The word massage comes from the Greek word massein, to knead, and the Arabic mass, to press gently. In Indonesia, massage has been around for centuries, as evidenced in the famous stone reliefs of Borobudor, the 8th-9th century Buddhist temple in Central Java, where there are carvings depicting massage. Massage has been an intrinsic part of Indonesian culture for centuries, instilling inner and outer health and beauty. 

Traditional Indonesian healing techniques have been greatly influenced by both Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. How did these approaches to healing end up in Indonesia? The Hindu religion arrived here about 400 A.D. with Hindu priests who introduced Ayuvedic medicine, which uses scented oils for massage as well as medicines made from plants. Later, traveling Buddhist monks brought knowledge of Chinese medicine. During the Majapahit Kingdom in central Java, king Hayamwuruk married a beautiful Chinese woman. Through her influence, the healing arts of acupuncture and reflexology were introduced. Massage techniques also came from the influence of traders from Arabia, China and India, who sailed throughout the islands for the spice trade.                                                                                                                                     Although most of the larger islands have their own special type of massage, the most advanced knowledge of healing techniques is found in Java and Bali where it evolved directly from the traditions of the Majapahit kingdom. During the Majapahit era many beauty treatments were developed by the queens and princesses in the kratons (royal courts). It was during this period that massage evolved for the sake of relaxation and beauty as well as healing.

The Majapahit Kingdom was destroyed about 1450 A.D. after the arrival of Islam, causing many Hindus to flee to Bali, bringing their healing knowledge. This is why there are so many similarities between Java and Bali in massage and healing techniques. The Indonesians observed and selected from these different techniques from India and China and developed their own styles, which have been handed down from generation to generation. Elements of pressure point massage, acupressure and reflexology can be clearly discerned in most Indonesian massages. In more recent times, some Indonesians have studied massage abroad and brought back other massage techniques to combine with their traditional styles.

Massage in Indonesia is thought to help the body eliminate disease, regain its balance, and ensure continued good health. There are two traditional types of massage in Indonesia: pijit and urut. The Indonesian word for massage is pijit, while the Javanese word is urut.

Pijit is the most common type of massage and is used mainly for relaxing and toning. It generally works only on the muscles, using medium to strong kneading and a repetitive squeezing movement of the flesh between the fingers and palm of the hand. Urut is more specialized and is normally used to treat bone fractures and muscular injuries. Urut can be quite painful at times, as it penetrates much deeper, working not only on the muscles, but also the nerve paths. Its main purpose is to heal and encourage good blood circulation. Urut uses some of the same movements used in pijit but the pressure is stronger and requires additional skills. The urut practitioner, known as tukang pijit urut, must have a much greater knowledge of anatomy, including bone structure, nerve pathways and pressure points to heal effectively. Fingers, thumbs, palms, knuckles and body weight are all used to restore muscle tone, heal broken bones and remove toxins. Urut massage is very precise and technical, but to endure the discomfort of a treatment is usually beneficial, as the feeling of well-being is quickly restored after a treatment.

In many villages there is also another type of massage practitioner, usually an older woman, who specializes in women’s problems; helping women become pregnant if they’re having difficulty conceiving, helping them prevent pregnancy and restoring the womb to its proper position after giving birth. These women still play an important role in the small villages of Indonesia today, especially in helping a new mother to restore her former shape, looks and health in a very short period of time. Many modern Western women have aches and pains after giving birth because their uterus has dropped down (prolapsed) and has not been lifted back into place. Also, women who engage in sports activities such as tennis or running often develop a prolapsed uterus and need to have it lifted back into place by a skilled massage therapist.

Over the years, with the increase in tourism, the beach massage business has grown all over Bali, geared towards a recreational market of visitors. It is cheap and quick; however, the focus is on quantity rather than quality and it generally isn’t a treatment for a particular problem. Another downside is the lack of hygiene with towels and blankets being used for several customers and the women have no where to wash their hands after eating or massage. For someone who has never experienced a quality massage, the beach massage may be sufficient, but anyone who has greater expectations will need to search elsewhere.


 Many tourists who come to Bali see the multitude of massage women on the beaches and think this is real Balinese massage, but this is not the case. Because all of the healing techniques originally came from the Majapahit Kingdom there is a great deal of confusion over the differences between Balinese and Javanese massage. My quest was to find out what these differences were. I found it extremely difficult to find a “real Balinese” massage, which I could differentiate from Javanese techniques. I traveled around Bali in search of unique techniques, which more than one person shared.  I even went to the original Balinese village of Tenganan, outside of Candi Dasa, hoping that I would find an original Balinese massage there. After arriving, I was surprised to discover that the small village has no massage, only a balian and a man who studied acupuncture in India offering their services for healing. Otherwise the people go to a dukun in Besakih for healing.

Unlike in Java, traditionally Balinese massage is usually performed by a man, primarily for healing purposes and is usually a stronger massage going straight to the problem. The massage generally uses strong deep pressure into the muscles. After trying out many massages throughout Bali, I finally discovered a man named Santika from northern Bali, who uses some unique techniques that were similar to some other Balinese men. Working together, we were able to develop a “Balinese Massage” standard.

Some techniques commonly found in Balinese massage are skin rolling, which is grasping the skin between the fingers and thumbs and rolling the skin while moving the hands, using the fingers to pull up on the muscles quickly and release and cupping the hands whilst drumming them over the back of the legs and back. The Balinese love to “crack” the neck, fingers and toes; the louder the sound, the more pleased they are. One very unique Balinese technique was inspired by the Kecak dance, of sliding the elbow along the side of the spine whilst shaking the hand thus vibrating the back. It looks scary but is actually quite pleasant to experience. Although there are thousands of variations of Javanese massage, many of them follow a similar sequence and use many of the same techniques as used in Bali.


If you happen to see an Indonesian, whose skin is marked with multiple red welts, your immediate reaction might be that they have been whipped. This is not the case. The person has asked someone to repeatedly drag a coin across their skin to alleviate a cold, flu or “masuk angin” (bad wind), which can manifest in a variety of different symptoms such as weakness, tiredness, or stiff or aching muscles, generally attributed to poor circulation. People living in small villages still commonly practice this technique, called kerokan, which is actually painless if done correctly.The technique can be used on the back, neck, shoulders, buttocks and                 stomach.


With the booming spa business in Bali and Java this past decade, Indonesian massage has changed very much. Foreign spa consultants have taught local therapists new massage techniques to add to their skills. Although the names of massages on the spa menus vary from Traditional to Indonesian, Javanese or Balinese, there is much confusion about the differences. Often, the massage differs considerably from its supposed heritage because Swedish or Shiatsu techniques have been added to the “Indonesian” techniques. Many of the therapists working in the spas do not come from families with a history of massage and healing. Instead, they simply follow the routine they have been taught to perform. With this growing trend, soon the only real Javanese and Balinese massage  will be found in the small villages. However, the basic characteristics of the Indonesian massage will certainly still remain in the massages found in the spas. Meanwhile, as some Indonesian therapists  go abroad to work in spas and Balinese massage courses are offered in other places like Hong Kong, Indonesian massage may slowly find it’s fame growing worldwide.


Copyright 2010 Shari

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