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The Golden Age of Java

Mendut Temple

The Medang kingdom or the Mataram kingdom was a Javanese Hindu-Buddhist kingdom which flourished between the 8th and 11th centuries. It was based in Central Java, and then in East Java. The first account of the Medang Mataram Kingdom is in the Canggal inscription, dated 732, discovered in the Gunung Wukir Temple compound in the village of Canggal, southwest of the town of Magelang. This inscription, written in Sanskrit using the Pallava script, tells of the erection of a lingga (symbol of Shiva) on a hill in the Kunjarakunja district , located on a noble island called Yawadwipa (Java), blessed with abundance of rice and gold. The lingga was founded by order of Rakai Mataram Sang Ratu Sanjaya (King Sanjaya Lord of Mataram) the founder of the kingdom. At its peak, the kingdom had become a dominant empire—not only in Java, but also in Sumatra, Bali, southern Thailand, Indianized kingdoms of the Philippines, and the Khmer in Cambodia.

His successor, Panakaran (r. 760—780) was an enthusiastic developer who was credited for at least five major temple projects conducted and started during his reign. According to the Kalasan inscription dated 778, the Kalasan temple was erected by Panangkaran as a holy building for the goddess (boddhisattvadevi) Tara. The temple connected to this inscription is the Kalasan temple that housed the image of Tara, and the nearby Sari temple that was probably functioned as the monastery.

Ngamper Temple

Panangkaran was also responsible for the construction of Abhayagiri Vihara, connected to today’s site of Ratu Boko. This hilltop consists of a series of gates, ramparts, fortified walls, dry moats, walled enclosure, terraces and building bases. It displays attributes of an occupation or settlement site, although its precise functions is unknown. This led to a suggestion that this compound probably was served as the palace. Initially probably it was intended as a secluded hilltop Buddhist monastery, as mentioned in the Abhayagiri Vihara inscription. However, later it seems to be converted to become a fortified palace or a citadel, which evidence in the remnant of defensive structures.

The period between the reign of King Panangkaran and King Balitung (range 760—910), which lasted approximately 150 years, marked the apogee of Javanese classical civilisation. This period witnessed the blooming of Javanese art and architecture, with majestic temples and monuments erected and dominated by the skyline of Kedu and Kewu Plain. The most notable of these temples is Sewu, Borobudur and Prambanan temple.

Prambanan Complex

Other than examining bas-reliefs carved on the temple’s walls, the study of ancient Javanese society is also conducted through archaeological relics. The artefacts show the intricate artwork and technical mastery of the ancient Javanese goldsmith. The hoard was estimated to date from the reign of King Balitung. The treasure has been identified as belonging to a noble or a member of the royal family.

The earliest temple in the Southern Central Java Mataram region was the Hindu Shivaist Gunung Wukir temple, built by King Sanjaya. Almost 50 years later the oldest Buddhist temple was built in Prambanan region, the Buddhist Kalasan temple, by King Panangkaran. From this time, the kingdom saw exuberant temple construction projects, such as Sari, Manjusrigrha, Lumbung, Ngawen, Mendut, Pawon and Borobudur, the massive stone mandala completed in c. 825 CE.

Borobudur Temple

The monumental Hindu temple of Prambanan in the vicinity of Yogyakarta — initially built during the reign of King Pikatan (838—850), and expanded continuously through the reign of Lokapala (850—890) to Balitung (899–911) — is a fine example of ancient Medang Mataram art and architecture. The grand temple complex was dedicated to the Trimurti, the three highest gods in the Hindu pantheon (Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu). It was the largest Hindu temple ever built in Indonesia, evidence of the immense wealth and cultural achievement of the kingdom.

Other Hindu temples dated from Medang Mataram Kingdom era are: Sambisari, Gebang, Barong, Ijo, and Morangan. The Sewu temple dedicated for Manjusri according to Kelurak inscription was probably initially built by Panangkaran, but later expanded and completed during Rakai Pikatan’s rule. The Buddhist temple of Plaosan, Banyunibo and Sajiwan were built during the reign of King Pikatan.

Relief found all over the Borobudur temple. This particular relief is of Prince Savarthasiddha, the esoteric name of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama

From the 9th to mid 10th centuries, the Medang Kingdom witnessed the blossoming of art, culture and literature, mainly through the translation of Hindu-Buddhist sacred texts and the transmission and adaptation of Hindu-Buddhist ideas into Old Javanese text and visual bas-reliefs rendering. The bas-relief carved on each sides of Mendut temple stairs and also on the base of Sojiwan temple for example, narrating the popular Jataka Buddhist tales, the stories that tell about the previous lives of the Buddha, in both human and animal form. The Borobudur bas-relief particularly, contains the most complete rendering of Buddhist sacred texts.

Passage in the Prambanan Temple

Inclusivity, Tolerance and the Golden Age of Islam

To this day, poems by Muhammad Jalal ad-Din Rumi have sold millions of copies. This makes him one of the most famous poets in the world. His poems were often compared to Shakespeare’s for their resonance. Rumi lived in the close of the Golden Age of Islam. His writings on tolerance give us further value in offering a glimpse of the beliefs and tradition in which Rumi experienced in his lifetime.

Traditionally, the Golden Age of Islam is dated from the seventh to the 13th century. It was during this period that artists, scholars, poets and traders in the Islamic world made their biggest contribution to a wide range of disciplines both by preserving earlier traditions and by adding innovations of their own.

Through trading, the Islamic empires significantly contributed to globalization when the knowledge, trade and economies from many formerly isolated regions and civilizations began integrating through their contacts with explorers and traders. As the empire’s trade networks extended from the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Indian Ocean and China Sea in the east, it helps to establish the Islamic empires as the world’s leading economic power. As a result, Islamic civilization is unique in that it grew and expanded based on its merchant economy, in contrast to their Christian, Indian and Chinese peers who generally expanded their societies from agricultural landholding nobility.

