Meet the Hindus of JAVA

  • By Rajiv Malik
  • November 21 2019
Devotees of Pura Sasana Bhakti in Pasung Village, Java, sing religious songs.
  • This travelogue tells you about how Hinduism is practiced in Java today and compares it as practiced by people of Java and Bali.

Devotees of the Pura Sasana Bhakti in Pasung Village, Central Java, sing religious songs, chant mantras and worship according to the national Indonesian Parisada Hindu Dharma book (on the floor in front of each person).


This article is "Courtesy Hinduism Today magazine, Hawaii".


For five centuries the Hindus of Central & East Java, today one million strong, have managed to preserve their unique ways in difficult circumstances.


The Hindus of Indonesia’s Most Populous Island, Java, are today reduced to a few villages. They are remnants of the Hindu kingdoms which flourished here from at least 400 to 1500 ce. The Prambanan Temple started by the Sanjaya Dynasty is one of the largest in the world, and of exquisite design. But Hinduism as found here today is largely a result of the nation’s complex and fast-moving political and religious development since independence in 1945. 


In several cases, our reporter, Rajiv Malik, was only the first or second Indian to visit one of these small communities in the central and eastern parts of the island.


Java Has Been a Part of Hindu Tradition since ancient times, finding first mention in the Ramayana as Yawadvipa. It was one of the many places that Sugriva, ruler of the monkey kingdom of Kishkindha, sent his men to search for Lord Rama’s wife, Sita, after her abduction by Ravana. For thousands of years it has been depicted in the Ramlila dance dramas (and lately in television serials) as a huge, lushly green forested area and known as such to every Indian child.

With 143 million people - equal to the entire population of Russia - Java is today one of the most densely populated places in the world. Its first major kingdom was that of Medang, founded in the 8th century by devotees of Lord Siva. Later kingdoms—both Hindu and Buddhist—thrived on the island until the advent of Islam in the 15th century. It was these kingdoms which built the spectacular Prambanan Hindu temple and the Borobudur Buddhist stupa, among the largest of their kind in the world. Both are World Heritage Sites.


Near the end of the 16th century, the Mataram Sultanate came into power in central and eastern Java, and the remnants of the Hindu Majapahit dynasty retreated to Bali, leaving behind only isolated pockets of Hindus. It was the ancestors of these Hindus—separated from their brethren in Bali by 500 years and from India even longer—that HINDUISM TODAY sought out.


I had been to Bali before, but never to Java; all I knew was what I’d seen in the Ramlilas. Quickly, I found the Javanese people (including many Muslims) well aware of their place in the Ramayana, as well as in the Mahabharata. More so than even in India, these stories and characters are an integral part of local culture and traditions, and at a deep emotional level. Stories from both epics are enacted in popular wayang puppet shows and live dance dramas. In Bali I had witnessed a wayang performance of the Mahabharata being watched by thousands of Balinese Hindus of all ages in pin-drop silence.


Local Hindus told me such shows are held all over Java as well, and include Muslim actors and dancers. The one difference between the regions’ shows is that the dance performances in Bali are fast paced compared to those of Java.


With the help of journalist Gede Nguraha Ambara of Media Hindu magazine, we assembled a team to explore Java in April, 2014. Accompanying me for the entire trip would be Pak Dewa Suratnaya, a former accountant and guide for East Java and now a journalist associated with Media Hindu. Irawan, a Hindu teacher and native of East Java, was enlisted by Ambara as our guide for the first days. Photographer Agus Putu Pranayoga of Bali and I, Rajiv Malik of Delhi, completed the team.


Two Renowned Prophecies

History tells us that last ruler of the Mahajapit Kingdom in Java, Brawijaya V. converted to Islam in 1478. For so doing he was cursed by his advisor Sabdapalon, who by his prediction would reborn in 500 years during a time of corrupt politics and natural disasters, and restore the Hindu and Buddhist Javanese religion and culture. Credence is given to the prophecy by the events of 1978 when the first new Javanese Hindu temples were built, and Mt. Semeru erupted.


