Jamu Indonesia, the use of herbs in healing, is as old as Javanese civilisation itself with evidence of their use etched on the walls of Borobudur, the famed Buddhist monument in central Java dating from 800-900 AD.
Jamu – Traditional Indonesian Medicine
Although healing customs differ among the regions of Indonesia, one tradition that has remained constant is the use of jamu. Broadly speaking, jamu refers to any kind of traditional medicine. It is estimated that more than 350 jamu recipes have been passed down through generations and are in use today. Up to 150 ingredients are used to produce a single jamu potion, although only a few are used at any one time. Raw ingredients include the leaves, bark and roots of plants such as ginger, tamarind, turmeric and cinnamon, with natural sweeteners such as palm sugar often added for flavour. Today, jamu gendong (ladies selling jamu) can be seen throughout the villages carrying baskets slung over their shoulders, selling bottles of jamu and keeping the tradition alive. To the Indonesians, jamu is the elixir of life; it is believed that a large percentage of the population drinks a glass of jamu every day.
Jamu is thought to have originated during the 17th century when princesses in the central Javanese courts began to concoct beauty potions using plants, herbs and spices. Since then, its reputation has expanded considerably. An entire beauty regime, from facial masks to hair conditioners, scrubs and hand creams, can be created from jamu alone. It can be imbibed as a drink to prevent illnesses or used as treatment for chronic diseases. It is purported to relieve aches and pains, improve digestion and metabolism, and correct malfunctions such as infertility and menstrual irregularity. The use of jamu depends on the problem involved. Jamu can be taken as an infusion, distillation, brew or paste. Results are not instantaneous, and it is the job of the herbalist to ensure that the concoction is suitable for the specific ailment. Both males and females are introduced to jamu from birth, with recipes passed down from generation to generation.
Massage is an integral element of health and beauty. While few Indonesian-trained therapists will have an in-depth knowledge of the anatomy, most will possess an in-built sensitivity to congested and tight areas in the body which they carefully relieve through the simple power of touch.
Traditional Indonesian massage can be classified into two main types: urut (Indonesian word for ‘massage’) and pijat (Javanese word for ‘massage’). The urut-style massage works on the meridians and acupoints, as in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Applying oils obtained from native plants as lubricants, the skilled therapist uses his or her fingers, palms, knuckles and sometimes whole body to manipulate muscles and open energy pathways, thereby improving blood circulation and eliminating toxic build-up. This intense style of massage is most frequently used to treat specific medical complaints such as bone fractures and chronic backache. As firm pressure is applied throughout the procedure, there can be a lot of discomfort but to believers, it is a worthwhile exercise.
The pijat-style massage is the gentler option that continues to be practised in villages throughout the country. It comprises simple repetitive squeezing and kneading movements by the fingers and palms over the body to soothe and relax tired, tense muscles.
To the Indonesian woman, a traditional lulur (Javanese word for ‘coating the skin’) is a fundamental step in the pursuit of beauty. This time-tested healing synergy of spice and yoghurt exfoliation, body polish and floral bath remains as popular today as it was in the palaces of Central Java during the 17th century. The treatment is most often associated with the pre-wedding ritual that traditionally lasts for over 40 days, during which the bride-to-be is kept in confinement. Modern brides tend to opt for a seven-day lulur without confinement. Today, in addition to lulur treatments in spas, people can opt for massages to moisturise, soften and hydrate the skin, while others choose to have an energising shower before the floral bath.
Body-scrubs known as boreh work by removing the dead layers of skin, revealing the soft, supple skin beneath. They are a treatment in and of themselves as well as being part of the traditional lulur ritual. There are scrubs for all skin types, with most of the ingredients sourced from the rich native soil. Some of the more popular scrubs used today include, volcanic clay-based ingredients for treating cellulite; kemiri or candlenut for rough, dry skin; coconut for sensitive skin and avocado-based scrubs to invigorate tired skin.
The Balinese boreh scrub is a traditional village remedy that was handed down by rice farmers to relieve aching muscles and joints. A hand-crushed herb-and-spice mix comprising ginger, cinnamon, rice powder, turmeric and nutmeg, amongst other ingredients, is applied to the body for an all-over, deep heat experience. The boreh scrub can also be used to relieve fevers and headaches as well as to prevent colds.
The bengkung or Indonesian wrap is the local age old answer to weight loss. This 40-day post-natal ritual has been passed down through the centuries and, to this day, is administered woman-to-woman in households throughout the country. It revives the lymphatic system, reawakens the organs, restores muscle tone and ultimately heals and strengthens the new mother’s body.
The traditional treatment is normally performed by an ibu pijat (female masseur) who visits the new mother’s home each morning. A herbal paste comprising betel leaves, lime juice, eucalyptus and crushed coral, among other ingredients, is applied all over the body. This paste is believed to cleanse the womb and firm and shrink the stomach. A long cotton sash measuring 8-15 m is then tightly wound around the abdomen and hips, and kept in place for as long as is deemed appropriate to ensure maximum effectiveness.
In the modern spa environment, the body wrap is far less complex. As with the traditional bengkung, a herbal paste is applied before the wrap. Once the wrap is removed (generally after 20 to 30 minutes), a luxurious floral bath completes the treatment.
Since the olden days when Javanese princesses soaked in milk as part of their beauty regime, mandi susu or milk baths have been associated with luxuriously soft and smooth skin. It is believed that the lactic acid in goat’s, sheep’s or cow’s milk naturally dissolves the ‘glue’ that holds dead skin cells together. So in effect, a mandi susu removes dead skin to reveal soft, silky skin. Typically, women soaked in the bath for about 20 minutes before rinsing with water.
Crème Bath Hair Treatment
Before commercial shampoo was available, Indonesian women used the sticky gel from crushed hibiscus leaves and coconut milk to keep their hair healthy, strong and shiny. The heavier milk from the coconut was ideal for conditioning, washing and for use in massage, while the lighter milk was used to rinse the hair. The recipes used today are based on this rich, creamy gelatinous concoction, using ingredients chosen to suit each individual’s hair type.