Indonesian Herbalism: Jamu

Article by Jennifer Kimball, ©2007. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Jamu is part of an Indonesian integrated system of inner and outer health and beauty, originating in and practiced primarily on the island of Java (Beers, 7). Jamu is most recognizable as a drink but can also be given in pill form. Jamu was traditionally made from raw materials in the home or bought from a jamu gendong (a woman selling pre-made jamu on the streets). These are both still done, but an expanding herbal medicine and cosmetics industry in Indonesia is now producing large-scale health and beauty treatments (Beers, 8).

Jamu is a holistic therapy, utilizing the concept of harmony, the balance between a person and their environment. This balance is usually expressed in terms of opposites within the use of the medicine – such as hot and cold – into which the illnesses and medicines can be divided (Beers, 29). When Jamu is formulated, the effect on the specific body part as well as the entire body as a whole is considered. Jamu has three categories of ingredients: the main ingredients, the supporting ingredients, and those that are added to improve the taste.

Practically every Javanese woman, and many men, consumes Jamu on a regular basis. Unlike many Western medicines, Jamu needs to be taken on a regular basis to achieve the desired results. This herbal medicine is taken to treat a particular illness, maintain continuing good health, relieve aches and pains, and/or to address particular malfunctions in the body (Beers, 30).

Of the 40,000 species of tropical plants in the world, an estimated 30,000 grow in Indonesia (Beers, 57). The roots, bark, stems, leaves, and fruits/vegetables of plants are all incorporated into the making of Jamu. The most used species in Jamu are from the Zingeberaceae family, or ginger family, including the common ginger root familiar to many Westerners. Each ingredient is known for having certain medicinal properties: nutmeg for example, is known to help with wind, indigestion and stomach problems but it can be toxic in very high doses.

The greatest problem facing todays traditional medicine makers is disappearing raw materials (Beers, 74). Unfortunately, over-exploitation of natural wild-growing resources and the destruction of rainforests are causing some species to become endangered. This also is threatening the well being of plants whose healing benefits have yet to be discovered.

The use of plants for medicinal purposes in Indonesia dates back to prehistoric times, proof being the large collection of Neolithic stone implements, such as mortars, in Jakartas National Museum that were most certainly used for healthcare (Beers, 13). Now-a-days it can prove difficult to gain access to surviving records about Jamu; many are in the hands of healers reluctant to let people see them, and ancient manuscripts within places such as Yogyakarta Palace cannot be viewed without permission (Beers, 15).

Article by Jennifer Kimball, ©2007. Reprinted with permission of the author.


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