Tag Archives: Kuda Lumping

Reog, kuda lumping and Dayak dances

Early on the morning of the 9th of March, a total eclipse of the sun was experienced across parts of Kalimantan, including right where we were living near Tangkiling. To mark the occasion, a series of dance performances were staged at Rungan Sari.


There were traditional and contemporary performances, from Kalimantan and Java – reflecting the makeup of the community – and it was spectacular.


But the eclipse itself was less-than-spectacular, though still interesting. We got up early, just as a big thunderstorm arrived, and it proceeded to rain heavily for the next couple of hours. But we went anyway to Bukit Tangkiling (Tangkiling Hill). As the rain eased off then finally stopped, we scrambled up the steep but mercifully brief path to the summit, where around 200 other hopeful eclipse-viewers were assembled.


We responsibly put on our very cool cardboard-and-plastic eclipse glasses, but the sun stubbornly remained behind clouds as the shadow of the moon caused it to disappear and the early morning became eerily dark for several minutes. But behind our high-tech fashion accessory glasses, we couldn’t see a thing, so we reluctantly discarded them. At least the rain stayed away, and the shared sense of occasion was kind of fun. We’ve kept the glasses for next time…


A couple of hours after the gerhana matahari, we were at the Muhammad Subuh Centre at Rungan Sari as the dance performances commenced. Far from being eclipsed, the sunlight had become very intense and the day was scorching hot. While a small audience sheltered in the shade of the MSC building, the poor dancers sweltered out in the intense equatorial sunshine.


The first piece we saw was commissioned for and about the eclipse. It was choreographed in a contemporary way, but with strong traditional references throughout. It also made creative use of the landscape features of the venue – in particular the large fountain in front of the MSC. Sometimes the dancers paused motionless like garden statues (or perhaps like cormorants drying their wings!)


The next performance was a kuda lumping dance. In this Javanese dance, finely dressed warriors astride 2-dimensional hobby horses engage in mock battles and whip-cracking. The tradition of kuda lumping performance is very old, and its origins and specific meanings are now disputed and somewhat obscure, but there is always an aura of magic around it, especially when performers go into a state of trance.

The tradition is still very much alive in Java, and is carried on in the villages of Central Kalimantan by the many thousands of Javanese transmigrants who now live in KalTeng.


The acrobatics of the performers was sometimes quite breathtaking.


Unlike the kuda lumping shows that we had previously attended (e.g. here and here, none of the performers went into a state of trance. Rather, it was a very professional show put on by a well-rehearsed troupe of dancers.


This was followed by a large-scale Dayak dance drama, with a very big troupe of finely attired performers.

There were ‘pastoral’ scenes of bucolic village life.


There were dramatic battle scenes with sinister topeng-masked demons (Spoiler alert: Eventually, Good triumphs over Evil).


And there was a spectacular set-piece grand finale.


All the performers, along with many of the people most responsible for putting the show together, gathered for group photographs, and to receive the acclamation of the audience.


And then, when we thought it was all over, the Reog Ponorogo performance began…

This dance originates, as the name would suggest, from the town (now a city) of Ponorogo, in East Java, which sits in between the volcanoes of Gunung Lawu and Gunung Ngliman. Like the kuda lumping, its origins are ancient and somewhat uncertain, though it appears to have arisen in the 15th Century, towards the end of the era of the Majapahit kings.


In fact, one part of the Reog performance, know as the jathilan, looks very much like kuda lumping, with dancers mounted on woven bamboo hobby horses. The jathilan dancers are now almost always young women, though in the past these roles were always performed by boys aged around 12 – 15 years.

The parang rusak motif on the girls’ batik cloth is actually not from Ponorogo, but is unique to Jogjakarta in Central Java.


There are many different variations of the Reog Ponorogo performance, and several contending explanations of its origin and meaning. However, the broad synopsis of the Reog Ponorogo story is that in an ancient time, the king of Ponorogo (named Klono Sewandono) was travelling east to the town of Kediri to seek a bride (the Princess Songgo Langit). But on the way he encounters trouble in the form of the Singa Barong, a magical beast with the head of a lion, and a large fans of peacock feathers (or possibly an entire peacock) on top. Fighting ensues.

