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Jamu: A bitter pill to swallow

The worse it tastes, the better it is for you. That's what Indonesians say about Jamu the traditional herbal remedies used by the Javanese for thousands of years.

Throughout Indonesia, Jamu is today the primary form of health care for the poor masses who often can't afford modern medicine. In many cases, Jamu is preferred even when people can afford the newer, more "scientific" remedies.

The traditional Jamu healer is known as a Dukun or Tabib who learns the trade from a master in the art. The Dukun believes in the superiority of Jamu over modern medicine in tackling most ailments.


The true origin of Jamu is not known, but the first written records appear during the Majapahit Empire. The Madhawapura Inscription mentions Jamu makers known as Acaraki. Popular legend also connects Jamu with the Mataram Empire of the 17th century.

The royal families of Yogyakarta and Solo have sponsored the science of Jamu over the preceding centuries.

The Dukun has the great advantage of having to choose cures from one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world. The flora of Indonesia is a treasure recognized by modern biologists.

The Dutch botanist Rumphius was the first European to describe the practice of Jamu in The Ambonese Herbal, published in 1741.

First to use quinine

One of the remarkable things about Jamu is that it was the first system to use quinine to treat malaria. Formulas, some of them at least centuries old, are manufactured today by companies like Djamoe Industrie and Portret Nyonya Meneer to treat every imaginable ailment and condition from insomnia and poor digestion to cancer and depression.

Most respected though are the home-made concoctions brewed by Dukun who inhabit street corners and other auspicious places forcefully expounding the benefits of Jamu to small crowds.

In most cases, Jamu cures come in the form of a bitter drink meant to be downed all at once. The more difficult the potion is to swallow, the more effective the cure, so the saying goes.

Conflict between Old and New

But the Dukun have many other methods which they employ from the laying on of hands to casting out evil spirits. Not surprisingly, there is great deal of competition and ill-feeling between the Dukun and the modern medical establishment.

The orthodox medico points out that there are many fraudulent Dukun, which is probably true enough. However, generally they know that criticizing the system of Jamu as a whole will not get them anywhere. Even educated Indonesians resort to the Dukun on a regular basis.

Dukun masters have their own things to say on the hazards of modern medicine. Although many are uneducated, they are known for their ability to present their arguments eloquently and persuasively.

The use of Jamu is not only for the sick. The ladies of the royal court have used it to increase physical beauty since time immemorial. Athletes used it to increase performance and there are more than a few aphrodisiacs in the Jamu herbal. There are potions to increase one's test scores or to cast love spells on unwary individuals.

Those outside of Indonesia wishing to test the efficacy of Jamu will find no dearth of websites offering 'original' Jamu cures. Just remember, though, the worse it smells and tastes, the better it is for you.