The second prophecy is that of Jayabaya, the Javanese King of Kediri in East Java - one of the areas we visited. In the mid-1100s, he predicted, “The Javanese will be ruled by whites for three centuries and by yellow dwarfs for the lifespan of a maize plant (one year) prior to the return of the Ratu Adil (a dharmic king).” It is was also said that Ratu Adil would return “when iron wagons drive without horses and ships sail through the sky.”


Indonesia was ruled by the “white” Dutch from 1610, and ended with the “yellow” Japanese invasion in 1942. The Japanese themselves lasted three years - two more than the prophecy predicted. While leaving, they facilitated the establishment of the independent nation of Indonesia.


While Hindus in Java and Bali all know of these prophecies, they were little mentioned during our visit, for they imply a resurgence of Hindu, Buddhist and traditional belief at the expense of Islam, which is adhered to by 88 percent of the people. But faith in Indonesia is also dynamic, with ancient indigenous beliefs still influencing later Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic beliefs and practices. Especially, there is a deeply mystical side to all faiths here.


My Ramlila concept of Java - a jungle flush with greenery—was shattered within minutes of landing in Surabaya, a veritable jungle of concrete. It is the second largest Indonesian city and one of the busiest commercial centers in Southeast Asia. Our destination, the Tengger Hill region, is 145 kms southeast.


Java was mostly tropical rainforest prior to its dense settlement by humans. Over time, much of the rainforest was cleared, save for the highlands and some coastal areas, and the land used for highly productive agriculture, growing rice, corn, cassava, sweet potatoes, peanuts and soybeans. Palm oil, coconut, coffee and tobacco are also major crops. We passed through vast farmlands interspersed with well-developed small cities on the way to Tengger, traveling comfortably on the country’s good roads—better than in much of India, to my surprise.

Map of Java island showing the areas visited for this report


Mount Bromo is a major tourist attraction of the Tengger region, drawing visitors from all over Asia wanting to see the spectacular active volcano where they can hike right up to the brim over the smoking caldera. Bromo—named for the God Brahma—is a sacred place for Hindus. In the 15th century, Princess Roro Anteng, daughter of the Majapahit King Brawijaya, and her husband, Jaka Seger, were among those who fled the tattering Majapahit Kingdom when the Islamic religion was gaining followers all over. This couple took refuge near Mount Bromo and developed a new kingdom named it Tengger, using parts of their respective surnames.


Though the kingdom prospered, the royal couple could not produce an heir to the throne. In desperation, they climbed to the top of Mount Bromo and there prayed and meditated for many days. Popular legend says that finally, Brahma announced that they would be blessed with children, on the condition that the last born would be sacrificed back to the volcano. After they had 25 children and neglected the requirement, the volcano lured their last born, Prince Kesuma, to the mountain and consumed him in an eruption. From then on, to appease the volcano, the Tenggerese make yearly offerings on the day of Yadya Kasada according to their lunar calendar. In 2012, this was held in August.

Ancient worship recent innovations at Mt. Bromo.

Stone nature spirits stand guard around the base of the shrines.


Ngadisari (#1 on the page 21 map) is a picturesque town 45 km from the coast, hugging the side of the Tengger Volcanic Complex. At 6,200 feet above sea level it is much cooler than the plains below. The yearly tourist influx provides a supplementary income to the agricultural community, with many homes on the main road doing a brisk business as guest houses. Their rates, some running US$100 per night, were high for Java, where a good hotel could be booked in most cities for $25 to $35/night. Hindu visitors should be aware that the Javanese of all religions are staunch meat-eaters; the vegetarian is likely to subsist on tea, milk, biscuits and fruit for more days than he would prefer. The visiting Hindu should also be prepared for two other cultural shocks: shoe wearing and cigarette smoking in temples.


The Tenggerese here number about 250,000, spread among 48 villages, according to Pak Dewa. They speak an ancient form of Javanese called Tengger, seldom used elsewhere in Java - a sign of their isolation since the fall of the Majapahit kingdom in the 15th century. In 1275 ce, the community was given exemption from all taxes on account of the important religious work they did. The area has recently been declared a national park to protect it from encroachment by loggers.


