The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, April 13, 2015


The hill of good fortune    

It’s a strange scene – one that would outrage the puritans. The fact that it operates openly in Indonesia should give cheer to pluralists.
Several Muslim women wearing long skirts and headscarves walk confidently into a building in the courtyard of a Chinese temple on the East Java mountain of Gunung Kawi.  They’ve come to have their fortunes revealed through an ancient ritual known as Ciam Si involving poems based on birth dates.
They’d travelled for five hours from Lumajang, 150 kilometers further east, just to see what 2015 might bring – a practice that some religious authorities claim is haram [forbidden].
After buying flowers and old coins as offerings the pilgrims progressed up the hill, through a mural-clad gateway before entering a darkened timber room with two gravestones.
Here they meditated alongside men and women who the guards identified as Buddhists and Christians.
The graves are supposed to encase the remains of Mbah [leader] Imam Sujono who died in 1876 and his colleague Mbah Djoego, also known as Kiai Zakaria 11 who passed away five years earlier.
The spelling of the names often differs, and so do the stories. The principal theory is that both men were supporters, relatives perhaps, of the high-born Diponegoro who led a rebellion against the Dutch.
The prince was arrested in 1830 at Magelang in Central Java and exiled to Makassar in South Sulawesi where he died 25 years later.  His colleagues fled to Kawi where they helped restore religiosity and improve cropping techniques.
After their deaths their graves gained a reputation for bringing good fortune to those who make the pilgrimage – like the ladies from Lumajang.
Does it work?  The best known case is that of Ong Hok Liong who established the Bentoel tobacco company after meditating on the mountain. 
For years he’d unsuccessfully sought the right name for his cigarettes.  Then the sight [or dream] of a hawker selling edible bamboo roots known as bentoel set the heavy smoker and drinker on the road to creating the nation’s second biggest tobacco company – and an early death from liver disease.
At least he didn’t have to sit for hours – or longer – under the sacred dewandaru [Eugenia uniflora ] tree waiting to catch a falling leaf, another alleged path to prosperity.  If the classification  is correct the tree is a recent import from South America where it’s known as the Surinam cherry.

This slice of science prunes the myth that the shrub was cursed to stay small by a holy man because it snagged his clothes.  The sage was trekking through the area to divide the territories of King Airlangga.  That was in the 11th century. On Gunung Kawi fiction trumps facts.
The tree has outgrown the original railings so a bigger fence has been built to stop the impatient giving the branches a shake to rain down wealth.
Kawi is an extinct volcano - at 2,551 meters but a pimple on the topography.  It’s not to be confused with the temple cluster of the same name near Ubud in Bali.
The village on Gunung Kawi’s slopes, just a fifth of the way to the summit, makes this mountain one of the most visited in Indonesia.  At weekends, holidays and certain dates like Jumat Legi [the evening preceding Friday in the 210-day Javanese calendar] the place is gutter-to-gutter  pilgrims, both Indonesian Chinese, Javanese and occasionally a few overseas visitors.
Pack a backpack of patience and get a massage to harden the hide before venturing into this cauldron of commerce. Prowling touts pounce the moment you turn off the asphalt.  Have trouble parking in an empty yard?  At least three men will ‘help’.
Need a ‘guide’ to take you up and down the one sloping narrow street? Take your pick.
Feel inclined to help the poor? You’ll run a gauntlet of beggars and kiosks offering everything from cassava [reputed to be the nation’s finest], flowers and all the knick knacks of numerology, soothsaying and clairvoyancy.
If you doubt the effectiveness of a donation, the bigger coins are recommended  for the traditional Javanese kerokan back rubbing session.  This is supposed to draw ‘wind’ or evil spirits out of the body as malevolence is known to be attracted to money.
Apart from cultural anthropologists and the odd bemused journalist, everyone else who comes to Gunung Kawi is also drawn by dollars; they’d certainly not consider their desires wrong – for who doesn’t want good fortune provided it’s not at the expense of others?
The shopkeepers selling tourist floss seem to be doing well enough, for many don’t bother opening when the river of humanity drops from a flood to a trickle during weekdays.

Unless you’re addicted to crowds, this is the time to enjoy Gunung Kawi without being squashed like an orange.  The leaves from the dewandaru waft down to the tiles of the empty courtyard to be swept up by caretakers.  If the story was true these guys should be millionaires – but at least they look fit. Not all pray for gold - good health is more precious. 
The downside of a visit outside the crushing times is that the hustlers are hungrier when pickings are few, so tend to be excessively eager.
There are signs warning visitors against wearing immodest clothes and taking photos, but the amicable guards are prepared to study the skyline if camera-clickers ask politely.  This is not an euphemism for bribing.
Gunung Kawi isn’t just for those with faith in the unknown.  Sceptics can  also puzzle over human nature while watching heavy business folk exit their big black limos, snap orders into smartphones, and then abandon logic to seek a glimpse into the future through rituals bereft of reason. That’s a matter for wonder.
As is the sight of people of different faiths meditating together.
How to get there: From Malang a by-pass on the road to Blitar cuts off the town of Kepanjen and at least 30 minutes of what used to be a two-hour drive.  The landscapes are lush, the roads reasonable.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 13 April 2015)

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