Bujang Ganong (the hairy red-faced fellow with oversized teeth on the left of the photo above) is the King’s messenger and ambassador. He is nimble, witty, and fiercely loyal to the King. His comic performances and interactions with the members of the audience has ensured that he is a crowd favourite, especially with children. Apparently he used to be only a minor character in the Reog, but since the 1980s he has become more central, and now usually has a long and quite acrobatic role.


The massive and ornate mask of the Singa Barong can weigh 20 or 30 kilograms, and the performer (known as a Warok) holds it in place with his teeth! To perform this role, the Warok must possess reserves of both physical strength and spiritual power. This latter power is obtained (in part) by reining in the passions – for food, drink and lust for women – and a married Warok is expected to refrain from sexual relations with his wife.

The Warok have a special, independent and highly respected place in Ponorogo society, and are regarded as possessing magical powers. They had some (perceived or real) connection to the Partai Komunis Indonesia, and large number of warok were killed during the ‘anti-communist’ massacres of 1965-6.

Traditionally, a Warok would retain one or more of the boys who perform the jathilan dance as members of his household (known as gemblakan). This Warok-gemblakan relationship is a ‘special’ one, based on mutual love and mentoring of the gemblakan – and it is also openly sexual in nature. (Interestingly however, the relationship is not regarded as homosexual, and Ponorogo parents will be proud if their son becomes a gemblakan). Gender roles and relationships in Indonesia are often more complex than they at first seem!

But in recent years, social mores have changed to become generally more more uniform and more conservative across the country. The jathilan is now most commonly performed by young women – who do not have such a ’special’ relationship with the warok, and do not reside in his household. The Reog Ponorogo itself has also shed many of its magical overtones. It has become much more purely a performance for entertainment – at festivals, and as an adjunct to weddings and circumcision ceremonies.


In the course of battle with the Singa Barong, the Bujang Ganong character made some great acrobatic moves.


In the end, the Singa Barongs (there were two of them in this performance) were defeated – though whether by battle or by sheer exhaustion was not clear. One of the warok performers seemed physically distressed at times, and had to pause in his performance to drink water, and had to be tended by the director or helpers of the dance troupe (though apparently such interruptions are a common occurrence in Reog shows).

The performance was great entertainment, and impressive simply as spectacle. But, like so many cultural displays and cultural objects in Indonesia, a closer examination reveals it to operate in a number of dimensions in addition to the ‘merely visible’ – historical, political, magical/religious, and social/sexual. And we thought it was just a dance event!

It was certainly fascinating, and we plan to see further performances, as reog troupes are now found throughout Indonesia, and in a number of other countries also. We hope one day to make a visit to Ponorogo to view one of the performances held in the main square every full moon, or (even better!) for the annual Festival Reog Ponorogo.


Festival Kampung Buntoi 2016

Last month we had the pleasure of attending the inaugural Festival Kampung Buntoi (Buntoi Village Festival). We travelled there in company with Pak Wondo, his wife Ibu Tata and son Andi. Buntoi is Ibu Tata’s home village, and we stayed at the home of her aunt and uncle.


We were only there for two days of the 3-day festival, but we had a great time. We had many interesting encounters and experiences (as we always seem to do), and saw some impressive and unique dance, music and theatre performances. Some of the outrageous costumes (such as these ones worn by dancers from the Sanggar Marajaki group ) alone were worth the journey.


Buntoi is a village of 2,500 people,attractively located on the banks of the Kahayan River, about two and a half hours downstream from where we were living at Sei Gohong (on the Rungan River). The Kahayan is a big wide river down there, and although Buntoi is just across the river from the district capital of Pulang Pisau, it takes nearly an hour to get there by road.

It was apparently founded around 1670, Buntoi used to be known as Petak Bahandang (meaning ‘Red Earth’). This former name came from the story about a raiding party of headhunters who were all killed by makhluk gaib (supernatural creatures protecting the village). According to the story, the villagers awoke to find the ground stained red with the blood of the would-be attackers.

The economy is based around fishing and rubber plantations, which seem to be thriving in this area in spite of the current low price of latex rubber. There are also a number of tall buildings like the one above, constructed to house the swiflets known as burung walet (Aerodramus fuciphagus). These are the birds responsible for producing the highly valuable edible birds nests. Recordings of the birds’ call are played continuously to attract them to the building.


