The spiritually diverse archipelago of Indonesia is synonymous with spas in Asia. Its spa capital is undoubtedly Bali-home to the majestic Ayung River, abundant tropical vegetation and verdant rice fields. The Balinese carry compassion in their hands, and are therefore naturally skilled therapists. It is no wonder that massage is a fundamental aspect of daily life. They are fastidious about tradition and appearance, and every shrine, no matter how small, benefits from intense personal attention with offerings of food, colourful rituals and song.
The use of herbs in healing is as old as Javanese civilization itself with evidence of their use etched on the walls of Borobudur, the famed Buddhist monument in central Java dating from 800-900 AD.
Although healing customs differ among the regions of Indonesia, one tradition that has remained constant is the use of jamu. Broadly speaking, jamu refers to any kind of traditional medicine. It is estimated that more than 350 jamu recipes have been passed down through generations and are in use today. Up to 150 ingredients are used to produce a single jamu potion, although only a few are used at any one time.
Raw ingredients include the leaves, bark and roots of plants such as ginger, tamarind, turmeric and cinnamon, with natural sweeteners such as palm sugar often added for flavour. Today, jamu gendong (ladies selling jamu) can be seen throughout the villages carrying baskets slung over their shoulders, selling bottles of jamu and keeping the tradition alive. To the Indonesians, jamu is the elixir of life and despite a lark of scientific evidence to support its benefits, it is believed that a large percentage of the population drinks a glass of jamu every day.
Jamu is thought to have originated during the 17″‘ century, when princesses in the central Javanese courts began to concoct beauty potions using plants, herbs and spices. Since then, its reputation has expanded considerably.
An entire beauty regime, from facial masks to hair conditioners, scrubs and hand creams, can be created from jamu alone. It can be imbibed as a drink to prevent illnesses or used as treatment for chronic diseases. It is purported to relieve aches and pains, improve digestion and metabolism, and correct malfunctions such as infertility and menstrual irregularity. The use of jamu depends on the problem involved. Jamu can be taken as an infusion, distillation, brew or paste. Results are not instantaneous, and it is the job of the herbalist to ensure that the concoction is suitable for the specific ailment. Both males and females are introduced to jamu from birth, with recipes passed down from generation to generation.