It’s late on the eve of Satu Suro, the first day of the Javanese month of Sura, and a sweaty night in the central East Java town of Kediri.
Tucked behind a café on Jalan Airlangga, named after the 11th century king, is a courtyard roofed by a splendid pleated canopy
People gather quietly. Soon hundreds are present, men, women, and children. There’s no gender inequality or dress discrimination.
Some wear black waistcoats and blangkon (batik headdress) the formal attire of Javanese nobility – others are casual in jeans and T-shirts. The atmosphere is relaxed, not reverential.
To one side is a small Dutch-era house. Its high ceiling rooms are already full.
On a wall above portraits of brides and sages long past hangs a commonplace kitchen clock ticking away the minutes to midnight. The crowd seated cross-legged on a red carpet falls silent, though no instructions have been given.
The lights click off. Corner shadows rush to fill the space along with the smoke of burning incense.
A lone bat, its sonar recalibrated, finds an exit and flaps away into the darkness. Maybe this is where it hangs out, only to be disturbed on this once a year ceremony. An omen? No-one seems disturbed.
A gong is struck. Hard. The walls thump in sympathy. A hand bell starts ringing ting, ting, ting, ting. It’s joined by a statement, a song, a chant – only the wise knew for the words are first in kawi (old Javanese) then kromo (high class Javanese.)
The voice is baritone but the singer is a woman, dressed in priestly white, with rare vocal talents, one moment high pitched, the next ululating. But this story is not about
Wenny Setyo Jayawardhani.
Sitting alongside is her brother, Jaka Lelana (above) the man who has done much to make this extraordinary event come to pass. He wears a gaudy shirt that would be acceptable on a Pacific cruise liner, but seems to jar in a celebration of an ancient culture.
He insists it’s the real thing, a predecessor of the more sober intricately patterned batik. He should know. As an initiator of Kediri’s cultural revival he’s hot wired into the lore of the ancient East Java kingdom of Majapahit.
To hold such a position would normally require a wrinkled brow under a grey thatch, a slight stoop and cautious step.
But Jaka is no wizened rustic. He’s a cosmopolitan 45-year old engineer and director of a major chemical plant at Gresik on the north coast. Eight years ago he miraculously survived a major factory blast that killed three colleagues and injured scores.
After the explosion he meditated and then started Garuda Mukha (the face of the mythical eagle that’s the symbol of Indonesia) with a few friends and relatives. Now hundreds come.
When the organization isn’t planning ceremony it campaigns to preserve ancient buildings. But the core concern is harmony.
Jaka wants to eradicate fundamentalism through a return to old values – starting in his hometown. “Kediri was an important kingdom, more than 1,100 years old,” he said. “I want us to rediscover our cultural past.
“We never had terrorism, this is something new and unwelcome. It’s from the Middle East, not Indonesia. We all want safety and security, to respect each other.
“I’m Muslim – like most people here, but I have a brother and sister who are Hindu. Your religion is your business. If you don’t believe in my God then I’m sorry, but that’s all.
“The objective is to celebrate one culture, different religions. The Majapahit kingdom was the real Indonesia.”
If so it must surely be in this sanctum, throbbing with mystery, rather than the nation’s lifeless museums. There’s a modern ochre portrait of Gajah Mada (1290 – 1364) the famed Prime Minister and military tactician believed responsible for extending the kingdom throughout Southeast Asia.
He raises his kris with rippling biceps, peers from his frame through racks of flags including the Red and White. Others feature the eight-pointed star of the Majapahit and curious jawless skulls.
This is a Javanese historian’s heaven. Every nook holds an artefact and relic, from tiger heads to wayang kulit puppets said to be made from human skin.
A heavily bound box contains scores of kris, the sacred daggers, reputedly charged with magic. When the chanting and gonging stops, the lights flick on and everyone gets stuck into the donated cones of rice, hardboiled eggs and chicken thighs.
Then Jaka’s eldest brother Tono Setyo Bimosemo gets to purify the kris.
He does this slowly in a fug of incense smoke, treating each weapon with care, touching its hungry blade with potions and wrapping the handle in a white garland.
The task continues till dawn before a table heavy with the food and flower offerings usually seen in Bali.
But this is Java, separated by a narrow channel and a religious gulf.
“There are no problems with Nahdlatul Ulama (the huge Islamic organisation centered in East Java),” Jaka said. “They were suspicious at first but now join in. (Many in the crowd wore headscarves.)
“Muhammadiyah (the more urban-based movement) is another issue, but this isn’t syirik (an event to be avoided on religious grounds). In the morning we celebrate Muharram (Islamic New Year)
“We can’t bring back the golden years of Majapahit. They’re gone, but the spirit remains. We must remember our historical roots.”
Jaka and his nine siblings were raised by their soldier father who took his children to watch the wayang kulit and nurtured a love of ancient Javanese culture.
Dad’s remains now rest in a heroes’ cemetery. His portrait, alongside his stately wife, peers down approvingly on the strange proceedings below – or maybe that’s the atmosphere intoxicating the imagination.
“A great nation is one that respects its cultural history,” said Jaka. The yellowing portraits seem to nod.
In the street outside Honda hoons scream ahead, careless of danger and disturbance, never looking sideways or behind. The culture custodians still have some distance to travel.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 19 November 2012)