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Local Religion and Traditional Healing Practice

The indigenous minority groups of Indonesia


It is widely recognized that many have great concern for societies which live in remote areas and are categorized as being indigenous: indigenous minority, minority ethnic group, ‘primitive’, ‘backward’, isolated from the civilized world, ‘uncivilized’, prey to the surrounding communities, and possibly on the verge of extinction. Critiques from different sources have come of the efforts of many Third World countries which are trying to modify the socio-economic or socio-cultural status of these people. Many are considering that the governments of the Third World are replacing the white colonials against ‘backward’ societies (see Penz 1993). The idea of integration, progress, sharing benefit and development proposed by the Third World governments is considered to be disadvantageous to the life of the ‘backward’ societies. Deihl and Gordon (1987) blamed the transmigration programmes as having a tragic impact on the Irianese and the Irian ecosystem.

At last some authors (see Bodley 1982, for instance) have proposed socio-political solutions or ideas which are in their opinion suited to the interests of the ‘backward’ people.

This paper does not aim to argue about the possible differences, neither on the idea of socio-economic or socio-cultural changes, nor on the political solutions many have proposed for the problems of those societies classified as ‘backward’. The author is only presenting an idea on possibly a more rigorous approach to the problem of these people which would not hurt any parties involved.

Clarification of terms

It seems proper to first define some terms applied to the minority groups concerned or indigenous minorities, which in the author’s opinion do not properly fit reality. The terms ‘backward’ and ‘primitive’ are seemingly based more on the technological or civilization level classification. It is not fair to classify indigenous minorities as backward and primitive, because many of them are more generous, pacific and probably more honest, from the moral point of view better shaped and nurtured than many of us.

It does not seem proper also to address them as indigenous people, because most of the Third World citizens are themselves indigenous. They all live side by side. Some of the indigenous people or ethnic groups within a nation are direct users of the products of Western civilization. They are socialized to Western education and they are becoming intermediate societies between the ‘civilized’ and the ‘uncivilized’. The position of the intermediate groups is not always convenient. They face criticism and prejudice from both sides: the traditional community members of the nation and the foreigners. Among the traditional community members are the isolated minority ethnic groups living in remote areas. In fact, there are differences between various indigenous groups: first are those which live in the urban areas (see Boedhihartono 1993 for the Jakarta case); second are those who live in remote areas far from the civilized world but practise occupations which support the country market system; and the third are those who are totally devoid of any contact with the outside world and are independent of the market system.

Facts in the Third World show that there are minority groups still living with great dependence on their natural surroundings, practising a simple exploitative technology and independent of the market system. These people, who still live in a state quite attached to nature, are preferably described as MANS (more attached to nature society), rather than categorized as backward, primitive, tribal or anything else.

Contrary to the position of MANS are those societies which achieve a state of living less dependent on nature (LANS — less attached to nature society), and which are the product of acculturation achieved by a part of the indigenous people during the colonial period: the adoption of Western culture.

Contacts between indigenous peoples and the West during colonialism and the successive independence (liberation) of Third World societies have intensified the process by which MANS become LANS. Particularly if we refer to the fact that many have considered that the progress to be achieved is measured by the degree of technological achievement imported from the West, the change from a subsistence economy to a market-oriented economy and the change from the traditional mode of production to the modern mode of production.

The significance of indigenous religion and the practice of traditional healing to the integrity of Mans

A systemic approach to MANS culture is important to enable us to propose proper measures for supporting their existence. Such a systemic approach in dealing with MANS is only possible if we understand all elements of culture, interlinked in a complex network, which characterize a society. The religion or the belief system and the practice of traditional medicine both form the institutionalized effort of keeping a society’s members in a state of equilibrium.

Different ethnic groups in Indonesia have their own local systems of belief or their own religions: the Kataringan of the Ngaju Dayak, the Sabulungan of the Mentawai people, the Pelbegu of the Batak, the Sunda wiwitan of the Baduy people, the Kepercayaan of the Javanese, the Taluk To Dolo of the Toraja people in Sulawesi and other different animistic beliefs spread out even to the level of tribal groups in Indonesia.

Case examples will be described here to show the importance of the local religion of the Baduy in west Java and some notes on the traditional healing practices of the indigenous people of Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Irian Jaya.

1. At the western tip of Java there are people still living in a small society, which is recognized as the Baduy. They practise slash and burn cultivation and rely on dry rice as their staple food. The Baduy live in a hilly limestone formation on which the topsoil layer is quite thin. The only technology fitted to these conditions is seemingly the slash and burn cultivation, without any form of surface soil modification. The use of a hoe is considered to mutilate the soil surface and is taboo to the Baduy (Boedhihartono et al. 1994).

