I have been living in Indonesia for 10 months now in North Sumatra, Bali and Lombok. As soon as I arrived I was hit with a huge culture shock. Religion, Mysticism, and Magic is a huge part of Indonesian culture. I have absolutely loved hearing the many stories about magic, ghosts, the ‘other world’ as they call it and spirits.
I had heard about spirit dance before but never really knew what it meant, and then a close friend told me about how his sister becomes possessed by spirits and dances. It is a very common tradition here to have entertainment at ceremonies with people dancing who are possessed by beings or animals from the other world.
‘Kuda Kepang’ or ‘Kuda lumping’, translated to ’Horse Braid’ in English is a traditional Javanese dance featuring a group of warriors riding handmade woven bamboo horses. The horses are decorated with braids, colourful paint, and fabrics.
The lumping horse dance usually features a horse-riding scene, but some lumping performances also feature the dancers becoming possessed, gaining immunity, such as performers eating glass and immunity against the whiplash pain and gaining magical powers.
Although this dance comes from Java, Indonesia, this dance is also inherited by the Javanese who settled in North Sumatra and in some areas outside Indonesia as in Malaysia. Not a single historical record is able to explain the origin of this dance, only a verbal history passed down from one generation to the next.
The braided horse performance itself consists of a group of dancers, musicians, guards, and masters. Dancers will be possessed by spirits who are called upon by the master.
The musicians play enchanting music whilst the masters whip their whips to heat up the atmosphere which causes the dancers to collapse, at that moment they lose consciousness and are possessed by the spirits.
The master is responsible for controlling all the spirits that enter into the bodies of the dancers. Not infrequently the spectators will also lose awareness and spirits will enter into their bodies, causing them to join the dancers in the attraction.
When the spirit enters their bodies, the guards or the master’s assistant will prepare some gifts or treats to be given to the spirit; such as young coconut, flowers, and mermaid oil.
When the spirits have received all their offerings they will dance, jump and do some kind of attraction; such as opening the coconut with their teeth or hitting it on their head. They will walk on the fire, eat glass, mirror and flaming embers.
The origin of Kuda Lumping is uncertain. Two main hypotheses have been proposed. The first suggests that Kuda Lumping may have arisen out of Diponegoro's war against the Dutch colonial forces, as a ritual reenactment of battles. The second argues that it is based on Mataram-era troops riding against the Dutch.
How does the performance start?
The event will start with the musicians playing rhythmic music consisting of traditional instruments such as; the angklung (bamboo wind instrument), gendang (drum), gongs, bongang (smaller gongs), saron (brass plates) and kenong (brass bowls). Each musical instrument will be played by one person.
The master will go around the area holding his cambuk (horse whip), sometimes he will put a physical line around the area using a rope, but he will always fence off the area with an occult fence to avoid an attack of witchcraft.
When the master has made sure everything is clear and safe, the dancers will begin dancing consciously with the rhythm of the music. Whilst they are dancing, the guardians will prepare flowers and burn natural incense made from tree sap in preparation for the spirits.
When the dancers are ready they will start to ride and dance with their horses until they lose awareness and consciousness, and enter into a trance. The dancers will sometimes wear topeng (masks), face paint, or special outfits. Sometimes all of the dancers will go into trance, and sometimes just half, it depends on the dancers level of concentration and focus.
If the dancers cannot enter into trance they will go and ask their guardian and ask for incense; they will then have to concentrate and inhale the smoke until the spirit enters their body and they go into trance.
Why do people do it?
The main reason people connect with the spirits is to gain heightened magical powers, they have to do so many tests with their spirits until they can get what they want, many people in Indonesia have ‘Spirit Guardians’ where they undergo special rituals and ceremonies to connect with and gain different powers and spirit guardians.
There are so many powers that you can ask for from the spirits; some people ask for immunity so for example if they are shot by a gun they won't get hurt, just the same as if they were punctured by a knife nothing would happen. People also use their spirit guardians to help them to find magical items; such as stones, knives, and clothing which will appear to them when asked and contain magical powers from the other world.
To start their connection they will meditate to start the communication with the spirits and when the connection is established, the spirit will then guide them to find these magical items.
However, other people do it just because they want to have the experience of being in a trance, they are curious and want to know how it feels.
How does the spirit leave the body?
In the Kuda Lumping event the master will take the control of the spirit when the master thinks that its enough, the guardian will pull the dancer to the side of the arena and give him the offerings of food, flowers and mermaid oil as a thank you for contributing. The spirit will leave the body and go to the gendang (drum) where the guardian will put some mermaid oil on it so that the spirit will inhale the oil and leave the arena.
For personal purposes, the individual will learn by themselves how to pull the spirit out of their body or by asking another spirit to help. In other cases they will meditate in groups so that the other people can watch as the other is in trance and then they can then help the other person to get the spirit out of their body.
I still have many many questions about this, I don’t fully understand myself the reasons for this practice, but this is deeply ingrained in the culture here and is very important. I find it so interesting and that is why I wanted to share this with you, I want to thank my friend Ari for helping me write this article and telling me all about this amazing tradition.
If you have any questions please comment below or email me and we will get back to you,