(Kuku Yang Panjang)
Seven years ago when I came to Indonesia for the first time I saw many men with long fingernails. Usually it was the little finger and thumbnail that was long, and all their other nails were short. On rare occasions I saw men with all of their fingernails long.
From the westerner’s view point, men with long fingernails implies effeminacy. Since I was an outsider, I was sure that my opinion was based on my culture, so I withheld judgment until I could research the reason for these long fingernails.
I began my research into this phenomenon by asking westerners why Indonesian men had long fingernails. All westerners, without fail, replied that the men want to show others that they don’t belong to the lowly working class, so they grow their nails long to display their higher social status.
Several years later I moved to Indonesia and began studying the language. Still very inquisitive about the long nails, and being unsatisfied with the western response, I began to collect information directly from Indonesians about why men have long fingernails.
After asking many people this question, these are the responses I got:
- “Long fingernails are cool.”
- “Women are attracted to men with long fingernails.”
- “They are a hobby.”
- “There’s no reason for it.”
- “They are an instrument for opening envelopes, boxes, and turning pages.”
- “I don’t have long nails because they are filthy.”
- “I don’t have long nails because I’m not a woman.”
- “I have them because I use them as a pick to play my guitar.”
- “I don’t know why we do it.”
- “We clean our noses and ears with them.”
- “They are a symbol of manhood.”
- “In previous ages we believed they were jimat (amulet), a magic good luck charm that would give immunity to diseases and various sorts of dangers.”
The last reason on the above list was elaborated on by several different people. Below is what we were told, as well as what we discovered about magical thumbnails.
- For many hundreds of years Hinduism was the dominant religion in Indonesia, and it still carries tremendous influence in Indonesian culture. In one of the famous Hindu stories (Mahabarata) there is a character (Bima or Bhima) who had long thumbnails. These are the feats of Bima:
- He had the power equal to that of 10,000 elephants.
- He was able to overcome 6,000 solders by himself at the same time.
- One feature about Bima that was the most pronounced was the long thumbnail on his right hand. He used that nail as a weapon, and with it was able to defeat his enemy. By implication, that nail was magical.
There is herbal medicine (jamu) for men that’s commonly sold in Indonesia, and that traditional medicine is said to be made from sea horses and ginseng. The manufactures claim it will enhance a man’s sexual powers.
The westerner’s “status symbol” response to this fingernail question is too superficial. From the information we’ve compiled it’s easy to see that the cultural roots for growing long nails goes way back and there’s much more involved, even if the people who have long nails don’t know about the cultural roots for this practice.
Before we draw conclusions and form opinions about cultural differences, it would be a good practice to ask a wide variety of people many questions before opinions are formed about another culture.
The above picture of Bhima is that of a shadow puppet, which are used to tell the Mahabarata story (wayang). Indonesians love these performances. They last from 9:00 pm till 4:00 am. There is traditional music (gamelan) and a puppet master (dalang), who single handedly tells the stories with a wide assortment of these puppets. On the 6th of October, 2012 we attended one of these performances in Jambi. It was very culturally enlightening.
Below is an example of a Wayang Performance. It is usually in the Javanese language, so for a westerner to attend, they will need a translator if they are going to make sense out of the performance.