Debus is a performance aimed at demonstrating proof of invulnerability (‘kekebalan’). In this context, ‘kekebalan’ means that a person is invulnerable (‘kebal’) if he suffers no injuries when he stabs himself or is being stabbed by another during the performance.
The art of Debus originally developed during the reign of Sultan Ageng Tirtajasa (1651-1682) of Banten for the purpose of boosting the morale of the Banten soldiers fighting against the VOC (Dutch East India Company). However, the practice of invulnerability is still very much alive among the local population in the rural areas of the Indonesian archipelago today. This ancient practice is rooted in a belief in supernatural powers, which may materialize in the form of an amulet or talisman. These sacred objects are thus believed to offer divine protection to the wearer. Moreover, the faith in such objects is being strengthened by the observance of taboos, which often include fasting (‘puasa’). Similarly, in this particular context, the phenomenon of debus thus implies a shared belief in invulnerability.
A debus performance group is lead by a seh (‘syekh’) debus, who is at the same time a seh tarekat, i.e. the leader of the mystical fraternity in the village. A seh debus leads a modest life of simplicity, hence he can not be distinguished from the other villagers, because generally he does not possess greater material wealth than they might have. Thus the seh debus’ way of life differs very little from that of the rest of the population, though with the only important difference that the seh debus generally adhere more strictly to their observance of spiritual and religious (Islamic) practice, such as performance of the ritual prayers. This illustrates how the principal socio-religious values are shared with their environment in the predominantly Islamic regions of West Java.
Usually the debus performance will be performed after the sunset prayer, the ‘salat al-maghrib’ (about 7 p.m.). Though sometimes the seh will allow his group to perform in the day-time if necessary. During the few days preceding the performance the seh will observe a number of taboos, such as total abstention from sexual intercourse, and fasting from dawn to sunset.
The debus group opens a performance opens with the recitation of the fatiha, the first sura of the Koran. Next the seh invokes the magical protection of the prophet Muhammed, Seh Mochtar Palembang, Seh Halil Atjeh, and of ’Abd al-Kadir Djilani. After this the group recites passages from the Wawacan Seh (also called ‘Hikayat Seh’), the legend of ’Abd al-Kadir Djilani. The chanting of these passages continues throughout the entire performance, and is accompanied with the rhythmic music of three large tambourines, three drums, two smaller drums (‘talinggit’), and one rattle (‘kecrek’). Then the seh prepares some coconut oil, drinking water, incense and kembodja flowers (plumiera acuminata) in front of him. He will then proceed to the empowerment of the various tool which will be used in the performance. The seh does this whilst he is reciting verses from the Koran. Next he blows onto the tips of the debus, anoints them with coconut oil, and presses each point against his chest, while twisting it rapidly. Then the seh bends over the heads of his students and chants a mantra for protection which he transfers to them by blowing onto their hair. The seh chants several other mantras, among them one which is blown onto a bowl of water. The debus performers will drink from this consecrated water before they proceed to the actual performance.
Thus, it becomes how important the charismatic personality of the seh is in the debus performance. Moreover, according to some seh, ‘debus’ also means “to believe in God”; a spiritual process which must take place consciously. Therefore the debus must also be received consciously. If the performers forget themselves (‘sedang fana’) and fail to maintain their mindfulness, naturally injuries will occur. But if the performers have genuine faith in God, they will receive the divine protection which they deem necessary for the debus performance.
Reference: Vredenbregt, J. (1973): ‘Dabus in West Java’. In: Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 129, no.: 2/3, Leiden, 302-320.