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

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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