01:40 A.M. and I’m waiting for sahur time. Sahur is that pre-dawn meal you take before fasting, be it during or outside Ramadan. Now, I have more than enough time to tell you the story of my travel to my ancestral land, the Karo Highlands.
I went to Siberteng in Barusjahe Subdistrict, North Sumatra, in September last year, to meet one of the few remaining traditional Karonese healers.
This hamlet is so small that you can throw a stone from one end and it might land on the other end.
But the vistas! The vistas! On one side, Siberteng is fringed by a green valley that slants up to hills full of orange trees, and in between is a clear stream where I spent hours washing myself naked under a shower made from bamboo.
Each morning and evening during my four-day stay, the traditional healer would take me to one of the two coffee stalls for a warm drink; it was quite cold there. The customers, all male, would relate stories of their everyday life as farmers, and sometimes the tragic tales of the Karonese heirlooms that had gone missing from the village a long time ago.
I also saw how these men shared among themselves a traditional concoction the healer, whom I called bolang (grandfather) despite his young age, told them could enhance sexual virility.
The healer’s family was so welcoming, they even cooked me the Karonese tasak telu chicken normally served only on special occasions. To prepare the tasak telu chicken, you use everything from the chicken except, thankfully, the feathers and that thing inside the bowels.
I spent some time conversing with bolang’s father, who spoke of a time when magic was prevalent, both black and white. But magic can be fun, too. For example, you can cast a spell to make a bench stick to someone’s butt when they stand up. The Karonese astrology, on the other hand, can be used to find a missing item. Cool stuff, but they have mostly vanished with time.
Good thing I could witness the traditional healer in action, massaging patients and preparing herbal concoctions for them. Many said they had heard about bolang from those who had been cured from various illnesses.
Here is the full story…
North Sumatra’s Medicine Men
Labodalih Sembiring | Jakarta Globe | online: September 11, 2011
The dirt path meanders up and down, cutting through a small forest, a clear river, and tall bushes. Farmers in Siberteng, a hamlet in Barusjahe, North Sumatra, must take this route on foot to get to their orange orchards on the hills. But not all of them know that some of the wild plants growing in plain sight along the way can save lives.
Baskami Tarigan does. On his way to his own orchard, Baskami stopped to pluck a low-growing shrub. “We Karonese call this bulung pegaga, but it is commonly known as daun tapak kuda [horseshoe leaf]. You can combine it with several herbs to make a cure for liver problems,” he said.
As he went on, he pointed out three other plants with curative powers. These natural resources, Baskami said, help explain why people in the olden days lived longer.
The Karonese, one of the groups of people associated with the Batak tribe of North Sumatra, have long benefited from the fertile soil of the Karo Highlands. Orange, coffee, vegetable, and flower plantations flourish in the area. A substantial part of the Karolands, an area that extends from the northwest side of Lake Toba to Aceh in the west, is covered by dense forest. Waterfalls, hot springs, rivers, and small lakes around the Sinabung and Sibayak volcanoes complete the tableau of a place blessed by Dibata, Karonese for “god.”
Living so close to nature has shaped the frame of thinking of these mountain people, as reflected in their distinctive rites and customs. Kebun Tarigan, Baskami’s father, said that many Karonese names for plants were based on their characteristics, uses, and, in some cases, magical powers.
“For example, before entering a newly built house, a Karonese family will hold a mbengket rumah mbaru ritual,” the older Tarigan said. “Seven kinds of leaves — together called bulung simalem-malem — are used to purify the house. The first is bulung selantam, which is believed to be able to hantam [fight] evil spirits.”
Bulung tabar-tabar is said to make the occupants of the house feel sabar [patient] at all times. The next bulung is the siang-siang, which literally means ‘midday.’ It is used to keep the inhabitants in cheerful spirits and mind.
The ability to identify plants with certain powers, Kebun and Baskami believe, is hereditary. It is a pemeteh, or sacred knowledge, passed on from generation to generation through direct teaching, dreams, or “mysterious whispers.”
“When I was young, I didn’t buy any of it. My father had the pemeteh , but I wouldn’t have minded if he had taken it to the grave with him,” Kebun said.
But one day Kebun’s eldest son fell sick.
“I didn’t know what it was or how to get rid of it,” Kebun said. “So I sent a prayer to my father, asking his spirit to tell me the remedy. Afterward, I put a pack of cigarettes and one pack of matches on the cupboard.” In the Karonese culture, offering cigarettes is a gesture of respect.
That night, Kebun said, his father came to him in a dream, instructing him to find several kinds of leaves from the jungle to make a concoction. “I followed his advice, and my son was cured.”
