Category Archives: Dukun/healers/helpers

At a Glance: Dukun, Kyai, and Mental Health in East Java

A man who lived a few houses down from Mas M killed himself this week. On the day, he helped his child get ready for school, dropped her off by motorcycle, came home, wrote his suicide note, then hung himself.

He wasn’t a poor man, though he was unemployed; his wife sells vegetables, and the family survives solely on her income. There were troubles in the marriage. She had recently demanded a divorce. His suicide note was addressed to her: if you want a divorce, here you go: divorce–dead.

The news of the man’s passing made the papers and was featured on the local evening news. The neighbors are still gossiping about the amount of blame to place on the wife’s shoulders in the matter. Mas M is convinced that the man had an ongoing psychological issue, and I’m inclined to believe him since I can’t fathom a parent of a young child taking his or her own life and being mentally stable at the time.


I don’t have statistics because the annual federal reports about healthcare in Indonesia that I have read focus primarily on more seemingly more pragmatic healthcare concerns like clean water, basic medical and nursing services, dental care, and infant mortality and health. Mental health is problematically but understandably not at the top of the lists of concerns in developing countries, and it’s not given nearly enough attention worldwide since mental illness and psychological disorders can be so invisible.

Even though I can’t quote stats for you, believe me when I say that mental therapy, counseling, and psychiatry are not widely available here in Indonesia when compared to a place like the United States. At the very least, mental health care options are not widely advertised or promoted as a normal or acceptable path to health and well-being. This is partially because modern mental healthcare hasn’t become part of the culture here yet (i.e., this isn’t because everyone knows about modern mental healthcare and rejects it outright).

The man who killed himself was undoubtedly suffering from something like acute stress or depression, undoubtedly psychologically burdened by his lack of gainful employment and his crumbling marriage. In Javanese culture, all three of these things are very looked down upon, particularly for men: divorce leads to gossip and divorcees can be shunned; men should always be employed, especially fathers and husbands, if they want to be viewed as respectable and contributing members of society; and family members of people who commit suicide are often implicated as being somehow off, wrong, or not right (i.e. implicated in not providing a supportive enough environment for their family member not to kill themselves, regardless of the family member’s mental health status or the actual home and family environment).

Many of the dukun I’ve been talking to help people with more than physical health issues, finding lost objects, matchmaking, or pregnancy and birth; they often also provide psychological and couples counseling, relationship and family advice, and mental/emotional support during difficult times. If someone is going through a rough time in their lives–feeling like they need help getting their crops to grow successfully so that they can eat and earn money, worrying about their lovelife going to hell in a handbasket, or finding difficulty coping with a serious illness like cancer or diabetes–they usually receive some level of counseling and mental health support when they pay a visit to a legitimate dukun,* even though this is not the primary purpose, in their minds, for the visit. This is a good thing not only because mental health care professionals are hard to find, particularly in rural areas, but paying for professional help is usually quite far outside the realm of financial possibility for the average Javanese villager. In fact, the unaffordability of modern medicine for some segments of the population is one reason why the services of dukun are still in high demand in some areas (mostly those that are more remote).

For coping with psychological issues, most villagers seem to rely heavily on religious leaders, and the general culture view of mental illness in that someone has strayed too far from religion and therefore has too many thoughts or wrong thoughts (which lead to wrong action, which leads to strife and tumult). The kyai is an Islamic cleric and religious leader who also offers healing services, and many villages have more than one depending on the size of the population and the strength of the religious culture in the area. As dukunkyai can be men or women, though women kyai work primarily with female audiences/visitors. They use religious teachings and spiritual counseling to help people overcome their problems. They often prescribe lifestyle changes, encourage prayer, and promote fasting, charity, and adherence to Islamic doctrine as interpreted by whatever Islamic organization/”denomination” of which they are a part.

What is interesting is that kyai, by and large, do not believe in the practices or validity of dukun, though the reverse is certainly not the case, especially when the dukun is Muslim. For the more orthodox practitioners of Islam, belief elements of the supernatural beyond standard Islamic cosmology are unacceptable and can even be heretical. For example, belief in both benevolent and malevolent jinn is standard, but the existence ghosts and ancestral and place spirits–even from Javanese cosmology and mythology–is strongly questioned. However, a villager could consult a dukun on a Saturday and visit a kyai on a Sunday for the very same reason and not be bothered by the contradiction in the slightest. The more devout among them simply say “percaya gak percaya,” I believe but I don’t believe. There’s no reason to commit either way if one or both can produce results; the end is more important than the means when well-being and religious righteousness are concerned.


What I have been learning so far about dukun never fails to involve contradictions, and I am going to start writing more about this. I’ve finished collecting data and finally have all of the interviews transcribed, so I’m moving on to the next phase of my project, which is analysis and write-up. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and listening, so now it’s time to speak and write.

