Preliminary Investigation Into The Possible Origins of Agimat
Burmese Yantra Jacket, vegetable ink on cotton, date unknown, Collection: Herbert Johnson Museum. Photo: Author
In his memoirs, Benedict Anderson (1936-2015) recalls a story from Soemarsaid Moertono (1922-1987), his Indonesian fellow student in the mid-1960s who showed him drafts of his MA thesis on aspects of traditional Javanese Royal rule. In 1703, Amangkurat II of Mataram died without an heir. As the claimants and courtiers surrounded his deathbed, one of them, Prince Puger, noticed that the dead king’s penis was erect and at its tip there was a glowing drop of liquid. “He rushed to drink it up, and the penis subsided.”According to Moertono, the drinking of the liquid or its symbolic tale showed that the tédja, “or magic light of kingship,” had passed to the prince, who became Amangkurat III.
Such anecdotes illustrate the nature of power in Javanese society, where according to Anderson, there is no abstract concept of power as a relationship strictly between human beings. What the Javanese have instead is concept of “concrete” power, a kind of mana immanent in the cosmos, and detectable in magical objects, spirits and human beings (including their sexual organs). Power flowed through objects or vessels that were somehow enmeshed in divine equations that governed the universe. The idea of succession in the Sultanate of Mataram calls upon related stories of transfer of power from sultans to princes, and from parent to child common in Southeast Asian cultures.
In the Philippines, the beadlike drop that encapsulates both power and legitimacy can emanate from a banana blossom at midnight or the mouth of a dying forebear. These elaborate tales served to reaffirm the status of the heir and bring order to family and society, especially following the chaos of a patriarch’s death. In the following passages, we will examine three related vestments from Burma, Philippines, and Indonesia—all heirloom pieces—meant to imbue their wearer with immense, almost supernatural, powers in ways reminiscent of the Sultan’s tedja.
Pictographic animals appear in a maze of mandalas, ziggurats and charts in the Burmese Yantra vest in the collection of the Herbert Johnson Museum (fig. 1). Made of cotton and trimmed along the neckline with red silk, the vest is meant to be worn snugly under layers of garments. The drawings were done by a Yantra master or a Buddhist monk during a state of meditative purity. Such vests and jackets were only made on providential seasons and could take a year or even longer to finish. The drawings can be thought of as petitions that address specific needs of its intended wearer and the charts and the animal figures correspond to certain powers believed to help ward off illness, prevent nightmares, and provide protection.
The calligraphy in Burmese script (mranma akkha.ra,) which snake around the opening for the neck and arms are chants meant to energize and cleanse the body. On the front side, within the charts are numerical calculations which correspond to measurements in the bodies of spade-tailed pangolins (endemic to the region); whose scales represent ancient armors. There are four at the bottom on the front side next to kinnara figures typically seen on doorways in temples guarding the part where the wearer’s navel would be. Above these figures are two monks holding prayer beads, one gesturing symbols of Ganesha, for auspicious beginnings; and a parasol, for protection. Other enlightened figures—earth goddesses sitting in full lotus or standing monks are meant to represent moral discipline, and their hand gestures signal acquiescence to the greater order of the cosmos. They are housed within a roof or an arc of calligraphic texts. Within circles of equal measure where the collar bones would be are the peacock and the hare representing the sun and the moon. Conventional Yantra designs of the period feature eight smaller orbs; resembling congklak boards; representing major and minor compass points, assuring that blessing will travel in all directions.
Cotton fabrics and thread are commonly used in Buddhist and spirit ceremonies. Only village women of childbearing age spin and ply together raw cotton filaments; locally produced or imported from India. Made entirely by hand, they are slightly rough when freshly woven. The vivacity of the illustrations indicate that the cotton weave in the yantra jacket at the Johnson Museum is finely spun. While the fabric is now stained with an ochre patina, the black ink usually made from soot and animal bile has remarkably retained its legibility. Underdrawings in charcoal to sketch the designs can still be discerned. The sparse colors, some red and blue, were extracted from plants, insects and soil and painted on with a brush made of animal hairs. Indigo and cinnabar were the most popular sources for these colors. In some garments, the ink has seeped into the underside as a result of being sprayed with water or dampened by sweat. The blotting in the jacket thus dates it before the widespread practice of using commercial dyes.