Driving around looking for our hotel, we came upon a breath taking view of the steaming crater of Mount Bromo across the Sea of Sand, on which sits the Poten Hindu Temple we were to visit the next day. Outside some Hindu homes, we noticed distinctive Balinese style shrines, padmasaris, two to three feet high. This was one of the few places in Java we saw any external indication that a home was Hindu.


The open-air Balinese style Pura Lahur Poten Bromo; (inset) atop of the central shrine, or padmasana, is an image of Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa, the “All-in-One God” or “God Almighty,” a monotheistic Deity introduced in the 1960s to fulfill a government requirement that, to be officially recognized, Hinduism had to be a “monotheistic” religion.


Meeting the Tengger Chief Priest

We had a morning appointment with the chief priest of the area, Dukun Sutomo. Dukun or Romo, is the title given here to a priest, and means the same as Ida Pedanda in Bali and pandit or brahmin in India. Humble, down to earth and a gracious host, he came dressed in his official, traditional priestly attire, complete with batik cap. He took us around his home and explained how he offered tea, coffee, water, food and even cigarettes each day to the Gods and his ancestors at an altar in his worship room.


Sutomo is chief priest for Mount Sumeru, Mount Bromo and Tengger. Under him are 48 priests responsible for daily and periodic religious rituals, including the annual Kasada festival and the Unan Unan held every five years during the Tenggerese lunar “leap year.” These priests gather twice yearly to plan the festivals and discuss important issues.


All of them, including Dukun Sutomo, are primarily farmers, which provides their main income. Sutomo said his days are spent on his agricultural land unless he is called upon to serve as chief priest. Compared to Bali or India, the ceremonial worship here is relatively simple and inexpensive.

Sutomo told us, “My father and grandfather were also priests. When my father died, the community asked me to take up his position. Hindus have been in Tengger for a long time. Our rituals and life are very simple. Hinduism here is a combination of Saivism and Buddhism called here ‘Siva Buddha.’ When I work as a priest, I am performing my duty, not to make money.”


The Bali-Java Issue

Until the 1960s, Hinduism was not recognized as a religion in Indonesia. Under the country’s political philosophy of Pancasila (“five principles”) a religion could be recognized only if it was monotheistic in the Muslim and Christian sense of the term. To meet the requirement, leaders in Bali - after some theological musings - adopted Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa, “God Almighty,” a name originally introduced by Protestant missionaries in the 1930s. The Balinese form of this Supreme Being resembles a Sun God (see page 22 top left) and has the attributes of the transcendent Brahman or Siva. He is called Acintya, “the inconceivable” in Sanskrit.


Thus duly monotheized, Hindus of Bali received official recognition under the Hindu banner in the 60s. At the same time, Indonesians adhering to tribal faiths long ago influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism also opted to be declared Hindus. Those without an official religion could be suspected as communists and subject to persecution and even murder.

The Indonesian Parisada Hindu Dharma was formed to officially represent Hindus to the government. It promoted Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa and developed standardized forms of worship to be followed by priests. It also created graded presentations on Hinduism to be taught in public schools by Parisada-trained teachers. In the 1980s and 90s, Balinese-style temples called puras were built in East and Central Java in every Hindu community and staffed them with local Javanese who were trained as priests in Bali. It was common to place these puras next to existing traditional sanggars (see page 24). Sanggar means “gathering place” and comes from Sanskrit sangha meaning “assembly.”


Dukun Sutomo addressed this issue circumspectly: “As far as learning Hinduism from Bali is concerned, we do not do so, as we have our own ancient traditions and rituals which we have to follow. At the same time, we do not feel or say that our Hinduism is better than that of Bali - we never compare that way. There are three traditional sanggars in Ngadasari and two puras. People offer prayers in both, as they cannot forsake their ancient sanggar tradition.”


Our guide, Pak Dewa, who spent several years among the Tenggerese and understood their view of things [sidebar, page 25], confided, “The Balinese feel that their style of Hinduism is the right one and all others are incorrect. They have tried to change the other forms of Hinduism found here in Indonesia, and build temples only in Balinese style. Around 30,000 Hindus changed their religion and converted to Islam because of their unhappiness over Balinese-style Hinduism being forced on them.”