The Baduy daily life is cyclical according to the seasonal rhythm. They plant their dry rice once a year. Members of the society are forbidden to adopt a new technique of cultivation, to plant a new variety of rice from outside, and to cultivate imported crops (they refuse to plant cassava — Manihot esculenta — and the marketable clover tree). One is prohibited to go on whatever form of transportation, to own and utilize any form of industrial products, to stay overnight more than one night in the house of an outsider, to marry more than once, to divorce, etc.

Most recent reports (daily Suara Pembaharuan 1995) mention that the Baduy are still reluctant to send their children to school. They responded to the government appeal to join the development programme by saying that what they need of rice has been fulfilled by their ladang and they do not need the help and the introduction of knowledge by outsiders. The Baduy refuse to send their children to school, because according to them the more educated a person, the more treacherous he will be. The local knowledge that their ancestor passed down to them is sufficient to make them happy.

The prohibition of modifying the soil surface seems to be quite beneficial for the conservation of the soil, because any effort at modification with either hoes or ploughs would facilitate soil erosion.

These Baduy people are composed of two distinct clusters: the outside clusters, whose members wear black clothes, and the inner clusters, whose members are white-clothed. Both live in simple houses made of local materials and based on traditional technology. They eat uniformly cooked rice with salted fish, local vegetables, and local fruits, and use almost similar house utilities.

The two groups do not intermarry; they are quite endogamous. The outer clusters, who have direct contact with outsiders, are supposed to be the buffer community for the inner-circle Baduy.

The Baduy obediently accept and preserve all forms of taboo, which are considered the holy teaching of their ancestors, and practise an almost identical way of life. They refuse the influence of the outside world by avoiding much contact with outsiders and show an attitude which might be classified almost as xenophobia. The members of the society do not practise any form of individual ritualistic prayers the way Christians or Moslems do. The relation between man and god(s) is fully delegated to the puun, the politico-religious leader of the society.

All regulations and norms related to the Baduy’s resource exploitative activities and the control of their communal life are institutionalized as life guidance for the community members and based on the belief in the superbeings as taught by their religion, Sunda wiwitan.

Most of the regulations and norms are based on prohibitions or taboos, pamali in the local term. All these taboos are inherited from generation to generation and are considered a sacred heritage.

Emile Durkheim (see Morris 1988:115) defined religion as a unified set of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart from forbidden beliefs and practices, which unite one single moral community — all those who adhere to them.

Members of the society regularly and happily participate in the seasonal collective feasts as part of their religious ceremonies, which are performed according to the rhythm of planting or harvesting the rice. The aim of the rites is to worship the rice goddess, the goddess of fertility.

The fact that they accept similarity in their clothes, way of life, form and size of houses, etc., and also delegate their contact with god (Bathara Tunggal) are only examples of the communal and collective life which is rooted in and reinforced by their religion or their system of beliefs.

Although they recognize the word ‘bathara’, which is adopted from Hinduism, at the same time they include Adam as one of the ancestral names of the human being. Such a practice is only possible because they have no written tradition (used as a strict reference) and is only an effort of the Baduy to justify that their system of belief supports open-mindedness and has a basic universal idea.

The puun as religio-political leader of the Baduy is by many citizens of West Java and Jakarta considered to be a sacred figure, unpolluted by the modern way of thinking. He is considered a holy personage who gets easier contact with the superbeing. The puun is accustomed to be visited by the surrounding rural people and even members of the upper class of urban society, because he is supposed to be able to cure, to ask for mercy from the superbeing, to plant protective charms, to give protective amulets or invulnerability against black magic, etc. He accepts visitors for only a limited time, service offered and incantation performed lasting not more than 10-15 minutes. In return visitors present various articles such as knives, salted fish, resins, a white cloth, etc.

Although the Baduy include wild pig meat as their protein resource, the practice of raising cattle (or any quadruped) is prohibited. The government regulation to oblige people to adopt a legal religion (Islam, Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism) has caused difficulty for many of the indigenous people, who do not understand the teachings of the imported religions. Therefore it is not surprising that members of the Suku Laut living on small islands between Malaya, Sumatra and Kalimantan have adopted Taoism, because it has no conflicting regulations to their own and there are no fixed regulations related to prayer. The Sakai of east Sumatra, who are accustomed to eat pork and to practise cock-fighting as part of their cultural rituals and feasts, will certainly suffer because of the introduction of imported religions.

The prohibition on raising cattle is a means of preventing cultivated plants in their ladang from being ravaged by browsers.

The Baduy people practise a communistic life in the strictest sense, in which no individual land ownership as their basic need resources is permitted.

The efforts of outsiders to convert their religion will practically change their body of knowledge, belief and customs. A most significant consequence of a change in their religion will be primarily on their traditional collective land ownership. Land will be divided into small plots owned by individuals. Facts indicate that the individual land presented by the government to the converted Baduy were manipulated by outsiders. The author is afraid that the converted Baduy will start to sell their land to fulfil religious rituals.

