Ancient Healing, Modern Practice

Writer Karen Fong | September 25, 2014

Centuries old, Jamu has been regularly used throughout Indonesia as a cure-all and health enhancer. Today, it is finding its place in modern society as well as in the soothing treatments of Asia’s spas.

An ancient Indonesian healing remedy, Jamu in Bahasa Indonesia roughly translates to ‘herbal remedies used both internally and externally’. For centuries in the rural and urban centres of Indonesia, it has been the go-to cure for issues like male virility and post-natal recovery as well as common ailments like coughs and colds, aches and pains.

Jamu can be broadly defined to include physical treatments administered by a dukun or tabib (both of which mean a variation of ‘traditional healer’), to herbal tonics prepared by jamu gendong, women who go door-to-door with popular mixes loaded into a basket, which they carry on their backs. Says Susan Jane Beers, an Irish journalist who spent ten years researching Jamu and the author of Jamu: The Ancient Art of Herbal Healing, “Jamu is often loosely defined and crosses the line between a healthy tonic taken daily for prevention of illness, and a cure taken for specific problems. Most areas of life in Indonesia are infinitely flexible and many boundaries are blurred, health is no exception.”


Dating back to the eighth century, Jamu was originally the privilege of the royal families of Java in Indonesia. Heavily influenced by Indian Ayurvedic remedies, it came into its own through the use of local, indigenous herbs. Home to some of the world’s most diverse flora and fauna, Indonesia’s tropical forests offer up some of the best herbal ingredients, such as turmeric and ginger. Today, up to 75 per cent of the local Indonesian population continue to consume Jamu on a regular basis for good health.

Using indigenous herbs, the main ingredient that gives Jamu its healing properties is turmeric. A well-known ‘wonder herb’, turmeric “is one of nature’s most powerful anti-inflammatory agents and prevents conditions associated with inflammation, such as heart disease, rheumatoid conditions and even potentially Alzheimer’s disease,” explains Professor Gerry Bodeker of the Oxford University- based Global Initiative for Traditional Systems (GIFTS) of Health. Wulan Tilaar, the director and vice chairwoman of the Martha Tilaar Group, which offers both spa treatments and its own Jamu tonics, further elaborates. “Kunyit (turmeric) and jahe (ginger) are very popular Jamu herbs. Kunyit is a natural way to treat several skin problems and to create a flawless complexion. It has a range of benefits for skin conditions, such as acne, wrinkles, stretch marks and dull skin. Jahe reduces hair loss, soothes burns and blisters and also contributes to radiant skin. We also use materials, such as katuk (leaves), woods like sandalwood and fruits like oranges.”

Jamu crosses the line between a healthy tonic for prevention of illness, and a cure taken for specific problems
~ Susan Jane Beers