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

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