Tomb of a Sufi Chief

In the middle of all these exchanges, the first stage of a mystic movement known as Sufism appeared in the early Umayyad period (661–749 CE). Islamic mysticism is called tasawwuf which literally means “to dress in wool” in Arabic. However, since the early 19th century, the movement has been called “Sufism” in western languages. Sufism derives from a somewhat looser Arabic term for a mystic, sufi, which is in turn derived from ṣuf, (“wool”). This may be a reference to the woolen garment of early Islamic ascetics.

One of the Sufi orders’ contribution to the rise and expansion of the Islamic civilization was their missionary activities. This extensive networking allowed the Bayt al-Hikma (“House of Wisdom”) to be established in Baghdad, where scholars from different cultures and faiths gathered and translated the world’s knowledge into Arabic. Knowledge was synthesized from works originating in all the ancient civilizations, and many classic works of antiquity were translated into Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Hebrew and Latin.

This inclusiveness extended to the labor force. Both men and women were involved in diverse occupations and economic activities. Women were employed in medicines, scholarships, as well as a wide range of commercial activities and diverse occupations such as farming and construction work.

Islamic Spain Agricultural Scene

A number of distinct features of the modern library were introduced in the Islamic world, where libraries expanded the primary function of ancient libraries as center of collection of manuscripts. A library became a public and lending library, a center for the instruction of sciences and ideas, a place for meetings, discussions, and sometimes lodging for scholars or boarding school for pupils. The concept of the library catalogue was also introduced in medieval Islamic libraries, where books were organized into specific genres and categories.

Rumi showing his love for his disciples

These developments would have demanded a great degree of knowledge and flexibility from workers and scholars alike to be able to compete with their countrymen and the rest of the world. This gave birth to the large number of Muslim polymath scholars, who were known as Hakeems, each of whom contributed to a variety of different fields of learning comparable to the later European renaissance men such as Leonardo da Vinci. Due to the demands in this period, polymath scholars with a wide breadth of knowledge in different fields were more common than scholars who specialized in any single field of learning.

Apart from the demand at the time for people to have a wide variety of knowledge and interests, an extensive range of Islamic writings on love, poetry, history and theology show the thought at the time as being open to a broad spectrum of philosophical ideas. Although society was controlled under Islamic values, a certain degree of religious freedom helped create multi-faith, cross-cultural networks by attracting those of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths.

Al-Wasiti Discussion

Another example of how inclusive the Islamic world at the time comes from the most well-known work of fiction from the era – The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. The book was a compilation of many earlier folk tales from different cultures such as China and Africa translated or retold to Persian.

Arabian Nights was translated in the 18th century by Antoine Galland and since then became an influential work of literature in the west. Various characters from this epic, such as Aladdin, Sinbad and Ali Baba, have become cultural icons in western culture. A number of elements such as genies, magic lamps and magic carpets from ancient Arabian and Persian mythology retold in the epic are now common fixtures in modern fantasy.

Another literary genre benefitted from the development of the Golden Age of Islam is Science Fiction. Theologus Autodidactus (“Self-taught Theologian”), written by polymath Ibn al-Nafis (1213–1288), is an early example of this. It uses various elements such as spontaneous generation, futurology and doomsday, all of which would not be out of place in the science fiction works today. However, rather than giving the supernatural or mythological explanations for these events which were common then, Ibn al-Nafis attempted to explain these plot elements using the scientific knowledge of biology, astronomy, cosmology and geology known in his time.

From the book “The Birth of Iskandar”

A number of musical instruments utilized in classical music today are believed to have been derived from Arabic musical instruments. Later, Ottoman military bands, known by the Persian-derived word Mehter, are thought to be the oldest variety of military marching band in the world. Some standard instruments employed by a Mehter are the bass drum, the kettledrum, the cymbals, oboes, flutes and triangles. These military bands inspired many marching bands and orchestras in the west, which then heavily inspired the works of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

Rumi would have experienced this early in his childhood. His father, Baha al-Din, was a teacher of Islamic law, with Sufi inclinations, in Khorasan. By 1215, Baha al-Din chose to move his family to Konya, where Rumi stayed for the rest of his life. Baha al-Din became the principle teacher of one of Konya’s religious colleges. He died in 1231, and the then 24-years-old Rumi inherited his father’s teaching position. Rumi, at this time, was already well-versed in both Islamic law and Islamic mysticism. Following the inclusive nature of society and education at the time, the college where Rumi taught had over ten thousand students from every class of society, including grocers, weavers, tailors, and bookbinders. Also recognized as an Islamic Jurist, Rumi often involved himself in the lives of his community members, solving disputes and facilitating loans between nobles and students.

Bowl of Reflections, Early 13th Century

In 1244, Rumi met Shams al-Din Tabrizi, who introduced Rumi to the Rejoicing Sufism, which inspired Rumi’s subsequent works though its music and spiritual dances. Their meeting is considered a central event in Rumi’s life. They were close friends for about three years. In fact, their relationship was close enough to spark theories of homoeroticism by modern historians, which would have again fitted the level of tolerance and inclusiveness of the time. Over the course of that time, Shams was repeatedly driven away by Rumi’s jealous disciples, including one of Rumi’s sons, Ala al-Din, until Sham’s sudden disappearance in 1247. Rumi left the college to travel in search of his friend. He eventually made peace with his loss and returned home.

Rumi’s mourning for the loss of his friend led to the outpouring of more than 40,000 lyric verses, including odes, eulogies, quatrains, and other styles of poetry. The resulting collection, Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi (“The Works of Shams Tabriz”), is considered one of the greatest works of Persian literature.

Meeting of Rumi and Molla Shams Al-Din

Rumi died in Konya in 1273 CE and his remains were interred adjacent to his father’s. The Yesil Turbe (“Green Tomb”) was erected above their final resting place. Now known as the Mevlana museum, the site includes a mosque, dance hall, and dervish living quarters. Thousands of visitors of all faiths visit his tomb each month, a testament to not only Rumi and his relatable works, but also the inclusiveness of society at the time.