A modern viewer might think of the charts as calendars. Indeed, the day of a person’s birth is indicated by a drawing of a planet, a life force number and an animal. The charts run on a system of eights, with the middle weekday (Wednesday) counted as two, divided at noon. There is a box of eight squares or nine squares with the middle one blank. Systems of divination are used to read the charts, by counting forwards and backwards, and matching animals to each time period. The animal at the starting point is compared to the animal at the stopping point and good or bad luck depends on their comparability. Other animals such as naga, garuda, tiger, cow, cat, mouse, elephant, monkey, guinea pig, goat and lion figure in other Yantra jackets. The physical and mental characteristics of animals can be transferred from drawings to the person wearing the garment. A tiger can make a person ferocious, fast and stealthy. A wild hog is fierce and fearless and its thick skin resists bullets, swords and spears.
This system of divining the Yantra charts has been abused to determine luck from finding a romantic partner to choosing a lottery ticket number but they are ideally used to determine how much tithes to give to a temple and how many offerings to present at a ceremony. The yantra charts favorable days for travel, holding an event, building a house or even a city. On vests, the yantras serve as a means of devotion and aid in meditation.
Circular diagrams on the cloth, usually between three and twelve, record the placement of buildings, their direction and when built. The cardinal directions are in cruciform shape. They contained invocations to Buddha and the guardian spirits and the names of monks who had blessed the building. The cloth is kept in the rafters for protection. Clothes can also be charged with protective powers by covering the face or body of a corpse at a funeral. Printed formulas are said to ward off bullets or stop guns from firing, or make the person invisible when magic words are chanted. The Dutch Archaeologist Dr. P.H. Pott likens the yantra in its most encompassing sense as providing a seat for one or more divine power. Yantras are replicas of the cosmos—macrocosm and microcosm—corresponding closely in every detail. In their configuration such yantras express the relation between the different powers and the study of them may convey the principles underlying the system of the pantheon they refer to. Illumined by tradition and understood through mythology, power passed on through generations by keeping track of a cosmic order veiled in medieval sacred equations which cannot be understood by languages of the modern nation-state.
Soemarsid Moertono’s tale of the glowing drop of liquid finds a parallel in the tale of the Kyai Antakusama. According to one Javanese tradition, the magical patchwork jacket of goat skin called Antakusama, miraculously fell down from heaven through the roof of the Great Mosque of Demak. The story of the jacket is in summary, an allegory of the triumph of Islamic conversion in Java. It begins when an epidemic that broke out in the South Coast region caused by Kanjeng Nyai Ratu Kidul, the legendary Queen of the Southern Sea in Sundanese and Javanese mythology. The pagebluk (plague) was caused by the crime of Nyai Ratu Kidul who took people’s souls. Seeing this, Sunan Kalijaga tried to fight the plague but he was defeated. Thereafter, Sunan Kalijaga (1460-1513) received instructions on how to defeat Kanjeng Nyai Ratu Kidul by completely reading or re-writing the Quran. Several other Wali Songo members witnessed Sunan finishing the Quran in the Demak Mosque and according to these witnesses, after performing the morning prayers in congregation, the Wali Songo found goat skins on Kamis Legi malam Jum’at Pahing. The goat skin was then made into a vest and tattooed by one of the Wali Songo, Sunan Bonang (1465-1525). But after finishing this vest, Sunan Bonang found it narrow for his own body. Other Wali Songo guardians tried to fit into the vest but none of them qualified. Later when the defeated Sunan Kalijaga tried to wear it, the vest fit him perfectly. While wearing this vest, Sunan Kalijaga became stronger and noted how he was able to wield extraordinary power from a certain “light” that the vest contained.
Fig. 2. Indonesia, Java, Yogyakarta, silk coat, worn by the sultan Z.H. Hamengku Buwono VI (1855-1877) and Z.H. Hamengku Buwono VII (1877-1921), Stichting Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen Netherlands.