“We have no connection with India,” Dukun Sutomo went on. “I have not heard of any saint from there coming here. I do know the River Ganga is in India and we chant mantras in which all the sacred rivers of India are mentioned. I studied Ramayana and Mahabharata with my father. I have lontars of mantras and scriptures. These are something very personal; I cannot show them to you.”


He said that relations with other religions are good. In the case of a Hindu girl marrying a Muslim boy, it is expected that the boy will convert to Hinduism. It is rare that the girl converts to Islam, but in either case the families will maintain good relations.


Dukun Sutomo concluded our interview with his message for Hindu youth: “I tell them to always try to learn about Hinduism and be a good Hindu. They must practice Hindu traditions and rituals. I tell them to never forget their ancestors and the path shown by them.”


THE MAIN PROBLEM HERE IN INDONESIA IS NOT CONVERSION BUT that the Balinese Hindus would like the Hindus outside Bali - in Java, Sumatra and Kalimantan - to adopt their form of Hinduism. That is why some of our own Tenggerese Hindus converted to Islam. They were unhappy with Balinese-style Hinduism being forced on them - and I say this as a Balinese myself.


The Tenggerese have as their main Gods Brahma, represented by fire and called Sanghyang Geni in Javanese; Vishnu (water), called Sanghyang Banyu; and Isvara/Siva (wind) called Sanghyang Bayu. They have their own styles of temples, priests, scriptures, calendar and rites of passage from birth to death. They are people with a strong identity of their own and that is the reason that—despite outside pressure—they are maintaining their culture and identity.

Such pressure continues to this day. Just a week back a Balinese priest from Surabya said the Tenggerese do not have a place for God or sacrifice to the devas. That is not true. I started to oppose this kind of pressure three years ago and took a stand that there should be no more intervention from outside. The Tenggerese want to follow the rituals of their ancestors, such as Kasada Yagna.


As in Bali, many rituals include animal sacrifice, usually a chicken or an egg. They do not have the tooth filing ceremony of Bali, but they do have sunat, a ritual cutting of hair for children. The dead are buried, with a symbolic cremation being part of the Enam-Enam ceremony. In Bali, the dead are first buried, then exhumed after some time and cremated, or left buried. It is not known how these practices arose in either place.


The Tengger form of worship is simpler than in Bali or India. In Bali, the puja ceremony is much longer and more complex. The Balinese priest will follow the pattern set by the Parisada:


1) puja and mantras with empty hands addressed to the transcendent Brahman, Nirguna Brahman, or the unthinkable; 2) puja with white flowers addressed to Shiva Raditya, the Lord of the Sun, as witness to the puja; 3) puja with red flowers addressed to the Istadewata (one’s chosen Deity) and to ancestors as a form of respect; 4) puja with colorful flowers or with Kwangen (Trimurti symbols) as a request to be given a gift; 5) puja again with empty hands, as an expression of gratitude to transcendent Brahman, Nirguna Brahman, or the unthinkable. 


In Tengger, they put the emphasis on the power of the secret mantras while making simple offerings of food and fruits. In both places the mantras are in Sanskrit and Old Javanese (Kawi) along with some in the local language. Old Javanese itself is highly influenced by Sanskrit. Of the 25,500 entries in a 1982 dictionary of Kawi, 12,500 are Sanskrit loan words.


The Tengger public schools teach the Trikal Sandhya system of worship developed in Bali with Gayatri and other mantras recited three times a day. As well, they have classes in Hinduism every Saturday. Our guide here, Irawan, has a doctorate in education and supervises 22 teachers of Hinduism in this Pasuruan district.


The religion of the Tengger only became an issue after the 1965 anti-communist purge in which half a million people were killed. It was in 1967 that efforts were made to identify the various religious groups in the nation and enforce the national belief in “one God.” Before 1965, the area was known as Budo, or Buddhist, but when the officials came in 1967, the Tenggerese affirmed that they were Hindus, demonstrated some Hindu rituals and showed the ancient palm-leaf manuscripts (lontars) of their Hindu tradition.


