You can read Cap Go Meh part I here and part II here.
*Warning: If you are of a squeamish disposition, please think carefully before scrolling down as there are a few graphic images and descriptions of self-mutilation. I apologise for any discomfort caused.
‘Do you want to have a go?’ the man asked Pucuk in Indonesian.
He pointed at the throne of blades and within seconds his friend had taken off his costume. Before we knew it, and because he is of the fearlessvariety, Pucuk stood there in the middle of tens of hundreds of people, slipped the t-shirt over his head and pulled on the pair of trousers the man had handed to him.
Hahaha, I thought, this is actually happening.
* * *
We were in Singkawang; a small city in East Kalimantan, a few miles away from the equator. The occasion? The ancient festival of Cap Go Meh – which in a nutshell, is an ancient year old tradition of the city coming together to fight off evil spirits haunting the town. Ordinary, run of the mill residents become ferocious and god-like for the day, channelling the deities through a kind of spiritual possession and then manifesting it through stunts of bravery, and quite frankly, insanity. Tatungs (the people part of the procession, who become possessed) brandish swords and knives and cut themselves all over their body, only to show that they cannot bleed because of the god’s strength within themselves.
Our first glimpse of a pierced face was quite shocking, but for myself I was more taken aback by the Tatungs sitting on the thrones made of blades. Glazed eyes peering up to the heavens and chanting words under their breath, these Tatungs, whether it be by the gods or otherwise, were very much fixed in a trance-like state.
Was this all real? I thought.
We had been warned about the spirits the night of our arrival the day before, but was it really divine intervention that was actually occurring? And how about the swords and the knives and all the cutting that was going on? I had seen both men and women stand on nails, put their bare feet on blades and slash knives at their arms, necks and even their tongues – but I hadn’t seen a speck of blood on any of the Tatungs. The only blood I had seen, had been from the grisly sight of a few of them drinking chicken’s blood from the carcasses.
How are they doing this? I pondered, the sceptic within me very much riled up. There must be something behind it. Maybe the blades are all blunted.
It seemed that the entire city had turned out either to watch or participate in the Cap Go Meh procession. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people lined the streets to watch the gory spectacle of the Tatungs – and the procession itself seemed endless. People from all corners of Indonesia marched along the city’s streets, proudly representing their provinces and tribal heritage. (I have since learned that apparently there were around 780 Tatungs in this year’s procession.)
Apart from two other foreigners we saw ferreting through the crowds, we were seemingly the only other foreigners (or bules as they call us in Indonesia) present at the festival. And despite the awesome and terrifying sights that were being displayed, we attracted a lot of attention ourselves. Even Jack, who is Indonesian born and bred, was mistaken for being a bule by his fellow Indonesians.
‘Miss, miss, photo?’
‘Mister, mister, photo with you?’
We graciously acquiesced and enjoyed the spotlight for a while. However all this attention caught the eye of a man in the parade, and he called over to Pucuk, (who speaks fluent Indonesian) to come over and become a Tatung for a few minutes.
Pucuk stood there in his black Tatung uniform and the man casually passed him a pair of swords, as you do. A swarm of people hovered around the bizarre sight of a bule dressed as a Tatung – I wondered if this had ever happened before in Singkawang’s history. Buzzing with excitement they snapped away with their phones as if they were an army of paparazzi.
The man told Pucuk to sit on the throne of blades and nails. Slightly nervous, Pucuk gingerly manoeuvred his way onto the seat of the throne, avoiding the sharpness of the blades.
It was too loud and hectic for Lily, Jack and I to speak to one another, but at that particular point in time, I am pretty sure that our brains were brought together in unison and that the same thought crossed our minds; Are they going to lift him up on the throne and take him away?!
Thankfully, they did not whisk our dear Pucuk away, and after a few more photos he was free to return to his photographic duties as a tourist. He scrambled off the throne, returned the costume back to its owner and made his way back to us. On his way back however, there seemed to be something wrong with his foot.
‘What’s wrong?’ Lily asked after Pucuk had finished inspecting.
‘I cut my foot when I was getting off the throne,’ Pucuk said and pointed to the side of his foot which was now trickling with blood.
‘You mean on the blades?’ I asked curiously.
‘Yeh, I was trying to be careful but I just caught it while I was coming off it.’
So Pucuk had cut himself and drawn blood after sitting on the throne after a matter of minutes. That meant the blades were real. And they were sharp. How were these people standing on blades and cutting themselves for hours on end, and not bleeding in the slightest? To this day I still do not know. Maybe there is something behind this strength of the gods after all.
The time was now nearing midday. We had been awake since 5.30am and in those few hours, our eyes and ears and noses had experienced a hundred sights and sounds and smells we couldn’t have even imagined to encounter. The equatorial sun blared down upon us, frying our skin and sizzling our already frazzled minds in the process. Cap Go Meh had come to a fantastic end and it now felt strange that the city just go back to normal, everyday life.
What do we do now? We asked each other as we sat exhausted in the shade of a stuffy noodle street café. How could we relax and come down from the feverish hype we had been overwhelmed by for the last few hours? Where do we go from here?
In conclusion, we decided the following:
And albeit slightly watery beer, it was the perfect way to end what has probably been – and without a hint of exaggeration, the craziest day of my life. Oh, and it was Valentines Day as well.
*Tune in next time for more adventures around Indonesia…
Go Go Go!
Where: Singkawang, in East Kalimantan, Indonesia.
Why: The 400 year old tradition of the Cap Go Meh festival.
How: Most airlines will fly direct from Jakarta to Ponitanak (we flew with Sriwijaya). Around the time of the festival tickets can cost up to around 2million Rp (approx £100). From Pontianak it is a 4 hour drive to Singkawang.
There are many places to stay in Singkawang, but around Cap Go Meh they become booked up very quickly, so book well in advance.
Think carefully before deciding to come to the festival – if you are of a squeamish dispostion, it may not be for you. It is gory in all aspects, but has been one of the the most fascinating experiences of my life.