That light (pulung) should figure prominently in the Amangkurat III ascension to the throne of Mataram and in the origins of the Kyai Antakusama worn by Sultans of Yogyakarta is no accident. The metaphor of light as an energy in the cosmos stored in talismanic objects and passed on to generations can be understood under the terms of Javanese mask theater and dance tradition called Wayang Topeng:when an actor puts on a mask, he gives up his own identity and embodies the character of the mask, usually a mythical being such as a demon or a god. In canonical Hindu and Buddhist texts, light is an important metaphor for awakening or the understanding of truth. The emission of light by Buddhas and bodhisattvas (enlightened beings) is often described, and light is included in Buddha names, such as Amitābha or the Buddha of Infinite Light. Such beliefs and traditions have apparently survived in modified form through the Islamization of Java. They could also be older than the arrival of Hinduism and Buddhism in Southeast Asia and scholars have argued that they have evolved from shamanistic burial and initiation rites not unlike the one described by Anderson and Moertono.
In the Philippines, a similar living tradition exists. The ritual and its objects are called by the encompassing term “agimat” related to the Malay-Arabic word “azimat” (from السمت meaning the way) which means the goods or writings that are considered to have supernatural and protective powers. It can also mean the antidote to the disease caused by a spell. There is a plausibility that the Filipino term agimat conflates “azimat” with “agama”, another Malay word of Indic origin meaning teaching traditions or dogma; systems that regulate the practice of faith. Another term often used interchangeably with agimat is “anting,” (Malay for earrings) but this term usually refers to the portable amulets or chasubles within the magical system of the agimat.
Fig 3. The Agimat Vest ca. 1890 worn by members of Philippine revolutionary forces in 1896.
Previous studies have focused on the connections of metal smithing and jewelry in the Philippines to the greater Indic civilizations in Southeast Asia and they provide useful methods in approaching the remnants of a precolonial material culture in the Philippines. The study of the agimat and the anting, form an important subset of these areas of scholarship but are less studied because they are made of economically less-valued materials such as brass and semi-precious stones. A dedicated book length study on the Islamic Kyai Antakusama, Folk Christian agimat vests, and Buddhist yantra jackets are rare if not non-existent. The paucity of research on academic interventions on this object is inversely related to the wealth of mystic text by occultist groups circulated in markets or outside places of worship, and the world wide web. The use of agimat, while prevalent among the folk, are officially forbidden by the Roman Catholic Church which supplanted these traditions with its own system of sacred objects and symbols such as the scapular, the rosary, and various relics. While a syncretic reading of the agimat emphasizes the Roman Catholic images and Latin inscriptions, there is a prevailing perception that its origins are pagan and even anti-Christian, because ultimate power rests in a tradition more ancient.
Leonardo Manecio, alias Nardong Putik, ca. 1950
Historian Vicente Rafael links the anting-anting to notions of societal resistance to injustices unpunished—or perpetrated—by “predatory agents of capital and the state” and also criminality in the archipelago. Bandits and gangsters clad in their anting-anting appear as authentic local heroes of the poor and downtrodden. Their success in evading state or colonial authority is attributed to their Robin Hood-like popularity, to their intrinsic powers and charisma, to the ‘weakness’ of the state, and most importantly to their agimat as manifested in the ownership of magical amulets.
Leonardo Manecio, alias Nardong Putik, whose exploits in the mid-1950s and late 1960s had, through banner headline newspaper stories and an earlier film, received more popular attention than any other outlaw figure in Philippine history. Following Manecio’s death at the hands of National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) agents in October 1971 after an extensive manhunt, photographs of his bloodied and bullet-riddled corpse had graced the front pages of Manila dailies, and the promoters of the film took full advantage of the advance publicity. Newspaper advertisements promised that “AMULETS (ANTING-ANTING), GUNS, NEWSPAPER CLIPPINGS, DEATH PHOTOS and FATAL CAR H-81-31-CAVITE ’71 used by NARDONG PUTIK (Courtesy of NBI) will be distributed in different theaters and can be viewed by the public. Photographs of Manecio alias Putik taken in the late 1950s reveal a strikingly handsome young man, who never fails to elicit admiration from Filipinas of all ages. In addition, some such photographs show Manecio’s bare torso to be covered with numerous tattoos, including large letters spelling out KILABOT (The Terror) across his lower abdomen. Moreover, besides these magically endowed tattoos, Manecio supposedly possessed a stone amulet—shaped like a turtle entwined with a serpent—as well as a number charms which were believed to render him virtually invulnerable to harm.
