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

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

We Used to Look After Each Other: The Ancient Relationship between Nature and Mankind

The Australian bushfire season in 2019–2020 includes a series of bushfires burning across Australia, mainly in the southeast. It has burned an estimated 10.7 million hectares, destroyed over 5,900 buildings and killed 28 people as of January 8, 2020, significantly more intense compared to previous seasons. After record-breaking temperatures and prolonged drought exacerbated bushfires, the New South Wales finally government declared a state of emergency in December 2019. Nearly half a billion reptiles, mammals and birds were estimated to have been affected by the ongoing fires in New South Wales. Other estimates, including animals such as bats, amphibians and invertebrates, put the number of deaths at more than one billion.

To help battle the fires and relieve tired local personnel to New South Wales, reinforcements from all over Australia were called in. Firefighters from New Zealand, Canada and the USA also helped fight the fires.

This tragedy again reminds us that our bond with the world of nature is broken. This is a dangerous thing as nature not only gives us benefits, but for our survival we are obviously dependent on it. And it provides services to the global economy worth an estimated $125 trillion per year by providing clean air, water, food and other resources. We are still depleting and degrading the natural capital of the planet at rhythm. We are losing biodiversity, meaning we are losing nature and wildlife. We have lost two thirds of the world’s wildlife population in our lifetime, and carbon emissions have risen by 90%.

It is strange to watch this unfolding as we as human beings seem to lose our connection to the natural world. We actively harm nature instead of working in harmony with it. And, when nature screams in agony we ignore it and pretend nothing happens. However, it was not always like this.

Nature and a Man’s Heart: The Tale of Two Brothers

Numerous worldwide myths represent a deep-rooted belief in an intimate relationship between a human being and nature. The theme of how a person’s life is so connected to a tree that the person would suffer if the tree washed away or injured, or even the idea of a tree as an external soul of the body of a person is found in the ancient Egyptian Tale of Two Brothers around 1185 BC.

File:Tale of two brothers.jpg
Sheet from the Tale of Two Brothers, Papyrus D’Orbiney. From Egypt.End of the 19th Dynasty
circa 1185 BC

Two brothers center the story: Anpu and Bata. The brothers are working together to farm land and to raise cattle. One day, the wife of Anpu is trying to seduce Bata. When Bata strongly rejects her advances, the wife tells her husband that when she refused, his brother tried to seduce her and beat her. Hearing this, Anpu then tried to kill Bata, who flees and prays to Ra-Harakhti to save him. The god creates a lake infested with crocodile between the two brothers, through which Bata will eventually talk to his brother and share his side of the events. Bata severs his genitalia to prove his honesty and throws them into the water where they are eaten by a catfish.

Bata says he’s going to the Cedar Valley, where he’s going to put his heart on top of a cedar tree’s blossom, so if the tree is cut down Anpu can find it and let Bata live again. Bata informs Anpu that he should know to search out his brother if he ever gets a jar of beer that froths. Anpu returns home. Meanwhile, Bata is setting up a life in the Cedar Valley, building for himself a new home. Bata comes upon the Ennead, or the nine deities of Egypt, who have compassion on him. Khnum, the god often depicted as having fashioned humans on a potter’s wheel in Egyptian mythology, creates a wife for Bata. Because of her divine creation, the pharaoh is looking for the wife of Bata. When the pharaoh manages to bring her to stay with him, she asks him to cut down the tree in which Bata’s heart has been put. He does that, and Bata is dead.

Anpu then gets a sparkling bottle of beer and leaves for the Cedar Valley. For more than three years he has been searching for the heart of his brother, finding it at the beginning of the fourth year. He follows the instructions given by Bata and places the heart in a cold water bowl. Bata is resurrected.

Mother Nature Sacrificed: Standing on the Body of Nature

The Indonesian goddess Dewi Sri (literally means “Great Goddess”) is the Mother Goddess as well as the goddess of rice and fertility of the Javanese, Sundanese and Balinese pre-Hinduand pre-Islam era. Once, Batara Guru, the supreme god, commanded all gods and goddesses to contribute their power to build a new palace. One of the gods, Antaboga, a Naga god, was very anxious when he heard the command of Batara Guru. He had no arms or legs, and he wasn’t sure how he might be able to do the job. Anta was shaped like a snake and was unable to work. He was seeking advice from Batara Narada, Batara Guru’s younger brother. But sadly, Anta’s bad luck also confused Narada. Anta was very upset and he started crying.

Three of his teardrops fell down on the ground. Miraculously, these teardrops became three beautiful shiny eggs that looked like jewels after touching the ground. Batara Narada advised him to offer the Batara Guru these “jewels” in the hope that the gift would appease him. Anta went to the palace of Batara Guru with the three eggs in his mouth. He was approached on the way there by an eagle who asked him a question. Anta can’t answer the question because he holds the eggs in his mouth. The bird  became furious, so it started attacking Anta. One egg fell to the earth and was shattered as a result. Anta hid in the bushes quickly, but the bird was waiting for him. The second attack left Anta to offer the Batara Guru with only one egg. The two split eggs fell to the ground and became Kalabuat and Budug Basu twin boar.

