Reportage

Strong with Spirits: How Jathilan Performers Go into a Trance

Eva Rapoport documented a dance performance on Java island, where the performers aim to let the spirits into them.
Eva Rapoport

Majored in Philosophy, lectured at the Culturology department of the Higher School of Economics, published in various media outlets. All of this was before she gave up living in Moscow for the opportunity to travel and photograph South-East Asia.

Most of the people who live on Java lsland in Indonesia are Muslim. They drink little alcohol, but it is not forbidden to sell it, whereas the laws regarding the circulation of drugs are rather strict.

At the same time, a ritualized dance performance called jathilan is very popular. Jathilan performers dressed in complicated traditional costumes made from modern synthetic materials go into a trance which looks like it is a drug-induced trance, although according to local beliefs they become possessed by spirits.

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The spirits entertain themselves as much as they can, making people behave as animals: roll on the ground, eat and drink on all fours, rip large coconuts with their hands and teeth, and sometimes even live chickens prepared for the occasion. Some performances include walking on hot coal and eating glass.

None of this is harmful for people while they are in a trance, and when they regain consciousness, they usually don’t remember what happened. To bring dancers who go out of control back to their senses it usually takes a pawang (shaman) and a couple of his associates. Every pawang has his own methods to make the spirits go away.

Not every dancer becomes possessed, but you can see people in a trance during every jathilan — sometimes even the observers go into one.

People behave as animals: roll on the ground, eat and drink on their fours, rip large coconuts with their hands and teeth, and sometimes even live chickens prepared for the occasion.
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Jathilan is performed in this or that village every weekend. Sometimes, the performances are organized in the city center — in this case it happens with the support of local authorities, including financial support. Entire families, children included, come to watch the dance. The crowd is not too big yet, the performance hasn’t started, but the music is already playing, and the youngest spectators copy the typical jathilan movements, riding a woven horse or just a long balloon.

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There is also a mild version of jathilan, only with dancing in bright costumes. But the locals say that if the performers don’t go into a trance, it is much less interesting to watch them.

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