by Hari Balasubramanian
I was in the city of Jogjakarta (also spelled as Yogyakarta) in May 2015. It was a short stay: I was primarily visiting Hong Kong, but then had to exit Hong Kong to re-enter because my visa-free stay had expired. Nearby countries would have served the purpose, but I chose Indonesia — six hours south by flight and across the equator — because I'd always been drawn to its size and diversity: thousands of islands in a tremendous sprawl (if the northwestern-most part of Indonesia started in Alaska, the archipelago would stretch all the way to Virginia); 240 million people, 87% of them Muslim, speaking 400 odd languages (even greater linguistic diversity than India); an unlikely national experiment that began in 1940s after centuries of Dutch colonial rule and a short but painful three years of Japanese occupation.
There was no way to capture even a fraction of that complexity in four days, but I wanted to start somewhere. Jakarta, the sprawling capital where I stayed the first night, was too daunting; but Jogjakarta, an hour's flight from the capital and which holds a unique place in Javanese culture, seemed more manageable. Here are some informal impressions: nothing very detailed, just a first take.
The island of Java, studded with volcanoes throughout its length, is one of the most densely populated parts of the world, home to 145 million people. Jogjakarta lies in the central part of Java, but closer to the southern coast.
The ride from the airport to the hotel was through a bustling thoroughfare, packed with people, shops and malls on either side. So many motorbikes and two-wheelers wove their way around cars that the traffic approached the chaos of Indian roads. Perhaps it was because I had arrived the time of the Waisak holiday – the holiday that commemorated the birth of the Buddha. In a few days, the President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, was scheduled to visit Borobudur, the famous 9th century Buddhist temple near Jogja.
That's the kind of place Java is: Islam is the formal faith and widespread, but the Hindu-Buddhist past remains a part of Javanese identity and is celebrated in so many ways. The other major draw in Jogja is the Hindu Prambanan temple, roughly contemporaneous to Borobodur. The Indian influence actually stretches even further back: Sanskrit inscriptions date to the 5th century. Thanks to the seasonal winds which promoted maritime trade, the Indonesian islands have been linked, directly or indirectly to China and India and the Middle East for over two millennia. Just to give one example: in the 11th century – when Buddhism and Hinduism were still strong and Islam still hadn't taken hold – cotton that was produced in Gujarat (west India) was shipped to both Egypt and Indonesia. In an effort to be responsive to their markets, the Gujrati producers adjusted the color and pattern of the cloth to suit different preferences: “Green patterns sold well in Egypt. Animal patterns were sent to Southeast Asia, but not to Islamic Egypt.”
The major shift towards Islam seems to have happened between the 13th and 16th centuries. This shift was not, as in so many other places, a result of conquering armies, but more gradual and bits and pieces affair, the work of a few Sufi mystics who arrived from various parts of Asia. Further, the Islam that came to Java did not erase past beliefs, but blended with them to create a composite faith that borrowed from different strands – something that still persists today.
Although it was interesting to learn about Java's Hindu-Buddhist past, I wasn't very enthusiastic about visiting Borobodur and Prambanan. I had seen such archaeological sites in other parts of the world – Teotihuacan in Mexico, Machhu Picchu in Peru, Hampi in Karnataka, India – and was somewhat exhausted by the emphasis on past grandeur that only peripherally affected modern realities. But I had few other ideas, so I went in the hope of seeing something of the city, and how Javanese visitors related to the historical sites.
I took the city bus to Prambanan. The bus took a circuitous route, touching the parts of Jogja where the big universities were. Certainly there was much that reminded me of India that day: the hot day; a higher than average density of people; informal vendor stalls everywhere on the side of the roads; tricycle-taxis pedaled by drivers for short rides; coconut trees; Sanskrit names on storefronts. And then there was Prambanan itself, a Hindu temple at the end of the journey.
Prambanan's exterior was impressive. Its towers were slightly thinner compared to Indian temples, and all along the circumference of each tower were smaller conical structures pointing upward, which lent the entire complex a certain dynamism when viewed from far. But the interior of the temple, the beautiful reliefs on the walls, the deities that were worshiped – Ganesha, Shiva – felt pretty close to the forms I had known in India.
