Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Magical Remnants of Kerinci

Kerinci is known for its mystical art. One village, for example, has debus or a traditional art of spear piercing. Unlike the Banten art, debus performers in Kerinci are all females. Other villages have a tradition of calling tiger spirits. But the mystical art of Kerinci is slowly disappearing. Follow a trail of mystical art and listen to tales of magical dances that are still alive.

Taratak taratak tak tum taratak taratak tak tum...
Taratak taratak tak tum taratak taratak tak tum...

AMID loud drum beats, the female performer suddenly reaches for a pair of swords in front of her.
With a hard thud and long wail, she stabs herself with the swords. In a blink, the two swords bend into the shape of a boomerang. Hundreds of spectators in the field in front of the Kerinci Regent’s Office in Sungai Penuh gush.
The drum beating continues. The woman closes her eyes and turns her face towards the sky. A loud utterance or Seru—a mantra calling ancestors’ spirits—issues out of her mouth.
Several men pour a basketful of broken glass shards in front of her. Then the mesmerizing act takes place again. The dancer stomps on the broken glass, and along with two other female dancers, dances on the pieces until a crunching sound emerges. Afterwards, they walk on eggs arranged on a banana trunk. The performers look as if they are weightless keeping the eggs intact without even a crack.
The audience of the small town in Kerinci has not seen this mystical dance called Niti Naik Mahigai for a long time. The dance originated from Sulak Mukai, the northern part of Kerinci. Kerinci itself is very well-known for traditional mystical dances. However, nowadays the dances are rarely performed for the public, except for occasions such as government ceremonies or a special feast (kenduri pusaka), which is held every 10 to 20 years.
Kerinci regency is situated in Jambi province. It is a far distance from Jambi to Sungai Penuh, the capital of Kerinci, 450 kilometers or about nine to 12 hours’ drive whereas the distance between Kerinci and Padang is 250 kilometers or six to eight hours’ drive, all via winding uphill roads. On the slope of Mt Kerinci is a vast stretch of tea and cinnamon plantations. In hotter areas of the south, rice and coffee are cultivated.
The current inhabitants of Kerinci regency are the descendants of the Melayu Tua or Old Melaya tribe that lived there since the Neolithic age (8,000-7,000 years ago) or even long before that. Kerinci was once under the rule of the Dharmasraya and Pagaruyung kingdoms of West Sumatra, later on under the Inderapura Kingdom (in the west shore of West Sumatra now called South Pesisir), and then the Jambi Sultanate. However the sovereign of the kingdoms was limited to giving protection in exchange for tax payment.
Kerinci has its own culture including language and alphabet. Uli Kozok, a German expert on the Sumatran ancient language, discovered the oldest Melayu manuscript dated back to the 14th century Dharmasraya Kingdom, the Adityawarman era, in Kerinci.
The natural environment of Kerinci, which is still covered with forests, and the far distance from its custodian kingdom explain why mysticism flourished there. Empeh and Baru villages in the town of Sungai Penuh, for example, are two of the oldest villages which still maintain the mysteries of Kerinci. They have a dance called Asyek which is a ritual to call spirits of ancestors to ward off disasters or to ask for good harvests. In the past, the Asyek dance was performed on a bed of broken glass.
Nurmalis, 70, a resident of Dusun Baru village, still recalls watching kenduri sko, a ritual, in his village in 1964. All adult females at that time danced Asyek on broken glass until they went into trance. But 20 years later, in 1984, no one was able to dance Asyek on glass shards anymore. “Maybe forgotten because it was a very old ritual, such as the mad mortar ritual, which is a pestle beating by itself in a mortar. Some of the things that I saw as a child are no longer performed.”
Likewise, in the south of Kerinci, Koto Tengah village also has a Marcok dance where barefoot dancers dance atop broken glass while stabbing themselves with keris (a traditional dagger). The tradition that has been observed for hundreds of years is rarely seen nowadays. The last time was at Kerinci Lake Festival in 2006.
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THE drum and the flute continue to accompany the dance. The next challenge is to walk on bamboo spikes stuck in a wooden platform. The two dancers alternate in stepping on the sharp spikes and then on a bed of nails. Then a walk on a blade—the barefoot dancers walked on a blade held by two men at each end.
Suddenly from the front, a man comes forward and stabs a dancer with a spear. The sharp spear pierces straight into the woman’s stomach and she seems to be passing out, but within a matter of seconds, with a loud noise, the spear breaks into two.
