Monday, August 23, 2004

Indonesian Jamu: A Blend of Bio- and Cultural Diversity by Hani Mumtazah

Jakarta, August 23, 2004 (Islam Online -IOL) - “Jamu, Madame, Sir!” That’s how a slim, young woman carrying a heavy basketful of bottles tied up on her back greets her clients from door to door at a Jakarta neighborhood every morning. The lady, wearing the Javanese traditional dress called kebaya and batik sarong, is selling the traditional Indonesian herbal medicine known as jamu.

Indonesia has the world’s largest biodiversity reservoir with around 140 million hectares of rainforest. Therefore, nature is deeply rooted in the life of the people culturally, socially and economically. Traditional herbal medicine derived from leaves, fruits, roots, seeds, flowers or tree barks, has been widely used since ancient times.

There are thousands of jamu ladies roaming Indonesia’s narrow streets and kampongs (hamlets), offering a glass of freshly prepared herbal medicine, which is usually mixed with raw egg and honey. In addition to the ‘mobile’ jamu ladies, there are also many jamu stalls almost everywhere.

Apart from homemade fresh jamu, the jamu vendors also offer herbal medicine produced by jamu manufacturers. At present, one could easily buy ready-made jamu packed in powder form, as pills, capsules, tonics, oil and ointments. Jamu is used to treat a wide variety of ailments ranging from fatigue and headache to malaria. It also supplies the body with vitamin C, cleanses the blood, keeps the body in good shape, and makes the skin smooth.

Jamu consumers come from every class of society, from the poor to the rich, those who live in villages or those who live in large cities. Indonesians like to consume jamu due to its availability and comparatively cheap price. Jamu is usually consumed in liquid form and in some cases is applied externally such as on the skin or forehead. The traditional methods of making jamu such as by boiling the prepared herbal ingredients still prevail in the country. The popular traditional tools of making jamu such as by using a clay pot and grater are still available in many families.

As part of the national family welfare program, each neighborhood has been encouraged to have a medicinal plants garden to supply residents who need to treat their family members. The garden is also aimed at preserving the medicinal plants and to pass on the traditional knowledge to younger generations.

Among common herbs used in jamu prescriptions are ginger (Zingiber officinale), wild ginger (Curcuma cautkeridza), turmeric (Curcuma domestica), greater galingale (Kaempferia galanga), kumis kucing (Orthosiphon aristatus), bengle (Zingiber bevifalium), secang (Caesalpinia sappan hinn), brotowali (Tiospora rumpii boerl), calamondin (Citrae aurantifalia sivingle), cinnamon (Gijeyzahyza glabra), and alang-alang (Gramineae).

Traditional Cosmetics


In principle there are several types of jamu. For example, one type maintains physical fitness and health, and another type treats various kinds of illness. Jamu for babies is also available, usually in oil form. There are also herbal cosmetics to maintain the natural beauty of women, and special jamu for pregnant women during the pre- and post-natal periods.

An estimated 80 percent of the Indonesian population has tried jamu at some stage of their lives. For Indonesian women, jamu is considered essential to keep them young and beautiful for their husbands. Drinking jamu is a must for women after giving birth, although some might hate its bitter taste. A special treatment for women in their post-natal period is usually a combination of massage, body wraps and tonics to help them regain their figures and eliminate stretch marks.

Almost every woman is concerned that her physical appearance always remains slim and beautiful with an alluring bright smiling face. As a Javanese idiom says, “Ngadi Sarira”, or “to maintain the body to be always in a perfect condition is of prime importance.”

In Javanese culture, the ladies of the royal families have a reputation of inheriting the beauty of goddesses from paradise. Nowadays, many women from outside the palace walls know some secrets of the royal palace culture of Ngadi Sarira. Jamu is widely used to give an inner beauty, which is thought to result from good physical health.

Some jamu products are consumed directly by drinking or eating it. For instance, eating kepel fruit (a brown fruit of a chicken egg size) gives the body - and even the urine - a fragrant odor similar to that of the fruit itself. Some traditional cosmetics include bedak dingin (a cool powder made from tendered rice with special ingredients such as pandanus and kenanga flower) and lulur bathing powder for scrubbing. Finally, a hair oil called cemceman, made of coconut oil with pandanus, kenanga flower, jeruk purut etc. is applied.

Rich in Biodiversity and Cultures

Indonesia is the world’s second richest megacenter of biodiversity, after Brazil. The country, comprising over 17,000 islands, covers only 1.3 per cent of the earth’s surface, but it contains almost 15 per cent of all higher plants and a significant share of the world’s fauna. According to the country study on biodiversity in 1993, the number of species of flowering plants in Indonesia is between 25,000 and 30,000, and 10 per cent of the total flora of Indonesia is thought to have medicinal value. Around 40 million people depend directly on the country’s biodiversity, and the communities make use of around 6000 plant species.

