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The Strange Case of Mangku Pogog (Balinese Shaman)

by admin on February 7, 2011

(Originally published in Bali Echo 2002)
For the past four years, Mangku Made Pogog has been confined to bed in his home in Mengwi, Bali. Paralyzed by a stroke affecting the left side of his body, he is unable to walk more than a few steps. A bucket is kept nearby in case he needs to urinate, and Pogog spends his days watching television, smoking and watching after his grandchildren.

He is a different man than the one I met six years ago. At that time he was a reknowned Balian (Healer). Articles on him were published in the magazine “Shaman’s Drum” and the Bali Post. Two film crews from abroad had visited his home, and producers were negotiating for the rights to tell his story. He had been flown to Jakarta, Italy and Malaysia, and was treating the Sultan of Surakarta for lung cancer. At age 59 he had the body of an athlete half his age. And he was growing rich as wealthy tourists from abroad came to see him, paying increasingly high sums for his unique combination of massage, yoga, and mantra.

I was one of the westerners who visited Pak Mangku in those days. I had read the article in Shaman’s Drum, which described a bizarre healer who could make the blind see, cure leprosy, and treat infertility. His treatments often involved him licking a patient’s open wound or area of infection – a disturbing practice to say the least. But the author of the article – and many of Pogog’s patients – testified to miraculous results. But I didn’t come for a healing. I came because Pogog was charismatic and photogenic, and as a documentary cameraman, I thought he would make an ideal subject for a film. I sent a letter to Robin Lim, the woman who wrote the article, and she gave me the e-mail address of an American named Jerry, who was studying with Pogog at the time. Jerry confirmed that I could shoot for the purpose of a documentary.

When I arrived, Pogog was 25 meters up in the air in the palms of a swaying coconut tree, dropping the heavy fruits to the ground. He quickly shimmied down and I introduced myself. Pogog cut quite a figure, even at age 59. His heavily muscled body was flexible and strong from many years of yoga. When he learned that I practiced yoga as well, he was pleased – this common ground helped to break the ice. He was curious about my video camera and wanted to know how much it cost. I explained to him my idea for a documentary and he agreed to let me videotape. My plan was to find out if he was the miracle worker that he was porported to be. I didn’t tell him that my hope was to document a “miracle” healing. If Pogog turned out to be a charismatic charlatan, I would make a film about that. Either way, I was doing my job as a journalist – or so I thought at the time.
Pogog treating a patient

Fred Eiseman’s book “Sekala and Niskala” was my original reference point. Eiseman describes the different kinds of Balian – Balian Taksu, who go into trance and communicate with the spirit world, Balian Usada, literate healers who specialize in mantras and prayers read from lontar scripts, and Dukun beranak – who are often both abortionists and midwives. Not all Balian are healers. Some specialize in Balinese numerology or kosalah kosaleh – geomancy. Others, like Juru Nerang, who are called to prevent rain if you are planning a wedding.

I later visited Eiseman in his home in Jimbaran and he went into more detail. “Balian are people who specialize in black magic, in relieving people of ailments thought tobe caused by spells cast by jealous neighbors or family members. ” he told me. In the past, before the arrival of allopathic medicine, Balian performed a variety of non-supernatural duties, such as setting bones, preparing medicinal plants and poultices, and offering what would now be called psychological counseling. But since the arrival of western medicine, they have surrendered most of those duties to doctors. “But when doctors fail, it will quickly become mysterious and a Balinese will suspect black magic as the cause. Then they will go to a Balian.”

Spend any time in Bali and you will hear stories of miraculous healers who receive a “wayhu”, a boon from God, which gives them the power to heal people of diseases that doctors consider incurable. Assuming that real healings do occur, the first question from the skeptical empiricist is how? What is the mechanism? And why does a Balian succeed when doctors fail?

Ask a Balian and he will tell you, with typical Balinese modesty, that they themselves do not heal – God heals sick people through them. But that explanation is unsatisfying to Westerners. Fred Eiseman, who is chemical engineer by training, thinks that the healer’s closest ally is the patient’s own immune system.

“Given time, many sick people will get well on their own accord, with or without doctors or healers. And both doctors and healers take advantage of this. But Balian almost always spend far more time with a patient than a doctor. A balian will commonly spend more than an hour with a patient and take a lot of time. This surely has to help the patient’s attitude, and recent research has concluded that the patient’s attitude towards his sickness can have measurable therapeutic value.”

The time a Balian spends with a patient very often reveals social, physical, environmental and psychological conditions that prevent the body’s own immune system from fighting the disease. A healer may succeed when a doctor fails because the healer has a holistic rather than a symptomatic approach.