For the Tenggerese, Mt. Bromo is the biggest fire altar in the world. During the Kasada festival, they offer what is grown on their farms. There used to be 25 sacred places in this area, but many of them are forgotten. Every five years here is a Unan-Unan festival in which they perform prayers for the purification of the entire world. As many as 50,000 people may attend in each locality where it is held. Once a year they celebrate Karo in honour of their ancestors. They also have smaller festivals every month or six months.


The Ramayana and Mahabharata are very popular here. The people try to mold their life on the characters of these epics. The area is said to have a zero percent crime rate.


We were overwhelmed by the raw beauty of this desolate place, with its rugged volcanic peaks, gravel plains and Sea of Sand. There were about 100 people there when we arrived, mostly tourists, including a group on motor bikes. Some were taking the trail on foot or rented horse and then climbing the stairs up to the rim of Mt. Bromo, for a glimpse of the steaming crater.


An ancient shrine is here for Prince Kesuma, who is honored during the Kasada festival when the Tengger people pilgrimage to the top rim of Mt. Bromo, to offer rice, fruit, vegetables, flowers and livestock into the volcano. Prior to the trek, they worship at the Pura Luhur Poten temple for blessings of Sang Hyang Widi Wasa and the celestial Mount Mahameru. It is believed that the mountains of Central and East Java are the results of the Gods transporting the original Mount Meru of the Himalayas to Java.


Pura Luhur Poten, completed in 2001, is an open temple (see photo, page 22) in what Pak Dewa called East Java style, with various shrines, buildings and enclosures. The main sanctum faces away from Mt. Bromo, as do all temples of the area.

A group of Balinese pilgrims were here when we arrived. One, Made Pande Auka, said, “We came to do puja in this temple because the God here is Lord Brahma, who created the world and whom we greatly revere.”


The temple priest, Mangku Sugono, told us the temple has four priests who work on a rotation basis. He serves three days a week from 7am to 5pm and tends his farm the rest of the week. “I learned Hinduism in the elementary school in Tengger,” he said, “and then went to Bali for orientation in Hinduism. I have two girls and they can become priests if they want to. This is a very powerful temple. When we sit here and meditate on God we can connect to Him very easily. This is a Brahma temple directly connected to Mt. Bromo.”


Worship of the Ancestors

That evening we were fortunate to attend an Entas Entas ceremony in honor of one’s ancestors at the Ngadisari Village community center. Dozens of men, women, boys and girls had assembled for the ceremony. They were accompanied by hundreds of family members, many enjoying a lavish feast in the adjoining halls. The event was being recorded by a crew of young videographers.


A few priest recited mantras and performed rituals as each individual representative of a family sat in front of a clay pot wrapped in green leaves and decorated with flowers (see inset photo on p. 27). This is called puspha lingga and represents the atman or soul of the deceased. Next to the puspha lingga are placed offerings and provisions to facilitate the soul’s journey to heaven: money, cigarettes, a cooked chicken, rice, coconuts, sweets and fruits.


Once the ceremony is complete and festivities over, the puspha lingga is taken to the outskirts of the village to the sanggar pedanyangant (“gathering place of village guardians”), and burnt as an offering. Pak Dewa said that in the days of the Hindu kingdoms, only the royalty was cremated; everyone else was buried. This is still current practice, following tradition, not an adaptation to the presence of Islam.


Unlike in India where the ceremony would usually be done by the eldest son, any relative can make the offering, including the young boys and girls. Overall it was a far more profound and impressive form of ancestor worship than I had ever seen in India.


Pura Agung Dharma Bhakti

Our last stop in Tengger is Pura Agung Dharma Bhakti (see page 24) of Ngadisari village in the foothills. The pura is a large Balinese-style temple built right in front of and now obscuring a traditional Tenggerese sanggar. Though most Tenggerese still worship at the sanggar, according to Pak Dewa, the pura and sanggar harmoniously coexist. However, he said, the Tenggerese in their hearts did not like the imposition of the pura on them and the relegation of the main ancient sanggar to the background. But in Tenggerese tradition, they remained silent and did not oppose the construction of the Balinese structure. This is a stark example of the Balinese impact here.


