indonesian dance ceremony animal spirit posession
'Possessed' dancers effortlessly supporting 30-kilogram bull masks. All photos by M. ZAKI RIZALDI
Culture

Inside the Indonesian Dance Ceremony Where Animal Spirits ‘Possess’ Humans

The mystical ceremony, which originated in the 1200s, portrays the struggle of the lower class using the spirits of bulls, tigers, and monkeys.
translated by Jade Poa
21 February 2020, 5:28am

This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.

On a sunny Saturday morning, 20-year-old Satria Putra Pratama was beaming as he prepared to take part in a centuries-old mystical ceremony involving dancing, animal costumes, and possession by spirits.

The spectacle, known locally as Bantengan, takes place yearly at the foot of Mt. Kawi in the village of Jambuwer in Indonesia’s East Java. In preparation for the ceremony, Pratama, and the dozens of other young participants, dressed in all black and prayed for strength in a thick cloud of incense.

Pratama and his posse then made their way to the grave of Punden, the founder of Jambuwer. It is Punden who summons the spirits of bulls, tigers, and monkeys to possess the human performers.

One of the bull head props ready to be transported to the ceremonial site.

When they arrived at the site of the ceremony, hundreds of locals were already gathered in anticipation.

Bantengan originated during the period of the Singasari kingdom in roughly 1222, at the request of governor Santiko Joyo to provide youth with a unique way of training for war.

Santiko Joyo formulated a combination of dance and a local form of martial arts known as pencak silat after witnessing a group of bulls fighting a tiger.

Bantengan dancers before performing.

Bantengan features three types of characters: bulls (played by two people at the same time), tigers, and monkeys. The bull masks are made with the horns of real bulls that died of natural causes. Each mask weighs up to 30 kilograms.

As is the case with many other Indonesian traditions, the dancers perform while they believe they’ve been possessed by the spirits of these animals.

The “bulls” are controlled by a human warrior with a whip.

At 7 years old, Farel Rendra Saputra is the youngest performer. It’s his job to tell the spirits that the dancers are ready to begin the ceremony.

A dancer dressed as a tiger.

When a warrior cracked a whip against the ground, the bulls went wild in a fit of rage, chasing after the warriors, head-butting other bulls, and nearly crashing into audience members.

Before the ceremony began, audience members were warned to be cautious of the performers’ movements, but an out-of-control bull accidentally crashed into an 8-year-old boy. Blood began to gush from his head.

Another performer approached the boy, whispered a mantra in his ear, swept his hand over his wound, and miraculously stopped the bleeding. The boy immediately stood upright and enjoyed the rest of the ceremony, as if he hadn’t just been head-butted with an actual bull head.

Next, the tigers took centre stage and began to pester the bulls. In a show of strength, the tiger performers bit off the heads of the dozens of live chickens running around the mountainside.

Bull performers head-butting one another.

In Bantengan, the bulls symbolise the lower class, while the tigers represent the many challenges they face.

“In the process of fending off the danger posed by the tigers, the bulls are sure to face obstacles, which are symbolised by the sly monkeys,” said Mbah Agus, a Batu elder and artist who was instrumental in reviving the artform and increasing the participation of young people in Bantengan.

“When we were colonised by the Dutch, we were forbidden from learning self-defense. Instead, we turned back to Bantengan, which had been decreasing in popularity.”

In 2008, Agus founded the Nuswantara Bantengan community. Today, the various Bantengan communities in the region attract hordes of young people, especially marginalised youth. Forty percent of the members of his community have been incarcerated. Still, Bantengan is not on the radar of the government or cultural institutions, leaving the task of preserving the artform to ordinary citizens.

“I am sad that outsiders are more interested in this artform than people from this region,” Agus told VICE. “White people are always quick to volunteer to take part in Bantengan when I perform abroad. They’re always happy to be able to experience such a trance.”

Bantengan ceremonies are funded independently by the various Bantengan communities in the region. But it’s worth it, Pratama said, to experience the wild energy that overcomes him when he performs.

“We are reintegrating Bantengan into our lifestyle as something worth preserving,” he said.

Bull heads can weigh up to 30 kilograms.