A Harmonious Legacy

Spa Magazine – Nov/Dec 2004

It’s still very early when Ibu Sriyani, 54, rises from her cot in a Jakarta slum. Early enough that the sky is black and the dense jumble of plywood and corrugated tin, huddled in the shadows of a luxury apartment complex, is eerily still. She takes care not to wake her family, asleep in the two-room house, as she gathers the tools of her trade: a grinding stone, a fistful of gnarled roots, a bag of dried herbs, five tall, glass bottles and a basket. In moments her fleshy palms are stained yellow from the bleeding turmeric roots she grinds then adds to a simmering pot of water sprinkled with herbs and palm sugar. Her home is humble, but this ritual has kept Sriyani and her children healthy and educated (no small feat for an illiterate woman living in a nation without free schools), and it insures the well-being of her many, loyal clients. You see, Sriyani makes jamu.

Jamu, originated by Javanese royalty in the 8 th century, is Indonesia’s traditional health and beauty system. Indonesian women have relied on it for centuries to retain healthy skin and hair, maintain regular menstruation, rediscover their shape after childbirth, and transition more easily into menopause. Jamu has also been known to cure childhood dysentery (a deadly threat in Indonesia), halt diabetes, make scars and fat disappear, dissolve kidney stones, and improve sexual energy. The term traditionally refers to herbal elixirs taken orally, but today body treatments like Lulur, the fabled Javanese skin treatment are associated with jamu, while pills, capsules, oils and creams have stepped in to meet modern demands. Sriyani is a jamu gendong, a street apothecary who crafts herbal elixirs and delivers daily doses to hundreds of clients.

Fundamental to the system, and to the Hindu culture that developed it, is the concept of harmony – harmony between the individual and their environment as well as a balance between hot and cold elements in the body. Cooling herbs were identified to counteract problems associated with excessive heat, and vice versa. Recent evidence compiled by scientists suggests that jamu treats illness, relieves pain, and maintains health because it facilitates healthy circulation and metabolism.

Indigenous Indonesian spices are the active ingredients. Resurrection Lilly, a rhizome, eliminates congestion and induces sweat; GreaterGalangal cures indigestion and dysentery and is also used in root form. Lempuyang, a type of wild ginger stimulates appetite, increases flexibility, cures postnatal infections, reduces swelling, and when combined with temu lawak, is an herbal answer to Viagra.

Kunyit or turmeric, the distinctively yellow ginger root, is featured in a popular daily tonic used by millions to strengthen the heart, detoxify the blood, and facilitate healthy circulation. It is anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-viral and makes the skin glow. Not surprising since the Javanese have always believed beauty and health to be inseparable. Roots are harvested when mature, ground into a paste and boiled along with dried herbs and honey or palm sugar. It is then diluted with purified water and a twist of orange.

Perhaps the greatest proof of jamu’s effectiveness is the fact that it has withstood colonization, war, and religious upheaval to survive centuries. In fact, it has thrived. Today, even with the availability of Western medicine, jamu is a billion dollar industry. There are over 80,000 jamu gendong on Indonesian streets while dozens of manufacturers distill tradition into over-the-counter pills, capsules, and instant beverages.

Jamu Borobudur is one of Indonesia’s top producers. Their factory in the northern port city of Semarang, Java shows how far jamu has come. Instead of flesh and stone, tons of herbs are ground, mixed and cooked in gleaming, steel machines. Sophia Magdalena, a staff pharmacist says, “We use ancient, herbal formulas so we know that they work without side effects.” Borobudur’s raw materials include over 200 herbs and spices imported from throughout Indonesia’s 17,000 islands.

Ni Wayan Nuriasih, 39, an Ubud, Bali herbalist, balances the ancient and modern. Nuriasih is a deeply spiritual, third generation indigenous healer whose patients come from as far as Oregon and as near as the local village. She begins each consultation by staring into her patient’s eyes. Her peaceful gaze is not simply for reassurance. Nuriasih can assess a patient’s needs through eye clarity and color patterns. Next, she feels the skin, checks the pulse, and interviews the patient. It doesn’t take her long to formulate a treatment plan. Within minutes the first fresh jamu elixir is offered, and on a case-by-case basis she also prescribes choice jamu pills. Her favorite phrase, “Quickly better,” speaks for itself. One female cancer patient arrived because months after chemotherapy her hair had not yet returned. With a few weeks of jamu her scalp sprouted. Nuriasih’s daily Kunyit elixir also prevents recurrence. “It cleans the blood,” she says, “If blood not yet clean, can have acne, constipation, late menstruation and tumor.” A young French woman came to her because, after years of anorexia, she no longer menstruated. Nuriasih considered this the ultimate imbalance. She put the girl on a strict jamu regiment and in less than a week her cycle returned.

Though not yet considered alongside Ayurveda and acupuncture as widely accepted Eastern health modalities, jamu is finding its way into the Western spa and holistic landscape. While it is still impossible to find fresh jamu elixirs in the US, Java Jamu, based in Ojai, California, brings Jamu Borobudur products to the American market. They sell medicinal jamu for weight loss, menstruation, kidney and gallstones, blood pressure and acne via their website. JamuSpa, a Montana-based company, imports skin creams, scrubs and oils divined from native Indonesian herbs. More than 50 spas including the Canyon Ranch properties use JamuSpa’s Javanese Lulur skin scrub, made from rice and turmeric, for their Lulur Ritual. In an era of manic techno-advancement, massive income disparity and terror alerts, this ancient art is perhaps Indonesia’s best ambassador. Jamu proves that tradition can commingle with modernity, and reminds that nature is the ultimate source of health and harmony.