We encountered near here a row of private houses with small padmasari (“essence of the lotus”) shrines in front of them—another Bainese innovation. These were rare outside of Tengger, as most Hindus do not want identification on their homes. One Hindu lady, Emuk Chandra, said she worships at her shrine daily by offering rice.


The next day we visited Bongso Village in Gresik (#3 on the page 21 map). From now on, we would be either in places with minority Hindu population, or at archaeological sites with few Hindus living in the vicinity. Bongso, we learned, is a Muslim area with just 670 Hindu residents with roots in Madura Island, off the coast from Surabaya city and near Bali. Madura Island does not have fertile land as does Java, so many Maduranese, both Hindu and Muslim, migrated to other areas of Indonesia.


We were met by a small group of local Hindu leaders at the Pura Kerta Bumi, built in 1992. This is not only a temple, but also an ashram. A number of Hindu youth were singing bhajans accompanied by a gamelan orchestra as one would find in Bali. Here worshipers take off shoes before entering, a custom uncharacteristic of most temples we had been in so far.


The main Hindu festival here is Nyepi, the day of silence famously observed in Bali when no one works, eats, speaks or even leaves their home. The priest, Mangku Saptono, explained that just prior to Nyepi is the Melasti ritual, held to purify water resources: lakes, rivers and the ocean. Then follows the Ogoh Ogoh festival, likewise popular in Bali, held to bring victory over the evil powers of the area. The parade of life-size statues of demons ends with them all being burnt. Pak Dewa questions what this has to do with religion and said the general feeling is that it is mostly for entertainment. A culturally positive aspect of Ogoh Ogoh, however, is in the pre-ceremony feast to which all members of the Muslim community are invited.


Another popular festival is Tawur Agung, done for the prosperity and welfare of the world community (like the Tenggarese Unan Unan festival), as well as an expression of gratitude to the Earth and an apology to nature for human exploitation.


Mangku Saptono explained that in addition to worship, young people come in the afternoons to practice devotional music and attend classes in Hinduism. Kartika, 19, said, “I love Hinduism because of its rituals and culture.” Others present expressed similar sentiments. Several young men are training to be priests. Each week Mangku Saptono conducts puja in a local Hindu home, and many people gather to attend. Asked about India, he told me, “Only once before has an Indian come here. You are the second to visit.” Interaction is mostly with Bali, traveling there regularly and following the Balinese ways of worship. During puja some of the Gods local to Java are worshiped so part of the liturgy is in Javanese in addition to the Sanskrit.


We reached Kediri (#4 on the page 21 map) that evening. From 1045 to 1221ce this was the center of the Kediri Kingdom which ruled most of Central and East Java. It was followed by the Singhasari rulers (1222-1292) and then the Majapahit kingdom (1293 to 1500). King Jayabhaya ruled here from 1130 to 1160 and made the prophecies mentioned earlier. Javanese classical literature developed under the Kediri Kingdom, which maintained active trade and cultural exchange with India.


Today it is a major center of sugar and tobacco production, with one tobacco company alone, Gudang Garam, employing 40,000 people. They are a maker of Java’s famed kretek or clove cigarettes which so many smoke here. The Kediri Regency’s seal includes Lord Ganesha, though this is a Muslim majority area. It is estimated there are 12,000 Hindus in the regency, which has a population of 1.5 million.


Bangsongan village, 30 kms from Kediri, is a stronghold of the Hindu community. At the village temple we are greeted by local leaders led by two priests, Romo Dharmo Widjayo and Romo R. Andik Sahuri. The home of Romo Widjayo is just opposite the pura. He has a prominent Hindu candi bantar shrine outside his home.


According to Pak Dewa, the temple here is a candis not a pura. It was built seven years ago following what Romo Widjayo called “a divine guidance” and follows Javanese Hindu tradition. It is called the temple of Majapahitan, as the people who built it claim to descend from people of that kingdom. Majapahit, we are told, names the forests of maja fruit which grew prolifically when the kingdom was formed. The maja, aegle marmelos is also called bilva, bael and wood apple.


