North Sumatra’s Medicine Men

by Labodalih Sembiring | originally published in the Jakarta Globe in January 2011 | salvaged and back-translated from this blog

The dirt path meandered up and down, cutting through small forests, a clear rivulet, and tall bushes. Farmers in Siberteng, a hamlet in Barusjahe, North Sumatra, have to take this route on foot to get to their orange orchards on the hills. Not all of them know, however, that many of the wild plants growing in plain sight along the way can save lives.

On the way to his own orchard, Baskami stopped to pick a low-growing shrub. “We Karonese call this bulung pegaga, but it’s more commonly known as daun tapak kuda (horseshoe leaf). You can combine it with several other herbs to make medicine to cure liver diseases,” he said.

As he walked on, he pointed out three other plants with healing powers. These natural resources, Baskami said, help explain why people in the past lived longer.

The Karonese, a tribe associated with the Batak ethnic group of North Sumatra, have long benefited from the fertile soil of Tanah Karo highlands. Orange, coffee, vegetable, and flower plantations flourish in this region. Most of Tanah Karo, which stretches from the northwestern side of Lake Toba to Aceh in the west, is covered by dense forests. Waterfalls, hot springs, rivers, and small lakes around the Sinabung and Sibayak volcanoes complete the canvas of a plateau blessed by Dibata, or God.

Living so close to nature has shaped the frame of mind of these mountain people, as reflected in their ceremonial rituals and customs. Kebun Tarigan, Baskami’s father, said that the Karo people named many plants based on their characteristics, uses, and, to some extent, “magical” powers.

“For example, before entering a newly built house, a Karo family would hold a mbengket rumah baru ritual,” said the older Tarigan. “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 strike (hantam) evil spirits.

Bulung tabar-tabar is said to make the occupants of the house feel patient (sabar) at all times. Next is bulung siang-siang, which literally means ‘midday’. It is used to keep the residents in a cheerful spirit and mind.”

The ability to identify plants that have certain powers, according to Kebun and Baskami, is hereditary. Called pemeteh, or sacred knowledge, it is passed down from generation to generation through direct teaching, dreams, or “mysterious whispers.”

“When I was younger, I didn’t care about any of it. My father had the pemeteh, but I wouldn’t have minded if he had brought the knowledge to the grave with him,” Kebun said.

But one day Kebun’s eldest son fell ill. “I did’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 cure. After that, I put a pack of cigarettes and a matchbox on top of the cupboard.” In Karonese culture, offering cigarettes is a gesture of respect.

That night, Kebun said, his father came to him in a dream, telling him to find several kinds of leaves from the forest to make a potion. “I followed his advice, and my son was cured,” he said.

Several years ago, it was Kebun himself who fell ill. Diabetes caused a big ulcer on his leg, causing excruciating pain whenever he tried to walk. This time it was Baskami, Kebun’s youngest son, who looked for the tambar, or medicine.

“Going to the doctor didn’t help,” Baskami said. “I got the answer after doing tahajjud (Islamic late-night prayer) and meditating. I started shaking and sweating when a voice came, engaging me in a silent conversation. The voice told me to get certain leaves and herbs. I turned them into a tawar (a kind of powder). It was really bitter, but it worked. To this day my father, in his 70s, is still able to tend to his gardens, fish ponds, and chicken pens every day.”

The tambar‘s miracle convinced Baskami to sell it for IDR20,000 per package. He once had plans to patent some of the formulas, but his father said no. Baskami began studying herbal medicine and reflexology, a natural art of healing popular in Northern Europe, from a book 10 years ago. His teenage years were riddled with various diseases, allowing him to practice what he learned on himself. He combined this knowledge with the herbal formulas and traditional chants taught by his father, which he later developed on his own. Four years ago, he started practicing his skills on other people.

“I initially treated a (neighbor’s) kid who was down with fever. Deeply troubled, his parents came to me,” Baskami said. He then massaged the boy’s feet and used tambar called kuning, a herbal tablet which he believed could also help with neurological problems, to cure him. His success with the first case gave Baskami the confidence to treat other patients.

People started coming to the Tarigans’ house every day, especially on weekends. Last Sunday afternoon, six people, all of whom had heard of Baskami by word of mouth, sat in the multifunctional living room, where Baskami also performed his practice. Anto, a Javanese man who had lived in Kabanjahe, the capital of Tanah Karo district, since he was a child, brought along his father, who suffered from a swollen thyroid.

“I took my father to the doctor three months ago, but nothing has changed,” said Anto. “I heard about Baskami from a friend. He had suffered from liver problems, 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 took them to his room to “increase” its healing power with a prayer.

“The healing elements belong to God. Praying is a way to ask God’s permission to use them,” Baskami said.

Then he wrote something: Paldas paldus pala pala maldus, dor nasi sanggolom (7x). Maldus duri ibas kerahung si (patient’s name).

“Squeeze warm rice with your hand while chanting this in your heart, and then give it to someone with a fishbone stuck in their throat,” Baskami said.

“Someone who saw me do it thought it didn’t need any incantation. When he was in a similar condition, he made a lump of rice and ate it. He felt nothing but sated.”

Baskami admitted he didn’t have the cure for all ailments. “I’m not sure how to deal with HIV,” he said. “It scares me.”

But fear didn’t stop him from trying. A young man came to him on Saturday morning for a follow-up on his herbal therapy. The patient said he still felt weak in the joints. Baskami made a drug similar to the one he prescribed for the elderly patient with thyroid problems to get rid of a fungus on the young man’s tongue. Baskami also said the ingredients for the formula can “cleanse his blood.”

“My mom keeps telling me to get married. It’s frustrating to think about it when I have this thing,” the man said. “I believe traditional medicine can help me. I’ve been feeling much better.”

That night, Kebun, Baskami and Robinson (Kebun’s eldest son), sat down to share stories about traditional medicine.

“In the past, it was common to blame terpan santo (black magic poison) as the cause of an illness,” said Kebun. “Once upon a time, there were guru pakpak pitu sedalanen, a group of seven black magic practitioners. Some of them would pass through a village to spread a disease. The rest came later with the antidote. People would give them money, which would then be divided among the seven of them. A knowledge is ‘black’ when you use it to make a profit through bad methods.”

painting of a Karonese village by Carel Lodewijk Dake

Time, according to the Tarigans, has changed many things.

“Many (species of) plants have disappeared, along with an understanding of them,” said Kebun. He likened this to the many Karonese heirlooms that had been lost due to negligence, theft, or because they were sold.

Baskami explained one of the reasons behind the disappearance of pemeteh.

“In the past, you couldn’t make much from herbal medicine. Sometimes it was difficult to find the ingredients — you had to go to the deepest forests. It also took time and energy to make the medicine, but the payment was usually nothing more than rice, eggs, and cigarettes,” he said.

“When people (with pemeteh) got married, I can imagine what the spouse would say: “Why bother? Just drop it already!”

Baskami said he believed knowing the health benefits of whatever natural resources are available in an area to be important. “From my experience, it has allowed me to make many friends,” he said. “It also helps you manage your anxiety when you or someone in your family is sick. You can go through the experience much more calmly if you know how to make the medicine.”

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