Anta finally arrived at the palace and offered to the Batara Guru his teardrop in the form of a shiny egg. The offer was kindly accepted and he was asked by the Batara Guru to nest the egg until it hatched. The egg hatched miraculously into a beautiful baby girl. He gave the Batara Guru and his wife to the baby girl.

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an Indonesian stone figure of the rice goddess Dewi Sri with Vitarka Mudra

Her name was Nyai Pohaci Sanghyang Asri, and she grew up as a beautiful princess. Every god who saw her began to feel attracted to her, even her own foster father. Seeing the desire of Batara Guru for his foster daughter, all the gods were so worried. Fearing that this scandal might destroy the heavenly harmony, finally they conspired to separate Nyi Pohaci and Batara Guru.

All the gods arranged for her death to keep the peace in the heavens and secure Nyi Pohaci’s chastity. She was poisoned to death and her body was buried in a remote and unknown location somewhere on earth. Nevertheless, because of the purity and divinity of Sri Pohaci, her grave gave a miraculous sign; for some useful plants grew up at the time of her death, which would support human species forever. From her head there grew coconut; from her nose, lips, and ears there grew various spices and vegetables; from her hair there grew grass and various flowering plants; from her breasts there grew various plants of fruit; from her arms and hands there grew teak; from her thighs there grew various types of bamboo, Different tuber plants grew from her legs, and finally rice grew from her belly button. All the useful plants, essential to human needs and well-being, are considered to come from the residue of the body of Dewi Sri. From that time, she was venerated and revered by the people of Java Island as the benevolent “Rice Goddess” and fertility. She is regarded as the highest goddess and the most important deity for agricultural society in the ancient Sunda Kingdom.

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Figure representing the rice goddess Dewi Sri

Protecting Nature is an Ancient Way of Life

The ancients had a clear understanding on nature’s protection and they found ways to return the favour. Throughout Norse mythology, the three Norns spend most of their time spinning the threads of life at the base of Yggdrasil, an enormous ash tree that is the core of the universe, deciding the fate of all living beings. The Norse Norns are Yggrasil’s caretakers, the tree that houses Norse mythology’s nine realms, only one of which is the human world, Midgard. They take water from the Well of Fates and dump it on Yggdrasil’s branches to prevent it from disappearing. In addition to their loom and tapestry, the Norns carve also runs into Yggdrasil’s trunk. They start every morning by placing a rooster at the top of Yggdrasil. The rooster’s warning acts as a wake-up call to all Asgard’s gods and goddesses.

Date palms have been revered in Mesopotamia as it was an important food source. The ancient Babylonian code of Hammurabi even referred to very specific punishments for individuals who did not pollinate their date palms, even designating special guardians to manually pollinate these trees. Special priests who slept on the ground tended the oak of Dodona in Epirus in northwestern Greece, the oldest Hellenic oracle.

All of the clans in ancient Ireland had their own sacred tree in their territories. Under the sacred tree, chieftains could have been inaugurated, binding them with both the forces heavens and underworld. The trees were thus seen as the representative of the king’s and his tribe’s success. The trees were their province’s guardians, sheltering their people. Therefore, capturing and destroying an enemy’s sacred tree is very likely to have been viewed as a very serious act. The Irish Annals record that Máel Sechnaill, the High King of Ireland, torn down and destroyed the sacred tree of Magh Adhair in Tulla, Co Clare, under which the chieftains of O’Brien were inaugurated, in 981 CE. In 1111 CE, they had to pay a huge ransom of 3000 cattle after the Ulidian army cut down the holy tree of the O’Neils.

So, somewhere along the way, we have lost that love of nature that we have inherited from our ancestors. Now what can we do to get it back?

She Survived … and Still Very Much the Queen: Java’s Ratu Kidul and the Tradition of Ocean Goddesses

I am at the moment still pressing on with my side of the research into the goddess culture for the upcoming Time Maps: Matriarchy and the Goddess Culture, and I am at the stage now where we break down and analyse the elements of the Mother Goddess, for example her close association with snakes, fertility, the moon and the sea. Seeing just those four elements alone has already led us to many goddesses all over the world that we can say are “descended” from the Great Goddess herself.

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Ratu Kidul

One of those goddesses is the ancient Javanese Sea Goddess Nyai Loro Kidul, or Ratu Kidul. In 2003 an internet search found more than 2600 sites or pages, in more than six languages, referencing Ratu Kidul. This is more than some popular celebrities have, and the number continues to increase, with more sites being added every month. However, one would usually find very little historical information beyond the oral tradition which has been passed down through generations and gets less informative over time.