Mevlana Museum

The Priyayi Class and the Javanese Nobility Titles

Dancers at the court of the Susuhunan of Solo, Surakarta, between 1910 to 1930

The Nobility of Indonesia is comprised by the more than 350 royal families that ruled the Indonesian Princely Estates, plus the customarily recognised nobility of each particular Kingdom. Their members form an ancient nobility of blood whose noble titles are many times socially, traditionally and routinely recognized. However, although socially tolerated and the chiefs of these Royal houses sometimes still have representational and ceremonial roles, they no longer have legal privileges,

In 2007, the Indonesian Parliament passed a law formally recognizing some residual rights to around 300 Indonesian Royal Families. This law permits the descendants of the royal families and Indonesian Princely States to seek government help, particularly for the preservation or restoration of palaces and the financing of traditional and symbolic festivals.

Bedoyo dancers at the court of the Susuhunan of Solo, Surakarta, between 1910 to 1930

In the 17th century, the Mataram Sultanate, an Islamic polity in south central Java that reached its peak in the 17th century, developed a keraton (“court”) culture from which the Sultan emerged as the figure ruling over a relatively independent aristocracy. Named para yayi (“the king’s brothers”), nobles, officials, administrators, and chiefs were integrated in a patron-client relationship with the Sultan to preside over the peripheries of the kingdom. This noble status is also applicable to their descendants. The homeland of priyayi culture is attributed to Mataram’s center, namely the Javanese-speaking middle and eastern parts of Java.

The Priyayi are the only group of people who are identifiable by their surname. Having a surname is not a prevalent institution for the vast majority of Indonesians. Therefore, the possession of a surname in Java is often associated to nobility – especially in Java.

The great mbrella of the Soesoehoenan monarch of Solo, Surakarta, Java

Generally, the royal titles are:

Sultan

The first Javanese Royal to take the title of Sultan title is Prince Mangkubumi, who received it from the Executive Council of the Dutch East India Company, the territorial division of the Principality and Kingdom of Mataram during the treaty of Giyanti in 1755. He then takes the title of Sultan Hamengkubuwono (“the one who carries the world in his lap”) and establishes his Princely State in Yogyakarta, near the city of Surakarta. There were another four sultanates listed as sovereign estates in Java. In fact, the title of Sultan was also carried by the heads of the royal houses of Gowa, Luwuk and Tallo after their conversion to Islam.

The Surahunan Sushu in his golden carriage, Java 1900-1940

Sunan

The title Sunan (“the one whom homage is paid”) can be translated as Monarch. It is the title traditionally used by the ruling chiefs of Surakarta in the island of Java.

Pangeran (“Prince”)

Pangeran makes reference to either the male members of the royal families or the sovereigns of the two “minor” royal houses of Mangkunegaran in Surakarta and Palualaman in Yogyakarta.

Raden

The honorific Raden is related to the Malagasy noble titles of Randriana or Andriana, both of which are derived from the word “Rahadyan” (Ra-hadi-an), meaning “Lord” or “Master” in Old Javanese. When it is used alone, Raden implies that the holder is born with noble blood whether it is from royalty or from non-royal or feudal nobility. This is also the noble title normally used by the holder of a significant administrative position in the Dutch East Indies, followed by a word indicating his function. For example, Raden-Adipati for the political position of regent.

The Sunnan walks at the arm of the Resident during an Islamic procession between 1921 and 1926

Further Distinctions

In Java, a further class distinction existed between priyagung (“upper priyayi”), a group well connected to the aristocratic elite in Surakarta and Yogyakarta, and priyayi cilik (“lower priyayi”). 

The priyayi class used elaborate title system. Some of the commonly used titles among Javanese nobility were:

  • Raden Mas: used by male nobility
  • Raden Ayu: used by married female nobility
  • Raden Ajeng: used by unmarried female nobility
  • Tumenggung: additional title used by nobility who held a Regency office
  • Raden: a title used by male nobility lower than Raden Mas
  • Raden Nganten: a title used by married females lower than Raden Ajeng and/or Raden Ayu
  • Raden Roro: a title used by unmarried females lower than Raden Ajeng and/or Raden Ayu
  • Mas: a title for male petty nobility
The Sultan of Yogyakarta says goodbye to Pakoe Buwono X, the Susuhunan of Solo, after visiting the Kraton of Surakarta, accompanied by the Crown Prince and Prince Pakoe Alam between 1910 to 1930

The order of precedence for male nobility title is: a simple Mas is the lowest, followed by simple Raden, and then the higher titles are compound titles of Raden Mas, Raden Panji, Raden Tumenggung, Raden Ngabehi and Raden Aria. These title were hereditary to some extent as a son will inherit a title one level lower than his parent, unless his parents already occupied the lowest rank.

There are two cultural oppositions in priyayi worldview that characterizes the priyayi as a social status. They are alus (“refined”) against kasar (“unrefined”), and batin (“inner human experience”) against lahir (“outer human behavior”). Therefore, as a feudalistic subculture in Javanese society distinct from the peasantry, the priyayi culture emphasizes the alus over the kasar, and the batin over the lahir.

All photos used in this blog are from Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures

How to be a Leader, an Ancient Javanese Philosophy

Serat Rama is a composition of the old Javanese song composed at around 870 AD. In the poem, Rama explained the concept of leadership to Wibisana, the new king of Alengka. After watching his extended family die on the battlefield, Wibisana was unwittingly put in the unexpected and unwanted position of being the next king of Alengka. Seeing this, Rama gave him a crash-course on leadership called Astabrata, a teaching about obligation of a great king.

Serat Rama is a composition of the old Javanese song Ramayana Kakawin, composed at around 870 AD. In the poem Rama, the seventh avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, explained the concept of leadership to Wibisana, the new king of Alengka. After watching his extended family die on the battlefield, Wibisana was unwittingly put in the unexpected and unwanted position of being the next king of Alengka. Seeing this Rama, who battled and killed Wibisana’s elder brother Rahwana, gave him a crash-course on leadership called Astabrata,  a teaching about obligation of a great king.

