Stumble Into Indonesia's Unseen Places
How would like to have sharp metal piece piercing through your cheeks? Or resting your feet on a machete blade? Or rubbing knives to your throat, arms, and scratching your itchy legs with swords? I’m guessing you’re cringing at the thought and wondering why on earth would anyone do that or even ask that. Well, about 612 people did that voluntarily this year in Singkawang, West Kalimantan. They signed themselves up as tatungs for the Cap Go Meh celebration.
‘What the hell is a tatung and Cap Go Meh?’ you might ask.
A tatung is a person possessed by the spirit of an ancestor or a god and is immune to pain because of it. Cap Go Meh is the final day of Chinese New Year celebration which happens for 15 days; ‘cap go meh’ literally means the 15th night. It is one of the biggest celebrations among Chinese Indonesians, also called Tionghoa, to shoo away evil spirits and bad spells. In another dialect, it is also called Yuan Xiaojie or Yuanxi. And on this day, the Tionghoa in Singkawang celebrate with a parade of tatungs all across the city.
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It was 5 a.m. on Cap Go Meh day, which in 2016 fell on February 22. Red lanterns were lit brightly against the sleepy blue sky all around Singkawang, and already Tri Dharma Bumi Raya temple was swarmed by the devotees, locals, tourists, reporters, photographers and bloggers like us. This oldest temple in Singkawang is where the tatungs have to get their ultimate blessing in order to perform at the parade later in the day. Nothing was actually happening just yet, but we decided to come that early to secure seats with the best view that we could possibly get.
The main parade attraction was to be performed on the Kalimantan Street, with a few VIP boxes. We were sitting among paying audience – IDR 150,000/person – and those with Press acces like us. It finally started at 9 a.m. as scheduled, with a few modified traditional dances and an amazing dragon dance. The dragon was perhaps about 10 meters long, held up by a lot of men with great coordination. The dragon was chasing a red ball that ‘bounced’ around and over the dragon’s body. The whole ambiance was super festive, people with photo-taking gadgets could not seem to stay still and just watch. There was too many interesting object to take picture of. Ochoy, Ivan and I were switching between our cameras and Snapchat.
Then it got crazier when finally the tatungs came out. Yeaaay, it’s what I had been waiting for! I couldn’t wait to see pierced faces and all-white eyeballs!
Most of the tatungs were carried on litters, guarded by their entourage. They were wearing costumes like knights, warriors, gods, and even farmers with paddy and fruits in their mouths. It is said that the way they act depends on what kind of spirit possessing their bodies. However they appeared, almost all of them showed off their ability to not feel pain, by poking their bodies with knives, long needles, and have iron sticks as big as, perhaps, 3 cm in diameter PIERCED THROUGH their cheeks! No drop of blood whatsoever appears to come out of their skin.
Tatung parade is definitely not for the fainted heart!
I cringed at some of the actions, but not much. I’ve seen these scary – and somewhat disturbing – images of tatungs on the Internet previously. And it’s true what an acquaintance of mine, who had seen the parade a few times, said, that watching it one or two hours would get you bored. Well, I wasn’t exactly bored, but after an hour seeing similar acts, as phenomenal as they were, it left only a wee bit of surprise.
One thing I was wondering about, and maybe I’m not the only one, is why these tatungs looked smug. As I had posted in our Instagram account, has the tradition become a festival of pride?
Nonetheless, a tatung parade is an extraordinary event. If you had the chance to see it, I would recommend that you do at least once in a lifetime.
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Not everyone can be a tatung. One must have that calling to be one and some even say it runs in the family. One can wish to be a tatung but it never comes true because it’s just not their fate. While others become tatungs whether they like it or not.
To be able to perform the divine power, a tatung must be blessed by the temples in the city. There are almost 700 temples in Singkawang, I’m not sure whether they have to ask for blessing to each and every one of the temples. But as I said before, they must get the blessing from the Tri Dharma Bumi Temple, also known as Toa Pekong. These blessings must be obtained in a few days before Cap Go Meh.
On my visits to a few temples in Singkawang prior Cap Go Meh, I got to see a few tatungs and their entourages come to the temples for the blessing. They seemed to have already been possessed, else why would one bite a dead chicken on the throat and dance around barefooted in weird costumes in front of hundreds of visitors? They were carried on a litter or driven on the back of an open truck by the entourage, complete with percussion-like traditional music instruments. You can hear them coming from kilometers away.
Other than the blessing, fasting is also required. There are several things the tatungs must avoid, like eating meat. They could get the blessing even though they didn’t meet this requirement, but that could get themselves in trouble. They won’t be immune to pain, and some have proved it the hard way, having some stitches as a token of indiscipline.
Being a tatung is not without material effort. They are supported with an amount of money from the committee, which gathered the budget from donations. But don’t even think they gain profit from it. On the contrary, they often have to spend more than what they got to pay for the vehicle or litter, the music instruments, the costumes, and the entourage.
Still, Singkawang has never run out of people who are eager to become tatungs. I guess that’s just faith.
More about Singkawang on calmer days, read our post from another trip here: Singkawang City, Travel Back in Time.