Ratu Kidul’s qualities and personality fits nicely into the Mother Goddess paradigm – she is both beautiful and terrifying, she represents the three phases of the moon, as well as her close association to the sea (wild and untamable) and the snake (immortal and fertile). Another important aspect of the Ratu Kidul mythology is that it so closely parallels the mythology of the Great Mother Goddesses of ancient times. Via the Indian goddesses Durga and Sri Devi, to the Buddhist goddess Tara, and the Indonesian fertility spirit Dewi Sri, plus other associations with China, Cambodia and Vietnam, Ratu Kidul acquired all of the characteristics of the Mother Goddess, albeit in reduced form.

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Parang Tritis – Yogyakarta

The island of Java has a population of about 120 million people, and over 90% of them are Muslims. Although Arab and Iranian traders reached Java in the seventh century, Islam only became dominant at the end of the fifteenth century, shortly before Vasco da Gama reached India. Before that the religious culture was a mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism. There were trade links between India and Indonesia around 1400BCE but Hinduism only became dominant in the main islands of Indonesia (Java, Bali, Sumatra and Borneo/Kalimantan) in 78CE, with the introduction of the Saka calendar from India. The earliest forms of Ratu Kidul come from that preHindu period, and over the last two thousand years they have been overlayed and augmented with Hindu and Islamic elements.

The kingdom of Ratu Kidul, the Queen of the South Seas (‘ratu’ = queen, and ‘kidul’ = south), is called Karaton Bale Sokodhomas, and the center of the kingdom is in the Java Trench, which runs parallel to the south coast of Java and is the deepest part of the Indian Ocean (seven kilometers deep). Her palace is there, below the ocean, directly south from Merapi Mountain and the city of Yogyakarta in Central Java, but her influence covers all of Bali, Java and the southern part of Sumatra. In particular the volcano, Krakatoa, lies within her domain.

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Tara

The beach at Parang Tritis, south of Yogyakarta, is said to face directly towards the queen’s palace, and many people have reported seeing the queen there, usually emerging from the sea. It is forbidden to wear the color green on the beach, since that is the queen’s favorite color – and there are many stories of people who have worn that color being washed away by unexpectedly large waves. Green, by the way, was also the color of the goddess Tara.

The queen rules a kingdom, and a kingdom needs government officials. Nyi Blorong, who is the queen’s daughter, is the minister of foreign affairs and commander of the armed forces. The queen’s armed forces are all spiritual entities such as djins, ghouls, elves, and others, and most of them are female (matriarchy). Nyi Blorong is strongly linked with snakes, and can be considered as a snake goddess. Most of the stories about her show only her terrifying aspect. Indonesian film makers have produced several horror movies with Nyi Blorong as the main character.

In a tradition that goes back at least five hundred years, the Javanese kings are spiritually “married” to Ratu Kidul, and through this marriage link the queen becomes also the protector of the Mataram kingdom and dynasty. (The kingdom is part of the Republic of Indonesia, but it still retains some special privileges.) The kingdom now has two main rulers and two minor rulers, two each in Yogyakarta and Solo. Both of the major rulers are considered to be married to Ratu Kidul.

This tradition of spiritual marriage is not unique. A precisely parallel tradition existed in which the Doges of Venice married a sea goddess to ensure the protection of the city-state. In Java it began with the early kings in Solo, but with the king Paku Buwana X, it changed into something stranger. The story is that Paku Buwana had been with the queen on the top floor of Panggung Sangga Buwana and started to slip on the steep stairs as they were descending. The queen reached out and saved him, crying out in shock, “Oh, … My child!”. Since it was the word of the queen, it had the force of law, so in Solo the ruler is considered as the son and husband of the queen. This is an interesting reversion to one of the most ancient traditions of the Mother Goddess – that of the holy family as represented by Isis, her husband Osiris and her son Horus, who will become Osiris.

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Gate of Ankor Thom

Javanese Animism, Islam and Hinduism are not the only sources of elements of the Ratu Kidul mythology. In China, one can still find temples or shrines dedicated to Kuan-Yin, who was once a deity of fishermen, who would call on her to  protect them at sea and give them good catches. One of her ancient titles was “Queen of the Southern Ocean”. The meetings of the rulers of Solo and Yogyakarta with the Queen were also paralleled by the meetings of the Khmer kings in the Angkor Thom complex, in Cambodia, with a being described as a snake goddess, who could appear as a beautiful woman.

Hinduism and Buddhism declined after Islam achieved political dominance and the goddesses were forgotten, but Ratu Kidul remained – a descendant of the Great Mother Goddess, still alive and well in a strictly monotheistic Islamic culture. She survived and  still very much the queen.

I am developing a little collection of goddess images on Instagram that I update regularly to help me think. Please do come and say hello sometime.

“Time Maps: Matriarchy and the Goddess Culture” is coming soon. Meanwhile, other volumes of “Time Maps” can be found through this link.

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