Ponari, the Littlest Witch Doctor

In a rural society where people have little access to trained doctors or even reliable health information, they depend on alternative forms of treatment.  In some cases the treatment can be beneficial and even better than what Western medicine can provide.  In other cases the only possibility for a cure is the faith of the patients themselves.

As I heard the story, Ponari, a little boy from a rural village, was struck by lightning.  When he recovered, he discovered a stone in his hand.  When he finished playing with the stone he tried to throw it away but it came back to him.  So he realised it was a magic stone (batu jimat).  Some of the villagers claim to have seen him performing cures with his magic stone (a mute child being able to speak, a villager’s weak arm restored to strength).  Soon, he was established as a ‘dukun tiban’ (shaman whose powers are confered by the spirit world).  Before long, the legend of Ponari and his batu jimat grew to the level you see in this video.

The treatment seems to be for the patient to take some water in which Ponari has dunked the stone.  From the clips I’ve seen, the boy doesn’t give much of a consultation, in fact he seems more interested in playing with his cell phone most of the time.  In the clip above, you can see the type of people who come to him to seek treatment – some are seemingly hopeless cases, most seem to be typical of the rural poor, simple people who are unable or unwilling to go to a qualified doctor who probably doesn’t speak their language, comes from a different culture and treats them dismissively. 

In this next clip, you can see the kind of crowd the ‘little dukun of Jombang’ was able to pull:

If you have ever thought of joining a pilgrimage, that is pretty much what to expect when you get close to the object of the trip.  Thousands of people were coming to this East Java village every day.  An industry soon developed to service these pilgrims.  The inhabitants of Jombang were making money in all sorts of ways, from charging parking fees (5,000rp, when 2,000 is the normal fee in Jakarta or Surabaya) to selling books about Ponari, not to mention the fee for a ‘consultation’. 

In fact, this second clip is more about a rival child dukun tiban, Dewi, than Ponari.  It seems the Gods were very generous in giving out batu jimats because Dewi set up shop soon after Ponari started drawing crowds.  She is also in the district of Jombang, about 20 kilometres from Ponari, but her service is superior – instead of waiting in line for Ponari to put his stone in the water, you can just buy some pre-blessed water from Dewi’s father.  The guy being interviewed says he went to Ponari’s but turned away when he saw the huge queues, the Dewi service was far more efficient.  At the end of the clip you can see Dewi’s father supervising operations as he fingers his prayer beads.  Such a devout man!

I was told that Ponari’s father began to have misgivings about the whole thing  when it got to this level, but by then it was too late to stop.  How can you just turn away thousands of people, many of whom had travelled long distances?  The entire village was making a fortune directly or indirectly from the Ponari cult.  In fact, some observers called on the authorities and the ulama (local muslim authority) to warn people about putting their faith in this boy and to make basic health services more accessible for them.  In the end, as so often in Indonesia, the problem solved itself.

Ponari was already showing signs of boredom and his father was becoming anxious when a crowd got out of control and some people were trampled to death.  This incident caused the local government to put a stop to it while better crowd control measures were put in place.  It wasn’t long before they put Ponari back to work again.  But by then things had changed.  The time out served as a circuit breaker.  Ponari had become so self-absorbed with all the attention he continued to behave badly towards his patients and they didnt come back.  The curative power of his stone had also faded.  They rationalise this by saying that a power conferred in the way of this batu jimat only lasts 40 days.

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve heard anything of Ponari.  I suppose he still has a few customers.  Hopefully his attitude has changed since his ‘glory days’.  It might take a lifetime for him to live down what he did.  His family would have made a fortune from him, but I wonder if it will be enough to justify a childhood experience like he had.

In the first pic which follows, where he’s wearing a dark coloured shirt, that was taken before he became really famous.  He’s shy, but taking an interest in what’s going on around him.  The other pics were taken at the height of his fame:

Even Indonesian children can be naughty depending on the circumstances.


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2 Responses to “Ponari, the Littlest Witch Doctor”

  1. jakartanna Says:

    The whole thing for me it’s like a comedy satire. In a way, it’s entertaining to see, but learning how they really put their faith into a stone above all else, it is a bit sad actually.

    Anyhow, I like the way you put it : ‘In the end, as so often in Indonesia, the problem solved itself.’ 😀

    • aboutindo Says:

      A ‘black comedy’ perhaps?

      Maybe it’s a good thing the government doesn’t interfere with things like this. With all the laws, education and information available in the West, people still fall for cures which can only succeed through faith. My only suggestion is that the people responsible for crowd control should be prosecuted for their negligence.

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