During the late 19th century, Filipino revolutionaries revived the practice of wearing the agimat vest as they went into battles during the Philippine Revolution of 1896. The many examples currently in diffused private collections testify to the fact that these were quite common among the rebel armies drawn from the peasant class, especially among the millenarian cultists that threw their lot with the Revolution against Spain (1896-1898) and later on, the war against the United States (1899-1913). Even revolutionary officers who adopted Western style of uniform and were typically Europeanized in manner and comportment also wore agimat as undershirts. An agimat vest worn by a Filipino revolutionary contains folk-catholic prayers in a Filipino peasant’s butchered Latin, and instructional diagrams on when or where the shirt would work. Shirts and amulets like these were meant to confer various blessings upon the wearers, like increased endurance and speed, invulnerability, and luck in the battlefield, but only after specific rituals were done to “activate” the shirt, such as fasting, certain prayers, or having it blessed at a certain saint’s feast day. The prevalence of this practice across class lines of the revolutionary army points to a deeper rationality of pre-colonial practices.
As mentioned earlier, the Philippine Agimat and Anting-anting are tied linguistically to Malay and Indic origins. The practice is part of a wider Southeast Asian tradition of gantung tribal jewelry and in Javanese hanging ornaments, originating in the polytheistic mythology that such supernatural ornaments were worn by the gods in their earlobes, where according to anthropologist F. Landa Jocano, it is allegedly most potent. The practice of wearing anting-anting might have originated from the practice of inserting larger and heavier earrings in children’s earlobes which according to Susan Rodgers served a practical purpose of displaying a major part of the family wealth and thereby asserting social status.
Fig. 4. This vest with all its religious figures and Latin phrases belonged to Macario Sakay. Photo and text courtesy of Philippine American War website by Arnaldo Dumindin
In the agimat worn by Macario Sakay (fig. 4), the last revolutionary leader to surrender to American forces, the all-seeing eye of god in a triangle typical is ordinarily thought to symbolize the Christian trinity but the same figure in the Burmese Yantra jacket found in mainland southeast asia (fig. 1) is a symbol of Buddha himself who is often referred to as “the eye of the world”. Earlier versions of this figure attribute the eye to Lord Shiva, who has an all-seeing third eye in his forehead that watches over everything that happens in the world. The central figure of the agimat is a caduceus, which is commonly thought to be the winged staff with two serpents twined around it, carried by Hermes, messenger of the Gods, as a symbol of peace. Romans believed serpents discovered the secret of eternal life, interpreting shedding of skin as a return to youth. But serpents, called Bakunawas, have figured prominently in folktales which originate before the 16th century. The plausible Hindu origin of serpentine cults in the Philippines explain why revolutionaries who were anti-friar and anti-Catholic embraced this symbol as a protection against Spanish bullets. A number of amateurs have likened the agimat to amulets that flourished in the Middle Ages, especially during the Renaissance but those largely disappeared after the Age of Enlightenment and unlikely to have influenced martial traditions in the Philippines.
The agimat parallels the yantra in its instrumentality, whose power rests not in the occult but in a medieval scientific language of geometry and astronomy. If people believed that wearing the agimat vest can magically deflect bullets it is because the agimat was believed to be a weapon of wisdom, whose purpose is not specifically to evade bullets but to deliver the wearer from evil or harm. That the agimat and the yantra contain equations and sacred geometry is often lost on the modern viewer. Our brief analysis of the Hindu-Buddhist Yantra Jacket, the folk Christian Agimat, and Islamic Kyai Antakusama stands against theoretical trivializations as it conveys a certain rationality of power that someone like Benedict Anderson would argue is even more concrete than Machiavellian ideas of charisma. The jackets and vest in their respective cultures prove the proximity between our present lives to marginalized knowledge from colonized peoples and their rituals. The seeming strangeness of the Agimat invokes not other worlds and impossible visions but of familiar but forgotten branches of knowledge.