Now that I’m not going to graduate school next fall, the possibilities for what I write and how are even more limitless than before; I’m technically not required to produce a written body of work in any format as a condition of my grant, but I had been aiming to produce an academic article in the form of a comparative piece using data from my thesis and Fulbright projects. However, I’m not sure that’s the direction I want to go any longer. I’ll probably aim to get an academic piece of some kind published, but I’m going to take the rest of the month to decide and explore my options. I don’t want participants voices to be lost and I don’t want to have to cut their stories down into little data-bites to cram everything into a short article, but I don’t want to lose sight of the original goal, which I still think is worth pursuing. I’m just contemplating alternative–additional–possibilities.

In the meantime, I’m going to start writing more and sharing here. Time to get my thoughts and new understandings on the page, and there’s no better place to start. Blank Word documents scare me.


I don’t really know how to wrap this post up considering how heavy the content was at the beginning. I hope that any of you who may have stigmas about mental health care consider reevaluating your ideas about the topic and make sure to support any of your friends and relatives (or yourself) in getting the care they need, if they ever need it, even if it’s just accompanying them to church, the mosque, a healer’s house, or a doctor’s office. There’s no way of knowing the inner workings of someone else’s mind or to know for sure whether any form of external support could have prevented the little girl’s father from taking his life, but it’s too much for a child to have to lose a parent to suicide and too much for any family to deal with.

Thanks for reading,

*There is such a thing as a “fake” dukun or dukun palsu, which is a person claiming to be a dukun and not actually doing anything for clients or someone who really does have supernatural powers (percaya gak percaya!) but whose primary motive in providing services is to earn as much money as possible from unsuspecting, innocent clients who are genuinely seeking help (or those nasty clients who are looking for someone to curse their neighbor or rival).

Cue brain explosion

Since the first pilot interview a couple of weeks ago, I have conducted– or rather, participated in– six additional interviews, three with male ‘healers’ and three with female ‘healers.’ My ideal number of women participants is nine; the data collection is progressing more quickly than I anticipated, and I think that as a result, I am going to narrow the geographical boundaries of the study. I’ve decided this also in part because the more I talk to people, the more I realize that even within East Java, culture can vary enough to warrant individual attention to specific regions/regencies.

I knew this from before, but what I didn’t realize is that even within East Java there are distinct ethnic (sub-ethnic) groups. For a prime example, in Banyuwangi, where most research about Javanese dukun has been conducted, the people are ethnically Osing. Since my project is about ethnic Javanese, I won’t be collecting data on Osing dukun. The Osing people have a different cultural history and even a different language than ethnic Javanese. Banyuwangi is the most popular region for dukun in East Java, and lots of people around Malang suggest I visit the town to conduct research. My objective, however, is to meet dukun who are ethnically Javanese; it seems that I’m exploring a topic  that hasn’t been written about as frequently (although there are plenty of people, both Westerners and non-Westerners, who study these topics; relatively speaking, East Javanese non-Banyuwangi-centric dukun seem underrepresented in what I’ve been reading so far).

I could go into the basic differences between Osing and Javanese culture based on the literature I’ve read so far, but suffice it to say that they were basically the last ethnic group in Java to resist Islamicization in roughly the 13th and 14th centuries and have strong historical/cultural ties to Blambangan, at that time a powerful eastern Hindu empire diametrically opposed to the contemporaneous Mataram Islamic empire to its west. Besides ethnic Osing, there are also Tengger and Madurese people in East Java, and these groups are ethnically distinct from the Javanese. I think some of the groups, like Osing and Tenggerese, are considered to be sub-ethnic groups of Javanese, but for simplicity’s sake and for the clarity and cohesion of the project, I’m going to restrict my research to people who identify as strictly ethnically Javanese.

Hm… How did I get on this tangent? Well, it’s important because I’m going to Banyuwangi this weekend to meet some people and see an important ritual, although I won’t be doing data collection per se. I hope (and think) this trip will help me learn more about the differences between Osing and Javanese people, which will in turn help me understand more about what I’m seeing, learning, and hearing here in Malang. A lot to expect for four days, but I know I’ll be able to meet some people who can speak on the subject, since Pak H is also coming with me and has seemingly infinite social and professional connections.

Ah, now I’ve circled back to what I really wanted to blog about: the interviews I’ve been collecting! I’ve been interviewing with the direct help of two dear friends and colleagues, without whom I’d honestly be completely lost. Some of the participants don’t speak much Indonesian, especially the older ones, so language help / translation has been vital, and I’ve also needed help with gaining informed consent. I wrote a consent letter and translated it myself into Indonesian, and one of my former Indonesian teachers helped me correct it. But, the guys are able to explain it in Javanese to participants, and to introduce me and explain what I’m doing in the culturally correct (i.e., polite or halus) way. I think having a polite, Javanese, UMM-affiliated (male) person accompany me helps participants perceive me as more legitimate than if just came as myself, a young, foreign researcher with imperfect Indonesian and decidedly just basic Javanese. They are certainly more at ease knowing there’s someone who can translate for me as needed, and I am, too.

