The belief in pawang hujan, or rain shamans, illustrates how Indonesia negotiates the line between religion and culture, writes Pallavi Aiyar
Babey’s face is gnarled, yet implacable, like an aged banyan tree. He smokes compulsively through a wracking cough, putting down his cigarette only occasionally to wipe the sweat off his brow. When we met, the heat was stifling. The rains were late this year, a fact that weighed on paunchy, 65-year-old Babey’s mind even more than the average Indonesian’s. For this devout Muslim is also a rain shaman, or “pawang hujan”, as such weather wizards are known in Indonesia.
I had first heard about pawang hujan when organising my ten-year wedding anniversary celebration on the island of Lombok, a white-sand paradise to the east of Bali. I’d wanted a beachside barbecue so that we could dine with our guests under a star-bejeweled sky. But the date was bang in the middle of the rainy season. My concerns, however, were dismissed with an airy wave of the hotel manager’s hand. “Don’t worry,” she’d said confidently. “Our rain stopper is the best in Lombok.”
On the evening of the party, a full moon shone in a cloudless sky, although the very next morning it came pouring down. “What good luck we had last night with the rain,” a guest commented. The hotel manager only winked at me. An extra 100 dollars was discreetly added to our bill with “pawang hujan service” next to it.
After that, I began to notice references to pawang hujan everywhere. Wedding organisers advertised their services, naturally, but also golf courses and concert venues. Political parties used them during campaign season. City governments had them on their payrolls. When a storage tank at an oil company facility caught fire, a pawang hujan was enlisted to help extinguish the flames. A 2014 article in the Jakarta Post detailed the debate raging in the city council of Surabaya, in east Java, over the budgetary inclusion of pawang hujan. The departments of education and youth and sports wanted a rain shaman budget, while other departments were of the opinion that they were “unscientific” and undeserving of public funds.
When I quizzed my Indonesian friends, they, almost without exception, recalled attending events where pawang hujan had exercised their powers. Trinity, a celebrity travel writer and a hard-drinking sceptic, looked solemn as she told me about her dealings with rain shamans. “I never believed in all this, but then I began working as an event manager at a golf course in Karawaci (a Jakarta suburb). I had to hire a pawang hujan before every tournament.” Her eyes widened as she described the shaman—who had been up the previous night reciting Quranic verses in preparation—thrusting his arms slowly towards the sky as though pushing away a great weight, and how the dark rain-laden clouds obeyed. “I get goose bumps just talking about it,” she said.
A week later I went to visit Babey, having acquired his contact information from a PR executive at a five-star hotel, for whom fraternising with pawang hujan was an occupational hazard.
Babey is an honorific, akin to “bapu” or “father”. His real name is Mohammad Yusuf. His neighbourhood, Mampang, is only a 15-minute drive south from my home, but it is a world away in other respects. The zigzagging alleyways that lead to his rooms are too narrow for a car, so I had to walk the final few metres. There is no formal address. I asked a couple of headscarved ladies— hanging their laundry on lines fastened over the open sewers that line their shacks—for directions to Babey’s home. They shook their heads blankly.
Ice-cream sellers and meatball-soup vendors walked the bylanes blasting recorded music from their trolleys. A clutch of chickens ran by my feet. Eventually an old man on a low stool amidst a heap of broken plastic toys gestured towards the right. “Just keep that way,” he mumbled.
Moments later I was seated cross-legged on the floor of Babey’s front room, on a plastic mat that featured the emblems of Manchester United and assorted other football teams. It is a confined space, but it still contains a TV— and a display case crammed with a cassette recorder, unspooling tapes, several bottles of medication, tissue boxes, cigarette packets and lighters, fading photographs of family members, and a Prabowo-Hatta campaign cap, a relic of the 2014 Presidential elections.
On one wall is a somewhat lurid poster of the Wali Songo, or nine Muslim saints, who are believed to have spread Islam across Java over the 15th and 16th centuries. On another wall hangs a photograph of Babey as a younger man, posing with his four children. His eldest daughter is veiled in the Saudi manner, a form of Islamic dress that is not customary in Indonesia. Finally, there are pictures of Babey on Haj, the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.
The majority of pawang hujan, I later learnt, are hajis. The power to intervene in the rain is not an inherited trait as much as one that is acquired, as a direct consequence of deep piety. Babey is the only pawang hujan in his family that he knows of. None of his children have the gift, nor did his parents— though his mother, who taught Quran reading at the local school, was widely believed to be “punyailmu”; that is, with a feeling for the preternatural.
Babey was a pious child. His spirituality caught the attention of an acquaintance who was constructing a toll road on the outskirts of Jakarta in the late 1970s. The contractor asked Babey to recite some prayers for the success of the project. From then on the young man’s reputation as a shaman began to grow.
He was vague on the details of when and why he began to specialise in manipulating the rain. He is very clear on one thing, though: pawang hujan do not have the power to stop the rain. Such power belongs only to Allah. The shaman can, however, temporarily shift the rain to another place. A problem occurs when two rival pawang hujan working for different clients in contiguous areas attempt to move the same rain. The only times he had not fully succeeded, he said, was when a competing rain shaman was working against him. “There is a battle in the sky, the clouds move this way and that.” But, he hastened to add, he had never completely failed. Even when unable to shift the rain, he’d always managed to ensure that a downpour turned to a manageable drizzle.
