It’s in our blood: As any Singaporean, Malaysian or Indonesian woman can attest, the Malay healing arts of bengkung, jamu and mandi bunga are equal parts medicine as they are magic, even on the deepest of self-care levels. The ancient practice of bengkung draws directly from Malay and Indonesian healing and is used to support a mother’s recovery after childbirth. Even in Singapore, it is still widely believed that the body is “opened” after birth, and the bengkung which incorporates metres of fabric knotted by hand, helps to “hold”, support the uterus and abdominals, and while offering spiritual closure as a woman heals.
In ‘Medicine Women’, we explore these high vibrational local practices that draw from ancient roots where mind, body and spirit are treated as one. Hearing from the healers themselves, our local Southeast Asian healers share their modern, life-affirming mantras and generational wisdom with us.
Chantel Kismet, trauma-informed doula and somatic practitioner on the art of bengkung
“I come from an ancestral lineage of healers and medicine women on my mother’s side,” shares the doula of mixed heritage, Indian on her mother’s side, Chinese on her father’s and with deep roots that extend to Indonesia.
“Being able to connect intuitively to women has always been a part of who I am and this has shaped my role as a birth worker. I weave traditional Indonesian and Chinese practices into my care such as jamu wrapping, belly herbs, pressure point massages, stone massages, using turmeric and vaginal steaming. I believe these methods are very nourishing for women and it embraces the relationship between the different elements of nature and life force (also known as qi).
“Bengkung is an ancient art of belly wrapping with origins in Malaysia and Indonesia, used to support a mother’s healing and recovery after childbirth. There are also other forms of belly binding across other parts of Asia, Latin America and Europe. This technique incorporates using a long strip of fabric about 15 to 20 metres long and is worn for about 10 to 12 hours. It provides postural support to the spine, back and organs, reduces water retention, supports abdominal muscles and diastasis recti recovery, and aids in the healing of the uterus. Using the bengkung is not about “bouncing back” but gifting yourself time to rest and recover.
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“I appreciate how Malay and Indonesian healing modalities embody the mind, body and spirit. It looks at nature as a source of life and nourishment. The use of herbs possesses restorative qualities that can aid with healing. There is an element of ancestry and community that trickles down from generation to generation, such as family recipes, that’s very nurturing.”
Entrepreneur Dana Safia on the Malay art of jamu and lulur
“My grandmother used to produce traditional remedies for us and her clients back when I was a child. During those days, I had little interest until I realised how important it is to balance modern and traditional medicines,” explains Dana Safia, founder of Jamu by Dana Safia and Tresna Rejuvenating Lulur which respectively use recipes that have been passed through her family for generations.
Jamu is potent plant medicine at its most raw and vibrant, with roots, flowers, spices and bark mixed and blended into a herbal tonic or paste to fortify and maintain one’s immunity. Jamu paste used together with massage can help reduce swelling, and water retention, remove “wind”, supports the discharge of lochia and aids with womb recovery.
“The official Malay term for healer is bomoh akar kayu (akar kayu means “roots” in Malay) or one who believes that nature is the source of life and is imbued with restorative qualities.”
“These immune boosting tonics containing kayu rapet and manjakani are also believed to maintain the womb and general health of a woman. Other common ingredients include antioxidant-rich and anti-inflammatory “turmeric, kencur (aromatic ginger root), lemongrass and honey which improve blood circulation, boost immunity, improve digestion and keep the body “warm”.
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“The foundation of our recipes come from our ancestors, the recipes consist of natural plants and herbs, no chemical or preservatives added to our products hence the short shelf-life for our jamu range.”
Lulur, a natural self-care body scrub, was once a body treatment reserved for royalty and brides who would partake in the beautifying ritual every day for 40 days before their big day. While it’s now common to enjoy the lulur body ritual at day spas across Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, Safia’s lulur recipe makes it possible to self-care from home.
Suraya Sam, co-creator of House of Ascend and plant medicine practitioner on the Mandi Bunga ritual, an energetic flower bath
Got bad vibes or wishing you could wash your rotten luck away? There’s a bath for that. Beyond being a relaxing botanical bath, mandi bunga is an important cleansing ritual practiced throughout Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand where it is believed to ward off bad luck while protecting a person’s aura.
“When I was a little girl, my grandmother would go to the flower market every Thursday to carefully select with a particular purpose in mind several types of flowers, banana leaves and kaffir limes for my grandfather’s weekly prayers or lunar ceremonies,” recalls Suraya Sam. “My grandparents believed that Thursday is the day of Jupiter, the planet of positivity and expansion, making it the perfect time to learn new things and expand your awareness. I remembered them saying Thursday’s are best devoted for spiritual practice, a time to look into the layers of Being for attunement.
“My grandfather would recite surahs to raise the vibration of the hand picked flowers which are soaked in a bowl of water for purification. Then, he’d transfer some of the flowers and water into a smaller bowl for me to perform a ritual shower. My grandmother would guide me to lather the petals and kaffir lime from my head to my toes whilst reciting some surahs as I continued to perform the ritual. Once cleansed, I had to collect all of the petals and wrap them in banana leaves to release the petals back into the sea.”
“My mother said that mandi bunga is very effective in raising one’s bio-energetic field. The combination of vibrational healing water, colour and scent of flowers has been found to reduce stress hormones, increase comfort and relaxation which can help in dealing with emotional and mental problems.”
“I’m in awe that my ancestors used awareness and intuition to create a sacred ritual for the body and soul. They worked with Mother Nature rather than working against her. I have deep reverence for inheriting this sacred practice. I am reminded by their guidance that I am a walking ritual, every breath I take is a ceremony of life.”
Mandi bunga draws from the Hindu-Buddist belief of “a ‘spirit’ that resides in every living being including plants, animals, and even the written and spoken word.” To try this at home, set your intentions as you bathe in 7 types of fresh, blooming flowers and kaffir lime which is used to dispel stuck energy: Canangrium scortechinii or orchid, Mimusops elengi or eucalyptus, Agave amica or tuberose, ylang ylang, magnolia, jasmine and rose.
Photography, creative production and set design: Studio Oooze
Beauty direction: Alli Sim
Hair and make-up: Karol Soh
Nails: Ann Lim
Stylist: Joey Tan
Photography assistants: Belynda Wong and Muhammad Alif Noor Hazemi
Beauty assistant: Verity Cheng
Model: Sherinn/Misc. Management
Special thanks to Chantel Kismet of Blooming Births Doulas