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Monday, May 29, 2023

The Jamu Herbal Tradition Of Indonesia

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Raghu Gururaj
Raghu Gururaj
Ambassador of India to the Republic of Sao Tome and Principe

INDONESIA: Where I was living in Medan, I was amazed to see several herbal plants like Tulsi, Turmeric, curry tree, ginger and tamarind growing all across our compound. Having experienced frequent heavy downpours in the city, I was sure that the water table in the city was substantial enough to make the soil fertile, but was intrigued by the ubiquitous growth of these herbal shrubs. When someone gifted me bottles of ‘Jamu’, a local herbal health drink, my curiosity was further aroused.

‘Jamu’ turned out to be a tasteless yellow and reddish coloured beverage made from fresh ingredients like leaves, roots, fruits and spices. I later found that ‘Jamu’ is being sold in the open local street markets by street vendors, which led me to believe that Jamu could perhaps be an Indonesian variant of a herbal health drink.

Photo credit: Raghu Gururaj
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Actually, in Indonesia, ‘Jamu’ is not just referred to a bottle of herbal health drink, but more so to a system of traditional medicine based on a certain structure using herbal medicinal plants as a deterrent and inhibitor to various ailments. Others refer to Jamu to mean “healing through herbs, flowers, and roots”. Jamu is being used widely by the people of Indonesia and has become a matter of pride as it is with Ayurveda in India and Zhongyi of China. It carries many similarities to Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine.

 The collective use of a variety of herbal formulations under the term “Jamu” constituted an important element of Javanese folk medicine, especially for the royalty of the times. These formulations were classified under curative, preventive and situational remedies. They were being used to treat variety of physical disorders, chronic ailments and for rejuvenation, from treating common colds, stomach pains, fevers to specific afflictions like chickenpox, jaundice, measles, skin diseases, Asthma, ulcers etc.

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Derived from a variety of herbal plants, spices and sometimes, animal extracts, they come in syrups, compound mixtures, tablets, powders, ointments and even roots. What is interesting is that a Jamu gendong (typically a woman vendor) carries half a dozen bottles of freshly prepared or pre-mixed Jamu in a basket casually slung over her shoulders or bicycle. Some vendors even use pushcarts to sell their wares on a door to door basis or at roadside Jamu kiosks in the market. But there are also special stores specializing in the sale of Jamu. I was surprised to find Jamu bars where customers can sit and consume Jamu drinks.

Photo credit: Raghu Gururaj

Published accounts vary about its origin and are at best murky. One theory is that the then royalty of Indonesia instructed their traditional healers about 1200 years ago to come up with herbal solutions for medicinal and cosmetic treatments. These family held secrets were then passed down from generations onwards. Another version states that Jamu, derived from ancient Javanese words, ‘Djampi’ (healing) and ‘Oesodo’ (health) originated in the Medang or Mataram Kingdom, a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom that flourished between the 8th and 10th centuries CE in Central Java. A third version states that ‘Jamu’ came in 1300 AD and was derived from Javanese word Djamu, which in turn has its origin in the Sanskrit wordजप (‘japa’), meaning pray.

Origin of Jamu

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Central Java is generally believed to be the origin of Jamu as revealed by the inscription panels at the Borobudur Temple complex and also its mention in the Javanese classic Serat Centhini (a 12 volume compilation of Javanese tales and teachings published in 1814.) Although heavily influenced by Ayurveda, which is a very ancient traditional of herbal medicine of India, it is a bit surprising that the Jamu tradition in Indonesia is relatively much newer, despite the age old cultural exchanges.

It was during the Dutch colonization, Indonesian herbs and spices sparked a renaissance in European medicine in 17th century, because the Europeans coming to the Dutch East Indies were confronted with unfamiliar tropical illnesses and had no choice but to take recourse to local herbal medication and since then, it is claimed that Jamu has charted its own course and identity through the use of different herbal plants and processes in Indonesia.

Ayurveda and the Jamu Tradition

Both Ayurveda and the Jamu tradition use a variety of common herbal plants and spices in their formulations. Turmeric, ginger, cardamom, clove, nutmeg, lemongrass,  tamarind, coriander, aloe vera, vanilla, curry leaves are some of the common herbs and spices used in both systems, but which also figure prominently in Indonesian cuisine just like in Indian cooking tradition. However, the range of herbs and spices used in Ayurveda is definitely much more vast and diverse.