Like all good festivals, Festival Kampung Buntoi began with a spectacular street parade, along the length of the road beside the river (which is pretty much the only road in town) and on to the festival venue. There were marching bands, people in splendid and ornate traditional Dayak costumes, event organisers and local dignitaries, and many children of the village.

The road was lined with… well Karen and I were just about the only cheering well-wishers. It WAS a treat.


There was an interesting and eclectic mixture of the traditional and the contemporary in the style in the parade participants – a blending which was to continue throughout the Festival performances.

This is great to see; Kalimantan cannot be a ‘cultural theme park’, frozen in some imagined long-gone age. The wonderful traditional warrior costumes on display at the Festival performances, are now only worn for performances, and young Dayak men can commonly be seen wearing Manchester United jerseys – but never bark vests… In fact many of these performance costumes are very contemporary reinterpretations of ‘traditional’ attire, unlike anything you can find in old photographs. They look great in photographs, but they owe more to the here-and-now than to history, and perhaps owe more to Carnivale than to Kalimantan.


The venue for the many performances of the Festival was the Rumah bambu (‘Bamboo House’), built in 2012 as a meeting hall and events venue with funding from the UNDP as part of the REDD+ (‘ Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation’) project. It was opened by the then Governor of Kalimantan Tengah in September 2013 as the Pusat Sarana Komunikasi Iklim (the ‘Climate Communications Facilitation Centre’).


As the only foreigners in attendance, we were (as always!) subject to a lot of (friendly) attention, and innumerable photo requests. Here’s Karen posing with event officials (that’s Pak Turai S. Deken – ‘Ko-ordinator Panitia‘ on the right) and local police officers.


Several temporary warung (foodstalls) were set up under a marquee in the field adjacent to the Festival building. We enjoyed several delicious meals there – including chicken curry, sweet and sour catfish, and chicken soup. (Note the traditional costumes worn by the local Dayak people).


The two MC’s (Chandra Intan Hakim and Ananta Nurudi Sawung) were really good – funny, relaxed, and able to ad lib freely to seamlessly fill in the gaps between the performers. At one point they called up a couple of bules (i.e. Karen and I) from the audience to talk about their impressions of the festival. We had not long arrived, so we didn’t have much to say! It was little awkward.

Intan is from Jakarta, and she has a wonderfully colourful and zany dress sense – which matches her ebullient personality. When he’s not compering festivals, Ananta is a freelance photographer who lives in Palangka Raya.


On the morning we arrived in Buntoi, we got to the performance area just as this young dance troupe (the Sanggar Palampang Tarung) were finishing, so unfortunately we didn’t get to see them perform. But they kindly agreed to pose for some photos for us.


Along with the music, dance and theatre there were also some interesting talks and Q&A sessions, on (extremely!) diverse topics. It was frustrating for us that we understood just enough to be very interested, but too little to fully comprehend what was being said by the accomplished and articulate speakers.

Dr Andang Bachtiar (l) is a geologist, former President of the Indonesian Geologists Association, and currently a member of the National Energy Council of Indonesia. He spoke about the historical and cultural implications of the geomorphology of Kalimantan and the Indonesian archipelago.

Rayhan Sudrajat (c) was largely responsible for initiating the whole Buntoi Festival, harnessing community spirit and working cooperatively with local people to make it happen. He is a both a musician and an ethnomusicologist, with wide-ranging interests (including linguistics, psychology, culture and philosophy). His eclectic musical interests range from traditional Sundanese music to the Beatles. Based in the Bandung (Java), he also operates a recording studio.

Didik Nini Thowok (r) is a dancer, mime artist, choreographer and teacher whose international career has developed the Indonesian tradition of cross-gender dance performances. His every move confirms him as a dancer – fluid, elegantly controlled gestures, no unnecessary moves. He spoke about his personal history, traditions of cross-gender dance in various other cultures – and the art of stage make-up!


Zulfikar Muhammad Nugroho has lived in various parts of East Java and Kalimantan, and now lives in Palangka Raya, where he has been a student at the Universitas Muhammadiyah.

