Not long after we first arrived in Central Kalimantan, I wrote about a Kuda Lumping ‘performance’ in the village of Suka Mulya, just a kilometre or so from our home. Several months later, we were delighted to hear of another performance which was to be held in conjunction with a wedding ceremony, in the same village.
The Kuda Lumping (also known as Jatilan) is a Javanese tradition, and the people of Suka Mulya are predominantly trans-migrants from Java, mainly East Java, though many have been in Kalimantan for two or three generations. It will be interesting to see if the Kuda Lumping in Kalimantan diverges over time from the ‘original’ versions of Kuda Lumping and Jatilan as performed in Java. Perhaps that is already happening…
With the formal parts of the wedding ceremony completed, a crowd of several hundred people, of all ages, began to gather around the area which had been prepared for the Kuda Lumping performance. It was essentially just a cleared area of bare dirt. At one end small stage was erected for the musicians, and vendors of snack foods, sweet drinks and souvenirs set up business. Spongebob Squarepants or Hello Kitty balloons anybody?
During the Kuda Lumping, a number of people – predominantly young men from the village – go into a trance state where they are possessed by the spirits of horses (kuda in Bahasa Indonesia). Its origins are obscure, and its precise meaning is unclear, but there is no doubting its popularity or the powerfully spooky impact that it has on all who witness it.
It begins quietly enough, with traditional music from the small orchestra consisting of drums, woodwinds and gamelan instruments. The activities of the trance dancers are presided over by several shaman, who ensure that none of the trance dancers are injured or fail to return to their normal state of consciousness. The senior shaman looks out from backstage, to confirm that all is ready to begin.
The first dancers to come out are teenage girls, each one astride a two dimensional toy horse.
Their dancing is quite structured and formal. For a time, the performance has quite a graceful and elegant feel to it.
The girls are joined by a group of adult males, dressed as warriors, each one also riding on a toy horse. The music is gradually getting louder by the minute, especially after another character with a monstrous red head appears in their midst.
The warriors take up whips and flay the intruder mercilessly.
From this point on, the performers – along with a large number of people from the audience – go into a state of trance. For the next hour or so everything seems to spiral wildly out of control, with ever more people going into trance, prancing around like horses, eating grass and dirt, and appearing to be in a wild ecstatic state of consciousness. It’s mayhem.
Meanwhile the bride and groom sit on thrones in the nuptial pavilion, looking smooth and refined, and greeting a line of well-wishers congratulating them on their marriage. But just outside the pavilion, guys are turning into monkeys and climbing up trees.
One of the trance dancers loops a batik cloth around the bride and groom, and leads them out into the open area where there are now perhaps 20 people in trance, doing crazy stuff.
I didn’t see exactly what happened, but there was a commotion and the bride suddenly went limp and collapsed in a heap. Family members who were serving as attendants picked her up and carried her away from all the hubbub to a place of safety where she soon recovered.
She wasn’t the only one to collapse. Some of the dancers also appeared to be overcome, and fell to the ground, frequently in strained and contorted positions.
One guy managed to wriggle on his belly across to where one of the shaman had prepared a smoking pot of charcoal and herbs which seemed to revive him somewhat.
But he still looked like he didn’t know whether this was Borneo or Tuesday.
At no point did we see any of the dancers drop the mask of trance and revert to their normal selves. Although it is hard to believe that they had become possessed by the spirits of horses, there can be little doubt that they themselves felt that they had been transported to another realm, and taken on a quite altered state of consciousness.
From time to time the shaman would get out a tiny bottle from his pocket, pull the cork from the top, and offer a sniff to one of the dancers. I didn’t find out what was in that little magic bottle, but whatever it was the dancers were pretty keen to get at it, and seemed to be energised afterwards.
Take these ones below, for example.
Eventually things started to wind down. One by one, each of the dancers would be selected by the shaman and their helpers, and brought back from the state of trance. Different techniques were used. Some would be whipped several times until they collapsed, others would get a gentle flick to the forehead after which they would fall backwards into the waiting arms of the helpers.
Each one appeared dazed and confused, and would spend some time looking around apparently trying to work out where they were and how they got there. Then they would be helped out backstage, where they would sit for a time drinking water and collecting themselves before returning to the audience.
And finally, after all the adults had left to go home, and there was almost nobody left to witness it, the young boys would have their turn. Complete with mini whips and mini toy horses, they seemed every bit as enthusiastic as the adults. It would appear that the tradition of Kuda Lumping will survive and continue – at least for one more generation.