Ramayana Ballet, Indonesia – Rama, 1961

Astabrata (“Eight Behaviours”) is a philosophic guide to ideal leadership. It refers to eight natural elements: earth, sea, sky, stars, sun, moon, wind and fire. Each of these element reflects the characteristics of an ideal leader. It also covers four categories relating to the relationship of the leader with his work, the relationship of the leader with others in his work, the relationship of the leader with others in all aspects of his daily life, and the relationship of the leader with himself. Rama’s advice refers to the eight gods who represents the elements.

Ramayana Ballet – Rama battling against Rahwana, 1961

The eight behaviours of a leader, according to ancient Javanese philosophy are:

  1. Mahambeg Mring Warih (emulating the nature of water). An ideal leader has the nature of running water. They have the ability to adjust well to others and the surrounding environment. They also pay attention to the potential, needs and interests of his followers. They also have the ability to accept opinions from subordinates and think carefully about all opinions that exist. In other words, an ideal leader should be a master communicator to make sure that all opinions, communications and implementations continuously flow.
  2. Mahambeg Mring Kismo (emulating the nature of the earth). The role of the Earth is that of a mother who cares, nurtures and protects.  An ideal leader is able protect his subordinates. He would also nurture the weak to make them stronger. They direct their power and resources to the greater good of the company and lead the company to abundance.
Ramayana Ballet – Rama and Maricha, 1961
  1. Mahambeg Mring Suryo (emulating the nature of the sun). A leader who masters the nature of the sun provides positive energy, inspiration and enthusiasm to his people. An ideal leader encourages problem solving. This includes the ability to provide instructions and solutions to problems faced by their subordinates. 
  2. Mahambeg Mring Condro (emulating the nature of the moon). Leaders cares for the dignity of his people. In Javanese terms, this behavior is called nguwongke, which basically means treating people like human beings. In their daily behavior the leader also serves as a guide and provide both concrete and ideological directives to his subordinates. This concept is also closely related to the ability of leaders to understand and practice and uphold the values ​​of morality.
Ramayana Ballet – Rahwana Defeated, 1961
  1. Mahambeg Mring Samirono (emulating the nature of the wind). The leader who masters the nature of the wind is he who is always measured in his speech. They act and speak prudently equipped with data and facts.
  2. Mahambeg Mring Wukir (emulating the nature of mountains). A leader should be firm and steady. Apart from being physically and mentally strong, the leader does not give up easily in defending justice or supporting their subordinates.
  3. Mahambeg Mring Samodra (emulating the nature of the ocean). A leader should have a great heart. They accommodate the aspirations of others with patience, compassion and understanding.
  4. Mahambeg Mring Dahono (emulating the nature of fire). A leader should master the nature of fire. He must be nimble and thorough in solving problems, showing consistency in their tasks and principles. They are also objective, firm and impartial enforcing rules.
Ramayana Ballet – Subali Arguing with Rama, 1961

Contextually, cultural aspects play an important role in determining the expectations of the community toward their ideal figure. The person or group who will lead the generation of the nation is expected to take on the role of king with all the ideal competencies as depicted in the Astabrata. Therefore, people in positions of power and responsibility at any level are expected to provide exemplary behaviour for all students or the people who work under them.

The most prominent of this leadership philosophy is that leaders are not equal to the people they lead. In the ancient Javanese philosophy, the leader takes the position of being the center of decision making and the center of problem solving. Leaders also take on the role of encouraging, sustaining and motivating subordinates and personally becoming role models in everyday life. The ideal behavior of the leader is likened to the manifestation of divinity that exists in humans. Learning from the wisdom of the universe, a true leader must be able to not only align himself, but also align himself with his subjects and even align himself with the cosmic universe.

Ramayana Ballet – Rama and Sinta Reunited 1961

Spread of Islam and Introduction to the Javanese Philosophy

The history of the arrival and spread of Islam in Indonesia is a little unclear despite it being one of the most significant developments in Indonesian history as there are many competing theories and only fragmentary historical evidence. One theory states it arrived directly from Arabia before the 9th century, while another credits Sufi merchants and preachers for bringing Islam to Indonesian islands in the 12th or 13th century either from Gujarat, India or directly from the Middle East. 

Masjid Ageng Surakarta, photo taken between 1910 – 1930

Nevertheless, a clear turning point occurred when the Hindu empire Majapahit in Java fell to the Islamised Demak Sultanate. In 1527, the Muslim ruler renamed newly conquered Sunda Kelapa as Jayakarta (meaning “precious victory”) which was eventually contracted to Jakarta, the current capital city of Indonesia. 

 Islam is thought to have been present in Southeast Asia from early in the Islamic era. From the time of the third caliph of Islam, Uthman (644-656), Muslim emissaries and merchants were arriving in China who would have passed through Indonesia sea routes from the Islamic world. It would have been through this contact that Arabic emissaries between 904 and the mid-12th century are thought to have become involved in the Sumatran trading state of Srivijaya.


Believers on their way to the mosque, between 1925 and 1948

The most reliable evidence of the early spread of Islam in Indonesia comes from inscriptions on tombstones and a limited number of travellers’ accounts. The earliest legibly inscribed tombstone is dated AH 475 (1082 CE), although as it belongs to a non-Indonesian Muslim, there is doubt as to whether it was transported to Java at a later time.

An early Muslim gravestone dated AH 822 (1419 CE) has been found at Gresik an East Javanese port and marks the burial of Malik Ibrahim. As it appears that he was non-Javanese foreigner, the gravestone does not provide evidence of coastal Javanese conversion. Malik Ibrahim was, however, according to Javanese tradition one of the first nine apostles of Islam in Java (the Wali Songo) although no documentary evidence exists for this tradition.

It was largely due to the Walisongo that in the period of 40–50 years, Islam was widespread in Java, whereas before it was very difficult to develop.

Javanese Mosque between 1890 and 1920

Equality

Until the early Demak era, society was divided into two major groups: Gusti, people who live in the palace and Kawula, people who live outside the palace. Gusti means “master”, Kawula means “servants”. Kawula only have the right to lease, not the right of ownership, because the right of ownership only belonged to the people with the social status of Gusti. In the era of Majapahit, all property is owned by the palace (state, or nation, or the kingdom).