He’s an expert player of the sape (usually called kecapi in Central Kalimantan). The sape (pronounced ’saa-pay’) can have anywhere from 2 – 5 strings, with all but the upper string usually just strummed as a harmonic drone. It may have no frets, three or many frets, and may be quite compact or up to a metre or more long. In summary, it’s form varies! But it should always be carved from a single piece of wood, with the back usually hollowed-out.


Performance sponsored by the Yayasan Permakultur Kalimantan, with Ahmad Fullah at centre stage. Their performance was about the Dayak fire management practice known as Milang Seha. Noor Julaiha was the Creative Director.


Sanggar Tingang Panunjung Tarung.


BellacoustiC Indonesia are a Palangka Raya musical group, whose goal is “creativity in music which aims to promote the customs and culture”. They certainly achieved that in their all-too-short set at Buntoi. Each one of them is a virtuoso.


Theo Nugraha performed two sets at the Festival, one solo and one with Rayhan Sudrajat (he does a lot of collaborations in his work).

He describes himself as a ‘Noise / Experimental Soundartist from Borneo’ (he’s based in Palangka Raya and Samarinda). The Village Voice reviewed one of his recordings, and described him as a ‘noise evangelist’. It’s certainly experimental sound, some of it ethereal and ambient Eno-esque, some of it collections of environmental sounds recorded in the field, and some of it a relentless grinding wall-of-noise-and-static.


A performer from Sanggar Betang Batarung, Palangka Raya.


Dancers from the wonderful Sanggar Riak Renteng Tingang, Palangka Raya


Bukung character from the Komunitas Teater Palangka Raya


Performers of the Sanggar Marajaki


Redy Eko Prastyo is a prominent musician and composer, based in Malang (Java), but he performs extensively across Indonesia (and in Europe). HIs musical style spans traditional Indonesian and jazz styles, and a fusion of the two. At Buntoi he was playing a unique, handmade electric ‘sape’. The sound, and the quality of musicianship, was lovely.


Trie Utami Sari is a very well known singer and songwriter from Bandung. Her fame with Indonesian audiences is the result of several hit recordings (as well as five albums), and for appearing as a judge on the popular TV talent show Indosiar Fantasy Academy. Her voice (seen here improvising over music of BellacoustiC) is gorgeous.


The final set on Saturday night was a something of a collaborative jam session, with a number of musicians and dancers on stage together. The music reached a crescendo full of soulful energy and warmth. It was a fitting end to wonderful series of performances.


Apart from the Rumah Bambu, Buntoi village also has another (and much older) significant building – the Rumah Adat (Traditional house).


The house was built between 1867-70 by Singa Jala, with materials (mostly kayu ulin timber) brought from Manen Paduran, which is (a long way) further upstream on the Kahayan River. Being made from ironwood, it is a very sturdy structure, but it has also benefited from some restoration work in recent years – such as new shingles for the roof. Some parts, including the rooms for the four slave families who used to live there, are no longer standing.

The current head of the family, who is a direct descendant of Singa Jala, talked to us about the history of the house, including its role as a centre of the nationalist forces during the struggle for independence from the Dutch after 1945.


Inside the betang is a fine set of gongs, and a tiny (and damaged) bronze cannon (just visible on the right of the photo above).


There are also some very nice balanga, Chinese-made ceramic jars, which are valued and treated as family heirlooms by Dayak families in Kalimantan. There were also brass spittoons (known as peludahan), brass bowls (bokor, or sangku in Bahasa Dayak Ngaju), and some old baskets made of rotan (rattan).


We also were entertained by one quite unexpected performance. During a lull in the Festival programme, we went for a drive with Wondo, Tata and Andi further south to the village of Kanamit Barat. To our surprise, there was a wedding ceremony under way at which a Kuda Lumping troupe were performing (as we have previously seen in Java at Prambanan, and in Kalimantan at Suka Mulya village in 2014 and 2015).

