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Islamic Ascetics From Java Thrive on Pain
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421 words
8 March 1989
(Copyright 1989)

Anyer, Indonesia

After 10 days of fasting most people would be happy to eat anything. Achmad Djunaedi chose a lightbulb.

Djunaedi, who says his family has prayed, fasted and indulged in a variety of self-inflicted brutalities for 53 generations, crunched happily on his brittle meal.

He is one of a family of Debus players, Islamic ascetics from west Java who immunize themselves to pain and injury through the strength of their belief.

They are thought to have originated in India many centuries ago and were for a long time concentrated in the north Java kingdom of Banten, where their reputation for invulnerability made them important in the 17th century resistance to Dutch colonialism.

There is a long tradition of public display of their powers, but performances are rare since the Debus must fast for 10 days before and after each show to ensure that Allah will protect them from the normal consequences of their slashings and burnings.

Although they once impressed crowds in local marketplaces with the fruits of a dutiful religious life, they now perform at tourist resorts, raking in $170 a show.

On a recent visit, the audience dallied over lobster dinners as Djunaedi chomped down on his less appetizing meal.

Then, not content with driving a 30-pound stake into his stomach, slashing his tongue and rolling over shattered glass, Djunaedi went after his 11-year-old niece with a razor-sharp chopper.

Her judo-style evasion tactics were no match for him - she had only been in training for five years. He soon had her on the ground and was slashing fiercely at her neck.

Her face was expressionless, until she broke into a grin in response to a wink from an onlooker. Her smile belied her regular diet of unsalted white rice and water, the long hours spent praying and reciting chapter and verse of the Koran.

Magical practices are woven into the fabric of Javanese society, but although most mystics acquire their power from their forefathers, the Debus insist that theirs comes directly from God.

"If you want to train with us, no matter you are a Christian, a Buddhist, a Hindu, you must just be very strict in the disciplines of your own faith," said Djunaedi Djaelani, patriarch of this family of 15, all ascetics.

The audience is sometimes less than appreciative.

Australian women averted their eyes as a mallet swung down to drive a pointed metal stake into a girl's bare stomach.

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