Amanda Siddharta – Wili Lo spent all afternoon in the backstage area of a music festival in Bogor, a satellite city just outside the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, last Saturday.
A picture of concentration, he recited an incantation as he held both his hands in the air. He then knelt down, slowly moving his hands, before bringing them together while looking up at the sky. Lo then proceeded to walk in a circle, anticlockwise.
It rained briefly that afternoon, something Lo was not too happy about. He stuck with his ritual for some time, having asked not to be disturbed. About 15 minutes later the rain stopped and the sun shone, coaxing the audience back to the front of the stage to see their favourite musicians perform.
Lo is a pawang hujan, or "rain master". In Indonesia, these rain men are often hired by organisers of outdoor events for their perceived ability to prevent rainfall from ruining the day.
"Performing the ritual is very tiring for me," says 72-year-old Lo. He focuses his inner energy while reciting the incantation to direct rain clouds to another part of the sky, he explains. "So it's not entirely stopping the rain," he adds.
Lo says he is a devout Buddhist and uses mantras from Buddhist holy books to ensure clear skies. His incantations are from the tai bei zhou (or "great compassion mantra") and are recited in Pali, the ancient language of Theravada Buddhism that today is only used as a liturgical language.
Lo will sometimes bring fruit or other foods as offerings to the spirits to help make the ritual a success. But he admits that the practise of rain mastery is not in line with Buddhist teachings. Its origins lie in Kejawen, a Javanese religious tradition. "I use traditions not only from Buddhism, but also Hinduism and Javanese," he explains.
Lo started working as a rain master 17 years ago. He previously worked at a gambling parlour in a red light district that was shut down in a campaign by the former governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as Ahok.
Lo says he realised that he had the ability to control the rain when an event organiser of his acquaintance asked him to be the rain master at a concert. "And I also wanted to quit my job at the gambling place. I decided I didn't want to continue making money from people who are gambling," he says.
Since then, Lo has been hired to work at a number of big events, including concerts for international artists and weddings, in Jakarta and surrounding cities. The number of assignments increases during the rainy season, but Lo says he still gets hired during the dry season just to guard against any unexpected shower.
He charges between two million and three million Indonesian rupiah (US$150 and US$220). Lo prepares himself by meditating and reciting his incantation the night before the event he will attend.
He admits there have been a few times when he has failed at the task and his pay would be cut. "We are dealing with nature. It is not easy and sometimes all I can do is perform my ritual. The rest is in the hands of the god above," he says.
Although rain mastery is part and parcel of Indonesian tradition, Hary Tirto Djatmiko, the head of information dissemination of climate and air quality at the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency, says there is no scientific study proving the rain masters' abilities.
"We can't dispute their existence, but we need to do research on their methodology," he was quoted saying by local media outlet Liputan6.
The only weather modification method that has proven scientifically viable is cloud-seeding technology, which can produce rainfall or snow. In theory it is possible to move a rain cloud using this method, but Hary says that in practice it is difficult to do.
Yet although there is no scientific proof of its efficacy, wedding organisers such as Hari Prasetyo often uses the services of rain masters for his clients' big day. "At almost all events we will use their services. Especially for outdoor events, but sometimes also for indoor weddings. We want to prevent rain in the area because sometimes people don't want to walk in the rain from the car park to the venue," he says.
Hari takes along one or two pawang hujan when he attends the nuptials he has planned, but if the event is outside Jakarta he will usually ask for a recommendation for a local rain master. He cautions, however, that he has to be wary of charlatans posing as the real deal. "There are of course people like that. If they have a lot of requirements and ask to be paid upfront, then usually they're not real pawang hujan," he says.
For Deany Jaghdour, the rain master proved to be worth hiring for her outdoor wedding on the Indonesian resort island of Bali back in March 2018. "I hired a pawang hujan for my wedding. It was raining in the days leading up to the event," she says. On her wedding day, the weather suddenly changed – it was hot and there was not a cloud in sight.
"We paid 2.5 million [Indonesian rupiah]. Amazing result. It was worth the money," she says.