© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin
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Dance of the possessed: jathilan in Yogyakarta, Java

3 minutes to read

While Indonesia, in general, has preserved its culture remarkably, the town of Yogyakarta is particularly renowned as the cultural hub of Java. One example is the local version of kuda lumping dance jathilan. Elaborate costumes and artful moves are less important in this dance form than the ritual part: spirit possession. Jathilan may be treated as art or entertainment, and most of the onlookers at any performance will be there just to watch, but the organizers usually seek the blessing of their ancestors, not just fun. This dance is almost always staged at local religious events, such a nyadran, ritual purification of land and water, or sedekah laut - thanksgiving to the sea.  But a jathilan troupe can also be hired for a private occasion, like a birthday or a circumcision day. It is considered a good gift for newlyweds, for example, providing a chance to communicate with their long-dead predecessors via a possessed dancer.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Riding a toy horse

Jathilan is commonly known across Java as “kuda lumping” – “flat horse”. The dance begins with a group of performers – jathil - imitating equestrian moves while holding toy horses made of rattan or bamboo to the sounds of Javanese music, either traditional or dangdut (Javanese pop music). A dukun (shaman) presides over the group. At some point he makes a pass, or claps, or otherwise marks the moment theatrically, and the dancers fall where they stood, unconscious. From then on, it gets weird. When they rise, it is not them anymore. Ghosts, spirits of the dead, have taken over their bodies. Dance moves become erratic. The music adapts, too: moans, yells and sighs fill the tune, creating an eerie, entrancing ambiance. It is time for magic.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Being ridden

The jathil run in circles, roll or crawl on the ground, bite their hands, collapse, or leap into the air. Some are driven to perform superhuman stunts – tear a coconut open with bare teeth, eat burning incense or broken glass, jump on hot coals. The shaman controls them with clicks of a whip, like a circus trainer manipulating real horses. If that fails, more magic is used: potions, sophisticated gestures resembling tai-chi or kungfu, spells. None of this works too well, but at least a few of the possessed dancers can be forced to approach the clients and give them the ancestral blessing, often together with a brief prophecy. Next is the difficult part – pulling the spirits out. Discorporate life must be not much fun because the ghosts do not want to go. Shamans – there are often more than one – have to use every trick and spell they know, all the while making the pulling motions. Almost no jathil comes to his senses peacefully – they convulse as if in an epileptic seizure, fight and scream. Some struggle for half an hour and they have to be carried away after they are finally exorcised.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Practicalities

Jathilan is regularly staged in and around Yogyakarta. Most local religious events occur according to the Javanese calendar, but private performances are usually ordered on weekends. Jathilan is also included in most cultural programs for tourists, albeit in an abridged, simplified version and without true spirit possession. For this kind of show, inquire in the very efficient tourist information office of Yogyakarta. To find the location of the real thing, search local Facebook groups. This has to be done in Indonesian, but the language is extremely simple, and translation software handles it well. Despite the ritual significance, nowadays, jathilan is mainly seen as fun, public entertainment, and foreigners are welcome to attend.  The proverbially hospitable people of Java will gladly let you get closer to the makeshift “arena” where the magic dance takes place, or even inside it. If you go in, make sure not to get in the way of the entranced dancers – many of them can not see where they are going, or do not care. Occasionally, the ghosts possess a random person in the crowd. This does not happen often, but you may think twice about visiting if you are highly hypnotizable.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin
Puro Pakualaman, Yogyakarta
Puro Pakualaman, Yogyakarta
Jl. Masjid No.46, Gunungketur, Pakualaman, Kota Yogyakarta, Daerah Istimewa Yogyakarta 55166, Indonesia

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The author

Mark Levitin

Mark Levitin

I am Mark, a professional travel photographer, a digital nomad. For the last four years, I am based in Indonesia, spending here roughly half a year and travelling around Asia for the other half. Previously, I spent four years in Thailand, exploring it from all perspectives.

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