Walisongo, especially Sheikh Siti Jenar and Sunan Kalijaga, created a new perspective in the cultural and society structure. They introduce the new community structure which is so-called “Masyarakat”, derived from the Arabic term of Musharaka, which means a community of equal and mutual cooperation. We know this because the term “masyarakat” and “rakyat” are missing in the Javanese Kawi vocabulary, indicating that the term was brought in later by Walisongo.

Following this was a change of mindset. Gusti referred to themselves as: intahulun, kulun or ingsun, while Kawula referred to themselves as kula or kawula. Walisongo changes all those designation which indicates the meaning of servants, and replaced it with the term of ingsun, aku, kulun, or awak, and other designations that do not represent the identity of slaves or persons with lower social status. In present days, the term of kula, ambo, abdi, hamba, sahaya or saya, are still being used for the purpose of showing respect toward others, such as while speaking toward someone older, parents, strangers and so on.

Masjid in Kampung Arab (Arab Village) in Semarang, c. 1930

Humility

The Javanese in the era of Majapahit were notoriously arrogant. Their principle of life is Adigang Adigung Adiguna (“superior in power, authority, and knowledge”). According to the testimony of scholar Antonio Pigafetta, there’s no one is as arrogant exceed the Javanese. If they were walking, and there’s also people from another nation who walk at a higher place, they will be ordered to get down. and if they refuse, they will be killed. That was the character of the Javanese at the time. So in old Javanese Kawi, there’s no word for kalah (“lose”). If someone at odds with others, then there is only “win” or “dead”. As Ma Huan noted, in Chao-wa (Java) if a man touches their head with his hand, or if there is a misunderstanding about money at a sale, or a battle of words when they are crazy with drunkenness, they at once pull out their knives and stab [each other]. He who is stronger prevails.

Another evidence of the arrogance of the Javanese is represented during the time when envoys from China (Meng Xi) came in order to deliver a message from their king (Kubilai Khan) to the king of Singasari (Kertanegara). The message ordered Kertanegara to submit toward their kingdom. And in return, Meng Xi (the Chinese envoy) had his ears cut off, humiliated, and sent back to China by Kertanegara.

Walisongo then developed term ngalah (which comes from “NgAllah”). It comes from the Javanese prefix “Ng” which means toward (a purpose, and or destination), for example: ng-alas (toward the forest), ng-awang (toward the clouds), and Ng-Allah means toward Allah (tawakkul – from the Arabic language, it is the word for the Islamic concept of reliance on God or “trusting in God’s plan”), the word “ngalah” itself was then used by the Javanese as an expression in avoiding conflict.

Mosque, Indonesia between 1900 and 1940

Rituals

The Walisongo saw that Hinduism and Buddhism actually were only embraced by the Gusti society inside the palaces. The common religion that generally embraced by the general population outside the palace is Kapitayan, a religion whose devotee toward Sang Hyang Taya. Taya means suwung (“empty”). the god of Kapitayan is abstract and indescribably. Sang Hyang Taya is defined simply as tan keno kinaya ngapa, it cannot be seen, thought, nor imagined. And the might of Sang Hyang Taya can be seen in various places, such as in stone, monument, trees and in many other places in this world. Therefore, the ancient Javanese make their offerings over those places as their devotion toward Sang Hyang Taya. A similar concept of Brahman is found in Hinduism.

These Kapitayan’s religious values was then adopted by the Walisongo in spreading Islam toward the regions as the concept of tawhid in Kapitayan is very similar to the concept of tawhid in Islam. the term of Tan keno kinaya ngapa in Kapitayan (“can’t be seen, can’t be thought, can’t be imagined, He is beyond everything”), have a similar meaning as laisa kamitslihi syai’un in Islam (“There is nothing like unto Him” – Qur’an Surah Ash-Syura chapter 42 verse 11).

Walisongo also use the term Sembahyang (sembah (worship)+ Hyang (god), thus worshipping Sang Hyang Taya in Kapitayan) in introducing the term of Shalat in Islam. There’s also a ritual in form of not eating from morning up until night in Kapitayan, which is called as Upawasa (Puasa, “fasting”). Incidentally, the ritual of fasting in Hinduism is also called “Upawasa” or “Upavasa”. Instead of using the term of fasting in Islam, Walisongo used the term of Puasa or Upawasa from the Kapitayan in describing the ritual. The term of Poso Dino Pitu in Kapitayan whose means fasting on the day of the second and the fifth day in which is equal to seven days of fasting, is very similar with the form of fasting on Mondays and Thursdays in Islam. The Tradition of Tumpengan of Kapitayan was also being kept by the Walisongo under the Islamic perspective as known as Sedekah (from Sadaqah which, in the modern context, has come to signify “voluntary charity”. According to the Quran, the word means voluntary offering, whose amount is at the will of the “benefactor”.)

Nasi Tumpeng.jpg
Tumpeng. The big plate generally set in the middle of a celebration.

At the time of Majapahit, there is a ceremony which is called as Sraddha, a ceremony that being held 12 years after a person’s death. There is a time in the Majapahit history, a poet namely Mpu Tanakung, composed the Kidung of Banawa Sekar Sekar (The Ballad of Flowers Boat), to describe how the ceremony was carried out with full opulence and grandeur. This tradition was then called by society around the lakes and beach with the term Sadran or Nyadran (derived from the word Sraddha). Walisongo who derived from Champa also brought religious traditions, such as ceremonies for 3 days, 7 days, 40 days, 10 days, and 1000 days after someone’s death. This is not a native Javanese tradition, nor the Hindu tradition. In the books of Tradition of Champa, such tradition has already exists since a very long time ago.

Another example of the teaching of Walisongo is Slametan which is developed by Sunan Bonang. In the Tantric religion embraced by kings of Nusantara archipelago, there’s a sect in that Tantric religion which is called the Bhairawa Tantra sect that worships the Goddess of Earth, Durga and Kali. They have a rituals where they were creating a circle called Ksetra.

