Travel

This Jogja Restaurant Sells Food for Spirits

Turns out ghosts really like flowers.
July 3, 2017, 6:00am
All photos by author

Heri Purwanto drove his decades-old motorbike past the dingy roadside shops selling bootleg Ray-Bans, rain ponchos, and fragrant durian pancakes that lined Yogyakarta's Jalan R.E. Martadinata and came to a stop outside tiny a nondescript store that claimed to offer something out of this world: food for ghosts.

But Warung Makanan Roh Halus—or "Restaurant for the Spirits"—isn't cooking up sate for the supernatural. The shop's owner Bambang told me that his shop caters to a rather niche market: practitioners of ilmu gaibmagical spells that some Indonesians believe can cure and cause illnesses or change a person's luck, for better or worse.

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"The name is easy to remember and it even makes people curious," Bambang Siswanto said.

Santet, or black magic, and the dukun, or shamans, who claim to have mastered the dark arts, are common fixtures in Muslim-majority Indonesia—a country where belief in magic, spirits, and the supernatural, seeming anachronisms in a modern nation, have long existed alongside mainstream religions like Islam. One survey found that 69 percent of Indonesian Muslims believed in witchcraft. And in few places are the two as intertwined as Jogja, the spiritual and cultural center of Java.

Heri is an abdi dalem, a member of the Sultan of Jogja's royal court. He works in the Keraton, a walled-off section of Jogja that includes the sultan's regal palace, as well as the homes of thousands of regular Jogja residents. To live and work so close to royalty is considered an honor in Jogja. It's a position that Heri takes seriously.

He's a regular at Bambang's small warung, describing the store as essential to his duties in the Keraton. Heri eyed the cups containing red and white roses, flowers typically used in exorcisms and pilgrimages. The spirits like to eat flowers, he said, especially red and white ones.

"There are other similar warung in Jogja, but this one is different," Heri told me. "They sell the freshest flowers. The smell really lingers."

Heri Purwanto

I asked Heri how he balanced his faith with beliefs in older, more Javanese ideas like kejawen. The Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) has issued a fatwa against santet, explaining that belief in magic and the supernatural were expressly forbidden in Islamic texts. But Heri dismissed the controversy entirely, explaining that the two could exist side-by-side in Indonesia. One, he said, was a religion. The other tradition.

"Whatever offerings we give, we're praying to the one God," he said.

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A professor who studies kejawen culture, or the mystical traditions of Java, at the Yogyakarta State University (UNY) explained that faith and culture were often intertwined in Indonesia in ways that made them difficult to separate.

"In religion, there is culture and in culture, there are spiritual values," Suwardi Endraswara said. "Whether you admit it or not, regardless of how modern you are, you will always go back to your respective cultures."

He might have been describing Jogja as well. The city itself is a captivating and complex place. On one hand, it's a throwback to older times, a place steeped in Javanese culture where the sultan still holds significant sway as its cultural leader.

But it's also a vital part of modern Indonesia. The city is a tourist hub and an important education and arts center. And the sultan is now a politician as well. While other Indonesian royalty faded into obscurity, Jogja's Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono X was granted permission by the central government to also serve as the governor without having to win a single election. The decision both solidified his grip on the city and modernized an ancient institution.

Tri Wuryanti tends to the shop.

Jogja was a different place in 1982 when Bambang inherited the business from his mother. Back then he was a young man eager to break into a business he truly believed in. Local dukun were already impressed with how skilled he was at such a young age, he boasted. Today he still practices white magic, mixing up potions and elixirs to counter evil spells cast upon people by their enemies.

"That's why all kinds of dukun santet [dark shamans] hate me the most," he said. "Because I keep healing their targets."

Bambang told me that he wanted to capitalize on this reputation. He's now selling an elixir he calls jamu godok—a concoction he claimed can cure you of everything from asthma to diabetes. But these days fewer and fewer people are showing up to the warung, his wife Tri Wuryanti complained.

And others have started to preach against it. The city's vocal hardline Islamists, once little more than a fringe force, have started to mobilize against ideas they consider "un-Islamic." And ilmu gaib, regardless of its cultural roots, isn't the kind of thing that escapes their attention.

"Back in the day the Javanese remembered their Java-ness," Wiryanti said. "Now they have started to forget it."