And just when we were marvelling at having chanced upon this ancient, mysterious and powerful Javanese trance performance in a remote(-ish) village of Central Kalimantan, a woman (Mbak Muvida) comes up to us to say that she used to work at YUM (where I was volunteering), and that she recognised us from photos on a friend’s Facebook page. Welcome back to 2016…

Poster Festival Kampung Buntoi

There’s a great short (9 minute) video on YouTube which gives a really good feel for the Festival Kampung Buntoi – and it contains samples of the wonderful dance and music performances. (It even includes a couple of quick glimpses of the bules-in-residence – see if you can spot us!)

Our thanks go out to the friendly and hospitable people of Buntoi village; to the visionary and meticulous organisers of the Festival; and of course to the creative and hugely talented performers who attended. May your talents be rewarded with career success.  Special thanks to Rayhan Sudrajat for helping me identify performers in some of the photos – but any residual errors are my responsibility!)

We left with two sincere hopes: that the inaugural Festival Kampung Buntoi may be just the first in a long and successful series of Buntoi Festivals – and that we may have the good fortune to attend again….


Kuda Lumping II

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.

Kuda Lumping

One of the nice by-products of the after-school art classes at the YUM library, which are now co-hosted by Karen, is that she makes connections with families around the immediate area. So, at the Sunday produce market at Tangkiling this week, a little girl tugged at her sleeve and shyly said “Selamat Pagi, Ibu Karen” and then introduced us to her dad.


Another time, two girls from the (Javanese transmigrant) village of Suka Mulya invited her to come to the village “to see some dancing”. Not knowing what to expect, she turned up there at the appointed time (Tuesday at 2pm), to find that a large wedding celebration was in progress. A temporary stage had been set up in a grove between the houses, and a small gamelan orchestra had been installed. And the dance performance … well, it was a Kuda Lumping performance, and she phoned me at work to say: “get over here right away, it’s amazing!”


The Kuda Lumping originated in central and east Java, and is a very special thing indeed. Over a couple of hours, a number of young men and teenage boys go into a state of trance, and supposedly become possessed by the spirits of horses. They strut around, stamping the ground, rolling in the dirt, eating grass and chaff (and sometimes, we were told, they eat glass and walk over burning coals), seemingly oblivious to pain or the crowd around. The meaning and origin of the Kuda Lumping is unclear. It goes back at least several hundred years, with one theory being that it began with Mataram Empire cavalry battling against the Dutch – but it could be much older again…


The gamelan plays fast, just a few gongs and several prominent drums, and with vocalists alternately singing, wailing and making syncopated screeching sounds. A woodwind instrument (I don’t know the name) plays over the top, sounding like a jazz improvisation on an oboe. It’s quite powerful and other-worldly, and actually sounds rather better and more melodic than you might imagine!


Overseeing the ‘trancers’ are a small number of very serious-faced older men (perhaps shamans) who ensure that the boys don’t hurt themselves as they trot and canter around. It’s a bit wild and chaotic at times, looking like it might spiral out of control, but the older guys keep a lid on it, and ensure that there aren’t too many in trance at any one time. These ‘minders’ have some kind of power over the horse-boys, and go through a dramatic and elaborate procedure to bring each of the boys out of trance.


This can involve tapping them on the forehead to make them pass out backwards into the arms of waiting support crew, wiping a cloth violently across the boy’s forehead, or … striking him three times around the abdomen with a whip. And they don’t appear to hold back with the whip arm, either! Once returned to normal consciousness from the trance, the boys look dazed and confused, with a what-am-I-doing-here expression on their faces, and they are ushered off backstage to ‘recover’.


We had seen a Kuda Lumping performance once before, in 2009 near the Prambanan temple outside of Jogjakarta. On both occasions we were the only non-Indonesians present, and the structure of it was much the same. On both occasions the trances looked half-real, half-contrived. We did see that some of the trancers were sitting backstage in a very spaced-out state for some time after they came offstage. Perhaps they were just exhausted from all that horsing around.


One difference on this occasion was that the bride and groom got involved at one point, with one of the trancers carrying first the groom, then the bride, through the crowd and into the wedding pavilion and onto a little throne set up for them there. They each tried to look dignified as their ‘horse’ swerved and reared up on the way.


We went over to congratulate the bride and groom, and to pay our respects to their parents, and of course (this being Indonesia, perhaps the most hospitable place on the planet) we ended up sharing in the wedding feast and refreshments (i.e. buffet meal, cakes and coconut water).