Mismanjaya’s story reads like something out of a comic book.
“When I was 19, I fell into a trance for three months,” he told me. “People said I was mad. But I fainted one day and was left paralyzed. My mother had to wash me and take care of me. Then, after three months, I regained consciousness. But when I went to sleep at night, I started having dreams about treasure. My power had awoken within me.”
Mismanjaya is a dukun, a mystical shaman whose (allegedly) supernatural gifts have made him something of a local celebrity in the city of Medan, North Sumatra. Mismanjaya claims to come from a long line of famous Indonesian mystics, including his father and grandfather, two men who, according to Mismanjaya, were scarily good at helping people find things.
From his clinic on Gang Dukun, the “Shaman’s Alley,” in Tanjung Morawa, a semi-rural district on the eastern edge of Medan, Mismanjaya offers help his customers find missing children, lost loves, mobile phones, and, most lucrative of all, he helps them cari pusaka or hunt for buried treasures.
He does this all on a sliding scale, allowing his customers to pay whatever they can afford his services. He’s also really wary of press coverage, not because journalists might doubt his abilities—there are plenty of stories about magic in the local press—but because he might get too popular.
During the four hours I spent hanging out with Mismanjaya, at least 20 people walked through his front door. When I first walked in, he was snacking on pineapple while massaging a man’s feet, working some magic that Mismanjaya said would cure him of his diabetes.
Mismanjaya opens his door at 9 AM sharp every morning and he closes once the last customers have been seen.
“But really, being a dukun is a 24 hour job,” he explained.
The mystical still exerts a powerful hold over much of modern-day Indonesia. It’s technically haram to believe in this kind of magic in this Muslim-majority country, but the fatwas issues by Islamic clerical bodies have done little to stem a taste for the supernatural. Here at VICE’s Indonesia office, we’ve spent a lot of time looking into the country’s obsession with spirits and spells. We’ve written about a restaurant for spirits in Yogyakarta, an entire industry of rain shamans who earn a living keeping the skies clear for outdoor events, and the efforts by House lawmakers to outlaw black magic in the new draft of the Criminal Code.
Most dukun have a story about how they first discovered their powers. But Mismanjaya’s origin story, a twisting tale of magical snakes and psychic dreams, is in a league of its own.
It all started in back in the 1980s in Langkat, a sprawling district north of Medan. Mismanjaya was working on a palm oil plantation at the time and struggling to understand the meaning behind a recurring dream. In the dream, a beautiful woman was following him around the palm oil plantation and whispering in his ear.
One morning, Mismanjaya walked the plantation grounds until he discovered the spot from his dream. He started to dig, There in the ground, Mismanjaya discovered a piece of bamboo. He stared at the piece of wood, and then it started to whisper to him too. The bamboo told him that there was more buried treasure out there in the fields.
That bamboo, now a dowsing rod, brought him to another spot, in another field, where he found a snake. Mismanjaya gathered his courage, reached down, and grabbed the snake in his hand. The reptile then magically turned into keris, a kind of ceremonial knife. That keris was a sign that Mismanjaya had become a magical treasure hunter, he explained.
It’s a lot to take in, but this is what it’s like to talk to Mismanjaya. He was slow to warm up to me. Despite agreeing to meet with me, Mismanjaya was monosyllabic and visibly distracted during much of the start of our conversation. It was only later, after he told me about how he became a dukun, that he started to warm a little to me.
Mismanjaya asked me if I wanted to hear about some of his biggest hauls in the magical treasure hunter game. One time, some fishermen from Belawan, the port in Medan, came to his clinic with a problem straight out of The Odyssey. Every day the men set out to fish, they would pass a fearsome patch of water—a place where strange waves rose out of nowhere, forming terrifying whirlpools.
Mismanjaya used his bamboo dowsing rod to discover that it was the site of a sunken Arab treasure. Some divers went down and pulled a treasure chest full of keris from the riverbed. The keris were hundreds of years old, Mismanjaya told me as he handed over an ancient-looking knife. He told me to hold it to my face and smell it, explaining that it hadn’t been oiled in years, but it still had a strong medical aroma.
The stories kept coming. There was the clear egg with the golden figure inside that he found in a cave after seeing it in a dream. Or the time he was asked to figure out what was happening to some freshwater turtles. The turtles kept vanishing from their bamboo cages in the night. But, according to Mismanjaya, no one was stealing them.
No, the turtles were turning into precious treasures under the cover of darkness. Mismanjaya dug beneath their cages and found golden coins, rings, and jewels.
It’s obviously impossible to verify any of this. A lot of dukun have been accused of being charlatans, of planting the treasure before they arrive at the site or working with an accomplice to bilk gullible people out of their money. But dukun like Mismanjaya could also just accuse me of missing the magic because I didn’t have the same gifts.
Mismanjaya handed me a coin from 1945—the year of Indonesia’s independence—before I left. He told me that he dug it up somewhere in the city during one of this treasure hunting expeditions. He told me that I should keep the coin close to me because I was born on a Friday, an auspicious day that put me under the protection of the Prophet Muhammad. The coin could also cure aches and pains like a toothache or a sore back, he explained as he affixed it to my forehead with a drop of massage oil.
It was nearly 9 PM by the time I left his clinic and the waiting room was still packed. Mystics like Mismanjaya may be falling out of favor in Indonesia as people look for more modern remedies, but, at least for now, Mismanjaya is still extremely popular.
He shrugged off skeptics when I asked him about them. Disbelievers will always be part of the job, he said. Disbelievers and people asking him to cast hexes on their enemies are his most-common complaints about being a dukun.
“People come to me all the time and ask me to perform curses,” he said. “I won’t do it. If you ask me to kill someone with my powers, I’ll throw you out of my house.”