Curiosity #73: Tree Magic


Javanese myths are full of ordinary folks who acquire magical powers under trees. Men and women practice asceticisms in the forest, acquiring heirlooms, encountering long-dead princesses, discovering immortality. Accumulating sperm. Sitting under a tree might seem a dull path to sorcery, but the complexity of seated meditation – or perhaps the very process of purging the self of complex materialism – is beyond Western comprehension, especially now that the ubiquitous, perhaps mis-led correlation between sophistication and chairs have ruled out cross-legged sitting. Not to mention trees (see Curiosity #71).

In a village called Bandungan, Central Java, there lived an Islamic spiritual teacher (called a Kyai) who, instead of sleeping, meditated under trees to acquire spiritual blessings. As a hermit he cooped up inside a simple dwelling at the center of the village’s neighboring forest, beside a river and field of rice plants he cultivated himself.

One night on a full moon, a scream was heard from the depths of the forest. No Javanese civilian in her or his right mind would venture into a forest at night, and so the villagers waited until morning to investigate. First they inspected the Kyai’s home. They were devastated by the scene. Surrounding the dwelling, they found a spattering of blood like a bed of strawberries splashed beneath an ogre’s foot. The village leader told the people to gather the bloody dirt and bury it, resigning to the fact that, despite the absence of a body, there was no way their Kyai could have survived such a spill.

Forty nights later, second cry was heard from the forest. In the morning, a village widow was found dead in her bedroom. It was clear that whoever conducted these killings sought more than power, and the villagers panicked. Some of them fled the village, fearing they would be pulped like guava. The braver ones resolved to stay, seeking a shaman to get down to business.

Shamans in Java are of various specialties: some of dark magic, others of love, many employed for the trolling of businesses (we hope forever outside the hands of American capitalists), others for the control of rain, the provision of prophecy, restoring relations with the patronizing dead. The shaman of Bandungan could see beyond material reality and into the soul of the present, peering into truth like a jeweler unzipping a purse of diamonds. The shaman pronounced to the villagers that the killer did not come from outside but rather lived among them, and that only a confession from the offender would save future generations from an irrevocable curse.

One hundred days after the first disappearance, on the day the villagers planned to commemorate the Kyai’s death, the chief elder of the village was found dead. He had stabbed himself with a bamboo rod uprooted from the Kyai’s grave. Like a film noir, this shadowy mystery came to a twisted but conclusive end. The villagers perceived the suicide as evidence that the village leader was in fact the murderer. It seemed the village leader’s act of skewering himself served as sufficient “confession”, since after the village leader was kicked to the dirt, Bandungan suffered no more mysterious killings. The villagers lived in peace.

The grave of the Kyai, known as “Oncak Ancik” (“the act of standing on one’s leg”, referring to the late Kyai’s state of unbalance), is a haunted space. Locals say there was once a visitor to the village who, upon nearing the grave out of curiosity, was possessed by a spirit that forced him to roar like a tiger. It is believed that this beastly spirit belongs to the Kyai, who is still ravenous for a human form.

Those who take the tiniest twig of bamboo from the site suffer disastrous consequences: degrading illness, combusted homes. Infertility. The grave occasionally attracts power seekers who aim to one-up the Kyai’s wisdom by spending a night in the forest, but before their meditation is complete they—without fail—are chased out by forest demons, attacked by animals, or consumed by a mysterious force that causes them to disappear before the morning dew rises off the canopies.


Curiosity #45: Scenes from Dieng Plateau


In the microbus bound for the highest village in Java, women in headscarves mopped up rice delivered by a woman who conducted business from a squat in the street. My friend Stefanie and I sat in the back of the bus, fielding questions from villagers who wanted to know our religion and marital affairs (which, of course, there were none). Exhausted, we slipped off our shoes. Through the open windows, we could feel cool air from the climbing altitude wafting in from an atmosphere that was too dark to see.

The bus assistant repaired a break in the bus engine, which kept us waiting upwards of an hour in the mist, and rewarded himself with a jackfruit the size of a cabbage. As the bus kicked into gear, the man stripped off the meat of the fruit like the skin of a tender chicken. Between ferocious swallows, he offered a bite of his treat. Strips of it passed through the dirty fingers of gentle women into my hands, and I placed the fermented parcels in my mouth. Pungent. As the bus hiked the hills, the veiled figures disappeared into the dark.

Upon arriving in Dieng Plateau the air was cold like a Midwestern Fall. For the first time in Indonesia I wore a sweater and inhaled freshness nonexistent in the polluted cities of Central Java. Stefanie and I found dinner at the only restaurant open at 8pm (the village wakes at dawn), where the eggs and vegetables were already half-cold, and where the owner of the restaurant smoked cigarettes while reheating the day-old cuisine: served with a chili sauce of bright green. At the homestay, a young Muslim man and woman, out for a sinful getaway, introduced their relationship under the soically-permissible category of “friendship” and told us of their plans to watch the sunrise. Late that night, the couple could be heard giggling together in bed.