Romo Widjayo works as a spiritual healer, and that is his main source of income. His wife teaches Hinduism in a government school. “At the temple here,” he explained, “we daily offer tea, coffee and water for our ancestors. We do puja for the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, and other Gods as needed - Lord Indra, for instance, if we need rain. Here the Javanese style of temple is called candis, and the Balinese style pura; Hindus worship at both. We have good relations with the Hindus of Bali, but our rituals are different and, we believe, more meaningful.”


They are not in touch with Hindus in India and no one from India has ever visited them before now. “I think we should go to India,” he said, “do some meditation and come back here with enhanced spiritual powers. Combining the spiritual vibrations of the Hindus of India and Java will lead to the greater welfare of Hindus in both countries.”


He spoke of people here who follow the Kejawan religion, which is based on ancient Javanese religions and influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism and Sufi mysticism. “Their identity cards will say ‘Muslim,’ but they do not go to mosques. They would rather go to the temples. Some come here to learn about Hinduism and meditation from me.”



We left Kediri in the afternoon of the 21st and reached Klaten, (#5 on the page 21 map) in Central Java at night. Our first meeting was with Hendratta Wisnu and his wife, Cening Rahmawati. An architect by profession, he is head of the local Parisada branch. He said at one time the Hindu population of the area was 70 percent, but is now just 2 percent. Following the mid-1960s’ violence against the communists, followers of Kejawan concluded they would find more freedom of faith within Hinduism than Islam and so declared themselves Hindus. But they were uncomfortable with the Balinese-dominated Parisad, and switched back to Islam as politically more practical. According to Pak Dewa, the number of registered Hindus in all of Java went from two million to one million at this time.


At present, according to Wishnu, there are some 16,000 Hindus in Klaten Regency. Most are Saivites and conduct their rituals according to Javanese tradition. They have 47 puras, 15 ancient Javanese temples, 100 priests and 140 teachers of Hinduism.


Our main destination here is the Prambanan Temple, one of the largest Hindu temples in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site (#6 on the page 21 map). It was built in 864 by King Pikatan of the Mataram dynasty and abandoned around 1000ce when nearby Mount Merapi erupted with such force as to cover all of Central Java with ash, forcing a mass exodus to East Java. Restoration was done in the 20th century, first by the Dutch, then by the Indonesian government. For me, the visit here was depressing, as so much was damaged by earthquakes, looting and vandalism over the centuries. Still, it remains a most impressive place.


Pasung Village

We drove next to Pasung Village (#7 on the page 21 map) to meet with the local Hindu community at the Pura Sasana Bhakti, built in 1992. Here we were greeted by two dozen men and women—the men in Western dress, the women in their traditional colorful, graceful Javanese garb.


The group was engaged in worship, chanting bhajans and mantras in Sanskrit and Javanese from small booklets. Three priests conducted puja, offering fruits, flowers, peanuts and other food to the Gods, then sprinkling holy water on everyone present.


Sukardi, the community leader, exclaimed, “It is a pleasant surprise to have someone from India. We conduct puja here each day, plus have educational activities for the children, which we hope will advance Hinduism in this area. We are trying to preserve the ancient culture by doing the prayers in the Javanese way, as you have just seen. Hinduism is gradually growing here. Not many people here know much about India, and therefore do not desire to visit it. We do have a connection with Bali, but do not go there to learn Hinduism. If Indian teachers came here, we could learn yoga from them.”


Everyone was familiar with the Ramayana and Mahabharata, which they learned from the wayang puppet shows. They believe the heroes of those epics had come to Java, and that since it was too far to travel on foot, must have used some kind of airplane in those ancient days.


While leaving, I noticed a Muslim cemetery next to the pura. Pak Dewa explained: unfortunately, in some places cemeteries have been deliberately placed next to Hindu temples to defile the environment. The government has not stopped the practice.


I was pleased to be fed to a local dish called srabi by Wishnu and his wife. Introduced here by a Chinese lady decades ago, it is a vegetarian sweet made of rice flour, coconut and banana. It became a mainstay for me during the stay in Klaten.


