Street Walking Demons in Sumatra
Story by Marco Ferrarese, photos by Kit Yeng Chan

Roaming the streets of Berastagi, Sumatra, a traveler discovers how to keep his soul safe from the hungry spirits of Reog dance.

Indonesia travel

"Whatever happens, do not look straight into their eyes."

Wedging through rows of excited humans, I don't give much weight to the advice I'm given until I see a small group of young men squatted on the dusty pavement. Hypnotized by the mounting sound of gongs, their bodies twitch slowly as if the music had casted invisible strings that tug incoherently at their limbs. A man with greying hair approaches from the farthest side of the circle of spectators, pondering his steps as if he was walking for his life. He keeps a flat horse made of cardboard and wood in-between his legs. Whispering a mute chant in unison with the mounting staccato of vibrating gongs, the horseman rides his equine silhouette in circles around the crouching meat puppets. Their lips shake above bloodless gums, and their teeth grind against each other as if they were about to bite wounds into the air.

Out of the blue, one of them thrusts ahead on all fours with unnatural force. He rotates his pelvis slowly as he keeps his right hand eerily clawed before his hissing mouth. The spirits have possessed him: like ethereal vultures, they float in circles all around us, waiting to plunge into a suitable human cocoon and get back to the world of the living. The man's eyes are two dark pits filled with nether worldly fire which immediately remind me of the good advice I was given.


"The spirits will transfer into you through the eyes… pulling them out is very painful."

The hissing face has singled me out among the crowd, the only skeptical foreigner among a group of excited Indonesians. As the street demon pries straight into my eyes, I gulp down and try to back up without locking gazes, but I chicken out quickly and protect my soul by looking down between my feet. It's only when the loud cracks of a whip slash the air with explosive bursts of leather for three, four times, that curiosity raises my gaze once again. Like all the others here, I can't avoid the magnetic play that polarized us all to this slice of Hell on Earth.


Dancing for Migrant Javanese Spirits

Before going to Sumatra I had heard a lot about its colorful and powerful rituals. However, stumbling upon one on the way back to my guesthouse in late afternoon Berastagi, a hill town at the base of dormant Sibayak volcano, came as quite an unexpected surprise. Indonesian streets are hardly uncrowded places; but this time, a strange ebb and flow of three-wheelers and people jutting in and out of a side lane signaled that something special was going on.

The more I approached, the more a sound of muffled voices and rhythmic percussion rose above the honking of waiting bemos and the chatter of street hawkers. The sound lured me into the side alley and behind a curling snake of people that walked up as if they were following the mesmerizing high-pitched notes of an invisible Pied Piper. As soon as I reached halfway up the road, a hundred pairs of eyes turned upon me. It was a one-way street filled with a group of conceited humanity sprawled around the perimeter of a courtyard. The resonance of frantic gamelan strokes reverberating deeply between the walls distracted me for a moment, until I saw it at the center of the pit.

red mask

A man in a black hood and mantle moved swiftly in circles, rotating before the mesmerized faces of the crowd and wearing a wooden red mask. Each time he stopped to look into the crowd, the eyes of children opened wider in awe and terror.

"That's bujannganong," said a young man next to me. His gaunt face was transfixed somewhere into the pit. "He's here to control the spirits…"

He explained that it was a Reog performance, a famed Javanese ritual that reproduces the legend of the Singa Barong, a demon with a lion's head and peacock's plumage. Or it can be a dhadak merak: a tiger head with peacock plumage. During the performance, Reog dancers fall into trance states and become possessed by roaming spirits. Before he turned silent to face the pit again, the man advised me not to stare too long in the eyes of the dancers with a grave expression.

"If the spirits enter inside of you, you'll be possessed," his pursed lips made him look as dramatic as one of the mesmerizing Reog's masks twirling before us.

Reog dancing originates in the Ponorogo province of West Java, and has expanded across the Indonesian archipelago by Javanese migrants all the way to North Sumatra. Both the Dutch colonizers and the Indonesian Communists prohibited Reog performances because they attracted huge crowds which got too fascinated by the magical and supernatural powers bestowed upon the dancers. The Reog performance is centered on the figure of the warok, an enlightened rebel who, according to legend, embodies the figure of Ki Ageng Kutu, the 15th century court poet of the last Majapahit kingdom of Bra Kertabumi and his Chinese wife. Disappointed by the king's corruption and the queen's heightened political influence, Ki Ageng Kutu fled the court to form his own army of "warok" to fight the decadence of the royal court. This group of enlightened men studied invulnerability magic and martial arts, abstaining from sexual intercourse to build up their supernatural strength.


"Bujannganong symbolizes Ki Ageng Kutu." Turning quickly back to me, the gaunt man almost whispered into my ears. "See how cheekily he dances? He's making fun of them all."

Based on the legend, in a Reog performance Ki Ageng Kutu returns to despise the King and Queen, represented by the Singa Barong, a lion headed monster. In fact, at every third or fourth step, the man in the black hood and red clown-from-hell mask inclined his body to the side, lifted up his butt and then thrust his hips to the side to emphasize the gyrations of his pelvis. He looked like a ludicrous intruder, a red faced bully with a wooden mask which shielded him from the demonic predators' eyes.

The spirits didn't mind, as they had already taken over the group of men shifting on the ground. One eventually lifted up, his back arched forward, and his wiry chest curved into an ancillary shape balanced by his arms akimbo over his hips. As he started moving slowly towards the gong players, some kids in the crowd stepped back and climbed up their mothers' legs pulling at their long skirts.

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