Investigating a mysterious Hindu community in Java
Originally published in the Jakarta Globe, 29/02/12
The temple seems to float, high above Java. The distant sweep of the plain lies beneath a veil of lavender haze, and to the west the smooth peak of Merapi rises into a fiery evening sky. This is Candi Cetho, a 15th-century relic from the dying days of the Majapahit Empire, perched on a pine-studded promontory on the northwest flanks of Gunung Lawu.
But I am not here to explore the mute stones of a lost era. I have heard stories that the village which clings to the slopes below Candi Cetho is itself a relic – an ancient Hindu community that has somehow survived in Muslim Java. The stories are true, it seems: at a homestay near the temple gates the young woman in charge, Yuni, confirms – she herself is a Hindu, as are virtually all of the people in the hamlet.
Dusk is falling as I slip out of the temple through a side gate. The sweet scent of incense is emerging from a little warung in a grove of pine trees, and three men in black headscarves are hunched over a pile of strange objects – ceremonial daggers, chunky gemstones, and tiger claws. They call me to join them. Two are visitors from Jakarta; the third man lives here at the temple. His name is Mbah Porol, and he is an expert in mystic matters.
He confirms that the people of the village are Hindu, and says that they always have been, since the time of Majapahit. According to the old stories, Mbah Porol says, the last absolute ruler of Majapahit, Brawijaya V, fled to Gunung Lawu when his kingdom fell to the nascent Muslim state of Demak. Here amongst the mists and pines Brawijaya built temples and meditation places, and steeped the peak with an aura of intense mysticism which endures to this day.
“When it comes to sacredness, all the other mountains in Indonesia are defeated by Lawu,” Mbah Porol says; “We know this from the unwritten history”.
It turns out there is something unusual about Mbah Porol – though he has lived here for 20 years and is an expert in the mystic religious traditions of Java known as Kejawen, he is neither Javanese, nor Hindu: “I am originally from Padang,” he says, “and I am a Muslim, but I follow the adat, the customs, here”.
In the watery sunlight of the morning I wander the temple grounds. The upper terraces were rather brutally restored in the 1970s, but the lower levels still show the original weathered grey andesite. This was one of the very last Hindu temples to be built in Java, around 1470, and it is easy to detect the traces of an ending epoch in the fertility symbols and lewd ogres. Refined Indian-inspired classicism seems to have been giving way to earthier local traditions here.
All this leaves me puzzled. Everyone I ask claims that the people here have been Hindu since the days of Majapahit, but I’m unconvinced. Brahman priests from Bali sometimes visit, and the local regency government has installed a new statue of the goddess Saraswati, but there seems to be little regular Hindu practice here. There are small offerings at the foot of the statues, but traditional Javanese Muslims leave these at many temples elsewhere. And what is more, “Hindu” is a modern designation; the faith that dominated pre-Islam Java was known locally as “Buda”.
Down in the village a hubbub of voices is rising from a family compound. It is a preliminary ceremony for a wedding, and the bridegroom-to-be, a young man called Joko, calls me in. Joko, wearing a Chelsea football shirt, claims that the people here have always been Hindu.
“But we are Javanese Hindus; we’re different from Balinese Hindus. They are pure Hindus, following India, but here it’s still mixed with Javanese traditions. Our adat is Kejawen,” he says, though he’s keen to point out that religious affiliation is not important: “It’s like Candi Cetho itself – there are many different paths, but they all end up at the temple.”
I am ushered inside to a bare room where the village elders are sitting cross-legged. I cannot understand their dense Javanese, but it is clear that they are not discussing trivial matters. The conversation is like a roll-call of Javanese history and legend, exalted names ringing around the room: Brawijaya, Majapahit, Raden Patah, Semar, Kanjeng Ratu Kidul, Senopati, Sultan Agung…
Eventually, in a smoky lull, I interrupt. Why I want to know, has this community remained Hindu when those lower down the mountain converted to Islam?
A man named Supatno tells me that the villagers here have an old connection to the legacy of Brawijaya, and so remained Hindu.
Something still rings false; I try a different tack: in East Java, I say, there are a few villages where people were nominally Muslim until the 1960s, but then converted to Hinduism, regarding it as a better fit with their Kejawen customs. Was it not the same case here?
There is a pause, and then, finally, a rumble of assent. It’s true, they say, that half a century ago, most of the people here were indeed “identity card Muslims”, Muslims in name only.
“Muslims who didn’t know how to pray,” one old man says with a grin. A chorus of throaty chuckles circuits the room.
“But Hindu customs were always stronger here,” Supatno says.
Another old man in a threadbare black cap leans forward: “It started in 1965, people started to return to Hinduism…”
Finally I have the truth. 1965 was a watershed year in Indonesia, the point when vigorous anti-communist sentiment became the official watchword, and as a consequence the demand for full commitment to an officially sanctioned faith became intense. Given their old heritage, the people here seem to have chosen Hinduism over the Islam to which they already, nominally, belonged.
A few kilometers below Candi Cetho, in a shady crook of the hillside, I come across another place of Hindu worship. It is a modern Bali-style temple called Pura Kalisodo.
An old man with cropped grey hair wanders across. His name is Surowiyono. He is a Hindu himself, he tells me, but Muslims are the majority in these lower communities. The temple was built 15 years ago. Behind it, beneath a stand of tall bamboo, is a small hut smelling of stale incense. This, Surowiyono says, is a sacred place of a much older date.
“Actually the temple is for the Hindu congregation, and the hut is for Muslims and Christians,” he says, telling me that Gatot Subroto, a senior military figure in Indonesia’s independence struggle, came here to pray for success in 1945.
Of course, properly orthodox Muslims and Christians should not be meditating in mountain bamboo groves, but long before the modern temple was built this seems to have been a place of spiritual significance for all local Javanese.
Further down the mountain I come to another modern temple on a high hilltop. The place is deserted, and the midday prayer call is rising from the mosques in the villages below. The temple has a strange air of half-heartedness, as if people have lost interest. Incense braziers lie broken, and rotten ceremonial umbrellas are dumped – thoroughly unceremoniously – in a corner. In a bookcase under a pink pavilion orthodox Hindu texts have been untidily stacked, along with unread copies of an international Hindu magazine. Photocopied Sanskrit prayers flutter in the breeze.
I sit down on the steps outside. I came to this remote region after hearing stories of a surviving Hindu community, a relic of Majapahit, but now I suspect that what really exists here is a bastion of the Kejawen traditions which are indigenous to these green uplands. The concrete statues and imported Sanskrit are, ultimately, as alien as any minaret or Arabic text, but a pragmatic decision by local families to change religious affiliation half a century ago has allowed old ways to endure, even if the younger generations now believe that they were always Hindu.
Back at the bottom of the hill I meet a local Muslim, heading home from his fields. I ask him what was here before the temple. Nothing, he says; it was just a hill. Then after a pause, he adds, “There were some sacred stones; a place for meditation.”
“For Hindus?” I ask.
He pauses again: “For Javanese people…”
© Tim Hannigan 2012