By Chris Barrett and Karuni Rompies
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Ki Kusomo says he has had a gift for seeing the future since he was a young boy. Growing up in the city of Indramayu, West Java, he would tell people what he believed lay ahead of them, from whether they could be involved in an accident to the chances that their marriage would end in divorce.
From the age of five, when he often played in a cemetery near his home, he has also been able to connect with creatures from the unseen world, he claims. In the graveyard he would meet “friends” who were not visible to the children from his neighbourhood whom he brought along.
Popular Indonesian shaman Ki Kusomo at his office in Bekasi, West Java.Credit: Jefri Tarigan
Now a renowned shaman, Kusomo, 49, makes a living tapping into the long-entrenched importance many Indonesians place on the spiritual world. The signboard above his office advertises his talents in solving business issues, household troubles and affairs of the heart, as well as spruiking his status as a traditional healer offering medical and non-medical treatments.
Like many other such operators across the archipelago, among them those engaged in the especially dark arts of sorcery and exorcism, he is visited by people from all walks of life seeking a helping hand from the supernatural.
However, as Indonesia gears up to vote next February, it is another service Kusomo expects will be highly sought after, with serving and aspiring politicians knocking on his door.
“When it comes to business like this [election], people are looking for me. In Indonesia, for every single event that needs a gathering of masses or that is related to elections, my place will be crowded because many people come here,” he said in an interview in the satellite city of Bekasi, east of Jakarta.
“Some come a year earlier, some come within half a year [of the polling date]. They can come three to four times before the voting day. To win means to get the most votes and in order to have that, they must go through a process to cleanse the body of bad luck. When they are clean, they proceed to the energy charging process. We give them strength and increase the energy of fortune.”
Indonesia’s elections are the world’s largest held in a single day. Its 204 million registered voters dwarf the 168 million who were registered in the United States for its 2020 presidential election poll and India, the most populous country, stages its elections over a month.
In a nation where warding off bad spirits is taken seriously enough that rain shamans are hired to stop wet weather dampening weddings, politics and the paranormal have been far from foreign bedfellows.
Former Indonesian dictator Suharto, seen here with then-Australian PM Paul Keating in 1994, was a believer in the supernatural.Credit: Mike Bowers
Former dictator Suharto was absorbed by age-old Javanese kejawen mysticism forged in pre-Islamic times when Buddhism and Hinduism were the dominant religions. He was said to participate in rituals including soaking himself in a river, an act of repentance called kumkum that is aimed at purifying the soul.
The first democratically elected president, Abdurrahman Wahid, commonly referred to as Gus Dur, was another to have paid much attention to the country’s centuries-long association with animism while Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the predecessor of current leader Joko Widodo, protested during his bid for a second term that he was the subject of black magic attacks.
Kusomo, a prominent dukun, as shamans are termed in Indonesia, who is also an actor in action and horror films and is keenly involved with martial arts, won’t divulge the names of political figures who consult him. But he maintains the demand for pre-election spiritual counsel and political fortune-telling remains strong, from local to national level.
“I cannot mention their names. They usually come around 2am because they don’t want people to see them,” he said.
“That is particularly so with people who often appear on TV. They come when my security and domestic helpers are sleeping. So, nobody sees them when they come to my house. I respect their privacy.”
Few politicians are these days willing to admit to a late-night visit to a shaman, for fear of damaging their credibility.
Indonesia’s elections are the world’s largest held in a single day.Credit: Amilia Rosa
After the fact, though, Herlambang Novian Effendi, a member of the Nasdem Party, revealed he met with not one but four shamans when campaigning for a seat in parliament in the East Java regency of Tulungagung in 2019.
A journalist by trade, he said one of the shamans placed a Michelia alba, or White Champaca, flower, in his wallet. According to traditional Javanese philosophy, such flowers can prompt people to follow those who bear them and that’s what he was hoping for on election day.
Unfortunately, in his case, it didn’t work, with the outcome determined, in his mind, by a deeply entrenched, real-world staple of Indonesian politics: vote buying.
“At that time I was confident of winning. Three of them said I would win … but one of them said it was difficult [to win],” he said. “I replied ‘please tell me how to ease the difficulties’. He said I had to open my aura so that my face would show me as a charismatic person.
“On the day, I lost due to money politics. I also [engaged in] money politics and I went to seek spiritual powers, but my money was not as great as my rival’s.”
