THE HILL OF SHARED FAITHS © Duncan Graham 2006
In a world of grim uncertainties The Jakarta Post can make a confident prediction about the end of this month when the Chinese and Islamic New Years are celebrated.
We’ll even toss in a handy tip: If you’re hoping for prosperity in the year to come and have pencilled in a trip to Gunung Kawi, plan well ahead.
For the sacred mountain will be crowded to the point where tinned sardines would complain. Guaranteed.
We’re not talking here about the dormant volcano of that name in Bali, but its namesake in East Java.
The roads up this mountain are a green delight with dense sugar cane, rice seedlings in rank and file, a snapshot of smiling sunflowers. Elephant ears nod in your slipstream. Fresh laundry clothes stone walls. Smoke wisps upwards from damp fires.
But if you’re driving don’t take your eyes off the narrow and twisting track to survey these pleasantries – or it may be the last thing you’ll see. The paths inside the complex are narrower still and the car parks chaotic. Take a calming pill or prepare to be tired, tense and mightily fractious.
Despite these corroding emotions the adventure will be worthwhile if you’re intrigued by the endless complexities of culture – and better still if your prayers are answered and riches tumble into your lap, like the leaves of the goddess tree.
Known to the secular as Equina Uniflora, (to Javanese as Dewa Ndaru and Chinese as Shian Tho) this rare bush is supposed to give good fortune to those who catch not a falling star but a tumbling leaf. In a fenced courtyard the true believers well fortified with patience squat on tiles waiting for the magic moment. For sceptics the exercise is as profitable as watching grass grow.
But the most remarkable thing is that the Chinese and Javanese share the sacredness of Gunung Kawi. Seeing Muslims cocooned in traditional Islamic dress mingling amicably with Chinese women flaunting their neon-white cleavages is one of the more pleasing sights in East Java.
The air is cool as the shrine is 650 metres up the 2550 metre high mountain. Enclosed by a shingle-roofed timber building are the tombs of the charismatic seers Kangdjeng Kjai Zakariake 11 (said to be related to 19th century rebel leader Prince Diponegoro) and Raden Mas Iman Soedjono.
The two men came from central Java to meditate on the mountain inspired by the environment. They lie in an alcove looking much like an altar; food and flowers have been left as offerings.
The custodian Haji R Candra Yana, sits hidden from public view with his back to the darkened auditorium where Chinese Buddhists, Confucians, Muslims and maybe some Christians sit with Javanese Muslims in traditional peci (black hats) to worship. Men and women are together as equals.
“This is not a mosque, nor is it a temple,” said Yana. “There is no place like it anywhere in Indonesia. Everyone is welcome. Unfortunately Western tourists rarely visit, though Chinese come from all over the world.”
Outside a Muslim ladles well water with claimed special healing properties into plastic mugs for the pilgrims.
Locals explained that while the Chinese non-Muslims did ask for business blessings, the Muslims were seeking forgiveness and favourable intercession by the seers in the individual’s relationship with God.
Sadly photography is forbidden so there’s no picture to illustrate this curious amalgam of faiths. This doesn’t get the approval of all Muslims, particularly those who adhere to the more arid Middle Eastern version of Islam, or who think fortune rewards only the diligent and tenacious.
For these people there’s a conventional mosque a few hundred metres from the tombs. Then there are temples for Buddhists. To visit these holy places means jostling along a narrow path of crippled beggars and equally aggressive vendors of charms and condiments, local handicrafts and the inevitable T-shirt and plastic toy trash. There’s also a fortune-teller’s shop. Every year about 126,000 people visit Gunung Kawi.
Ririen, who runs the 16-room Roro Hotel on Gunung Kawi and is a prominent urger for better facilities, claims some success for her lobbying; this dry season the local government has promised to widen the access road.
Her persuasive powers are backed by formidable credentials: Her family came to the mountain from the Yogyakarta kraton (palace) in the 18th century when the two mystics were mustering a following. Yogya is also the source of many Javanese rituals performed at Gunung Kawi.
“About 90 per cent of the people who stay in the hotels are Chinese,” she said. “The Javanese tend to pay a day visit. Most visitors are middle class and up. It would be good to broaden the tourist base.
“Apart from buying souvenirs and locally-grown cassava - which is the best in Indonesia - there’s not much to do when you’re not praying.”
With a colleague she’s put up a wish list of wanted facilities as investor bait, including a jogging track, camping ground, chair lift and fun-park. There are only eight hotels and most are small, so there’s a need for more accommodation.
It all sounds a bit Disney which would do little to enhance the sacredness of the place unless thoughtfully designed and kept well apart.
Gunung Kawi may have been established through divine direction, but a modicum of inspired planning and creation of space would do wonders.
GONG XI FA CAI
It’s become an urban fad among the sinetron set to sing out Gong Xi Fa Cai (wishing you prosperity) along with the air kisses at this time of the year, though some older ethic Chinese might view the trend with cynicism.
Not long ago it was illegal to import or display anything written in Chinese characters, let alone make a song and dance of an event. The New Year could not be celebrated openly and Confucians were listed as Muslim on their identity cards.
Chinese were forced to take on Indonesian names. Many converted to Christianity. Few were able to preserve language and customs in their entirety, though most temples stayed open.
Thanks to former presidents Gus Dur and Megawati Sukarnoputri such controls have officially been lifted. However many Chinese say the edicts have not filtered down to bureaucrats in the regions, and that they are still subject to petty discrimination.
Nonetheless the New Year known as Imlek (29 January this year) is now a promulgated national holiday. It’s a moveable feast starting with the new moon and ending 15 days later with a lantern festival. The Chinese lunar calendar has a cycle of 29.5 days, a system developed more than 1,000 year ago.
The prominent color is red, which is supposed to intimidate a mythical people-eater called Nian, who is also susceptible to loud noises. Hence the firecrackers.
Barongsai, the spectacular lion dance, has suffered the fate of Father Christmas and been hijacked by the retail trade. The once forbidden performance can now be seen in many shopping malls.
The Chinese have been coming to Indonesia for centuries and from all parts of their country. Hence the differences in customs, food, language and religion.
Most New Year activities are based on ancient superstition, though that doesn’t mean modern Chinese are necessarily superstitious: It’s a time for a fresh start, to clear debts, to clean the house and give gifts.
More important it’s a time for families to come together. As in all cultures and religions the respectful celebration of relationships past and present, the thanksgiving for benefits and blessings, and the hope for more to come is universal.
So Gong Xi Fa Cai to you too, whatever your beliefs, culture or ethnicity. We could all do with a bit of prosperity because it’s going to be a dog of a year.
(Gunung Kawi can reached from Blitar or Malang. Travel times depend on the day, the weather and start times. Allow two hours from Malang. There’s no regular public transport.)
(First published in The Jakarta Post 24 January 2006)