Kuda Lumping; intense trance, dance, ritual and spirit possession

This is a review/chronicle of my experiences at Kuda Lumping at Supersense Festival, feat. Padepokan Gunung Ukir.

Note on the date:

This post relates to something that happened last year, but due to a catastrophic tech failure I lost all the accompanying photos; it’s been kicking around in my drafts ever since.


Photograph by Tim Mummery

On the 7th August 2015 I attended the Arts Centre’s Supersense, which promised to be a ‘festival of the ecstatic’. Being a creature of liminal spaces, this tagline instantly caught my attention; I was not disappointed.
Upon arrival, the audience were ushered into the Arts Centre through mysteriously lit service corridors; pathways were created by a bath of coloured light; violet, teal and ochre-leading to the different colour-coded performance areas. Just by entering the building via these ordinarily off-limits routes, the audience was already traversing a boundary away from mundane reality.

Taking the teal path, I wandered onto the main stage of the State Theatre; a rare treat to look out over the theatre’s seating from the perspective of the stage itself, and a metaphor for Kuda Lumping’s difference from the usual Western notion of a strict audience/performer divide.
Situated at one side of the stage, across from a rope circle loosely partitioning the audience from the performers, was a stage platform covered in various musical instruments and offerings, including many bananas and coconuts. When I entered, a number of musicians were seated there, performing traditional Javanese music, surrounded by the intricate and lavish wooden platform which included a scaffold decorated in gold dragons holding up huge hide drums.
After a time, the man who appeared to be the master of the ceremony, who I assumed was the Dukan, the mystic Pak Ki Iswand, came forward to the centre of the circle to light incense and invoke the spirits. Unfortunately English is my sole language, and I’m unfamiliar with Javanese culture, so my interpretation of what was happening before me is heavily influenced by my own experiences with ecstatic ritual.
With a fantastic sense of showmanship, he began reciting prayers, negotiating with the spirit world and inviting magic into the space.

Large white stage curtains lit with the festival’s s signature creative use of coloured lighting descended downwards to just above head height, creating a border around us, and with them I could feel the energy in the space being raised-I’m normally not very energy sensitive, but this was hard to ignore. The magical ceremonies I’ve participated in generally don’t invite spectators, nor allow people to come and go freely; here however, people were casually milling about, coming and going already.

It was at this point I regretfully had to leave to go see Tao Dance Theater’s ‘5’, since several of the performances during the evening overlapped. The dancers had gracefully slid their bodies across one another to a contemporary ambient soundscape, appearing as one fluid, ever-shifting organism reminiscent to my mind of a sea anemone.

When I returned, the Kuda Lumping ceremony had increased dramatically in intensity. I found a comfortable spot on the floor near the edge of the rope circle and settled in to watch the rest. The musicians had increased the tempo, and the performance area was alive with a substantial number of people; both performers and those tasked with seeing to their welfare. Dancers were riding colourfully decorated woven bamboo horses with spectacular choreography, swirling around, seeming to reenact an important battle.

As the energy was raised by the music, dance and supervision from Pak Ki Iswand, the performers became more receptive to trance states. Once the ceremony had reached a fever pitch, it became easy to spot when and which of the performers had become possessed. The ritual lost it’s repetitive, twirling, rhythmic choreography as more and more succumbed.

When a spirit entered an individual (they appeared to my mind to be ancestral beings) the change was palpable. A fit young man, possessed by a child-like spirit fussed and demanded comfort, a demure young woman was possessed by a forceful warrior, her dancing movements whip-sharp and graceful. Another playfully offered to share bananas with audience members sitting by the rope border, insistent that they at least have a taste, using gesture to cross the language barrier. Another relished in impressing by chewing up and walking over an assortment of glass, seemingly immune to damage and fear.
Possessed individuals wandered about performing great feats of gymnastic athleticism, ate whole raw chilies, swallowed razor blades, chewed up glass fluorescent tube lights and ripped apart coconuts with their bare hands. All with an awe-inspiring ferocity and intensity, overseen by the mystic and his helpers, periodically cracking whips.

The performers were dressed in colourful traditional clothing, and sometimes large masks; the colour and motion and scent of incense alongside the music and skin-tingling energy created a powerful environment for all the senses.

When a spirit departed from it’s host, their body collapsed in exhaustion and they were quickly picked up and carried away out of sight, presumably to receive aftercare; they seemed to have been full black-out possessions and I doubt they remembered what had occurred.

Some of the musicians, who had been playing up to that moment, went limp with a loud crash and almost fell off the stage as spirits unexpectedly took hold of them; needing a moment to adjust to piloting their host bodies, stumbling an awkward for a short period.
At one point an audience member, an elderly Indonesian man suddenly joined the ceremony as a spirit leapt into him too.

It was spectacular, awe-inspiring and made me extraordinarily happy to see this ecstatic cultural tradition so very alive, contemporary and relevant.

The ceremony charged on in full force until there were few performers or helpers left, at which point it wound down fairly rapidly.

After it had closed, we were invited to stay and share a meal; my favourite method of grounding. An impressive, generous spread of traditional satays, curries, roasted chicken pieces, rice, salad and quite a few things I didn’t recognize were laid out on a mat of the woven horses on the floor.

I grabbed a plate of food and settled down out of the way on a lounge in the lobby, where I chatted briefly with an Indonesian woman about the experience. She asked if I found what I had seen confronting; I relayed that I simply felt extremely privileged to have seen what I did; not mentioning that as a pagan of many years the concept of possession was not especially shocking to me.

She related to me how this was the first time she had ever seen the ceremony performed from start to finish; back home she had watched it many times, but people usually wandered back and forth as the ritual is very long; taking place in a village setting amid people going about their daily business.

This made me feel better about having missed an hour or so to go see various other performances taking place simultaneously, as this was surely a once in a lifetime opportunity I’m not likely to have again.

I’m mildly allergic to ginger and I’m reasonably certain the food I ate was full of it. That evening and the following day I felt none of the usual adverse effects; if these powerful Indonesian spirits can shield their charges from harm when eating glass, I’m sure they can and did protect me from getting stomach cramps by sharing a meal with them.


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