Indeed, it felt somewhat strange to encounter the religious tradition I had been born into so far away from home but also reaching so far back in time. Large groups of Javanese school children had come that day, as part of school tours perhaps, to get a glimpse of their island's past. They tramped up and down the steep, black stone steps of towers. What did they make of this place, I wondered. Did it fit into the modern narrative only as a relic of history, beautiful to look at but with no real influence? In India, it's a fair bet a place like Prambanan – like the 800-year old Brihadeeshwara temple in Thanjavur – would still be active as a place of worship. I know that my devout father would immediately begin his prayers if he came anywhere close to Prambanan!
Hinduism appears to have persisted in Java not through its temples – Prambanan in the 19th century was in ruins and had to be reconstructed – but its major epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Javanese have made these epics and their central characters their own, weaving them into their most famous art form, the wayang, the shadow puppet theater, which has been popular for many centuries, and still is. A wayang can start in the evening and continue all night, into the morning. The dalang, the puppeteer – the good ones are high in demand these days and well paid – adapts the characters drawn from Hindu epics.
Growing up in India in the 1980s, I learned all the details of the Ramayana and Mahabharata through serials shown on national television on Sunday morning, and through illustrated picture books. Thousands of miles away, a Javanese Muslim growing up at the same time might have have learned about the epics staying up all night and attending a wayang communally with many others. The names differ slightly in Java – Ravana, the demon king of Lanka, is Rahwana; Lanka is Alengka; Sita, the wife of Rama, is Sinta. What you learned depended on how the dalang presented the story. In 1979, VS Naipaul, while visiting a village near Jogja, noted this about a wayang:
“The good puppet-master, whatever his interpretation of the story, political, mystical, leaves the issues open. Everyone watching responds according to his character and circumstances…Because every character trails his own ancestry and dilemmas, even the wicked Rahwana, even the beautiful Sinta. Everyone is engaged in his own search, and at his appearance in the story is in a crisis; so that, as in the profoundest drama or fiction, every encounter is charged with meaning. The epics are endless. The puppet plays bear any number of repetitions, because the more the audience knows the more it understands; and interpretations of motive, of what is right and wrong or expedient, will constantly change.” [From Among the Believers.]
Wayangs are so popular that even the Islamist Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (the Prosperity and Justice Party, or PKS) which captured a small percent of the Indonesian electorate in 2009 and which held its national convention in Jogja in 2011 – the writer Pankaj Mishra attended the convention – even this Saudi-funded radical group, which might have rejected stories from other faiths, couldn't resist sponsoring for its delegates a wayang based on the Hindu epic Mahabharata!
There was something else going on in Prambanan that day. Near a grassy patch on the outer periphery of the temple, a woman was singing a slow, haunting kind of song while others played modern stringed instruments and a drum. In front of the stage where the singer was seated, a group of boys, dressed presumably in old Javanese style, were dancing and enacting something. I thought maybe this was a rehearsal of the Ramayana ballets that were held on Thursday evenings at Prambanan.
After a while, I wasn't so sure. The boys seemed to be in some kind of trance. There was an older man who kept running from one boy to another, seeming to stabilize them, monitoring their progress closely. In one case, a boy was sprawled on the ground, and the old man forcibly opened the boy's mouth and removed something that the boy was chewing. Some kind of intoxicant. I learned later that whatever the boys were chewing was meant to promote the trance, and that the man who was running around checking on the boys was a kind of shaman, ensuring that nothing in this initiation got out of control. The woman whose melodious song I had found mesmerizing – I yearned for that song and voice for many days – was meant to keep the boys in their hypnotic state.