Balinese rarely go alone to a healer – often they bring their entire family. I would sit in Pogog’s balé for hours on end watching him joke, interview, and entertain a patient’s family. At first I thought this a terrific waste of time. But after a while I came to realize that Pogog was trying to understand the family’s complex dynamics – who had the power, where the allegiances were, and how they impacted the patient’s health.

One day an elderly man and his sullen, tattooed, teen-age son came to visit Pogog. After tea and conversation, Pogog began to massage the older man, who complained of migraines, back pain and high blood pressure. As Pogog worked, the son sat nearby and watched, smoking. Usually the patient’s family members watch from a nearby platform, but this young man sat close by and interrupted the massage by interjecting comments like “There’s a mangku in Gianyar who does that.” and “Why are you massaging his arms? He’s got headaches.”

Without warning, Pogog, who was seated in full lotus position, lifted himself up on his arms and shot his legs backward, kicking the young man in the chest and knocking him off the balé. The young man was more stunned than hurt, but everyone froze. Pogog launched into a diatribe against the youth. “You want to know why your father is sick? You are the reason he is sick! You! Get out! You want to report me to the police, go report me. I didn’t invite you into my home.”

The young man backed down immediately and quickly left Pogog’s compound after muttering apologies. Pogog finished the massage, prayed, said a mantra, sprinkled the old man with holy water and told him he should come back in a few weeks for another treatment – without the son.

That was a unique case and atypical of the majority of patients who came to see Pogog, but it dramatically illustrated how and why a Balian might have an advantage over a doctor, who would have simply looked at the old man, taken his blood pressure, given him a shot of B12 and some aspirin. Pogog’s diagnosis – to my eyes – seemed accurate. And though it wasn’t ethical from a medical standpoint to kick the son off the balé, most of the people visiting Pogog were were in fact drawn to him because of his fearsome reputation. By entering his home were tacitly agreeing to experimental, unproven, and shock therapies. Pogog worked through his intuition, and didn’t follow protocols of propriety.

Balian are unusual people, but Pogog was an outlier even for a Balian. He did not fit the textbook definition. His practice was a synthesis of different forms. He was an excellent masseuse on an island known for its tradition of therapeutic massage. He was versed in the Ayurveda system of healing that stresses energy channels called nadis, which can be opened via yoga and deep tissue massage. He was literate and knew many mantras. He owned books on Yoga and anatomy. And he was always learning, though I was chagrined to see that he had met enough “New Age” westerners to incorporate healing crystals into his practice. More important, his treatments seemed to work. I looked up one of the patients mentioned in the Shaman’s Drum article, a fellow with a terrible skin condition that Robin Lim thought to be leprosy. It turns out that the man was suffering from a crippling case of psoriasis. This man told me that he had been symptom-free for three years after the healing Lim witnessed – and he believed it was Pogog who healed him.

Is what Pogog does magic? I looked up the word “magic” in the dictionary and discovered that one of the definitions was “The art or science of getting results.” Results, then, are the key – whether you get them via art or science, intuition or injections. I believe that Pogog and other Balian intuitively know that many physical ailments are the result of mental pathologies, and that the way to cure the physical is to confront the learned behavior that cripples the body’s own immune system. Obviously, a Balian’s methods would never stand up to the scrutiny of a peer review board, but this is because Pogog’s strength as a healer came from an intuitive understanding of the Art of medicine.

Pogog with patient

A typical session with Pogog began with a lengthy discussion / consultation. You would then accompany Pogog to the balé and Pogog would “listen” to your feet – breaking a Balinese taboo against having the lower part of the body touch the higher part. Pogog would then begin the treatment. He used a number of “props” including two large round rocks and a hardwood log. He would place the rocks in various parts of your body – the soles of the feet and palms of the hands, the armpits and in the groin area, and hit them with the other rock. Hard. This didn’t hurt you – the dense stone absorbed the kinetic energy – but it was loud and the effect was dramatic and startling. And Pogog would be telling jokes and laughing the entire time.

If you had a specific or obvious problem – a persistent rash, broken bone that would not heal properly, or even an open wound with advanced necrosis, Pogog would apply his betel-stained saliva or even lick the affected area. He would then continue to place you in a variety of yoga poses, manipulating the muscles and tendons, and then invite you to sit on his shoulders as he walked around the compound, laughing, singing and dancing all the while. Then he would sprinkle you with holy water and send you to the temple to pray.