Soon, using kerosene, a crew member starts a fire near the dancers. The glowing flames reignite the dancers’ spirit; they jump onto the flames and take turns dancing on the burning fire looking as if they are splashing in water. Towards the end of the performance, they hysterically put out the flames with their bare hands. Hundreds of eyes are glued to the performance but not all the spectators can bear to see it to the end.
“I can’t take it anymore; I have goose bumps. If I keep watching, I might subconsciously run to the field and start playing martial arts with a sword,” said Sofyan, 50, a spectator, his face blushing.
According to a medium, Eva Brammanti Putra, 31, the dance is a legacy handed down by ancestors in Siulak Mukai, Kerinci regency. It is youths who perform the dance there (in Siulak Mukai), but in his village one can still see dance on broken glass performed by elders wearing long robes.
The two performances were taken from the ritual procession carried out in the past for future kings. Before being crowned, future kings had to overcome a variety of challenges. The interesting part is that the performances were always played by females. According to Eva, in the past in Kerinci it was women who held power and men only governed.
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THE audience applauds. At the side of the yard, three female dancers sit looking tired and limp. Ermidayati, 35, the lead dancer, reclines on a chair exhausted. “I’m nauseated,” says the woman who works as a teacher in State Middle School No. 3 Mt Kerinci in Sungai Pegeh. Someone keeps her cool with a fan and a cool drink. After a quarter of an hour she feels refreshed again.
She claims that she is unconscious when she dances. “Something whispered to me from within to step on to the blade, quick…quick…” she said. She doesn’t know where she gets the power of resistance during her dance because as soon as the performance is over, the power also disappears. “If I cut myself when I peel onions, of course it hurts,” she said laughing.
Unlike the dancers, the mediums retain their power. Eva Bramanti Putra, a medium, for example, claims, “If I’m in utter desperation, in danger, the power appears.” Eva explained that when he was 20 years old, he received divine inspiration from his maternal ancestor who ordered him to perform the Niti Naik Mahligai ritual dance.
So he learnt the dance moves from his mother, skill to lighten his body from his paternal grandfather, while knowledge of the complete process of the ritual was through the divine revelation. He substitutes traditional ritual items used, for example, kris is now substituted with sword, glass stone with glass chips, thorns with nails and bamboo spikes. In the old days, it is said that the dancers could perch on leaf buds. Nowadays, says Eva, possessed dancers are ordered to stand on large tree leaves, and lately on a sheet of paper which usually is held by a crew to keep it off the ground.
Eva has tried all the processes and succeeded, although he has never learnt resistance skills. Around the year 2000, he opened a studio in his village with 13 members and they trained there. Resistance performance was once an opening act for the Lake Kerinci Festival, which since 2001 has been held annually. Eva’s wife, Dentina, 28, also takes part in the performances. Dentina says that the key to the success of the performance is meditation. “Before the performance, we meditate cross-legged until the entire body suffers pins and needles and twitches,” explained Dentina.
After the meditation, she would bathe in the river with Kaffir lime juice to purify herself. The next day, she would dance with ease, anxious to start treading on the blade. “Actually I was beyond scared when I saw the blade being sharpened but as soon as I danced, I just felt like walking on it,” she said.
According to Eva, only blood relatives are picked for the core team of six. “Other members are still students. But I only dare to teach them how to walk on broken glass,” explained Eva.
Eva admits experiencing failure several times during performances. When in Banten, the clothes of a male crew member who lit the fire got burnt. “Also once in Bukittinggi, the lead dancer was injured in her foot as she was speared, because she stepped on a blade behind her.”
He also says that orders for his studio rely more on regional government functions. However the recent election of regional heads last month makes him disheartened because the two elected regent candidates come from a religious background, and they generally do not approve performances of mystical nuances. “But really we are not polytheist,” argued Eva.
His worries are founded. When the Niti Naik Mahligai was first developed, Eva received protests from a village cleric, because it was considered polytheism. The regency officials who consider mystical traditions to be against Islam will not solicit his performances. “I don’t know what’s in the future; if this art has to fade away, then what can I do?” he said softly.

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