A dark-skinned boy lifts his right leg over an horse made out of woven bamboo.
He holds the horse’s head as though riding a real stallion. He looks up, then closes his eyes. In less than a minute, the boy’s head begins to shake. He then dances to traditional music blaring from a loudspeaker.
A band of tiny bells tied around his right ankle jingles every time he stomps his foot. He stops in front of a bucket, bends his body and, just like a horse, drinks from it several times before moving again. As he pauses, a man with a long, thick whip strikes him. The man does it several times to make the boy — who now believes he is a horse — move.
The boy, Wahyu Sulaiman, is said to be in a trance. Although he gets whipped numerous times, he claims to feel no pain. A man leads him around to ask for money from onlookers.
A woman walking along with them holds out a flat bamboo basket with shards from broken light bulbs. As they stop in front of an onlooker who has thrown money into the basket, the women puts pieces of broken glass into Wahyu’s mouth. The 12-year-old munches on the glass before swallowing the deadly meal.
The group is called Lestari Budaya (Cultural Preservation) and is responsible for the surreal performance at Taman Mini Indonesia Indah on this Sunday. The kuda lumping (flat horse) performed by Wahyu, along with his parents, uncles, aunts and cousins, is a traditional dance from Java.
“Children traditionally take part in a kuda lumping performance,” said Ahmad “Ngadino” Suryadi, who is the group’s manager. “They take pride in this because they are preserving tradition by doing so. They are also able to earn money. Some use the money to help their parents pay for their school tuition.”
To those who think it’s a form of child abuse, Ngadino has this to say: “I don’t think it’s abusing the children because it is just a game. Besides, they don’t feel pain because they are possessed by the spirit that protects them. No one has ever said that it is a form of a child abuse.”
There are various beliefs surrounding the origins of kuda lumping. Some believe that the dance is a depiction of the troops of Prince Diponegoro — a national hero known for his battle against the Dutch colonialists — riding horses. Another is that it portrays the Mataram troops in their fight against the Dutch in the 1800s.
There are many ways to perform the kuda lumping dance. Some performances involve a group of men dressed up like soldiers, while others, like the Lestari Budaya group, channel spirits to help the dancers achieve a trance-like state. The dance is widely performed in East Java and Yogyakarta during traditional ceremonies.
Lestari Budaya was formed in 1975 by Saliman and Kasmi, Wahyu’s grandparents and Ngadino’s in-laws. The couple was previously part of a kuda lumping group in their hometown, Surabaya. In 1970, however, they decided to seek greener pastures in Jakarta
“They went around as buskers playing siteran [traditional stringed instruments] for five years, including here at Taman Mini, before they decided to take their six kids to Jakarta and form this group,” Ngadino said.
With capital of Rp 250,000 ($25), Saliman and Kasmi ordered kuda lumping equipment, including a set of traditional musical instruments, from Surabaya. The family soon began to wander the streets of Jakarta performing the dance.
Lestari Budaya is now made up of 20 members. They are the founders’ six children and their families.
According to Ngadino, there are at least three other kuda lumping groups in Jakarta and Bekasi, just outside the capital. Each group is given a chance to perform at Taman Mini on Sundays.
“But it’s not on a regular basis. Our group sometimes performs once a month, sometimes once every two months,” the 43-year-old father of four said.
The group is usually hired for four hours and can perform up to six times a day. They earn Rp 750,000 from Taman Mini for the day’s work, in addition to tips.
When not at Taman Mini, Lestari Budaya wanders around Jakarta’s streets and performs in neighborhoods.
According to Sudarmi, Ngadino’s wife, they earn a minimum of Rp 200,000 a day. On rare occasions, they can make as much as Rp 500,000. The money is equally divided among all the members at the end of the day. Wahyu said he typically gets about Rp 30,000.
Although the horse riding, whipping and eating of broken glass are the main draws of the kuda lumping, the group also incorporates acrobats as well as fire eaters into their performances.
“We also make people laugh by using funny dialogue in the show,” Sudarmi said. “I can say that the show has more humor than it has mysticisim.”
For the mystical part of the performance, Ngadino said that they sought the help of their ancestors. He said that he was able to summon the spirit of the dead by reciting a Javanese spell. The good spirit will then select a host from among the dancers, where it can reside during the performance. Whoever is chosen is said to be immune to pain.
That afternoon, it was Wahyu who was chosen. He said that he usually felt drained after the spirit left his body.
“I feel fatigued and my body aches,” he said. “But I never remember anything that happens before that. I also don’t know what it feels like to eat broken glass.”
Do the performers get hurt when they perform dangerous acts, such as eating broken glass and fire?
“I would have died a long time ago if this was the case,” Ngadino said with a laugh. “I have been a [kuda lumping] player since I was 15.”
However, Wahyu said that although he had been part of the group for the past six years and has eaten glass since he was 9, he sometimes still hurts his lips.
“It happens sometimes, but the wound is usually gone after a week,” he said. “And when it happens, I can only eat porridge. But it doesn’t stop me. I enjoy performing. I’m proud that I’m preserving the tradition.”
When asked if they really swallow the glass shards, Ngadino said, “Of course. They come out when we defecate.”
Although primarily street performers, Lestari Budaya has made a name for itself. The group was hired to do commercials for Teh Botol Sosro, a major bottled tea company, in 2006, as well as for an instant noodle company.
“We were also part of the video by [singer] Iwan Fals for his song ‘Kuda Lumping,’ ” Ngadino said, although he could not remember the exact year the video was shot.
Some of the members are thinking about a future when they no longer have to give performances. Sudarmi and her oldest sister, Sri Lestari, daughters of the group’s founders, said they planned to retire from doing kuda lumping and were hoping for a better life.
“It’s tiring having to walk so far to earn money and we’ve been doing it for years,” Sri Lestari said.
Wahyu, however, is of a different mind.
“When I grow up, I want to be someone who can look after and continue the kuda lumping tradition,” he said. “I don’t want to be a policeman, teacher or a doctor. I just want to make kuda lumping more popular.”
But being a boy who does extraordinary things does not spare Wahyu, who is in the sixth grade, from taunts.
“I get teased by friends at school because I am a [kuda lumping] player. They shout, ‘Hey, Wahyu the horse, eat this glass,’ ” he said. “But I’m not ashamed of what I do. I am proud that I’m helping to preserve the tradition.”