So what I thought was a performance, meant to entertain, was at least in part a ritual initiation ceremony, something related to Java's animist past, in which the boys enthusiastically participated for their own benefit. They cared little about the audience. But there was an audience, perhaps just as fascinated as I was, and it included women in headscarves. Suddenly the visit to Prambanan, which I had been lukewarm about, had turned interesting. For here were all those strands of Javanese faiths: a glimpse of its animist past on a holiday that commemorated the Buddha's birth, at this reconstructed Hindu temple where Ramayana ballets were held regularly – all of this explored and watched intently by visitors who were predominantly Muslim.
It is this syncretic or composite faith that Java is known for, and which has been threatened by the more radical versions of Islam that have taken root (though not to the same extent as elsewhere). In his essay After Suharto, Pankaj Mishra, who has traveled to Indonesia many times, writes about the “creeping Islamisation”: attacks on churches, on members of the minority sects, nightclubs and bars. Elizabeth Pisani who has lived and traveled extensively in the archipelago, points out in her book, Indonesia Etc., that while the syncretic tradition still remains strong,
“Islam in Indonesia has homogenized into something more orthodox than it was since Suharto came to power. Saudi Arabia has been underwriting schools and mosques in Indonesia that teach Islam off a Middle Eastern template. The classic mosques of central Sumatra and Java, with their modest three tiered roofs in terracotta tiles that echo the shape of Indonesia's volcanoes and blend into the villages, are increasingly giving way to variations of the Middle Eastern style — domed, minarets, ostentatious.”
In my short visit, I sensed this trend on two occasions. The first was in Jakarta, where I shared a ride to the airport with three or four other men, who were likely from the Middle-East. They were all dressed in white and wore white skull caps. They were rehearsing something in Arabic – verses from the Koran perhaps. When one of them forgot a verse or was off track, another would step in to correct. The men were taking a flight to Solo, 60 kilometers away from Jogjakarta. Were they preachers who had come to teach in a mosque or Islamic school in Solo? But the ride was short and I did not have the time to ask.
The second occasion was a slow-moving motorcycle rally in Jogja, in which the grim-looking bikers, about twenty of them, were covered in shawls or robes of some kind and carried flags with Arabic lettering. The Arabic stood out because most signs in Jogja are in Bahasa, the lingua franca of Indonesia.
In Jogja though, going by its reputation, you are more likely to run into someone steeped in mysticism rather than a hardline Islamic worldview. This is what happened on the fourth and last day of my visit, when I met Raul.
Raul (not his real name) was the guide who took me to Borobodur. He was about thirty, dark-complexioned and with a square face. He was mostly Javanese, he said, but had a little bit of Chinese ancestry and perhaps a little European too. From the outset, it was clear that he was polite and sincere, and someone who did not impose too much. Perhaps it was the Javanese preference for courtesy and manners. Raul himself said that social interactions in Java had the quality of a ‘drama', an act.
Within minutes of heading out, he starting describing landmarks. Tugu circle, the intersection where my hotel was, is an important monument, he said. It is actually a lingam. The Sultan's palace (the kraton: a kind of nerve center of civic and religious life in Jogja), the Tugu monument and Gunung Merapi (the still active volcano: image from Wikipedia), are in one straight line, Raul explained, and this assisted the Sultan when he sat down to meditate in his palace. Here again that delightful mix of different strands: lingam, a phallic symbol in Hinduism, adapted here in Java and linked to a sacred natural landmark.
This was Raul the guide, I thought, simply stating facts for the tourist in a detached way. But that impression wasn't entirely right. Javanese mysticism wasn't just something he explained to tourists. He'd experienced strange things himself. He once saw a green light – not an actual light, but a light from a different realm, an aura that's not visible to everyone – descending into someone's home. Puzzled, he had gone to the the Sultan's palace, to check with spiritual advisers there. They were at first surprised that Raul could detect such auras. What color was it, they asked. The green one, it turned out, was something unpleasant that could possess an individual.
“Such auras are not unusual in Java”, he said. “Once I too was possessed by a spirit. It happened when I was driving back home on my motorbike. It was a woman's spirit, and it troubled me for a while. I went again to the Kraton. They asked me not to worry too much about it and to recite the right prayers at the mosque. You know, prayers, the way they are said create certain vibrations which can help. After some time, I was cured. These things happen in Java.”