Pogog’s use of his mouth and saliva during his treatments was probably the most controversial aspect of his methods. From my perspective, this was at best highly unsanitary and at worse compounded the risk of spreading infectious disease. I tried, along with many others, to impress this upon Pogog and he would invariably laugh and say that he wasn’t like a doctor who needed a mask and rubber gloves because he had his own way of protecting himself against disease. After much prodding, he eventually explained why he thought he was immune from common contagion.

The Shaman’s Drum article did not report that Pogog believed his healing power came from an animal spirit. In 1961 he was extremely poor, and was having difficulty feeding his new-born children. He went out to the flooded rice fields at night to search for fish and to pray for a better situation. One night, he told me, a giant leech appeared, enveloped him and entered his mouth. He fell unconscious, but woke before dawn as if from a dream. He went back to work and immediately caught three large fish. His good fortune as a fisherman continued for a long time after that – but even more important he discovered that his saliva had the power to heal. By literally “licking” the problem, he could heal a variety of conditions that only decorum prevents me from describing.

He told me that before treating anyone he asked help and permission from this spirit, who even had a name. The spirit, in exchange for “using” Pogog’s body, would protect him from sickness.

Pogog and Pogog’s family clearly believed in this spirit, and had even built a shrine to it. When I asked Pogog if I could photograph this leach, he laughed. “The leach is like the wind. You can’t see the wind itself, but you can see how it moves the trees.” Obviously, it was difficult for me to accept the reality of a supernatural leach, and no doubt Pogog would have had difficulty accepting the spiritual beliefs that inform my family, who purportedly eat the body and blood of Christ each Sunday. What these two belief systems or epistemologies have in common is a strong central image and metaphor that is, by definition, a mystery. The metaphor of a leach, which injects a venom and simultaneously removes sickness or “bad” blood, is a primal and resonant visualization tool that was once popular even in Western medieval medicine. The metaphor no doubt goes even deeper, and may be linked to pre-Hindu, animist beliefs that still inform the world-view of Balinese villagers.

All of these aspects of Pogog’s Art: the metaphors, the imagery, the massage work, seemed aimed at breaking down a patient’s body and their attitude toward their body. He would disarm you with humor, poke you, twist you, bang on you, pick you up, lick you, sing and dance with you until every boundary you ever erected, every rule you ever knew, the edifice of your personality had been broken, inverted, complimented, mocked, lifted, dropped and shattered. The physical, kinesthetic process of the “massage” mirrored a psychological process that asked you to look again at the vessel you call your body, take inventory, and reevaluate the nature of your “sakit” – your sickness – and your relationship to it.

And after breaking you down, what were you left with? The sakit was still there, but a patient’s relationship to the sakit had been transformed. Given that patients were usually accompanied by their families, the relationship of the family to the patient and his sakit – distinguished by pity, disgust, guilt, fear, schadenfreude and enabling patterns – had been altered. And since a large audience of strangers in the waiting area had witnessed this treatment as well, the patient’s relationship to the outside world had also been deconstructed and re-imagined. These psychological, cathartic transformations did, in many cases, lay the foundation for physical, perhaps biochemical change.

But to concentrate on the “Art” aspect of Pogog’s “magic” is to draw an incomplete picture. Pogog was a skilled masseuse with a deep understanding of the “science” of anatomy. In my own work as a student and teacher of yoga I have traveled to India and all over South-East Asia and met with a number of people with a deep understanding of the body on both a gross and metaphysical level. Pogog was definitely one of the best in this regard. His own yoga practice was phenomenal. He also had the ability to put or assist his patients into advanced yoga positions that weren’t physically impossible for them. He also knew, like an osteopath or doctor of chiropractic, how to help people with real – not psychosomatic – physical injuries or damage. An example:

Often boys are born with one or both testicles undescended. Usually, the testicles drop into the scrotum before the child is 12 months old. When the testicles do not descend, the only option doctors have to offer is to operate. As with all surgical procedures done under general anesthetic, there is always the chance of complications – hemorrhage, infection, and even death.

Pogog had a different technique which he commonly performed on boys and young men with this condition. He would perform deep tissue massage in the patient’s lower abdomen and try to pop the testicle through the obstructing guberculum into the scrotum. If that didn’t work, he would take the patient’s scrotum into his mouth and – while continuing the abdominal massage with his free hands – create a vacuum with his mouth which would pop the testicle through the blockage and down in place.

I described this technique to a western doctor and, as might be expected, he shook his head and winced. No western doctor could perform such a technique without losing his medical license because of the impression of sexual impropriety. But after thinking about it for a moment, this doctor (a urologist) agreed that the technique did have substantial merits. Unlike with surgery, there was no risk of infection or the side effects associated with general anesthesia. The procedure took about ten minutes, was inexpensive, and the patient could go home not days but minutes later.