Near the homestay was a Hindu temple complex. No one practiced the Hindu religion in this region since centuries before, when Islam came to stay. The first morning in Dieng Plateau, I passed through a garden onto a vast rectangle of sand, where three or four 8th century Hindu temples stuck out among the background of farmland like small spaceships. Visitors were free to enter the relics, which bore staircases protruding from door-top engravings of open-mouthed gods. From my foreign observances, I could only note that the interiors of the temples seemed the same: cold, simple, and closet-sized. At the center of each was a large stone bowl-like structure and, beneath it, pools of red wax piled from expired candles lit for show. There was a lingering smell left by incense that still poked out from between the stone bricks. The walls were frigid and spare. They seemed to hint at something holy, though — I admit — perhaps it was only superstition that brought me to feel filled with an intimate, unearthly coolness. Exiting the last temple, I felt ashamed for still being ignorant of Hindu tradition, which beforehand I had felt too Western and too skeptical to touch.



Fortunately just outside was a figure even more ignorant than I. On the manicured hills near the temples, a man in a telly tubby suit posed for pictures and waited for tourists to drop a few dollars into his empty container of shortening. Like in the children’s TV show, the telly tubby’s body stood out against the green landscape: brightly colored and disconcertingly round. Now beside this sacred architecture, the creature projected an impression that was almost surreal and refreshingly offensive. As I was leaving the site, I saw the telly tubby bend down to posture himself contemplatively in the grass.


A short walk away, a series of roofless houses were flooded with grass and flowers. Intrigued by the abandoned space, I walked among the walls. Besides trash and fallen roof planes, there wasn’t much to see and, more importantly, no one to tell me how this place had been half-overcome with rot. Upon turning back toward the main path, a hunched old woman blocked the route. I hadn’t noticed her. As we stood face to face, the old woman chewed on a betel nut and swirled the juices between her cheeks. When she opened her mouth to speak, her teeth — stained — glistened a bright red. You can’t be here, she said in an indecipherable mumble. I only understood her message when she flung her arms to the left in order show me the way out, at which point I nodded my head in preparation to leave.

The old woman then complained about her eye. She wanted money. I’m not heartless, but I did not at the moment feel compelled to donate money within the confines of a ruinscape to a seemingly deranged old woman determined to whittle me out of my cash. Politely as possible, I attempted to move past her. The lady-beggar stood in my way and opened her mouth again. All I could see was crimson. Convinced this old lady had emerged from a horror movie, I fled quickly to the road, where I was left haunted by the chilling image of how humans might look if they perpetually bled from the mouth.

Later, I asked a man at the homestay what happened to the abandoned homes near the Hindu temples. The man said the homes were part of a mushroom factory back when Suharto was in power, but that the industry went bankrupt since the former government was stripped from office in 2008. When I asked him how he felt about the evil old dictator, the man just smiled and said he was good for business.

At 3:30 in the morning, Stefanie and I walked 1.5 hours in the dark past three villages and several geothermal plants to a hill beside a lake. The sun had already begun to rise. We climbed a miniature mountain to a pedestrian overlook where Indonesian teenagers posed for pictures with their cigarettes in front of an increasingly pink sky. A glimpse of something red appeared between the shadows of two mountains. As I watched the sun blend over the horizon, I recalled a life-sized poster from my childhood-home of a refined-looking woman in a white gown holding a symbolic light that floated magically above two open palms. I decided it was the closest thing to heaven I would ever see.


Back near the homestay, Stefanie and I drank sweet ginger coffee with the village women. They ran a small food stand across from the homestay. All of them were Muslim. They occupied themselves during the day by relaxing in the cold and serving food to passerby. Their husbands farmed potatoes in the cultivated fields, which stretched across every hilled surface and lent the natural landscape the appearance of temple roofs not unlike the Hindu sanctuaries preserved nearby.

After seeing all the sights the town of Dieng plateau, the town — while still beautiful — seemed oppressively simple and cold. It was time to go home. I entered the lobby of the homestay to ask if the manager could assist my travel arrangements to Yogyakarta. The homestay manager sat with a thin old man who introduced himself as a driver. The old man smiled in my direction in a strange way that signified few interactions with white women. The driver’s cheekbones rose impossibly high on his skeletal face when I sat down. The man informed me that he was a nice man, that he took pity on me for not having enough money for phone credit (there was one sketchy ATM in the village and I didn’t dare use it). The skeleton-man cooed incomprehensibly. With a bony hand he pinched my cheek. He lived alone. He touched my leg, flickered light from his flashlight on my thighs and giggled, blew me a kiss and brought his face dangerously close to mine. Suddenly I had to leave.

Thankfully dinner was mercifully cheap, so Stefanie and I were able to spend our last few dollars on a large beer to share. In the lobby downstairs we could hear that Skeleton-man was looking for me, but the homestay manager — who had already apologized for his friend’s rude behavior — told the old man that I had already gone to sleep.

The next morning, the manager left town with us on the public bus. He traveled with a birdcage large enough to contain a human body. Upon entering the bus, several old ladies smiled at Stefanie and me with betel-nut teeth. Before descending the bus steps, the homestay-manager paid for us. We watched the homestay manager’s disheveled head from the window as he walked away with his cage, seemingly to nowhere.

The main Mosque in Dieng Plateau

A typical cabbage patch in Dieng

One of many sulfur ponds in the plateau region

Stefanie in front of Dieng’s largest natural crater

Standing in front of a lake after being given a free tour by two bored security officers