There are other differences too. Many Indonesians vehemently deny that the Jamu tradition is not, as some people would think, a list of grandmother’s remedies put together, but is instead an elaborate system of medicine using a combination of natural herbs in medical formulations in the form of drink, powders, pills, ointments, lotions and cosmetics. But unlike Ayurveda, which is a proper science founded on classical ancient texts such as the Charaka Samhita, Sushruta Samhita, Ashtanga Hridayam and others which were written around 400-200 BC, there are no classic texts in Indonesia that spell out the principles, approach and philosophy of the Jamu tradition.

The biggest difference between Ayurveda and conventional medicinal system lies in the very definition of what health is. Western/modern medicine describes health merely as the absence of a definable disease, while Ayurveda defines health as the harmonic and vibrant functioning of mind, body and spirit, whose primary goal is to promote good health and not fight disease. On the other hand, Jamu does not seem to have an underlying approach to healing. It appears to focus on a qualitative approach to study the utility of plants and herbs on the human body, instead of studying the human body itself.

Another difference is the knowledge about Jamu has for many years been passed down from generation to generation, whereas Ayurvedic principles are firmly founded and prescribed in its many classic texts and by its continuing legion of practitioners.

Notwithstanding these differences, Jamu has evolved a great deal over the years and has achieved a degree of recognition and of course, local acceptance.

Jamu’s existence in the Indonesian culture

 Indonesia’s founding father Sukarno was a fan of Jamu and propagated growing of herbs and spices in personal gardens of people as he was convinced that Jamu had the potential to become a national asset.  In 1963, Indonesian law officially declared Jamu as the national herbal medicine replacing its earlier limited Javanese identity. The nationalization of Jamu continued under Suharto in the 1980s during which Jamu’s regional identities of Madura or Bali or Java were discounted as it was reimaged as part of Indonesia’s cultural heritage.

Sometime in 2007, Jamu got embroiled in a cultural heritage skirmish between Indonesia and Malaysia, in which Indonesia accused Malaysia of adopting its song “Rasa Sayang” and the Pendet dance for its tourism outreach campaign “Malaysia, Truly Asia.” This cultural clash clubbed Jamu, Batik, Pendet all under the “Truly Indonesia” campaign and prompted the “Jamu Brand Indonesia,” with the aim of propelling Indonesian ginger (Temulawak) to a global brand like the Korean Ginseng. The clash with Malaysia over Jamu intensified in 2014 when Indonesia accused Malaysia of stealing the term Jamu, which made Indonesians to consider applying to register Jamu as its cultural brand with UNESCO. Interestingly, when current President Jokowi went to the hospital for undertaking the mandatory medical exam for presidential candidates in 2014, he made it a point to invite three Mbok Jamu (Jamu ladies) to accompany him and drank Jamu at the hospital.

Some headway was made towards a scientific study of Jamu when Indonesian law established the Jamu Saintifik (scientific Jamu) standard in 2010 which also set up the Centre for Research & Development of Medicinal plants and Traditional medicines (B2P2TOOT). The Centre conducted scientific research, experiments and clinical trials leading to around 20 Jamu formulations under the new scientific standard. Under the new standard, specific rules on use of precise combinations of herbs, brewing practices, places and times of their harvest etc have been codified to a certain extent.

In last few years, Jamu is being used as a dietary supplement, immunity booster and as a traditional body scrub. Several Jamu products are mass produced and marketed under local brand names, which are easily available in supermarkets and shops across Indonesia.

Photo credit: Raghu Gururaj

But despite the popularity and the emotional attachment of the people, the tradition of Jamu never got mainstreamed in education, pharmaceuticals or research. For one thing, very little scientific research has been conducted. Universities do not offer formal courses on Jamu tradition which means, there are no professional Jamu practitioners like in Ayurveda.

With its relative affinity to Ayurveda in some ways, Jamu traditions can lean on the more established science and pharmocopia of Ayurveda for a regular and sustained engagement so that the two rich traditions can identify common areas of convergences, adopt best practices and intensify common research. As the world gropes in darkness amid pandemic and epidemic times, their collaborative engagement assumes immediate criticality.  It is time that both these alternative systems step up their research activities and come up with solutions and in the process enrich their respective traditions.


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