A female rider crank the throttles draws attention of spectators. (Photo courtesy of Hype!Media)

Commentary: Princess of the Devil's Barrel


JUNE 13, 2017

The roar of two-stroke engines is deafening; riders crank the throttles on customized bikes to draw spectators into the viewing galleries above the vertical velodrome. As the vibrant sounds of the night carnival are all but drowned out by the noise from the motorbikes, smoke pours from their exhaust pipes, sending a dramatic haze over the enclosed arena.

This carnival attraction goes by different names depending on where it is performed, but in Indonesia it is known as Tong Setan, or the Devil's Barrel. It is a familiar sight at carnivals and night markets across the archipelago. It is dangerous, high-adrenaline entertainment for the masses. Performers and spectators alike are from the working class. The attraction is constantly on the move, its riders likewise itinerant, shifting across provinces according to the schedules of carnivals.

What sets apart this velodrome from the many others across the country is that one of the riders, 18-year-old Karmila Purba, a charismatic young woman from North Sumatra, is dominating an unlikely profession. Karmila sits on an old bike with a modified engine performing final checks on the brakes before the attraction begins. The bike's bright green paint job decorated with Hello Kitty stickers makes it almost a foreign sight as its rider and the venue quickly fills up with curious spectators.

Eighteen-year-old Karmila Purba dominates an unlikely profession. (Photo courtesy of Hype!Media)


Karmila and the other riders begin to circle, slowly at first but picking up speed as they start to ride up the walls of the 5-meter-tall drum. The faster the riders speed, the higher up the walls they climb until finally they ride along the very rim of the drum, parallel to the ground and mere centimeters away from spectators' heads.

Spectators dangle rupiah notes into the barrel, daring the riders to snatch the money from their hands, others throw money into the barrel in appreciation of the death-defying stunts the riders perform. As the riders come together to ride side-by-side with hands linked, onlookers jam their fingers into their ears to drown out the tremendous roar of the bikes that is amplified by the enclosed barrel. The riders perform various stunts, lying down on their bikes, going hands-free and even putting their legs over the handlebars, all while traveling at high speeds parallel to the ground.

After the riders have slowed to a halt and the attraction finished, spectators begin to pile out of the viewing galleries. Karmila and her partner are left to count their tips and relax before their next performance. They can perform up to 10 times every night.

It is a dangerous lifestyle that has seen riders lose their lives but for Karmila the risks are something that has become part of her life.

"I don't think about the risks when I start to ride, I feel relaxed," she says.

Riders often fall, especially when they are starting out, anything from a punctured tire to crowd interference can send them crashing down and their unprotected bodies make them vulnerable to devastating injuries. Riders do note wear helmets inside the Devil's Barrel, as it is widely agreed that this can throw them off balance and block their peripheral vision.

Karmila's story is one of hardship and courage. Having dropped out at the beginning of senior high school because of her family's economic difficulties, she now supports them, sending half of her Rp 4 million ($300) salary to her parents every month.

It is a dangerous lifestyle that has seen riders lose their lives but for Karmila the risks are something that has become part of her life. (Photo courtesy of Hype!Media)


The life of an iterant carnival performer is not easy; always on the move and separated from family for long periods. Karmila says in the past, people verbally abused her for her profession and a common, dangerous trick by spectators is to dangle money in front of riders as they circle the drum, only to snatch it away at the last moment.

First catching the attention of netizens on social media and then local media outlets, the spotlight has begun to grow on Karmila, who has now been dubbed "Princess of Tong Setan." As attention grows, Karmila stays humble, keeping her dreams grounded on continuing to improve her game and to one day go international and entertain crowds on foreign shores with her death-defying stunts.

Karmila continues to inspire young girls across the country by breaking down gender stereotypes about what are "suitable" professions for women. Since she started performing two years ago, other female riders have slowly begun to appear. She is championing a powerful message for young Indonesia women that females can do everything males can do.

Jack Britton is a writer and volunteer with Komnas Perempuan in Jakarta. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Komnas Perempuan or the Jakarta Globe.

For inquiries, contact: jackbritton@live.com.au or jackbritton@support.komnasperempuan.go.id