Converted Baduy have lost the charm of being exotic people, less polluted by imported (deviant) behaviour. Only recently the Baduy claimed their 2,500 hectares (half of their reserved forest) occupied by the outsiders.

The opinion that it is not worth it to visit and to present gifts to the outer or converted Baduy basically comes from the fact that the culture of the converted Baduy does not differ from that of the Moslem community in the surrounding area. The converted Baduy will certainly become more dependent on the introduced system, they will leave their traditional knowledge for newly adopted values, and start to be a part of the new system.

With religious conversion, the Baduy and many other societies will start to neglect their own traditional cultures and certainly it will be a total loss for many, because we have not fully documented their traditional knowledge, values, norms, and practices which might prove to be useful in the future, and which up to the present have maintained harmonious relations between the population and the environment.

Despite the refusal of the inner Baduy to accept any form of help offered or any change introduced by the government, at least local varieties of dry rice are still preserved and have not been replaced by the government’s high-yield or pest-resistant varieties. There is a tendency among many communities to abandon their traditional local varieties of rice (Oryza sativa var. Indicus) in favour of the government’s genetically manipulated varieties.

2. A second problem which is of great importance to the effort of preserving the MANS is probably related to the consequences of the introduction of new medical practices.

The government’s efforts to better the welfare of the citizens (include MANS) include the establishment of the Public Health Services in various parts of the country.

To some extent the effort of lowering the infant mortality rate throughout the country has been successful, but modern medicine is still far beyond the reach of the common people. There are so many factors that do not support government efforts to provide people with an adequate and proper health service.

The limited number of health providers willing to work in remote areas, the inadequacy of health facilities provided by the government, the appreciation by MANS of modern medicine are still limited to curative efforts. Their economic status and the MANS’ knowledge of hygiene and sanitation in particular are becoming main obstacles for the government to achieve success in promoting people’s health.

There are reasons why local people visit or do not visit a clinic or consult or do not consult medical doctors. Medical doctors are not part of the society, most of them are outsiders who have become doctors through an expensive process of formal education. The practice of a medical doctor is a professional occupation which differs from the practice of a medicine man, who provides service to the members of the community merely as an expression of his solidarity mission.

Medical doctors wish to be materially well rewarded and run expensive and prestigious private clinics. Though many of them are obliged to serve the people (include MANS) in the Public Health Clinics, because of the small salary and the lack of facilities they do not provide proper service.

Although the cost of a visit to a Public health Clinic is undoubtedly quite low, the service provided is not always adequate and it is not rare for the civil servants of the clinic to be quite rude.

Secondly, there is no assurance that Western medicine guarantees a cure.

Thirdly, medical doctors offer cures for physical illnesses than for psychological problems.

How the members of the MANS perceive or interpret the problem they are facing, whether it is an illness, a disease, a psychological problem or human interrelation problem, is not well defined. Traditional healers offer solutions for all problems.

It is not surprising that in many areas, traditional healing is one of the choices, to which people in rural areas are still accustomed (see Helman 1984).

Different ethnic groups and MANS practise different herbal medicine and traditional healing. Differences in practices are to some degree determined by persistent endemic diseases or traditionally recognized illnesses (Helman 1984:65-105) and locally recognized possibilities.

It should be noted that the practice of traditional medicine is transferred from generation to generation as part of traditional knowledge, which in many cases cannot be separated from the transferred system of belief or inherited religion. Local traditional medicine has been developed as a consequence of the environmental problems faced by the MANS over generations. Traditional medicine is becoming a body of knowledge and practices which form an element of the culture developed by MANS to adapt themselves to the environment. It is true that in Bali, for instance, the practice of traditional healing has been transferred from generation to generation based on written tradition (the use of lontar), even though many of the traditional healers acquired their ability to cure through the practice of asceticism.

Some of the Balinese or the Kalimantan belian believe that the choice of the herb utilized in curing a disease is obtained by inspiration, and such inspiration can only be obtained because the belian has passed a certain period of asceticism or because he is believed to have a certain mercy (wahyu) from the superbeing.

The traditional healing practitioner within a certain MANS is usually a middle-aged or old man, who also becomes a central figure within the society beside the socio-political leader. If the socio-political leader is familiar only with each adult male of each household, the traditional healer recognizes almost all members of the existing households.

The traditional healer plays a role of great importance to the MANS. In many minority ethnic groups, the traditional healers attract foreigners and outsiders. The Banuaq healers who perform ritual dances and music as part of the treatment have attracted tourists to east Kalimantan. Those facts seems to have a positive effect on the confidence of the members of the ethnic group. But some outsiders who are followers of imported religions are quite cynical about these practices.