I think the best way to tell you about each of these really amazing interviews is to dedicate a paragraph or two as appropriate to each person. I won’t go into too much depth, but I’d like to give you a sense of the types of people I’ve been encountering. Honestly, the content of the interview—the stories of the participants—have been really fascinating and provocative. I haven’t had to do much; the stories can stand on their own without much interpretation or explanation (but feel free to leave a question if you have one).

So, I met two people last Friday with Mas T near his home village, about an hour’s car ride from here. The first one we met was a man, about whom Mas had told me earlier in the week. Apparently, this healer helped Mas T when he (Mas T) was a child. If Mas T had a stomachache, the healer would press the soft tissue between his knuckles seemingly very gently, but pain would shoot up Mas T’s arm until he screamed. Now, as an adult, Mas T tells the healer he’s healthy whenever he sees him (the healer) so as to avoid further treatment.

Mas T said it would be useful for me to meet this person, and it really was! The healer told me his power comes from his spirit and heart, and with this power he is able to help people with a variety of physical and mental ailments. Generally, he massages or uses a technique similar to reflexology, or he bathes people while praying. He said that generally, ten scoops of water dumped on a person while he (the healer) is praying are enough to make the person yell out in pain and beg for relief. He tends to treat people whose ailments have been effectively incurable by medical doctors, and he took me to the home of a young patient suffering from what I gathered to be epilepsy and partial paralysis due to stroke (from seizures) whose condition had been greatly improved since his intervention. The healer was called once the family grew tired of effectively feeding their child medications. The family expressed an appreciation for the the benefits of medical science and saw improvements when their child was at the hospital, but they find the healer’s therapy highly effective as well.

This healer, it turns out, is also a little bit psychic or at least can “read” someone very accurately upon first meeting (or even seeing a photograph), and he astutely described several aspects of my personality and life to me: you’re the second and first child (which is true, I’m second out of my siblings and stepsiblings and the first child in my biological family); if you’re mad, you’re usually quiet and don’t say anything, even if you’re mad for weeks at a time (true); you often get headaches and these are related to being too active and busy to remember to eat and drink enough (true); you’re possessive (probably true)…

The crux of his healing practice, he says, is hati (heart). His desire to practice comes from his heart—he just feels compelled to do this work—and his power comes from his heart (and faith). And for patients, their recovery time also depends on their hearts; those who are more open-hearted will become healthier more quickly. He’s not in the healing business to seek wealth, and everyone pays according to their means, and he doesn’t want to be called a dukun because of the negative connotations of black sorcery the word can raise in people’s minds.

The second person we met that day was a woman who also disliked the term dukun and preferred to be called a helper. Her specialty is helping people find spouses, with childrearing, and preparing special poultices with traditional herbs that treat physical injuries. She also uses kartu lintrik (kartu ceki), which I’ve yet to find an English translation for, to predict the future and giving clients information about their present (such as where their straying husband currently is, what he’s doing, and with whom). These are little black, white, and red cards from China with various symbols that can be read by the trained eye, depending on how the card is drawn, in what position, facing up or down, etc. (similar to the way that the position of a tarot card during a reading changes the way its appearance and symbolism is interpreted). They can also be used as a game. In addition to cards, she also uses prayer, personal items (e.g., soiled clothing of the person who comes for help or their picture), dirt that has been prayed over, as well as herbs and flowers. Sometimes, she throws items, especially clothes that have been blessed and infused with the desires of those who brought them, into the river, which symbolizes cleansing. Her practice is kejawen Islam.*

With the help of Mas M, I’ve met three additional people: one man and two women. We visited the first woman and the man during a trip to Gunung Kawi on Saturday. Kawi is a nearby mountain and the resting place of two significant Islamic spiritual teachers. The first person we met that day was an older man who “practices” kebatinan, which is, as far as I grasp so far, a mystical path to achieving inner strength and power (from within). I went to his house with Mas M, his wife, her friend, and her friend’s father. The healer told us how he went through a 15-year long tirakat, or period of fasting, in order to build his inner strength. In three year segments, he underwent five forms of aesthetic meditation and spiritual/mystical strengthening, such as puasa mutih, or fasting on small portions of white rice and nothing else except water from pure sources, i.e. natural springs and rivers, drunk only with his hands or a leaf. For another three years, he retreated into a cave and didn’t eat or drink anything, merely surviving on his spiritual strength—not sleeping, not speaking to anyone. His healing practice involves massage, and he also imbues spiritual energy into jamu that he produces and sells (drinkable traditional medicines). He also magically inserts pieces of metal into clients’ the skin to produce super-strength or increase beauty, as requested (this is a widespread magical practice, I gleaned). Like the others, he prefers to be called a helper—specifically, someone who helps people with difficulties in life—rather than dukun.

