Keeping the spirits alive
She looked comfortably well-off, the type often labelled an Ibu-Ibu. Soberly dressed in muted colors and a full headscarf, she seemed a model of Malaysian propriety.
But an hour earlier she’d been bare-shouldered in a clinging batik shift floating face down in a spring-fed pool. Long fish darted past her broad hips. The blue jilbab unwound as her hair swirled among the pink petals cast on the surface.
On a stone shelf in the blackness behind a younger local woman sat cross-legged in front of produce from the world’s most fecund island. Before the bathing she’d meditated in total darkness.
As the Malaysian entered the water the Indonesian sang in kromo, the ancient high-caste language of Java, with a backing chorus of frogcroak.
Bats zipped across the benign face of a pregnant yellow moon. Blink and they’d gone. A black cat rubbed legs wasting its contrived affection. No meat among the offerings.
Had it prowled past a Western wedding, marital harmony would have followed. For sure. Omens and superstition are not exclusively Javanese.
Cattle lowed in mangers distant. The limp breeze flicked the two candles’ flames, though too weak to shift smoke from incense sticks and kretek cigarettes. A mosquitoes’ nirvana - but the evil ones stayed away.
For worrying long moments it seemed the lady in the water had perished and gone to another world. Her body was corpse-still, the water unruffled. Slowly she drifted to the side, touched the stones and came to life. Reluctantly she stepped out helped by ritual leader Nono Setyonggodo.
On the pool walls reliefs of the Tantri Tales, a Javanese version of the One Thousand and One Nights fable. Also a date from the Saka Calendar: 1337. This placid place was built, or consecrated, in what we now call 1415.
So 600 years ago women were bathing here though minus headscarves, for Islam had yet to reach every crevasse of the island.
In the East Java temple complex of Panataran [sometimes spelt Penataran] the faith was Hindu. Imported from India it inspired priests and architects, artists and craftsmen to build a splendid array of monuments on the southwest slope of Mount Kelud, ten kilometers from the city of Blitar.
They took about 250 years to do the job. Later they fled east to Bali when the dynasty collapsed through family feuds and the advance of Islam. The remains were rediscovered in 1815 by Sir Stamford Raffles, the British governor of Java, and partially reconstructed last century.
Panataran, once known as Palah, was a State temple dedicated to the supreme god Siva. It may have been the favorite sanctuary of Hayam Wuruk, the fourth monarch of the Majapahit Empire. Although the largest Hindu complex in East Java, Panataran is dwarfed by the 9th century Prambanan temple near Yogyakarta.
The Majapahit ruled Java and surrounding lands aided by the cunningly capable prime minister Gadjah Mada. This was the archipelago’s Golden Age.
Also yet to come was the Duyfken and three other pioneering Dutch barques. They didn’t breast the horizon till 1596, changing everything with guns and Bibles.
We have the floating 48-year old lady’s name card, but she’ll remain anonymous lest her relatives, friends and religious authorities in Selangor discover her escapades in East Java.
They thought she was on a trade trip. In a way that’s true. Her business was seeking spiritual succour, but the import barriers are high.
“I couldn’t do this in Malaysia,” she said of her purification ritual. “Of course people look for spiritual enlightenment, but you have to be careful in my country. I feel so calm and refreshed. Here there seem to be no problems. Indonesia is so much more relaxed with religion.”
Indeed. There was nothing furtive about this second of three ceremonies held during October and November, Sura in the Javanese calendar. Up to 50 people gathered to watch or participate around the rectangular pool. The rite went on till early the next day, ending when the food had been consumed.
Panataran’s caretakers work around the clock to prevent pilfering and damage to the site on UNESCO’s World Heritage Tentative List. They knew what was underway and stayed indifferent; likewise the courting couples giggling in the gloom, keener to explore anatomy than archaeology.
Participants brought large trays of food and drink, incongruously including a bottle of Johnnie Walker to the ceremony. This got underway as the lunar light increased. Birth dates were and translated into the Javanese calendar and scrutinized. After eight women had submerged and departed to dry in the shadows, more than 20 men followed in batches of five.
“The water was cold but felt pure” said Made Polak, 58, chairman of a Malang – based NGO after his immersion. “Just before I entered the pool I felt three electric shocks on my back.
“It’s the second time I’ve done this. Some are seeking a cure – in my case from a face twitch following bungled surgery. It went away but has returned.
“I was told that a big fish swam over my shoulder when I was in the water. What does it mean? I don’t know! Perhaps my ancestor was a fish.
“We are trying to link the macrocosm and microcosm, to get closer to nature and resolve conflict.
“I’m one of only two Hindus here. The others are Muslims and Catholics. This ritual is Javanese, but it contains elements of other faiths. What does it matter? We are all human and God is unlimited.”
Some men had TRI LOKO and Indonesian sentences stencilled on their shirts, a reference to the differently spelt Hindu concept of Tri Loka – the physical world, that of the ancestors and the world of the gods.
The Indonesian words translate as: ‘Three different realms are fused into one unified whole.’
Nono Setyonggodo, 58, didn’t ‘t seem hung up about his responsibilities, often retreating for a chat and a filtertip. How to describe him? He rejected ‘seer’ and ‘sage’ but settled for sesepuh. This translates as ‘elder’ which seems inadequate.
“This is Java’s traditional belief,” he said. “Some call it Kebatinan. [The government has resisted attempts to accept Kebatinan as an approved faith and classifies it as a cultural practise.]
“This ceremony is Ruwatan. Participants are seeking peace within and a resolution of problems. If unsuccessful I tell them they’re not ready yet.
“ Men and women are equal; there’s no discrimination. If you want to make a donation you can. You decide and how much. If you can’t, no problems.
“There are other Majapahit Era pools in places like Trawas and Singosari. We use Panataran because there are no distractions; it’s central for our followers. We have about 1000.
“I used to be a mechanic. I got my knowledge of meditation from my grandfather. He told me I could not practise till I had three grandchildren, which I now have. Much of the literature was taken by the Dutch to museums in Holland.
“The food represents everything natural. We used to use tuak [fermented palm wine] but we are modern so include whisky.
“We respect all religions. We are not in dispute. Everyone has their own way to God, to try and understand life and who we are.
“We don’t have trouble because people know this is a Javanese mystical tradition. We are conserving our culture.”
The following morning schoolchildren swarmed over Panataran’s temples on an educational excursion, filling their notebooks with dates. Had they explored beyond their teachers’ instructions and peered closely at some carvings they’d have enjoyed an illustrated lesson in the contortions of human reproduction.
Those by the bathing pool, where the pictures are family-friendly, were more interested in the fish than the figurines.
No sign of the previous night’s event. Not a petal, not a grain of rice, not a flake of incense ash. Nothing. All gone, like the people who created this magic place. The ceremony could have been staged hours –or centuries – ago.
(Historical information on Panataran gleaned from published research by Drs Lydia Kieven and Ann Kinney.)'
(First published in J Plus - The Jakarta Post 17 January 2916)