South Asian scholar Madhu Khanna traces the Sanskrit word “yantra” to the root “yam”, meaning to sustain, hold or support the energy inherent in a particular element, object or concept. The term “yantra” may refer to any kind of mechanical contrivance which is harnessed to aid an enterprise. According to Khanna, Maharaja Jai Singh’s (1686-1734) observatories built in Delhi and Jaipur are called yantar-mantar. Their massive structures are astronomical yantras for recording heavenly phenomena.
Art historical approaches tend to make sense of the talismanic aesthetic colors and shapes to diminish the great strangeness or “castrate their power” of seemingly bizarre images which tease out both fear and desire from Western spectators. In the case of the Agimat, the texts hide the real thing, the great experience of standing before the inexplicable other, which is visible to the believer and the wearer, but remains incomprehensible to others. Possession of the agimat challenges the owner to face his alterity and otherness and like the Yantra and Kyai Antakusama, they reveal as much about the extinct visual worlds as microbiology would in the study of pathogens.
Instead of power and invincibility, the Agimat displays the ability of man to imagine his own limit and his death. Images of the Agimat speak of talismans and their mantras. Further scholarship on these objects should serve to reveal the connections that have once bound an archipelago where cosmic order began with instruments of meditation inked on cotton and silk, and tattooed on the minds of the faithful.
 “Frameworks of Comparison: Benedict Anderson reflects on his intellectual formation”, London Review of Books, Vol 38, No 2, 21 January 2016. See, Moedjianto. 1987. Konsep Kekuasaan Jawa: Penerapannya oleh Raja-raja Mataram. Yogyakarta: Kanisius. Published eventually as State and Statecraft in Old Java.
 “Do amulets, charms and ‘anting-anting’ work?”. Inquirer Lifestyle. 17 February 2014. Retrieved 19 July 2021.
 Madhu Khanna, Yantra The Tantric Symbol Of Cosmic Unity, Thames and Hudson, 1994 (1981 original)
 Unfortunately for this present essay, I cannot interpret all the text and the charts specifically without some facility for Burmese.
 “Cinnabar, vermilion, and minium: beautiful but deadly” in Finlay, Victoria. The Brilliant History of Color in Art. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2014.
 P. H. Pott. Yoga and Yantra: Their Interrelation and Their Significance for Indian Archaeology. Germany: M. Nijhoff, 1966, p. 99.
 Chawdhri, L. R.. Secrets of Yantra, Mantra and Tantra. India: Sterling Publishers, 1992.p. 180
 Ruth Barnes and Mary Hunt Kahlenberg, eds., Five Centuries of Indonesian Textiles: The Mary
Hunt Kahlenberg Collection (Munich: Delmonico Books, Prestel Publishing), 124, illustrate the
earliest surviving tambalan batik cloth, which is radiocarbon-dated to the seventeenth century. James
Bennett and Rusty Kelty, eds., illustrate an 18th-century Indian trade-textile version of the design:
2015, Treasure Ships: Art in the Age of Spices (Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia), 224.
 Enshtk, J. (1967). P. H. Pott: Yoga and yantra: Their interrelation and their significance for Indian archaeology. Translated from the Dutch by Rodney Needham. (Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde. Translation Series, 8.) xv, 167 pp., 15 plates. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1966. Guilders 25. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 30(3), 708-709. doi:10.1017/S0041977X00132355
 Anderson, Benedict R. O’G.. “The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture” In Culture and Politics in Indonesia, 1-70. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019. https://doi.org/10.7591/9781501743900-006
 Muljana, Prof. Dr. Slamet (2005). Runtuhnya Kerajaan Hindu-Jawa Dan Timbulnya Negara-Negara Islam Di Nusantara. Yogyakarta: LKiS. pp. 86–101 qtd. In James Bennet,MAKING ART IN EARLY MODERN JAVA (16th-19th c.): A new reading https://digital.library.adelaide.edu.au/dspace/bitstream/2440/133630/1/Bennett2021_PhD.pdf
 The story is translated by the author from an article by SM Said, “Karomah Pusaka Sunan Kalijaga, Rompi Ontokusumo dan Keris Kiai Carubuk” published in Sindonews, August 7, 2020.
