A Magical Tradition of Sumbawa

Written in Collaboration with Karsten van Der Oord
“I never believed in the supernatural before, until one day something strange happened to me,” says Ibu Wati, a young Sumbawan woman. As the manager of the popular Kencana Hotel, she is always eager to elaborate about the flora, fauna, and culture of her native island. “One day, a group of people asked me to donate for the building of a mosque in a nearby village. Instead of giving a small donation, I tried to think of ways to raise more money.”
Eventually, she decided to be a jockey in a buffalo race where a considerable prize was at stake. By winning, she planned to donate the prize money to the construction of the mosque.
Traditional buffalo races are an integral part of Sumbawan culture and provide entertainment for tourists and natives alike. The rules of the race are simple: the buffaloes and their jockey must reach the saka, a wooden post stuck in the mud, and whirl the span with buffalos around it.
“Many people warned me to be careful with the sanro saka, a shaman who can put the saka and the race course under magic spells.” Prior to the races, the sanro exercises his magic charms – or tebar buraq (tebar meaning; to strew or to scatter, buraq is the name referring to the mythical creature, which is said to have transported the Prophet Muhammad to heaven), in order to put the jockey and the span of buffaloes under a magic spell.
“I took no notice of my friends’ warnings because I did not believe them. But, as soon as I mounted my span, everything turned pitch-black before my eyes. Mentally and physically paralyzed I could only hang on for dear life as the buffalos stampeded aimlessly around the racetrack. It was as if I was stuck in a terrible nightmare”, she recalls. The worst part was that she not only lost the race, but also became paralyzed down from the waist for 3 full days.
For Sumbawans, the races are not only about the skills of jockeys handling buffalos but also about a show of force, where the Sanros measure each other’s magical powers. The most stringent rule is that sanro of buffalo race business is not to be meddled with by women. According to tradition, it is taboo that men’s tasks are taken over by women. Certainly not in all-male affairs such as buffalo racing which perhaps explains the plight of poor Ibu Wati and her good intentions.

Balapan di Sumbawa © Karsten Van Der Oord

Sanro, bring magic things to life
West-Sumbawa is one of the few regions in Indonesia where all medical treatment in the Puskesmas – or District Health Centre – is free of charge. However, many prefer to rely on the healing powers of the sanro. “My leg got badly mangled in a motorbike accident”, says Pak Nurddin, employed by the local government. “I got my family to take me to the Sanro because I was told he was particularly good at healing fractures, and things looked so bad I was afraid the doctor would propose amputation”, says the 40-year-old university graduate.
Every sanro has his own speciality, some can cure broken limbs, or help women giving birth, others can even cure impotence with a traditional Viagra. Besides enchantments and words, many use self-made oils to combat ailments. “For 2 months the sanro massaged my leg with a special oil until eventually the bones seemed to heal and I could walk again”, he says as he rolls up his trousers to show an unscathed leg.
To concoct the healing oils the sanro has a set of strict rules that must be followed. The oils must consist only of uneven numbers of the purest natural ingredients; plants, weeds, fruits, roots, and leaves. The final produce must be an unequal amount of bottles, like 3 or 5. Similar to Sumbawan stilted houses, which also always have an uneven number of stairs; equal numbers bring bad luck.

The “colour “of Sappan wood

One important component of the oils is Sappan or Sepang wood (Caesalpinia sappan), a native in the forests of Sumbawa. Being a natural dye, placing a small chip of Sappan wood in liquid matter results in an attractive ruby red color, much better looking than the drab of mashed plant and roots. We drank a glass of warm Sappan boiled-water. It was tasteless. I am myself a bit wondering about its “magic”.
On Sumbawa it is also widely known as a natural remedy against dysentery, stomach pains, and skin diseases. “It also increases your stamina and makes you strong…, if you know what I mean”, says Pak Abu as he grins and clenches his hand into a fist. “In my youth everyone drank Sappan, we were rarely ill. Some friends drank it before Karachi (traditional stick-fight), for extra strength and for calming down the nerves”.
Being small, having thorns and tiny leaves the sappan tree itself is not very attractive. However, it has played an important role in the history of Samawa. Between the 17th and the 20th century, it was one of the island’s main export commodities. The Sumbawan sultans gained much of their wealth by exporting sappan to the neighboring islands. In 1669 the Dutch VOC, never happy when others successfully engaged in the trade business, shrewdly cut a deal with the ruling Sultan Mas Gowa and secured the monopoly on Sappan wood. The Company sent it to their markets in Europe and Japan where it was used for dyeing cotton and silk.
Nowadays, the demand for sappan wood has declined drastically but can still be found on the island. A few entrepreneurs have started to produce the Sumbawan oil on a small-scale. The healing oil is commonly known as Minyak (oil) Taliwang or Minyak Jereweh, the 2 nerve-centres of traditional healing. They can be found in gift-shops and airport outlets in Mataram and Bali, not on Sumbawa. A Sumbawan would never buy Minyak in a shop, they would go strait to the sanro. Interested to have it as your souvenir?