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The Macabre Art of The Debus Banten's Magic Men

by Hana K , at 6:12 PM
Throughout Indonesian, stories of fighters with supernatural powers, usually hailing from specifics regions where dark sciences are said to be assiduously cultivated, have an ancient lineage. These stories take on a power of their own, and the ability of those deriving from these areas to strike fear into the hearts of the credulous is carefully fostered.

Each region of Indonesian boats its own unique tradition of martial arts, and manuscript have an associated theatrical from that is intended to demonstrate the potency of the practitioners to an audience that extends far beyond the boundaries of the area in which it is practiced. Thus, performances of the Reog in Ponorogo or Pencak Silat in Minangkabau are not merely entertainment - they are forceful public statements that the people of the area are fully capable of defending themselves, and are not to be messed with

Of all theatrical forms intended to generate fear and respect, that of Old Banten is perhaps grudgingly acknowledged to be the most potent and dangerous of them all. Much of the awe in which the natives of this area are held has as its basis the stories of the Debus, a grim and macabre art whose practitioners display a prodigious resistance to physical suffering.

As we drove toward the Great Mosque of Old Banten, I looked out at a group of school children playing desultory game of soccer in the town square. Several crows and a goat or two grazed in the square, moving aside reluctantly to make way as our car passed. I wondered if we had come to the right place. It looked like a sleepy, Javanese coastal village, with little to distinguish it from thousands of other of its kind.

And yet appearances can be deceptive. Until the closing years of the 17th century, Banten was one of the world's major capitals, it's wealth and power deriving from its strategic position on the Sunda straits and its subsequent control of the extraordinarily lucrative sugar and paper trade. With a major international port and completely surrounded by fortified ramparts, Banten was acclaimed around the world as a formidable military power, a thriving entropy of trade and transshipment, and an eminent center of learning.

The square on which I stood was the very heart of the kingdom. Around it stood all the visible symbols of state power - the royal place, the Great Mosque, the arsenal,  the prison, and the princes' apartment. Wandering over to the crumbled ruins of the place, it required a major act of imagination to reconstruct the edifice in my mind's eye.

While the Mosque has been destroyed, rebuilt, and restored on several occasions, it retains its original structure, with the five-tiered roof that is typical of many early Javanese Mosque, and a tall octagonal minaret set slightly apart from the main structure.

The strenght of Islam and the power of the Mosque in Banten are intricately related to the history of the nine Walli's, venerated apostles of Islam who are credited with introducing the new creed to Java through the merchant kingdoms on the north coast, where the courts were particularly susceptible to conversion network of traders, seafarers, and scholars

In the early years of the 16th century, Sunan Gunung Jati, one of the nine walis, Visited Banten in an attempt to convert the pagan town to the new faith. Frustrated in his attempts to woo the rulling classes of Banten, in 1527, Sunan Gunung Jati sought the assistance of the Islamic sultanate of Demak, which sent troops to assist him in seizing control of the then Hindu kingdom. Victorious, Sunan Gunung Jadi had his son, Maulana Hasanudin, Installed as king.

Hasanudin's grave, and those of the Sultans who followed him, lies in a royal mausoleum to the north of the Mosque. His tomb attract a steady stream of pilgrims who come to pay homegae to the memory of the warrior saint who established and empire and spread the Islamic faith throughout his realm.
A short walk from the Mosque in the modest gome of Tubagus Ismetullah Al'Abbas, a senior member of Banten's royal family and a direct lineal descendant of Hasanudin. I decided to pay him  to visit to learn more about his family's role in Banten's history.
With the blood of the prophet Mohammad and the Sultan's of Banten flowing thought his veins, Tubagus Ismet was a handsome, urban and distinguished-looking individual . The walls were lined with photos of him meeting all three of Indonesia's recent president, and a number of the dignitaries.

The suave prince was happy to receive me into his home to talk about Old Banten's past glories and the possibility of the resurgence of the new province of Banten, a province that constitutes the entire northern seaboard section of west Java. "The province of Banten is still struggling to find is identity. Of course, these days, a Sultan world not yield real political power, but the could still play an important role as a symbol of banten's cultural and historical tradition. With the support of the new regional government, a revived Sultanate could help develop and strengthen these traditions, "he said.