Interestingly, even though he was speaking Indonesian most of the time, I found it very challenging to keep up with what he was trying to say. As it turns out, so did my friends; they said he had only a rudimentary grasp of the language and suggested that it may have been clearer if he was speaking in Javanese only (but he was clearly trying to speak Indonesian for my benefit). Mas M says he believes the man really performed the tirakat because back in the mid-20th century, many Javanese people who undertook these types of aesthetic practices; it was common and Mas M has heard of it happening before, so he believes it is true.

The second person we met that day was a woman healer who practices general healing of ailments and disease as well as traditional midwifery. Her story was interesting too; she grew up a sickly child, diagnosed with severe health problems as a teenager, and had a near-death experience in her mid-20s. When she was dead, she received special instructions from god about what method to use in healing. Now, this is her primary method, and people come from all over the archipelago to receive treatment. She treats upwards of twenty people weekly, and people pay according to their means.

Finally, a week later (just yesterday night, in fact), I met Grandmother S. Two days ago, Mas M took me to a traditional nursery to get some flowers from some acquaintances, and we asked for their help identifying a local dukun who might be interested in participating in the project. They said they knew someone who is possessed by a spirit to do healing work and instructed us to come back tomorrow (yesterday) evening, after prayers. We did, of course, and the older lady we met turned out to be the family matriarch. She spoke only Javanese, so Mas M did most of the work during the interview. To make a long and very interesting story much too short than it deserves to be, for nearly 30 years she has had the spirit of a deceased Madurese woman borrow her body in order to conduct healing work and make a little money for Grandmother S. The healing performed is massage, jamu production and selling, and helping people find lost belongings. Grandmother S. told us that she doesn’t have any awareness of when the spirit overtakes her. She also described her own sicknesses and experiences with near-death experiences that lasted for two weeks on end, wherein she died and came back to life two to three times daily.

At the end of the interview, she grabbed what appeared to be a little black eggshell and a white seashell, cupped them towards her face as she said a prayer, and set them down on a little nightstand. She gave a shudder, the rock and shell spun around twice of their own volition (I saw this with my own eyes!), “came to,” and shook my hand, greeting me as if we hadn’t been talking for the past hour. The tone of her voice and the delivery of her speech had changed, and she had no idea that an interview was happening. She started talking to Mas M in Javanese, explaining at his asking a little bit about why she chose Grandmother S. to help. During the interview, Grandmother S.’s son was present, and he seemed unfazed; he later told me that the spirit visits as needed, sometimes daily. Luckily, the spirit is benevolent. Grandmother S. firmly believes that she has no healing skills or power of any kind; it is completely the spirit who does the healing work. In order for Grandmother S. to come back, she must sleep. Mas M and I are going back next week to see if we can properly interview the spirit. On a strange practical note, I still need to get the spirit to sign my consent form. I think I’ll also have to make an exception in this case regarding including only ethnically Javanese people (after all, the spirit is Madurese… but the vessel is Javanese. Who on earth has ever had to deal with this methodological concern before?!).

Mas M and I were both spooked; he said he hadn’t ever seen anything like this. We kept glancing at one another in wonder during the interview and as the spirit continued her story, pretty much completely confounded by the whole thing. He assures me he’s brave enough to go back next week, and a good thing; I’ve got a lot of questions to ask.

Whew, that’s all for now. My brain is swirling and last night I had such a rush heading home… I’m really enjoying myself, and I think the people involved with this project here, especially Mas M and Mas T, are having a good time too (and experiencing new things!). That makes me happy.

Like I said, this weekend, I’m heading to the coast with Pak H to see some Osing rituals near Banyuwangi. I’ll have some stories to share next week, I’m sure, if you’re interested!

While I’m away, please feel free to leave a comment if you have a question you’d like to ask. I can try to answer it. Plus, it’d be nice for me to hear what you’re take on these stories is, as it might help me open my mind in new ways! It might also help me “see” the gaps in what I’m describing. That will help me down the road as I try to write something more formal about this project. Sorry if anything was factually incorrect or not explained clearly enough; please let me know. And thanks for reading!

Be well,

*Maybe in the next entry I’ll take on the daunting task of trying to explain the various religious, cultural, and spiritual belief systems I’ve had to get a basic grasp on over the past few weeks and what role they have played in the research so far.