Might not the patient suffer psychological scars following so shocking a procedure? Particularly in taboo-ridden Balinese culture? That is certainly a risk, but is by no means certain. And the benefits of the procedure to a boy or young male, i.e.. normal sexual and reproductive function – might overweigh any mental trauma associated with the technique.

So now we enter into the grey moral area where Balian and Dukun take up residence. Robin Lim witnessed these types of transgressive, highly theatrical techniques and later said “I couldn’t figure out it he was the most deviant person I have ever met in my life or a person so deeply, in his heart, in love with his patients that he would do anything in order to heal them.” It is easier to question Pogog’s sanity than his motives, particularly after witnessing, on many occasions, Pogog risk his own health to heal a patient. I was with Pogog when he treated an American who was H.I.V. positive. While there was no exchange of body fluids, I felt quite uncomfortable with the process and tried to voice those fears to Pogog, who mocked and dismissed my concerns.

While I was concerned with Pogog picking up a bacterial infection or virus, Pogog’s Balinese friends were more concerned with the spiritual danger of his work. In the Balinese world-view, if you rid someone of an illness that is karmic in origin, you run the risk of taking on that sickness and that karmic debt. And if a patient’s illness was the work of a Leyak, by “eating” the sickness Pogog could incur the wrath of that sorcerer. Nyoman Jiwa, an articulate Balian from Bangli, said to me that the risks involved in becoming a healer were great – and far more dangerous than catching an infection from a patient. Pogog never tried to hide what he did, and everything was out in the open. He welcomed strangers, foreigners, police officers, and reporters to witness his work, proud of the fact he had nothing to hide.

Many of Pogog’s patients were women and Pogog’s wife or daughter-in-law was always there to providing assistance, which helped mitigate the impression of impropriety. It takes a great deal of courage for a woman to visit a male Balian. Bali is always swirling with rumors of “balian cabul” – “horny” or “porno balian” who tell women they can cure them of their problem in exchange for sex. Pogog was accused of this as well, which, based on my own observations, was unfair and inaccurate. Pogog did indeed perform acts like the one mentioned above that could be construed out of context as being of a base, sexual nature. The fact that Pogog, with men or with women, always made crude jokes and laughed, didn’t help his reputation. But more often than not women arrived with a male family member in toe, and were fully aware of what they were getting into.

Many women to Pogog who were having difficulty getting pregnant. Some testified to me that Pogog cured them of their problem, and pointed to healthy babies as evidence. I suspect that Pogog’s shock treatments were particularly effective in breaking women out of cultural conditioning or learned behavior that manifested in infertility. His treatments were effective on western women as well. I know two women who were both “cured” by Pogog. The first had not had a period in over a year. After one treatment, she had her period the next day. The other woman had a recurring bacterial infection that resulted in internal pain and an unpleasant discharge. Pogog’s treatment of women involved the usual battery of invasive massage, mantra, and prayer, but he also – sometimes but not always, quickly blew air into their vagina – usually in full view of their husbands or families. The women I talked to were uniformly bemused by this but did not feel victimized. And they were grateful to Pogog for being returning to health.

With all this, Pogog was doing well, rebuilding a house, and looked forward to a long career.

I was not the only person who read the article in Shaman’s Drum. A large influx of foreign patients, waving the article, would appear at the market in Mengwi looking for a guide who could take them to “Mr. Pohoh”. (Robin Lim had mispelled Pogog’s name in the article, which cause no end of confusion, because “pohoh” means “mango” in Balinese.) Jerry, the American apprentice healer, was helping marketing efforts by creating color displays and distributing pamphlets in Ubud that were headlined “Meet a Balinese Shamanic Healer”. With this type of publicity it is no wonder that Pogog began to attract some oddballs. There was Jerry, who thought himself a Balian and a pemangku in spite of the fact he could not speak Indonesian, let alone Balinese or Kawi, the Sanskrit -based language of Balinese lontar. There was a British man, clearly mentally ill, who in one particularly manic moment told me he was God. There were a couple of clever local tour guides who brought minibuses of retired couples on holidays for a massage, and French expatriate heroin addicts from Kuta trying to take the cure, and a couple from California looking to add spice to their love life with a “tantric massage experience”. It gets worse. A woman from America led a tour of gay men from San Francisco – some H.I.V. positive – who wanted to be treated. A film crew from Germany arrived and spent a week with Pogog, paying a great deal of money to document his work. And there I was, ringside, with my handicam.