Kasuyatan Mosque, between 1915 and 1926

At Indonesian National Museum in Jakarta, there is a statue of a character named Adityawarman height of three meters and stands on a pile of skulls. He is the priest of the Bhairawa Tantra, the one who performed the teaching of malima. He was inaugurated and then became the Bhairawa priest carrying the title of Wisesa Dharani, the ruler of the earth. The statue described that he sat on a pile of hundreds of corpses, drinking blood, and laughing uproariously.

Witnessing such situation, Sunan Bonang created a similar event. He entered the center of Bhairawa Tantra in Kediri. During his travels in Kediri, he stayed in the west of the river, in the village of Singkal Nganjuk. There he held a similar ceremony, made the similar circle, but much more subdued. Food were put in the center of the circle and then they pray together. This is called Slametan, a ceremonial meal prepared to maintain a balanced relationship between the natural and supernatural forces.. Therefore, Sunan Bonang was also known as Sunan Wadat Cakrawati, as the leader or imam of Chakra Iswara (Cakreswara).

Mosque in Surabaya between 1900 – 1940

The Importance of Laughter

Take bread away from me, if you wish,
take air away, but
do not take from me your laughter.

Pablo Neruda (1904 – 1973)

Psychologist Robert Provine’s theory is that, “Laughter is a mechanism everyone has. It is a part of universal human vocabulary. There are thousands of languages, hundreds of thousands of dialects, but everyone speaks laughter in pretty much the same way.” Babies have the ability to laugh before they ever speak. Children who are born blind and deaf still retain the ability to laugh. In other words, when you have very little else, you will still have the ability to laugh.

One Australian aboriginal creation myth believed that, in the beginning, we were all sleeping and dreaming, and the world was silent and empty. The first thing to awake was a rainbow serpent, and she emerged from the ground. She started waking creatures up, one by one, starting with the frogs. Still, she realized that this new world needed water, all of which was contained in the bellies of the frogs. Therefore, the serpent quickly came up with a solution.

The rainbow serpent tickled the frogs until they all began to laugh. Because they laughed so hard, the frogs began to cough up water. The water flowed, creating plants and awakening many other animals. Any animal who kept the laws the rainbow serpent laid out would become a human, whereas anyone who broke the laws became stones, which we see all over Australia today.

God has a smile on His face.

Psalm 42:5

Another Aboriginal myth says that a long time ago, only the moon and stars lighted the Earth. No one had ever felt the warmth or seen the light of the sun. The spirits who lived in the sky looked down on all the birds and beasts, concerned that the creatures were not happy. One day they decided that the world needed more light. So they collected wood and began to stack higher and higher and higher. When the wood was stacked so high they could no longer see the top, the spirits light a fire.

“The creatures of the Earth will delight in our light,” the spirits said, “but we must announce its arrival.” The spirits sent a star out into the sky — the first morning star — and instructed it to announce the arrival of the light that would soon warm the world. The star shimmered and sparkled, but few noticed it there in the dimly lighted sky, and when the birds and beasts first saw the light of the great fire, they were so shocked that many of them died of fright.

The spirits then decided they must need a noise to announce the dawn. Something loud. Something unusual, something startling. They began to consider the creatures one by one. Should the crane be granted the power to wake the world? What sounds could other creatures make that might wake everyone? Perhaps the bandicoot could loudly squeak, or the lorikeet could screech. Maybe the kangaroo could make a sound, or even the platypus. It was very confusing. All the creatures of this Earth were special, but how would they decide who would be granted this honor?

Then one day, just after the morning star began to shine, the spirits heard a most amazing sound. Kookaburra peered down at the ground and spied a mouse. He launched himself from his perch in the treetops and pounced upon that mouse, and when he had conquered his prey, he began to laugh. It was a sound like no other. When the spirits heard that sound, they knew that Kookaburra must become the world’s morning trumpeter. That very night the spirits visited Kookaburra in his home inside the gum tree. “Kookaburra,” they said, “every day, just as the morning star begins to fade, you will laugh as loudly as you can. It is your laughter that will wake all the sleepers before our fire lights the sky.”

Kookaburra realized that he could become a hero. He would be important and respected. So the very next day, just as the morning star began to fade, Kookaburra looked up at the sky and began to laugh. When the spirits heard that sound, they lighted their fire and slowly the Earth below began to glow from the light above. The warmth seeped down slowly, building as the fire blazed higher and higher. The flames leapt higher and burned for many hours. And then the fire began to die until, at long last, only embers remained, and the day grew dim at first, and then darkness came again.

The spirits gathered the last of the embers in the clouds, and used these to start their fire the next day, just after they heard Kookaburra’s laugh. Many years later, Kookaburra laughed loudly every morning, and every morning the spirits lighted the fire to warm the Earth below. When the Creator brought people into the world, the spirits instructed them to never tease Kookaburra. The elders instructed their children, “If Kookaburra hears you making fun of him, he will never laugh again. Then we will no longer have light or warmth.” So all the people learned, just as the beasts and birds had learned, that Kookaburra must be respected because he saved the light for all.

When you realize how perfect everything is you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky.

Buddha

Aboriginal Australians comprise many distinct peoples who have developed across Australia for over 50,000 years. The stories enshrined in Aboriginal mythology variously tell significant truths within each Aboriginal group’s local landscape, effectively layer the whole of the Australian continent’s topography with cultural nuance and deeper meaning and empower its listeners with the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of Australian Aboriginal ancestors back to time immemorial.

The True Value of Beauty

O how much more doth beauty beauteous seem,

By that sweet ornament which truth doth give!

The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem

For that sweet odour which doth in it live.

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 54

In this poem, Shakespeare was arguing his belief that there is a strong link between truth and beauty. This may not be the most famous sonnet he ever wrote, but it’s one of the best poetic meditations on the meaning of beauty.

