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"
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
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
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
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
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.