All of this affected Pogog’s practice. I think he began to show preference to western or wealthy Indonesian patients over the local villagers. He talked a lot about a tour of America, which Jerry was trying to organize. I got the sense that Pogog’s family was feeling the pressure as well. There is a cultural stereotype of Balinese people as being prone to jealousy, and I got the sense that all the attention Pogog was getting was not going unnoticed by his economically struggling neighbors. Moreover, Pogog himself was changing. He talked more and more about money, and even derided patients whose sesari (an offering that included money) was insufficient.

I was conflicted myself. Would the documentary I was making open the floodgates further? Was my presence helping or hurting this man, who I had come to call a friend. Journalists can hide behind the facade of “objectivity”, but at a certain point a journalist can become a part of the story, and the excuse no longer holds. Having first come to Bali in 1984, I knew full well the effects of tourism and the West, which is intent on turning Bali into a theme park with no thought to the environmental, and spiritual cost.

I said good-bye Pogog and his family and wished them well. I had done what I set out to do, and hoped, not very optimistically, that I could edit the film in such a way as to do justice to Pogog and at least help spin the debate in a positive way. But I knew that the contradictions of the subject, and the complexity of Pogog as a “text” would make that difficult.

No doubt the debate on this man and on the issues surrounding traditional healers will be with us for some time. It hardly matters to Pak Pogog anymore. Pogog was stricken by a massive stroke in late 1997 that left his entire left side paralyzed. A CT scan revealed a complete non bleeding stroke, and the doctor who treated him doubts that Pogog will ever walk again.

Initially, some of Pogog’s Western friends rallied to his side. Jerry flew back to Indonesia and performed his own brand of energy healing on Pogog, without apparent result. Another westerner put some queries out on the internet hoping to raise money for Pogog’s physical therapy, with limited results. As the weeks and months past, and as Pogog showed limited signs of recovery and almost no personal initiative, visits by foreign guests became fewer and fewer. It has now been years since Pogog has heard from his student Jerry.

A good many people are relieved that Pogog is out of business. The image of an infection-licking, disease-sucking yogi is hardly one that appeals to the Balinese Tourist board. Some of Pogog’s enemies were actually pleased with the turn of events. I met an expatriate couple – part time residents of Bali since the 70′s – who considered Pogog to be a Leyak, or black magic practitioner. A woman with a history of depression whom they knew had visited Pogog at one point and weeks later committed suicide. They blamed Pogog for this. When I informed them that Pogog was now completely incapacitated, the response was “Serves him right”. They later went on to say that as a healer, Pogog was basically an overrated abortionist.

Jay Goodman doesn’t agree with that assessment. Jay is the H.I.V. positive patient that Pogog treated back in August of 1997. At that time, Jay’s long term companion had just died and Jay had just been diagnosed. Doctors informed him that his t-cell count was too low to put him on the then standard therapy of AZT. Jay avoided all traditional treatment and decided instead to take a vacation in Bali. He heard about Pogog and I witnessed and filmed his treatment.

Jay and I still talk on the phone and correspond by e-mail. He’s still
completely asymptomatic, and doing just fine. (Note: as of 2011, Jay is still in fine health.)

Pogog’s response to the stroke followed archetypal pattern of shock, denial, bargaining, and depression. Resignation/acceptance, the final stage, still remains elusive. With the medical world offering him no hope, he turned to traditional healers and dukuns himself. At various time he has said to me that the cause of the stroke was black magic sent by other jealous healers. Another theory was that he was cursed by his ancestors for renovating his home with his new wealth before rebuilding the family temple. He also said the problem stemmed from the fact that he left Bali to perform healings – he had a dream that told he lost his healing gift because he committed the error of putting foreigners ahead of his own local community. “That is why I am in this prison.” he told me.

Pogog after stroke

A stroke is probably a worse fate than death for a intensely physical man like Pogog. Caught in this prison, Pogog seems now to be in a negative feedback loop of fear, guilt, recrimination, blame and anger. His enemies bask in schedenfreud and his allies are incapable of changing or altering the situation. The irony of the situation is that Pogog needs someone like his old self. He needs to be taken out of this spiritual and psychological double bind before there is any chance of a healing to occur. It is ironic and even tragic that he cannot apply his own intuitive healing genius to himself. Who, now, will heal the healer?

(Postscript: Mangku Made Pogog died in 2007.)

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Bettina August 22, 2011 at 5:51 am

What a sad story. Thank you for sharing.

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Ciara O'Hara December 17, 2011 at 12:34 am

a sad story. Pogog’s humorous manner with patients reminds me of a wonderful healer on Bali called Mr. Cirkus…

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admin July 28, 2012 at 6:44 am

Sorry, I haven’t been to Bali in a while. I can’t help. Pogog died in 2007.
Yours
DMCG

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