the best musicians and crafters of the Serunee played on certain days of the month in this park. We planned to search for them and ask about their tools.

There was a cleared gathering place in this park and down below in the center were 4 young men, teens, practicing Penchak Silat exercises. People were watching, scattered about the concrete risers that surrounded the boys in this half circle. We were the two intriguing foreigners, and nearby- a smattering of extremely old folks and some bored looking young people, who were transfixed by our presence. A young guy approached us and asked questions. When we told him we were American he mentioned how much he loved Madonna and he wanted to write a letter to her. How could he get a letter to Madonna? We wanted to help him, but we felt a bit useless at that moment when it came to tracking down Madge. We did suggest finding a fan club- they could help guide him in the right direction. Thank god the internet was coming soon, hope he got everything needed to sate his Madonna admiration.

We asked him: who made those instruments? And gestured at the little band that was seated in a corner of the park, beyond the teenage boys. He pointed to the Serune player, a heavyset fellow who was clearly wearing a wig and sunglasses while focusing intently on the rhythm. “He is the one, he will tell you” the kid said. I asked him why the guy was in a disguise and he told us that the police in the town (who were part of the Muslim political party) would sometimes kill anyone practicing the old ways. That was the most extreme, but some people lose their jobs when it is found out that they are doing it.

***It is worth noting that a few months after this all happened in the park, we left Indonesia and went onward to Bangkok. Right before we left, the PPP Party was getting riled up and there were demonstrations and gatherings in almost every town we rolled into. Men in green, waving homemade flags, they were harmless to us – we would just wave our hands in support and move out of the fray. The only time was when traveling companion had their foot up against a large bus window – the crowd started yelling and brandishing blades. “Move your foot!” I pointed to it. In certain Asian places pointing the bottom of your foot at someone is like flipping them off. He quickly moved his foot and waved in support, they understood it was an accident and saluted us cordially. Indonesia was sieged with brush fires and this tumultuous election at the same time that resulted in massive smoke damage, riots, destruction of property, murders of prominent religious figures, and the banks collapsing – which created hysteria throughout the archipelago. Police forces and upper status figures had stoked the fires of social unrest by suggesting that these calamities had taken place due to the “black magic” activity of sorcerers and the like that refused to admonish their traditions. A number of self-made militias in East Java went on rampages and murdered some people they thought to be connected to animist practices. A terrifying and heartbreaking scene.

But back to the story of the horse trance:

Teenage boys are engaging in Pencak Silat exercises as the music builds. There is always a faint smell of burning things in every square of Indonesia, smoke is just part of life there, so I don’t recall what else they had offered up. The smell of burning leaves and faint mildews will always take me back to these lands.

As the moves became stronger the music seemed louder…. the young men had red and white striped cloth wrapped around their heads and their chests were bare. Though many Kuda Lumping rituals involve straw horses, many people practice without these props, as the men transform into horses themselves.

This went on for some time and the kid next to me was no longer asking about Madonna. He was sitting quietly, almost shoulder to shoulder with me, as the young men in the center seemed to be suddenly shifting the mood.

At some point an older man with a bullwhip walked into the center of the boys and that is when we could see that their movements had changed from graceful kicks, artful squats, and martial arts lines. It was now organic and fluid – wild and horse-like. They seemed to have lost all control of their necks and their legs became fiercely grounded and dangerous. Charging and flailing. It was hard suddenly to tell if they were evoking the moves with their minds – an improv choreography or sorts, or if another force was moving their bodies, like living puppets. Eyes were glazed.. they no longer needed their eyes to see but their focus was that of a wild animal, sharp and precise.

The man with the bullwhip snapped the whip and then sent it crashing over their backs, herding them in line, as they charged and rustled. When he established his dominance over these beings, he brought out a basket that contained old bottles, light bulbs, drinking glasses, and jars. He poured this pile on the ground before them.

The horse beings descended on the pile and proceeded to eat the glass shards, breaking them in pieces with their hands and chewing them voraciously. There was no blood at any time. People say that they are pretending to mess with glass, but I sat there and watched them do it, not sure what to tell you about that, other than it seemed impossible to fake, considering that density and familiar sound of breaking glass.

Many crescendoes and canters later, the older gentleman, with the help of some others, went to each young man and pulled them down into a supine position on the ground and called them out of the trance. They sat up and brushed themselves off, a little weary, but bright-eyed and present. No scratches or signs of pain, not even marks on their backs where they had clearly been lashed an hour or so before. How does this work? You have to believe. Your reality is what you make it. If this is real to you, so be it. The human mind and our connection to the metaphysical is awe-inspiring.

Much is said about the reason for such dances. It is a celebration of masculine energy, a way to send and receive messages shaman-style, and a method for bringing in positive mojo for people’s needs. Some say it is a form of black magic, but I have nothing certain to say about that. I can confirm that black magic does exist in Indonesia and for that reason you want to tread lightly and carefully in certain situations. However, the key for black magic to be effective *it is said* is Believing. A jaded westerner may not buy that a curse has just been put on them but if you are brought up in a culture where magic is just another Monday for you then that curse is going to seem terrifying – the dark juju thrives on Fear.

We approached the Serune-playing sorcerer, he was said to be the main guy behind this whole scene. He was the nicest, kindest man – and with the help of the Madonna lover, who was our new best friend, we managed to speak to him about the Serune. So that’s how we were invited to his home that minute and shown his many beautiful instruments.

A taxi full of us went off to his home, which was in a shanty village. It was a one room house made entirely of tin siding and wooden 2×4’s. He lived there with his wife and their young daughter, who was deformed, and possibly had cerebral palsy. They made us very strong coffee, Java style – Kopi Joss, which still has the grounds mixed in, pieces of charcoal sometimes, and lots of sugar. It is intense. The sorcerer was delighted by his windfall of good fortune to make this unexpected sale and we were equally pleased to have been welcomed with such kind invitation into this world which we had never seen. My traveling companion purchased a very beautiful Serune that we carried around Sumatra, Thailand, Nepal, India, and Egypt – and still treasure to this day.

Author: Subterraneans

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