The Banuaq (one of the Dayak tribes in east Kalimantan) healers are supposed to use black magic and worship and utilize Satan or evil to cure people. Some young medical doctors oppose the practice, which is supposed to be only superstitious, hocus-pocus and relying on the pagan system of belief. Some of the incoming migrant followers of a certain imported religion comment that the ritual is too noisy and disturbing to the neighbourhood, although each year at the end of a particular month they practise a quite noisy activity.

Many members of the Banuaq consider that the existence of the belian (traditional healers of the Dayak) is still important, because not all problems can be solved by the institutions provided by the government. The practice of traditional healing by the Banuaq is encouraged by the local authority, because of its ritual attractiveness to foreigners. It is a pity that the rituals do not take place everyday.

Medical doctors are against the MANS traditional curing not because of the rational differences between modern medical concepts and traditional ones, but more due to the sentimentality and the differences in the system of belief of the medical doctors and members of MANS.

Fortunately, not all converted MANS such as the ones in Irian (West Papua) have lost their traditional healers. The Komoro on the southern coast of Irian still preserve traditional healing practices.

It is a pity that many tribes such as the Amomay are undergoing a degradation of their traditional practices because of intense contact with outsiders.

The introduction of clinics does not seem to improve the quality of life. Curative efforts and casual prevention of endemic diseases do not change the health status of the MANS. Facts indicate that these efforts only increase the dependency of the MANS on industrial products (drugs or chemicals).

The usual Western medical treatment depends on either injections or tablets. An injection can be directly offered to the patient during the visit. But take-home oral therapy, in the form of a capsule, tablet, pulverized drug or syrup, which should be taken three times a day, is not easily executable. There are not enough personnel to monitor whether patient really takes the tablet three time a day. The MANS are not accustomed yet to take medicaments three time a day. Only a few of the Amomay can even count to more than five. Better planned education (health education, particularly) seem necessary to really improve MANS life quality.

Comments and Conclusions

The contact between the MANS and outsiders (transmigrants, labourers engaged in mines, plantations or timber exploitation for instance) has different effects on different MANS. The xenophobic attitude of the Baduy in west Java prevents them from being disintegrated by modernization. They still preserve their identity, and outsiders respect their culture. But many MANS have problems because of contact with outsiders because of the incompatibility of the MANS’ traditional values with those of the outsiders, or because of the cultural gaps existing between the MANS and the incoming community.

The involvement of many MANS in different exploitative activities has introduced monetization and a new value orientation. If conversion itself has already a disadvantageous and disintegrating effect on the MANS, the following monetization process seems to be even more damaging. Many of the MANS are not really conscious about the meaning of money as a means of exchange and saving. They are not accustomed yet to invest their savings; instead they spend all their money on alcohol or industrial toys. Therefore monetization is only helping the outsiders (the capital owners particularly) to get the natural resources of the MANS.

The effort to improve the health status of the MANS is only creating more dependence on Western pharmaceutical products. MANS are obliged to obtain money and spend it on something new that they do not really need. On the other hand, they will lose their traditional knowledge because of this supposed development.

The MANS have been totally changed from being dependent on nature to being dependent on technological or industrial products.

Traditional medicine is one of the practical aspects of traditional knowledge, and traditional knowledge is part of the basic teaching in MANS’ traditional religion. Conversion will not only change their traditional life-style but may also cause the loss of traditional healing knowledge.


Bodley, J.H., 1982, Victims of Progress. Palo Alto: Mayfield

Boedhihartono, 1982, ‘Current State and Future Prospects of Traditional Healers in Indonesia’. In David Mitchel, ed., Indonesia Medical Traditions. Melbourne: Monash University

——, 1993, ‘Settlement Pattern in Jakarta’. In Masyarakat Journal of Sociology, 2:15-25

——, Boedhisantosa and Mary Hawkins, 1994, ‘Thee Baduy’. In American Museum of Natural History, In Traditional People of Today. San Francisco: Harper

Deihl C. and R. Gordon, 1987, ‘The Forgotten Refugees: The West Papuans of Irian Jaya’. In ‘South-east Asian Tribal Groups and Ethnic Minorities’. Cambridge: Cultural Survey, Inc.

Evans-Pritchard, E.E., 1952, Primitive Religion. London: Oxford

Helman, Cecile, 1984, Culture, Health and Illness. Bristol: Wright, PSG

Morris, Brian, 1988, Anthropological Studies of Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Penz, P.G., 1993, ‘Colonization of Tribal Lands in Bangladesh and Indonesia: State Rationales, Rights to Land, and Environmental Justice’. In M.C. Howard, ed., Asia’s Environmental Crisis. San Francisco: Westview Press


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