A few years ago, it was Kebun himself who fell ill. Diabetes caused a big ulcer on his leg, causing pain when he tried to walk. This time it was Baskami, Kebun’s youngest son, who sought the tambar, or cure.
“Going to the doctor did not help,” Baskami said. “I got the answer after performing tahajjud [Islamic late-night prayers] and meditating. I was shaking and sweating when a voice came, engaging me in a silent conversation. It told me to get certain leaves and herbs. I made a powder out of them. It’s really bitter, but it works.”
Today the father, now in his 70s, still tends his orchards, fish ponds, and chicken farm on a daily basis. The miracle of the powder persuaded Baskami to sell it for Rp 20,000 ($2) per package. He once had plans to patent some of his prescriptions, but his father told him not to.
Baskami started learning about herbal medicines and reflexology, a natural healing art popular in Northern Europe, from books 10 years ago. His teenage years were riddled with various illnesses, so he practiced what he studied on himself. He combined this knowledge with the herbal formulas and traditional chants his father taught him. Four years ago, he began practicing his skills on others.
“I initially treated little kids with high fever in the neighborhood. Their parents, extremely troubled, came to me,” Baskami said. He massaged the children’s feet and used a tambar called kuning, a spicy tablet of herbs that he believes can cure nerve problems as well. The success with these first cases gave Baskami the confidence to handle other patients.
People started to come to the Tarigans’ house every day, especially on weekends. Last Sunday afternoon, six people, all of whom had heard of Baskami through word of mouth, sat in the multifunctional family room where Baskami runs his practice. Anto, a Javanese man living in Kabanjahe, the capital of Karo district, brought his father, who was suffering from a swollen thyroid.
“I took my father to a doctor three months ago, but there has been no improvement,” Anto said. “I heard about Baskami from a friend. My friend used to suffer from a liver problem, until he came here several times.”
For the old man, Baskami prepared betel leaves combined with gambier, whiting, and other ingredients. After folding them into triangles, he brought them to his room to “enhance” their curative power with a prayer.
“The remedial elements belong to God. Praying is a way of asking for God’s permission to use them,” Baskami said.
Then he wrote something down: “Paldas paldus pala pala maldus, bam nasi sanggolom 7x. Maldus duri ibas kerahung si [name].”
“Squeeze warm rice with your hand while chanting that in your heart, and then give it to a person with a fish bone stuck in his throat,” Baskami said. “Someone who saw me doing it thought it didn’t need any mantra. When experiencing the same condition, he made the lump of rice and ate it. He felt nothing but being sated.”
Baskami acknowledges he does not have the cure to all illnesses. “I’m not sure how to handle HIV,” he said. “It scares me.”
But fear does not stop him from trying. A young man came to him on Saturday morning for a follow-up to his herbal therapy. The patient said he still felt weak in the joints. Baskami made a remedy similar to the one he had prescribed to the elderly patient with the thyroid problem, to get rid of a fungus on the young man’s tongue. Baskami also told him the ingredients for a formula that could “clean his blood.”
“My mother keeps telling me to get married. It’s frustrating to even think about it when I have this ‘thing,’” the man said. “I believe traditional medicines can help me. I have been feeling much stronger.”
That night, Kebun, Baskami, and Kebun’s eldest son, Robinson, sat around sharing stories about traditional medicines.
“In the past, it was common to blame terpan santo [poisonous black magic] as the cause of an illness,” Kebun said. “Once there was guru pakpak pitu sedalanen, a group of seven black magic practitioners. Some of them would pass by a village to spread an illness. The rest came later with the cure. People had to give the curers money, which would be shared among the seven of them. A knowledge is ‘black’ when you use it to make gains through bad methods.”
Time, according to the Tarigans, has changed a lot of things.
“Many [species of] plants have disappeared, along with an understanding of them,” Kebun said. He likens this to the many Karonese heirlooms that have disappeared because of neglect, theft, or because they were sold.
Baskami offered one of the reasons behind the vanishing pemeteh .
“In the past, you couldn’t make a lot from herbal medicines. Sometimes it was hard to find the ingredients; you had to go to the deepest jungle. It also took time and energy to make the remedies, but the payment was usually only rice, an egg, and cigarettes,” he said. “If the person [with the knowledge] were married, I can imagine what the partner would say: ‘Why bother? Drop it already!’”
Baskami said he believed that knowing the health benefits of whatever natural resources were available in an area was important.
“From my experience, it has allowed me to make a lot of friends,” he said. “It also helps lessen your worries when you or someone in your family gets sick. You can get through the experience more calmly if you know what cure to make.”