The birth of my daughter in Sydney four years ago brought much joy to my life. However, I was often overwhelmed by feelings of loneliness and exhaustion, as I was in unfamiliar surroundings and far away from my family in Singapore. A declining bank balance and a fuller laundry basket rendered it quite impossible to find the time to relax and pamper my fatigued body and soul.
During this bittersweet period, I often found myself remembering the days after my mother gave birth to my sister. When she was discharged from hospital my mother was visited by a bidan (midwife) every day for a month.
The arrival of this jovial little Malay woman wearing a traditional batik sarong and carrying a large woven basket full of traditional herbs never failed to intrigue me and enthuse my mother. I was six years old and fascinated by the sight and smell of the jamu (traditional Malay herbs) being rubbed onto my mother’s still-swollen belly, the extensive massage she received with aromatic oils, the very long cloth wrapped around her abdomen and the overpowering smell of the akar kayu (dried roots of medicinal plants) bubbling in the kitchen. At the end of every session my mother was a picture of serenity and contentment.
Let me divulge a secret that women in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and other parts of Asia have known for centuries: jamu massage and wrap therapy — a longstanding tradition that cares for the physical, emotional and social wellbeing of a woman after she gives birth. Combining daily home visits, massage with essential oils, a stomach reduction technique, herbal remedies, expert advice and female bonding all in one package, it’s definitely a treat worth sharing.
To understand the techniques and ingredients used in this therapy, it is necessary to know the philosophy behind it. The Malays believe that good blood circulation is fundamental to good health. The theory is that keeping the body warm will ensure better blood circulation, which will lead to faster healing after childbirth, less muscle aches and joint pains and easier subsequent deliveries.
History of jamu massage
The 13th century Venetian traveller Marco Polo once said of Java: “...from thence also is obtained the greatest part of the spices that are distributed throughout the world.” However, spices are just part of the vast array of flora that flourishes in the tropical soils of Indonesia and Malaysia. Malaysia alone has more than 200,000 species of flowering plants, of which 1230 have been found to be medicinal.
Jamu is a blend of herbs derived from the bark, roots, flowers and other parts of various medicinal plants. Used in massage, the ingredients in jamu range from the better known (for example, lemongrass, nutmeg and jasmine flower) to the more obscure.
Urut (massage) was a way of life for 16th century Indonesian royalty and the aristocracy and is a tradition maintained today by Indo-Malays for its therapeutic benefits. The technique of the Malay urut is derived from a fusion of Chinese, European and Indian influences during the spice trade of the 1500s.
Recipes of jamu originated in the 1500s in the palaces of central Java, where herbal remedies and massage were integrated as part of a holistic healthcare system. The benefits of jamu were virtually unknown outside the Indo-Malay community until about five years ago when the increasing influx of tourists to places like Bali gave rise to jamu massage being offered at many spas and resorts.
Before the modern healthcare system was established, antenatal care, labour and postnatal care of mother and baby were the responsibility of a bidan (midwife). The bidan’s skills were usually handed down from generation to generation through hands-on training.