“In Java, one may follow Islam and kejawen at the same time.”
With his own experience in mind, Effendi contends that political shamanism is not wholly reliable and is merely to provide moral support.
Even so, he believes many candidates will continue to turn to such self-appointed masters of the spiritual realm when running for office.
“Candidates at district, provincial and national level and most government officials [seek assistance from shamans] to protect themselves, for instance, from black magic,” he said.
“Even [in the] election for village chief … they all seek the help of spiritual consultants.”
A paper presented by German professor Judith Schlehe to Indonesia’s Gadjah Mada University in 2012 estimated that 80 per cent of shamans’ income was generated by consultations from candidates in local elections.
The practice of looking to supernatural forces to legitimise power has been around in what is now Indonesia since the Demak Islamic kingdom in the 16th century, according to Rizal Abdi, a researcher at the Gadjah Mada University’s Centre for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies.
Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto has emerged as the frontrunner to succeed Widodo, who defeated him in the 2014 and 2019 elections.Credit: Reuters
In the world’s biggest Muslim majority state, traditional Javanese beliefs in the occult prevail alongside Islamic faith for millions and some religious clerics also function as shamans. It also manifests itself in visits to the tombs of Islamic saints.
The rise of more conservative Islam has, however, sharpened condemnation of the field from those who deride its practitioners as fakes and charlatans. Electoral candidates are far more content, as a result, to make public them calling on an Islamic boarding school, for example, to receive a blessing.
“They are both alike. In Java, the people are at the same time Javanese and followers of Islam. It is not just being Javanese or being a Muslim. In Java, one may follow Islam and kejawen at the same time,” Abdi said.
“[But] the public perception is that going to a shaman is a negative thing. Islamic conservatism is getting stronger now so that [adherence to the] paranormal is regarded as idolatry or polytheism.”
The proliferation of political polling has been another factor in narrowing the role played by spiritual guidance in pre-election decision-making.
Where once a shaman might have been conferred with even in the process of selecting a candidate, more scientific means are now the prevailing political tools.
Kusomo, who is also a martial arts enthusiast, shows off an item from his sword collection.Credit: Jefri Tarigan
“In recent times political parties have started to rely on surveys,” said Agus Trihartono, an international relations scholar at Jember University in Jember, East Java, who has studied polling and researched links between politics and shamanism.
“To my knowledge [shamans’] services are still used, but it is more in the context of individual interest such as to protect themselves from attacks by other parties. Also, to make themselves look physically better.
“Today’s politicians, particularly the millennials, are very different. They trust the data in their gadgets. They have different behaviour. So, it’s about the mindset of current politicians, although it does not mean the phenomenon does not exist any more. It is just getting more secretive. If a politician is open about going to a shaman, he is creating troubles for himself.”
While it’s conducted in the shadows, it’s clear that business has been good for the high-profile Kusomo.
In Bekasi, he has a five-storey house with an elevator. He has a penchant for limited-edition luxury and sports cars, having previously bought a Lamborghini Gallardo and at once owned a Ferrari Modena, a Ferrari Spyder, a Mercedes-Benz SLK, a Porsche Carrera, a Cadillac Escalade and Chrysler 300, according to a 2012 report by an automotive news site. An entertainment program broadcast on YouTube noted his other prized possessions included two large raw gemstones that cost 800 million rupiah ($80,000).
In the political duels he weighs into, he insists he never plays both sides. If he’s approached by a rival to a candidate he’s already seen ahead of an election, he won’t take them on as client as well, he says, explaining it would be a clash.
“So far all are successful, all gave positive results,” Kusomo said.
As for who will come out on top in the upcoming presidential election and succeed Widodo after his 10 years in charge, he cannot say.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo with US President Joe Biden at the G20 summit in India last week.Credit: AP
Voters will decide between Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto, Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo and former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan on February 14 while also electing a new vice-president, as well district, provincial and national parliamentarians and members of the Regional Representative Council, which is the federal upper house.
“A leader, the No.1 person, his name is already written in the sky. If it is not written, no matter what kind of rituals are performed, he or she won’t be the one. God decides,” Kusomo said.
“If it is related to a presidential candidate, it’s different because it relates to the country and the nation, it is about managing millions of people. If I dream about someone more than 40 times, the person will surely be [the president]. I have not dreamt about anyone. I haven’t got the picture.”
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