Jogjakarta, in Central Java, is a very busy city. There are women with baskets or babies slung in selendangs, as their long sashes are called, walking softly on sandalled feet, respectable black capped Muslim gentlemen, brash lads and pretty girls. There are beggars and street musicians, sate cooks carrying their kitchens, fruit sellers squatting beside huge baskets. An ascetic passed us walking on his hands, his legs tucked underneath him.
On the streets oxen with rubber shoes draw wonderful high roofed drays with rubber tyres – brass bells at the oxen’s necks sound softly – ponies trot briskly with andongs, four wheeled carriages, and thousands of becaks, three wheeled pedicabs, whisper by while their drivers’ handsome legs turn the pedals slowly.
It is a murmuring city.
There are ten thousand becaks in Jogjakarta, Rormon, a tukang becak, told us. We liked to ride with Rormon. His motto was `Slowly and carefully’, ‘Pelan-pelan, hati-hati’, so we did not feel guilty that he was overtaxing himself. Sometimes, if the road was steep, he asked us to get down and walk for a while. Everywhere, on the main street and in back alleys, were posters on walls advertising a Festival of Magic. `Do you believe in magic, Rormon?’ `Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know.’ He smiled enigmatically.
If magic exists in the world, there must be magic in Java. It is a land of volcanoes, mystery and myth. Magic has to be believed to be seen and Javanese do believe. Rormon delivered us to the Sport Hall, where we hoped magic would occur. A young man on the street sold us three hundred rupiah tickets for five hundred rupiah each. By the time we realised our mistake, he had performed the first vanishing act of the evening.
A pistol toting soldier, on duty in the hall, was so amused by David’s flow of approximate Indonesian that he slapped his shoulder in a friendly way and escorted us to the best seats in the house.
The most remarkable thing about the first two parts of the show was the growing pile of rubble on stage: A man smashed an earthenware pipe with one hand, smashed bricks on the head of an entranced friend, and hurled a boulder at the same friend’s back, doused him with water from a flaming vat (this act was exposed by a young man in the audience, who strolled to the stage and washed his hands thoroughly in the same water), fried an egg on a pretty girl’s head and slashed a cucumber resting on her bare midriff. This act was followed by one in which a huge and dangerous fire was lit and a wild looking man in trance horrified us by biting off the head of a live rooster and drinking its blood.
At this point, the four other Europeans in the audience made their exit.
The last act came on to something like a set for the last days of Pompeii with rock and earth, water and ash, and the corpse of the poor departed cockerel. A very handsome and well-dressed gentleman in front of us turned and said, in perfect English, `These are not simply tricks. It is not possible for Europeans to understand this. It is quite different from your ideas of magic’.
I was agitating a little and wanting to leave but David was absorbed in drawing and wanted to stay. `The next act’, said the educated gentleman, `is very good. It is a group from a village in Western Java. They have been doing this for a long time, in secret.’
Already, the group was on stage. We stayed. I hoped there would be no more fire or slaughter. This time there ‘was an orchestra: two large black drums, a strange flute with a wide band around the player’s cheeks, and a gong swung on a frame decorated with carved and gilded nagas, dragons. The barefooted dancers prudently swept the stage, and the orchestra beat out wild, insistent music. All of the dancers wore loose tunics, wide trousers and head-cloths. With long knives they performed fighting dances. One was a sturdy girl and she mimed the art of silat, a fighting art, sending her armed attackers spinning and somersaulting off the stage. At last we had the feeling of magic and mystic rites. I would like to see this dance and hear its music on its home ground, bare ground in a forest clearing, lit by torches.
The leader of this Banten group was an old, old man. He suffered spikes hammered into his belly, escaped from bonds and, in trance, slashed himself with a knife. He was eighty-five, he told us after the show. The girl who performed the silat dance was bright-eyed and smiling. We showed them drawings and they were pleased. They invited us to stay at their village in the province of Banten and we shall; but this time, Banten was far behind us.
Next evening, at dinner with the painter Kartika, we described the magic show. She was thoughtful for a while, and then came up with one of her sweet smiles: `I have a friend you might like to meet. His name is Mas’.
She called for us next day in a large four-wheel drive vehicle. It was driven by Yasir Mazurki, a film maker and the author of a fine book about the Buddhist stupa, Borobudur. A large man with a casual manner, Yasir was one of the most pleasant of all the people we met in Indonesia; and he was interested in Magic.
While he drove, he talked about the Baduie, a remote people living in the jungles south of Banten. The outer Baduie dress in blue and form a ring around the villages of the inner, the inaccessible white Baduie. These are the most aloof and respected mystics in a land of mystery. Yasir had been studying the Baduie for eight years, on and off, but he felt that he still knew too little to produce a book or film about them.
We came to the house of Mas. It was a simple dwelling, typical of those in the kampungs. The roof was made of small, dark tiles, the walls of woven bamboo slivers. Inside was an earthen floor. Mas was a small thin man. He greeted us with handshakes and his even smaller wife took our hands between hers most gently and bobbed her head.
On the wall of the long main room was a large painting by Mas of Mount Merapi, the sacred mountain within sight of Jogja. Somehow, it was a portrait of a mountain; red lava flowed like blood from the volcano’s mouth. Mas sat cross-legged on a rattan chair and told his amazing story. As he did so, he gestured often with long, fine hands, moving in something the way of a Javanese dancer.
Some years ago, when he was an art student, he had a vision in which he found himself in a large desert where there were no landmarks. He saw a figure in the distance. He crawled towards it and, as he came closer the figure grew and grew, so high that its head was out of sight. `Go to the east’, the figure said. For ten days, Mas was disturbed and found himself wandering in all parts of the city. For another ten days he was completely lost and has no memory at all of what happened. He awoke in the Sultan’s Palace in Jogjakarta. He went then to the slopes of Merapi, the sacred mountain, and there he stayed for eight months and ten days and in that time, he said, he neither ate nor drank. When he returned to his family, he found he had the power to foresee the future. Gamblers flocked to him and he told them the numbers on which they should bet. They were so successful that the police became suspicious and questioned Mas.
All this worried him and he consulted gurus. `Be honest’, they told him; `Accept no money’. Now, Mas gives his advice free of charge and many people come to him.
I asked him what had happened on Merapi. He had met the spirit of a man who, in his life, had been well known as a holy man. He was a grandson of the sixth Sultan Agung and had died, on the day of Mas’s birth. This man had given Mas his sacred kris or dagger, a powerful implement of magic.
Mas took us to the end of the room and pulled aside a curtain, earthen floor gave way to beautiful tiles. On a dais were two carved wooden chairs with sumptuous velvet cushions, and resting on each cushion was a kris. On the walls were portraits of the sixth sultan and his grandson. There were carved nagas, stuffed peacocks, colourful fabrics draped from the walls; and in one corner, strangely enough, a television set. `This is my place of purity’, Mas said.
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