Each pawang hujan has his own style. Many make offerings of cigarettes, rice, onions, spices and flowers. Others fast and meditate, relying solely on their internal strength. Babey’s method involves reciting specific verses from the Quran, including chanting the 99 names of God, and flinging about some salt. Table-variety sodium chloride bought from the local market, he confirmed.
Amongst his most loyal clients is a tobacco company. He recalled travelling across the Indonesian archipelago to ensure the company’s product launches were drizzle-free. Others include hotels, a funeral organiser and even a Christian pastor who had wanted clear skies for a church event. “You see,” he explained, “my power is not about religion, but belief.”
Such distinctions are not mere sophistry. They are widely accepted as valid by most Indonesians. And they arguably enable this Muslim-majority nation to retain a uniquely syncretic religious practice and outlook, despite attempts to standardise Islamic practice in keeping with Wahhabi norms.
There is, for example, a commonly made separation between agama or religion, and adat, or traditional cultural practices. Many Islamic organisations permit their members to participate in indigenous rituals and festivals that, while not strictly speaking Islamic, are part of adat or customary culture. The notion that adat as culture is somehow divorced from agama as religion might be a dubious one. But it allows Indonesians to negotiate their multiple identities without an overt sense of contradiction.
In the Indonesian acceptance of paradox, love of ritual and tolerance of difference, I was powerfully reminded of the India I had grown up in. Given the plural complexities of the two nations, Indians and Indonesians have both had to hone the rare arts of getting along and leaving alone. They may practise these arts imperfectly, but it is in their pursuit that the fragile essence of their nationhoods resides. It is the capacity to define oneself as this and that, rather than this not that. It is what allows a neuroscientist in Bengaluru to mutter a morning prayer in her puja room before making her way to the research lab. It is why a Christian priest can call upon the mystical powers of a Muslim rain shaman in Jakarta.
Babey said he had never heard of anyone complaining pawang hujan were un-Islamic. My own investigations turned up a few documents published online by Indonesia’s Ulema Council (MUI), an umbrella organisation of the country’s Muslim clerical associations. According to these, a pawang hujan is considered shirk—deifying something other than Allah, and therefore forbidden—depending on his intentions and methods. Only Allah can decide whether or not it will rain and where this rain will fall. However, it is allowed for humans to pray for divine help. A pawang hujan should not therefore guarantee the outcome of his services, but only promise to pray with sincerity in the hope that his prayers will be heard. He should, moreover, focus on prayer and eschew offerings like spices or cigarettes.
As is often the case in Indonesia, religion is interpreted just flexibly enough to allow practitioners room to accommodate the heterodox. There is, however, no cause for complacency on the part of those who would nurture such flexibility. It stems from a tendency to avoid, rather than confront, the contradictions in belief and faith that exist in this pluralistic country. Because the heterodox is never explicitly embraced, there is always the danger that those who attempt to impose orthodoxy will gain ground.
In recent years there have been several signs of increasing religious conservatism in the archipelago. In 2005, the MUI issued a fatwa condemning the Ahmadiyya community as religiously “deviant”. In 2008, the religious affairs ministry, home ministry and attorney general signed off on a decree that ordered the Ahmadiyya community to stop all activities that “propagated” its beliefs. Shia Muslims have been attacked in a few instances, while Christian leaders have complained of increasing difficulties in getting permits to build churches. Vigilante groups operating outside the formal political system have become more active. They include the notorious Front Pembela Islam (FPI), an organisation that was set up in 1998 with support from government security agencies, and whose goons use Islamic edicts to justify violent actions against bars and nightclubs.
Despite these developments, the overall religious landscape in Indonesia remains strongly syncretic. The most popular face of Islam in the country is still the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s—and the world’s—largest Muslim organisation, with 70 million members. Founded in 1926, the NU provides health and educational services in rural areas and champions a culturally rooted approach to Islam, in open opposition to more fundamentalist interpretations. Imam Pituduh, a member of the NU’s secretariat, told me that the NU believed Islam in Indonesia could only survive by accepting an admixture with local traditions. Its imams, for example, use indigenous astrological methods to help decide the names of newborns. And they are entirely comfortable with pawang hujan.
Ultimately, there is a pragmatism to most Indonesians that militates against radicalism. The rainy season there is long, chaotic and difficult. With heavy flooding, interminable traffic jams and health epidemics being yearly occurrences, everyone can use a little help. Consequently, for all the concerns about rising religious orthodoxy, pawang hujan are flourishing. One can even book their services online.
Back in Mampang, Babey urged me to drink the sweet black tea his daughter had poured for us. He apologised for the humble repast. He was not a rich man, he said. Before retiring a few years ago, he used to work as a security guard. Now his only income was from his services as a pawang hujan, which could pull in anything from 30 to 180 dollars per job, depending on the client’s ability to pay. But assignments were unpredictable and limited to the rainy season. Outside the open door of Babey’s shack, a vendor selling goldfish from a large plastic bag cycled by. The sky was white-hot and clear.
“It will rain soon,” the pawang hujan smiled.