Prince Nanda, also known as Sundarananda (handsome Nanda), was the younger half-brother of the Buddha. It was seven years after his Enlightenment that the Buddha, at the request of his father who missed him, returned to his home city. On the third day of his return, after his meal, the Buddha silently handed his bowl to Nanda. After that he stood and left. Thinking that the Buddha would take his bowl back, Nanda followed him until he reached the Park where the Buddha was staying.

When they arrived at the Park, the Buddha asked Nanda if he might become a monk. Although Nanda had just wedded the beautiful Janapada Kalyani, that same day Nanda took ordination and joined the community of Monks.

However, Nanda enjoyed no spiritual happiness. His thoughts were constantly directed towards his beautiful wife and his heart pined for her. Learning of this, the Buddha took Nanda on a journey to Tavatimsa Heaven. On the way Nanda saw a she-monkey that had lost her ears, nose and tail in a fire, clinging to a charred stump as if she couldn’t bear to let go no matter how ugly it was.

When they reached the heaven abode, Nanda saw beautiful celestial nymphs. They have long ago obtained their enlightenments and were blanketed by the glow of their happiness and compassion. The Buddha asked Nanda, “Which do you consider more beautiful? Those nymphs or Janapada Kalyani?” Nanda replied, “Venerable Sir, Janapada Kalyani looks like the scalded she-monkey, compared to those nymphs.” The Buddha then said, “Nanda, can you now see that what you thought to be exceedingly beautiful now pales in comparison to greater beauty?”

Beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart.

Kahlil Gibran

You might wonder what then happened to Nanda’s beautiful wife. Some time after her husband left to become a monk, the princess Janapada Kalyani, also known as Rupananda, pondered, “My elder brother who could have become a Universal Monarch has renounced the world to become a bhikkhu. Rahula, the son of my elder brother, and my own husband Prince Nanda have also become bhikkhus. My mother Gotami has also become a bhikkhuni, and I am all alone here!”

So she went to the monastery and became a bhikkhuni herself. But there was a problem, she had become a bhikkhuni not out of faith but only in imitation of others and because she felt lonely. It soon became obvious that Nanda was not fully focused on her life as a nun. Nanda’s thoughts were mainly directed centred on her own beauty and her popularity with the people.

She had heard from others that the Buddha often taught about impermanence and earthly dissatisfactions. So she thought that, if he should see her, he would talk deprecatingly about her good looks. Therefore,  with this thinking, she kept away from the Buddha. But other bhikkhunis coming back from the monastery kept talking in praise of the Buddha. So one day, Rupananda decided to accompany other bhikkhunis to the monastery.

The Buddha saw her and reflected, “A thorn can only be taken out with a thorn; Rupananda being very attached to her body and being very proud of her beauty.” The  Buddha called her explicitly, and when she presented herself in an ashamed and anxious demeanour, he appealed to all of her positive qualities to make her feel a bit more joyful and calmer to receive his teaching. Since Nanda was so preoccupied with her physical beauty, he caused an image of a very beautiful lady to be seated near him, fanning him. This young girl was visible only to Rupananda and the Buddha. When Rupananda saw the girl, she liked her very much but she realized that compared to that girl, she herself was like an ugly old crow compared to a beautiful white swan.

Then, she looked again and was surprised to find that the girl had grown older. Again and again, she looked at the figure beside the Buddha and every time she noticed that the girl had grown older and older. Thus, the girl turned into a grown-up lady, then into a middle-aged lady, an old lady, a decrepit and a very old lady successively. Rupananda came to realize that there was a continuous process of change and decay in the body. With the coming of this realization, her attachment to the body diminished. Finally, the figure near the Buddha died – her body became  bloated, pus and maggots came out of every openings on her body until crows and vultures tried to snatch her.

Having seen all these, Rupananda pondered, “This young girl has grown old and decrepit and died in this very place under my own eyes. In the same way, my body will also grow old and wear out; it will be subject to disease and I will also die.” Thus, Rupananda gained a deeper understanding of the nature of her beauty.  Then the Buddha spoke to her:

This body is built with bones which are covered with flesh and blood; within this dwell decay and death, pride and detraction

Dhammapada Verse 150
Janapadakalyani Rupanandatheri Vatthu

Later, when he saw her again, the Buddha recognised Rupananda as being the foremost amongst bhikkunis. Rupananda had spent time meditating on the impermanence of her body and soon found her inner peace.

The Dhammapada is a Buddhist text that is believed to record the actual words of the Buddha who lived between 563 and 483 BCE. His words were passed along orally until they were written down in about the first century BCE. 

NEW RELEASE – Time Maps: Gods, Kings and Prophets

The whole story of Egypt has taken about 7000 years. This roughly translates to about three hundred generations, or a hundred average human lifetimes. The Ancient Egyptian culture meets its natural end around the time of Alexander the Macedonian. However, it is such a magnificent flowering of the human spirit that we turn to it for reference to this day to lead us into understanding many other cultures around the world.

The rise and fall of empires, dynasties and cultures are patterns that we find in the recollection of events, but the patterns in ancient Egypt are repeated throughout human history, and in the mythology of many nations – the king murdered by his brother, the old king with a young wife, the assassination of a saintly king, the attempt by courtiers to take control of the kingdom, the king brought down by his ambition or pride, and many others, all very Shakespearean. On a larger scale there are social upheavals, cultural revivals, wars that lasted for generations, superb technical achievements, works of art that stimulated the ancient Greeks and hence influenced the world, as well as religious inspirations that helped shape the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.

Written with a Mathematician’s precision and a Historian’s curiosity, Time Maps covers over millennia worth of developments & impacts of civilizations, migrations, leaders and continents. Illuminating concepts of societies, dynasties, heroes, kings and eras through incisive and thorough research, looking at ideas, theories & world views with a sense of wonder and delight.

I am reading a small section of our new book, Time Maps: Gods, Kings and Prophets. It is now available through Amazon.

Time Maps: Gods, Kings and Prophets is now available on Amazon.