Of all cultural traditions of Banten, the one the outsiders find most fascinating and frightening is the Debus performances, in which the practitioners engage in such gruesome feats of self immolation as skewering themselves with metal spikes, walking on coals and allowing themselves to be beaten with a sledge hammer while lying on a bed of nails, all without appearing to suffer bodily damage. Tubagus Ismet claimed that this highly dramatic, if somewhat grisly and macabre, art form was developed at the instigation of his ancestor, Hasanudin, for the performance by the palace guard. "Originally, Debus was used to attract new followers to Islam. It struck fear in the heart of our foes and inspired respect for the power of the new religion. All members of the audience were required to be Muslims. Some young became Muslims just for the privilege of watching a performance, "Usually not even from Banten!" - borrow the Debus name and use chicanery and deception to creat their effects. Somewhat skeptically, I asked him if the could tell me the name and whereabouts oa a genuine practitioner. "Pak Haji Mohammed Idries in Walantaka village! Go and see Pak Haji Idries!".

The road to Pak Haji Mohammad Idries took us through the not particularly appealing town of serang. the administrative center and capital of the new province of Banten. Apart from the unusually large number of mosques and pesantren, powerful communities of Muslim scholars that own huge tracts of land in the area and weld enormous political influence, there was little to distinguish this from any another minor regional capital in Indonesia.

Down a pretty back to street lined with bamboo groves and rice fields was Pak Haji Idries house, only a few kilometers out of town. Our car pulled up under an ancient baobab tree to which a chattering monkey was chained. We knocked at the door, and sprightly old man with sharp, vivacious eyes briskly asked us to state our business. After we made our intention clear, he invited us into his simple wooden house. This was the man we are seeking, the modern day re generator of the ancient art of Debus, Pak Haji Idries.

Pak Haji Idries claimed that due to his age, he no longer leads his debus group himself, but that he has turned over its management to he sin and grandson. Several of his great-grand children are also involved. Surprised, I asked him how old he was. Tuning his bright eyes towards me, he said firmly: "Ninety-four. I was born in 1907.

Pak Haji Idries confirmed Tubagud Ismet's  description of the origin and purpose of the art form, although he said that originally, Debus was much simpler than it has since become. In former times, it involved only two performers. One would place a strange instrument like a giant tack, a sharp spike with a large flat wooden head. against his stomach, while the would beat the head with a sledgehammer with all his might. The pair would then exchange roles.

Pak Haji Idries claimed to have learnt the art of  Debus from various Islamic scholars during the late 1940's, during the struggle for Independence against the Dutch and the Japanese. Pointing to medals and certificates from the Indonesians armed forces, he claimed to have used the skills he learnt during this period to develop the fightning skills of a band of guerrilla's, of which he was the leader. Later, in peacetime, he used the skills he had acquired to add to the repertoire of the origin theatrical form by adding attractions such as fire walking. glass swallowing, wrist slashing, and other attention grabbing acts. His group then regulary engaged in staged exhibitions at weddings, circumcisions, and other celebrations to mark rites of passage, but also at hotels, theaters, and commercial venues, traveling abroad as far as Malaysia, Japan and Australia. He thinks nothing of demonstrating his powers before a paying audience." Debus perfomances have been conducted before the public since the time Hasanudin," he insisted.

With Debus, unlike pencak silat, the martial art with which Debus is often associated, there is no need to learn a complicated form of movements of to study breathing exercises of meditation techniques. "The teacher transfers the skills to the pupil, " he said. "The pupil has to pay for them by fasting and conducting ascetic exercises for forty days. He has to do one forty day fast for each segment of knowledge that he receives." He added that while the ability is not inherited or restricted to those of Bantenese descent, it is essential that the aspirant be a strict adherent to the Islamic faith.

Pak Haji Idries saw that I was still skeptical and suggested that next week I visit the house of Pak Enjat Sudrajat, former pupil, to witness a group in action.

The road tool us along the coast, in the dereliction of the isolated yet luxurious Tanjung lesung resort. We drove through small coconut plantations and buginese fishing villages with houses set on stilts next to the beach. The fishing folk who live here were preparing their nets and boats for the trips out to the bagan, bamboo platforms from where they angle.