Raul understood that I might be surprised at such claims. But he was unworried what I might think. He stated everything in a matter-of-fact way. He did not linger on these things and I did not delve further.
The presence of the spiritual advisers, people who had understood Raul's experiences and guided him, suggested a shared culture of mysticism. I later found more evidence of this in Naipaul's Islam-themed travel books, Among the Believers and Beyond Belief. In 1979 and again in 1997, Naipaul had met a successful Catholic poet, Linus, who lived in a village near Jogja. Linus was one of many Indonesians whose stories Naipaul described in detail. In 1997, Linus, much like Raul, had talked of his mystic experiences. In Linus' case, Siddhartha — the Buddha himself — came in his dreams, to reveal spiritual insights. But it wasn't a direct revelation and it wasn't just Linus. His friends were involved too. The message that the Buddha gave was typed onto the palm of Linus' friend. Yet another friend, a woman, was the only person who could interpret these messages by looking at the friend's palm. So there had been this group of friends that had met now and then, for many years: individual dreams and visions were collectively shared.
Just as interesting was how Raul's mysticism intersected with the modern world. Raul mentioned how he had seen videos or a research paper online about an experiment that tested the impact of positive words and thoughts. Plants that had been exposed to positive words had developed symmetric and healthy patterns; plants exposed to abusive words had become distorted. Raul also believed that the act of naming something was important. By naming something you determined its destiny. He gave the example of an Indonesian airline that had, true its mythically inspired name, eventually gone out of business.
Raul had been born in a city about three hours by drive from Jogjakarta. He'd studied tourism at the local university but did not finish. Later, he worked for two years at a cruise ship. He had visited coastal cities in the United States. But the work had been detrimental to his wellbeing. He had a life-threatening health crisis, a paralysis due to a genetic condition, but one that he believed was triggered by an unhealthy lifestyle, eating American-style food at the cruise-ship. He had survived that narrowly. This work as a guide in Jogja was a slow a return to normalcy.
His views now were shaped by that crisis. He was against genetically modified foods. He cited scientific studies he had read on the internet to back his claims. He was against the excessive use of refined sugar. He was concerned about how much plastic was disposed and how it was polluting rivers. The group that he now worked with not only organized tours, but was also involved in addressing such ecological concerns. Outside the entrance to the Borobodur temple – which was abuzz with preparations for President's Jokowi's visit the next day – Raul expressed unease upon seeing caged birds sold by vendors, dozens of small sparrow-like, bright-colored birds, all confined to cages and jostling for space.
Politically, Raul had a left-leaning stance. He was against the landowners who with the help of politicians had deliberately purchased land around the Borobodur and Prambanan temples, calling them amusement parks and thereby inflating the entrance fees (the $30 fee might seem okay by American standards, but a good lunch in Jogja costs less than a dollar or two – that's how cheap things are in Indonesia). Raul spoke fondly of the current President, Joko Widodo, who had been elected in 2014. Jokowi, as he is popularly known, was different because he wasn't from the political or military elite, but from a modest family in the neighboring city of Solo. When it came to Islam, Raul was clear that Sharia law or extremist interpretations had no place in Jogja.
Meanwhile, the temple at Borobodur, striking though it was – overlooking mountain ranges and fertile green valleys – passed by in a blur. I remember Raul explaining the Buddhist themes of the temple carefully – moving from the realm of desires at the lower level to the top, where nirvana or enlightenment awaited – but my real interest had always been in conversing with and getting to know, even if only for a few hours, someone with a Javanese worldview.
So the grand Borobodur took a backseat that day, and Raul himself was front and center. I wished I could have talked more with him, but we were running out of time. After lunch at a roadside stall in the nearby village, where we had the cabbage-tofu dish, the kupat tahu, we headed back to Jogja. It was a hearty meal, sweet and spicy like many Indonesian dishes. Raul took a nap during the drive back. The next day I flew back to Jakarta.