Achieving Simple Happiness

The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘Happy Thought’, A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885)

Once upon a time, there was a rich man. As he became older, this rich man realized that the suffering of old age was about the same for rich and poor – in other words, in the end his money didn’t mean as much as he thought. So he gave up his wealth and class position, and he went into the forest to study under an old master and live as a poor monk. He practiced meditation and developed his mind. He freed himself from unwholesome thoughts and, slowly but surely, he became contented and happy.

At that time, most monks usually looked pretty serious. But there was one monk who, even though he was quite dignified, always wore at least a little smile – this monk was the person who used to be rich man. No matter what happened, he never lost this glimmer of inner happiness. And on happy occasions, he had the broadest smile, and the loudest, warmest laughter of all. Sometimes others would ask him why he was so happy all the time. He usually laughed and said, “If I told you, you wouldn’t believe me! And if you think I lied to you, then it would be a disrespect to my master.” His master, the chief monk, was so impressed by him that he made the happy monk his assistant.

Much later, after the rainy season, the chief monk and his many followers went to the city. The king permitted them to live in his royal garden for the springtime. This king was a good man, who took his responsibilities as ruler seriously. He tried to protect the people from danger, and to increase their prosperity and welfare. But, of course that doesn’t mean that he had no troubles in his life. He always had to worry about neighbouring kings, some of whom were unfriendly and threatening. He often had to make peace between his own ministers because they wouldn’t stop bickering among themselves, not to mention his personal life – Sometimes his wives fought for his attention, and for the advancement of their sons. Occasionally, a dissatisfied subject even threatened the life of the king himself! And, of course, he had to worry constantly about the finances of the kingdom. In fact, he had so much to worry about that he never had time to be happy.

“The more man meditates upon good thoughts, the better will be his world and the world at large” — Confucius (500 BC)

As summer approached, the king learned that the monks were preparing to return to the forest. As the monks were living in his garden for a season, the king had gotten to know them quite well and he was very impressed with the peacefulness and welfare of the old leader. So the king went to him and said, “Your reverence, you are now very old and weak. What good does it do to go back to the forest? You can send your followers back while you remain here.”

The chief monk then called his number one assistant, the happy monk, to him and said, “You are now to be the leader of the other monks, while you all live in the forest. As I am too old and weak, I will remain here as offered by the king.” So his many followers returned to the forest and the old one remained.

The happy monk continued practicing meditation in the forest. He gained so much wisdom and peace that he became even happier than before. After a while, he missed his master and wanted to share his happiness with him. So he returned to the city for a visit.

When he arrived, he sat on a rug at the feet of the old monk. They didn’t speak very much, but every so often the number one assistant would say, “What happiness! Oh what happiness!”

Then the king came to visit. He paid his respects to the chief monk. However, the one from the forest just kept saying, “What happiness! Oh what happiness!” He did not even stop to greet the king and show proper respect. This disturbed the king and he thought, “With all my worries, as busy as I am looking after the kingdom, I take time out for a visit and this monk does not respect me enough to even recognize me. How insulting!” He said to the senior of the two monks, “Venerable sir, this monk must be stupid from overeating. That must be why he is so full of happiness. Does he lie around here so lazy all the time?”

The head monk replied, “Oh king, have patience and I will tell you the source of his happiness. Not many know it but this happy monk was once a king, just as rich and mighty as you. Then he was ordained a monk and gave up his kingly life. Now he thinks his old happiness was nothing compared to his present joy. He used to be surrounded by armed men who guarded and protected him. Now, sitting alone in the forest with nothing to fear, he has no need for armed guards. He has given up the burden of worrying about wealth that has to be protected. Instead, free of the worry of wealth and the fear of power, his wisdom protects himself and others. He advances in meditation to such inner peace, that he cannot keep from saying, “What happiness! Oh what happiness!”

Hearing the story of the happy monk made the king feel at peace. He stayed for a while and received advice from both of them. Then he honoured them, and returned to the palace. Later the happy monk, who once had been a king, paid his respects to his master and returned to the lovely forest. The old chief monk lived out the remainder of his life in the king’s garden, lending him peace and advice, until his peaceful death.

Pangur Bán

Pangur, white Pangur, How happy we are
Alone together, scholar and cat
Each has his own work to do daily;
For you it is hunting, for me study.
Your shining eye watches the wall;
My feeble eye is fixed on a book.
You rejoice, when your claws entrap a mouse;
I rejoice when my mind fathoms a problem.
Pleased with his own art, neither hinders the other;
Thus we live ever without tedium and envy.

English translation by W. H Auden (1907 – 1973)

This is an Old Irish poem written by a monk in the ninth century – about his cat. I would really like to show you this because it’s such a gloriously happy poem about the life of the old monk in his study with his cat as his happy companion, Just as the scholar goes in search of knowledge, so his faithful companion goes in search of mice.

 “The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less” — Socrates (450 BC).

The Happy Monk is one of the many stories in the Jataka Tales. The Jataka are a voluminous body of literature concerning the previous births of Gautama Buddha  in both human and animal form. The tales are dated between 300 BC and 400 AD.

Message from Martini: “I have a YouTube Channel – I would Love for You to Join Me”

Hi everyone,

I have recently started my own YouTube channel. The reason behind this decision is that I want to share my views, insights and knowledge on this blog as well as in video format. There are many topics that I am very excited to discuss on video as well as in written form in this blog.

The goal of my YouTube channel is to be a place where we can discover more of ancient culture without the boring bits. If you have been following my blog or buying my books, you would know that I am very passionate about world mythology and how we can take lessons from them in the modern world. This channel will be focused world myths and legends which are simple and relatable. You can also access some of my favorite videos on my video page on this website.

I will be very happy if you would like to follow me along on this journey. If you are interested, do come to my channel, watch my videos and comment on it on YouTube or below this blog post if you like. I rely on feedback to improve the quality of the content, and I also would like to choose topics for future videos according to your feedback when possible.

Last, and most importantly, thank you for all your support and friendship through the years. I hope you know that appreciate you very much, and I look forward to taking you on this new adventure.

With love,

Martini