Mentawai Jungle Medicine

Since ancient times the knowledge about medical plants on Mentawai is passed on from generation to generation. In the process of our film project “Mentawai – Souls of the Forest” Aman LauLau showed us a selection of medical plants he uses as Sikerei (healer, shaman). Later, I found a study from university of Padang on  traditional medicine of Mentawai, which helped me to identify some of these plants ( watch the film here  or in Bahasa version here). Recently, also the indigenous Foundation Suku Mentawai published a book on ethnobotanical herbs


Botanical name: Justicia gandrusa L. (family Acanthaceae)

bark, roots, leafs are used.

stomach problems, short of breath, headache. This medicine is also used to call back a wandering soul.

Highly potential medical plant,  known also  in India for centuries, research on its various potential use is still in process. According to Wikipedia, it is said to be useful in asthma, rheumatism and colics of children. Scientiest say, it may have the potential to be the basis for a birth control pill for men. Clinical tests are being conducted in Indonesia. (Wiki).

Bakgli Bakgli

Botanical name Costus speciosus Sm. (family Zingiberaceae)

The flowers are used to make a powder, put on the forhead and face, it helps against headache. 


The sikerei shamans of Mentawai know about the benefits of this ancient old medical plant, which also has many historical uses in Ayurveda, where the rhizome has been used to treat fever, rash, asthma, bronchitis, and intestinal worms. More from Wiki:” It is mentioned in the Kama Sutra as an ingredient in a cosmetic to be used on the eyelashes to increase sexual attractiveness. It is used to treat kidney problems and other urinary problems in Mizo Traditional Medicine. It was used as a traditional medicine by Malays when evil spirits have possessed a body,  as well as for the treatment of high fever, smallpox and as a purgative.



botanical name: Alpinia malaccensis (Burm.f.) Roxb. (family Zingiberaceae)

roots and leafs used on Mentawai in mixtures with other herbs,  e.g. against stomach problems

According to research it has benefits as antioxidant (see research here)


botanical name: Grewia sp. (family Tiliaceae)

antibacterial effects

Aman Lau Lau (who pronounced the name of the plant more like “shivagalakai”) mentioned the use in case of stomach problems, university of Padang notes a traditional use on Mentawai against teeth pain. Wikipedia mentions its traditional use of some species of Grewia Sp. for upset stomachs, skin and intestinal infections (mild antibiotic properties).  


Botanical name Curcuma longa L. (family Zingiberaceae)

Kaikainau is  an important spiritual plant on Mentawai, growing on the islands with exceptional beautiful flowers, used also by Sikerei shamans (attached to his headband).

The flower is used to bring back a wandering soul (considered a major cause of discomfort and illness).

According to Pandang university it is traditionally used against cough and is a kind of Tumeric ginger plant.


Botanical name Aglounema (family Aracaeae)

Aman Lau Lau mentions, the ripe, orange-red berries have healing power and tasted one with joy.

University of Padang mentions a use against rheumatic pain on Mentawai.

According to Wikipedia, most Aglaonema plants “are poisonous due to calcium oxalate crystals. If ingested they cause irritation of the mucous membranes, and the juice can cause skin irritation and painful rash”. The ripe berry of the plants on Mentawai might be not poisonous, but be careful not to use it by your own without guidance.



Botanical name Cordyline fruticose (family Agavaceae)

To stop bleeding (hemostasis?), against headache, stomach pain 

“During healing rituals of the Mentawai people, the life-giving spirit are enticed with songs and offerings to enter ti stems which are then reconciled with the sick person” (wiki)



Spelling not confirmed so far, pronounciation sounds like Sigitehu or Sigiterehu.

Most likely it’s the medical plant Sibetu mentioned by University of Padang among its list of Mentawai traditional jungle medicine,  since the plant belongs obviously to the same botanical family of Melastomataceae. For Sibetu botanical name is Melastoma malabrathricum Avct non L. (family Melastomaceae). According to the university it is used traditionally for heart problems (obat sakit jantung).



Fern, young shoots that are just beginning to unroll. Against cough, beneficial for the respiratory tract. Spelling not confirmed yet, here according to pronounciation of the audio recording.



used against cough



against rheumatic pain, joints, itching


Buru Cagu

Spelling not confirmed yet, here according to pronounciation of the audio recording.

Used against diarrhea



Balak Kokei

Spelling not confirmed yet, here according to pronounciation of the audio recording.

The leafs are used for ritual dances of the sikurei.

The juice helps against belly pain “on left side” my guide translated.The top tip of new leafs growing is used to make juice according to translation of my guide Levi

below: Sikerei preparing costume with Balak Kokei leafs for ritual dancing 


Below: Aman Boroi Ogok dancing while holding leafs of Balak Kokei (symbolizing a bird in dance), also wearing  leafs as back tail of the bird.



Attributs of this medical plant (as far as I understood) are healing power, purity, calming, vital and revitalizing energy, sensibility (insight), and protective power.

It seems to be an important spiritual plant and is a symbol of the shaman, symbol for healing. One leaf of the size of a palm is often attached to the headband of a sikerei.

Below: Aman Boroi Ogok wearing a Sikobu leaf attached to his headband

The leafs are cut in small pieces and mixed with water in a bamboo  (boiled like a tea or cold?)

One of it healing powers seems to refer to the abdomen, the belly, its used for (pregnant) women. My translator described, the medicine helps the mother with the baby in her womb so she “can feel it”. It’s a fascinating plant we should learn more about.

While many other cultures imagine emotions and soul  seated in the heart, in Mentawai it’s the belly. Concerning this, there is an astonishing variety of beliefs in different cultures. In ancient Greece the soul was located more in the lungs (breath), Bahasa Indonesia uses the word hati (liver) and old Japan knew a gender specific difference (women – heart, man -belly).

Let’s embrace the rich heritage of mankind and protect our powerful and inspiring traditional cultures. The Sikerei shamans of Mentawai still have the ancient knowledge about herbs and jungle medicine and much more than that, a deep spiritual connection to nature.


Sikeri Aman LauLau, Mentawai, Guide Levi Mentawai (thanks a lot!)



Biologi FMIPA Universitas Negeri Padang


How effective  is gtraditional medicine?

by Suku Mentawai foundation


Medicinal Plants Knowledge and Traditional Healing Practices of Mentawai Indigenous People in Indonesia: An Ethnomedicine Approach

Indian Journal of Forensic Medicine & Toxicology, July-September 2021, Vol. 15, No. 34191Suharmiati Suharmiati1, Zulfa Auliyati Agustina2, Diyan Effendi11Researcher, National Institute of Health Research and Development, Ministry of Health of Indonesia, Jl. Percetakan Negara No. 29 Jakarta, Indonesia, 2Researcher, Functional Unit of Health Technology Innovation, Ministry of Health of Indonesia, Jl. Indrapura No. 17 Surabaya, Indonesia

Other sources see also links in the article.

Thanks for help to correct spelling, improve descriptions and identify more plants.

All photos by Joo Peter

Joo Peter, April 2020