With a population of over 220 million people, Indonesia has at least 336 different cultures, speaking more than 250 languages. Thanks to this diverse culture, Indonesia has many different varieties of traditional medicine, depending on the local geography, ethnic groups and the historical processes of the communities. However, jamu, which originated in Java, and probably dates back to the construction of the world-famous Borobudur Temple in the late eighth and early ninth centuries, is the most wide-spread form of traditional medicine in the country.

In the course of time, jamu spread not only to the whole island of Java and to neighboring Bali, but also to many of the other islands. As a result of the continuous exchange of information between various cultural groups, traditional systems of medicine are not static but dynamic, regularly incorporating new knowledge and uses.

While all the various systems are based on more or less the same plant material, users are limited by what is available in their own locality and the existing knowledge, according to an article titled “Biodiversity, traditional medicine and the sustainable use of indigenous medicinal plants in Indonesia” written by Walter R. Erdelen, Kusnaka Adimihardja, H. Moesdarsono and Sidik. To cure liver infections, for instance, the Indonesian Sundanese ethnic group eats Curcuma domestica, or turmeric, as lalab (a fresh vegetable salad), while the country’s other large ethnic group, the Javanese, use boiled, dried turmeric to treat the same ailment.

Untapped Market


Nowadays, there are around 997 traditional medicine manufacturers in Indonesia, and 98 of them are industries. A few of the big jamu industries have exported their products such as cosmetics, oils and herbal medicines for women and babies to Malaysia, Singapore, India, Pakistan, Europe, the United States, and several Middle Eastern countries.

The proceeds of the herbal medicine sales domestically reached around 2 trillion Indonesian Rupiahs (Rp) annually or about US$225 million, and its export value was only US$5 million, according to data from the Indonesian Food and Medicine Supervisory Body (POM) in 2002. The figure was very small compared with China’s domestic sale value at US$5 billion and its export at US$1 billion. The demand for herbal diet supplements alone is estimated to be worth US$43 billion annually in the global market.

“Business opportunities for traditional medicines are very promising, both in the domestic and international markets. We have not tapped it maximally,” said Eng. Asyiantini, the organizing committee chairman of the Indonesian Biopharmacy Exhibition and Congress (IBEC) that was held in Yogyakarta from July 14 to 18, 2004. She said that the herbal medicine industry uses only around 500 species out of the total 7,000 known medicinal plants available in the country.

Meanwhile, according to Charles Saerang, secretary general of the Indonesian Traditional Herbal Medicines Producers Association (GPJTI), it is quite ironic that in herbal medicine production, the country falls far behind countries such as China, Korea and Japan. Political will from the government is a must for the country to rapidly develop the traditional medicine industry if Indonesia wants to compete with other countries.

Indonesia will host an International Workshop on “Enhancing Cooperation on Herbal Medicine: A Solution for Community Health Problems” and an Herbal Fair in Jakarta, this year. Initially the event was scheduled for July 27 to 30, 2004, but it has been postponed indefinitely. The workshop and exhibition are to be organized by the Non-Aligned Movement Center for South-South Technical Cooperation (NAM CSSTC) and the India-based Center for Science and Technology of Non-aligned and other Developing Countries (NAM S&T Center).

The international workshop and exhibition are expected to address key issues such as enhancing cooperation; covering issues of research, trade, business development, and intellectual property rights; and promoting the use of herbal medicines in the treatment of diseases such as HIV/AIDS, diabetes, and hypertension. It will also discuss solutions for community health problems in which traditional medicine could be used as an alternative to modern medicine due to its affordability, local production, cultural acceptance, and direct benefit to both producers and consumers.

References :

ANTARA - Nyonya Meneer exports herbal medicine to South Asia (2002)

ANTARA - It needs political will to develop jamu medicine (2002)

Suryo S. Negoro - Traditional Herbal Medicine and Traditional Cosmetics (

Jamu Folk Medicine from the Kitchen - Tourism Indonesia.

Indigenous Knowledge and Development Monitor, November 1999 - “Biodiversity, traditional medicine and the sustainable use of indigenous medicinal plants in Indonesia” by Walter R. Erdelen, Kusnaka Adimihardja, H. Moesdarsono, Sidik.

The NAM CSSTCMs Website:
Hani Mumtazah is an environmental journalist based in Jakarta, Indonesia. She graduated from a three-year English language non-decree program at the University of Indonesia, Jakarta. She attended the Non-Aligned News Agencies Journalism Course in New Delhi, India, in 1987. Comments and suggestions may be forwarded to her by contacting the editor at:

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