We arrived at pak Enjat Sudrajat's house shortly after dusk, where his group has assembled for a training session. The group meets every Thursday evening, a day of the week believed to be especially suitable for the impartation of ilmu, the art science of magics. The group, know as Banteng Kulon, or Buffalo of the South, consist of perhaps thirty members, all male, ranging in age from twelve to fifty, and dressed on plain black ninja-style robes.

Teh evening started slowly. We sat back and drank the inevitable sweet tea as the group engaged in the repetitive communal chanting of a mantra, "Laa illa'ha illullah! Laa illa'ha illulah!" several of the younger boys sat on a mat, while and older man dipped his hand in a pot of holy wateron the surface of which float the petals of seven different types of flowers. He splashed this water on the forearms of the boys and messaged them forcefully and painfully. Self-conscious under the eyes of their older brother and a foreign visitor, they tried hard not to wince. These young boys were in the process of receiving the powers that would render them invulnerable.

As the chanting came to and end, some members of the group their way to a makeshift arena assumed Martial arts postures, feinting and weaving, ducking and blocking. This was a lesson, not a performance, and there was much good-natured chaffing. However as, the evening passed, the atmosphere grew increasingly charged.

Pak Enjat walked over to the arena, his genial smile fading. He barked on order, and his boys ran out and prepared several piles of bricks and a bed of sharp-pointed nails. stepped forward, their faces expressionless. They drank a small glass of holy water, and one boy lay down on the nails. face down. Brick were placed on his bare back. As we craned our necks forward, his companion took hold of a heavy sledgehammer, lifted it blow stood up and faced us, no worse for his ordeal.

Next, a tray of burning wood and hot coals, about two meters in length. was brought onto the stage. Barefoot, several other students sauntered backwards and forwards along the length of the tray, treading on the coals and kicking them with their feet. They sat next to the tray, removing burning splinters of wood from the fire, and placing them into their open mouths. Amazed, I learned over and pulled out a similar splinter. I tried to touch the smoldering end, but pulled back quickly its was too hot to touch with my bare skin.

But the act was just warming up. Pak Enjat called on Pak Aceng keling, his second in command, a wiry, unkempt hair and fierce eyes, to step forward. Pak Aceng seized a skewer and, standing a meter in front of me, pierced his cheek. He opened his mouth wide and stood next to the light, sliding the skewer backwards and forwards. Slowly, ge removed the skewer. There was no bleeding or other sign of injury.

He then drew a machete, inviting me to test is razor sharp edge. In front of my eyes, he slashed his forearm. His flesh parted and blood gushed out. He then ran his other hand over the wound, which appeared to close and heal instantly. I didn't know what to make of this. was it highly skilled conjuring? Some kind or trick? Hypnotism? I would have preferred to thing so, to have my belief system left intact. But how was it done? it looked pretty real, right in front of my eyes and under a bright light. Did he press some kind of sponge to squeeze out fake blood? It didn't look like it

The show wasn't over. Pak Aceng pulled out a long steel rod and placed one end against his bare Adam's apple. He invited me to push the other end. I pushed hard, so hard that the rod buckled and bent in the middle. I released my grip. I looked at the rod. With my entire strength, I could barely straighten it.

Finally, the instrument that Pak Haji Idries had described as being similar to a giant tack was bought forward, and the sharp end was place against Pak Aceng's stomach. Pak Enjat beckoned me again and handed me a sledgehammer, smiling a sma;; smile. Reluctantly, I accepted the wooden head, softly at first, and then again, harder and then harder still, as hard as I could.

Pak Aceng stood still for a moment, then knelt down, his face contorted. Worried, I peered closely at him, He leaned forward and opened his mouth to spit out something small and black. It was a live bat.

He opened his mouth so show me that it was empty. Then he leaned forward and spat out yet another live bat. Like the last one, it fluttered away into the night. Aghast, I turned to face Pak Enjat, who was still smiling gently. "He can do snakes, too, you know," he said softly.
Hana K
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The Macabre Art of The Debus Banten's Magic Men - written by Hana K , published at 6:12 PM
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