 I have yet to translate this phrase but I infer that this must be the Friday nights in November considered sacred in the Javanese Calendar.
 Routledge Handbook of Asian Theatre. United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis, 2016. P. XII, 166-168 qtd. In “Topeng – masked drama from Java” Theatre, IBDP Student Blogs, February 10, 2016, Oxford Study Courses.
 Steven Kossak, Lerner, Martin. The Lotus Transcendent: Indian and Southeast Asian Art from the Samuel Eilenberg Collection. United States: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1991. p. 161, 218-224.
 Agus Trihartono, “Shaman and Politics in Indonesia,” Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 12 (September 2012). The Living and the Dead. See also,
Vatikiotis, Michael. Farewell to the Smiling General Reflections on Soeharto. Global Asia, Vol. 3, no. 1, Spring 2008
 KBBI Daring, s.v. “azimat”. “Yang dianggap mempunyai kesaktian dan dapat melindungi pemiliknya, digunakan sebagai penangkal penyakit dan sebagainya”
 KBBI Daring, s.v. “ajaran”.sistem yang mengatur tata keimanan (kepercayaan) dan peribadatan kepada Tuhan Yang Mahakuasa serta tata kaidah yang berhubungan dengan pergaulan manusia dan manusia serta manusia dan lingkungannya: — Islam; — Kristen; — Buddha
Susan Rodgers, Power and Gold; Jewelry from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines (Barbier-Müller Museum: Geneva), 1985.
 Rafael, Vicente L.. Figures of Criminality in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Colonial Vietnam. Germany: Cornell University Press, 2018. P. 89-93, 70-71.
 “social bandits” in the sense popularized by Eric Hobsbawm. See John Sidel, “Walking in the Shadow of the Big Man: Justiniano Montano and Failed Dynasty Building in Cavite, 1935-1972,” in An Anarchy of Families: State and family in the Philippines, ed. Alfred W. McCoy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Center for Southeast Asian Studies, 1993), pp. 140-142.
 Paid advertisement, Manila Times, July 13,1972, p. 23.
 Vicente Rafael, op cit., p. 71.
 Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc., “Anting-Anting and the Revolution in the Visayas,” October 3, 2020, Esquire
https://www.esquiremag.ph/culture/anting-anting-and-the-revolution-in-the-visayas-adv-con-pr See, Ileto Reynaldo Clemeña. 1979. Pasyon and Revolution: Popular Movements in the Philippines 1840-1910. Quezon City Metro Manila: Ateneo de Manila University Press.
McKenna, Thomas M. Muslim Rulers and Rebels: Everyday Politics and Armed Separatism in the Southern Philippines. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998, p. 192 , 326 n17, 337. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft0199n64c/
 F. Landa Jocano, Filipino Prehistory: Rediscovering Precolonial Heritage (Metro Manila: Punlad Research House, 2000), p. 37 qtd in Asian Studies. Philippines: Philippine Center for Advanced Studies, University of the Philippines System, 1975 originally published in 1955. Agimat may be further classified into different types based on their purported sorcerous powers, they include: Kabal (or kunat)— agimat that supposedly make the skin invulnerable to cuts and sword slashes.Pamako – agimat or orasyon (magical prayer) that supposedly nail down entities to keep them from movingTagabulag—agimat that supposedly turns the wearer invisible against their enemy or blind them Tagaliwas – agimat that can supposedly deflect bullets
Ibid., p. 116
 A standard part of Christian iconography both in Catholic and Protestant churches for centuries. It was particularly popular during the Baroque period. During which times ‘secret’ societies like the Freemasons were invented and came into vogue and also adopted it but then as the “eye of providence”.
 Alfred McCoy (1982). “Baylan : Animist Religion and Philippine Peasant Ideology”. Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society. 10 (3): 141–194. See also Vogel, Jean Philippe. Indian Serpent-lore: Or, The Nāgas in Hindu Legend and Art. India: Prithivi Prakashan, 1972.
 Khanna, Madhu. Yantra: The Tantric Symbol of Cosmic Unity. United Kingdom: Thames and Hudson, 1979. P. 11
 cf. Freedberg David. 1991. The Power of Images : Studies in the History and Theory of Response Paperback ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.