Demping Village

Our next stop was Demping Village (#8 on the page 21 map), home to 250 Hindus, near the 15th century Candi Ceto temple on the western slope of Mount Lawau, 3,000 feet above sea level, and connected with the Mahajapit Kingdom. We visited the home of Romo Widodo, where we interviewed Romo Jitho, the chief priest of this area. The walls of the house were adorned with pictures of Hindu Gods and Goddesses; for a moment I thought I was in India.


“Most of the people of our village are Hindus,” Romo Jitho began. “This is the only village in Karnganyar Regency with a majority of Hindus. Christians and Muslims come here to preach. We welcome them and listen to them, but never follow them. I am the head of the 30 priests who function in the Lawu area around the Ceto Candi temple. Each priest performs all the rituals, including funerals. As in Bali, there are a lot of rituals, but they are not so costly here.”


“The main God worshiped here is Siva; however Buddha is also worshiped. We have 13 puras, where puja is performed every five days (the Javanese calender includes a five-day ‘week’). Every day people offer flowers, incense and water to the Gods in their home temple—that is called manushya yagna meaning for the benefit of the people. The temple puja is called deva yagnas, for the Gods. For the worship in the pura, we follow the Sangkulputih Shastra which is also followed in Bali’s Besakhi Temple. The priests here gather from time to time and discuss their training, performance and problems.”


“It is not required that one’s father be a priest for one to become a priest. I learned Hinduism from experience, from my teacher, a senior priest in Jakarta, and from various scholars and pandits. I would prefer that my children not become priests, because this can be a difficult life. I think future priests will be selected by the universe itself.”


As with everyone else we spoke with, he would not be drawn into the topic of Javanese-Balinese relations. “In many ways we have separate cultures,” he said, “but that does not mean there should be any conflict. We are open to guidance from Bali if it is needed. It all depends on the situation. It is difficult to say what we could learn from India either, but India could learn Javanese culture from us.”


Romo Jitho told me how the principal of a local government school issued instructions for all girls to wear a veil as the Muslims do. This prompted him to visit the school and inform the principal that our culture and tradition does not allow use of a veil. The order was withdrawn and the principal apologized. “We are safe here despite the Muslims being in the majority. We are not afraid of them and forcefully keep to our point of view in debate, bringing them around to our point of view.”


Our next stop was the Pura Bhakti Widhi temple, about 70km from Klaten, (#9 on the page 21 map) in Wedi Village. We met Purwanto, 30, chief of the Parisada for the Gunung Kidul Regency and a teacher of Hinduism. Purwanto said there are 6,000 Hindus in the regency, with 300 in Bento itself. The temple was built with local funding starting in 1975, put into use in 1983 and finally completed in 2001. The district has six puras.


Wonosobo Village

Today, April 25, is our last day in Java. We proceeded early in the morning 150 km to Wonosobo (#10 on the page 21 map) in the Wonosobo Regency; the name comes from the Sanskrit vanasabha, “forest gathering place.” There we met Rishi Dwijati Praviro Dharmo Telaba, senior priest of the Pura Giri Mulyo. He and other Hindu leaders welcomed us at Pura Giri Mulyo, built in 2000. There are about 60 Hindu and 100 Muslim families in the village and some 600 Hindus in the entire regency, which has a population of some 700,000.


Telaba, age 68, said the temple had been built collectively by everyone in the village, Hindus and Muslims alike using materials brought from Bali under the Parisada. Telaba converted from Islam and was trained as a priest in Bali.


He explained, “There is a ritual called shuddhi vidhani by which one may convert to Hinduism. It was in 2000 that I realized my ancestors were Hindus and decided to come back. Later I became a priest. Now my whole family is Hindu. Previously, like many others, we were Muslims on our identity card, but never followed the Muslim way of praying.”


Gentle Souls

During my entire Java trip, though I could not directly understand a single word of what was said in Javanese and heard everything second-hand through Pak Dewa’s translation, still I connected with the Javanese Hindus through our shared traditions, customs and heritage.


Pak Dewa studied and lived with the Javanese Hindus. He said their nature is termed ewuh pakewuh, “non-self assertive.” It means keeping quiet and suffering without any argument or debate. He asserts that this is their shortcoming; they should openly express their feelings. If they had done so, the Balinese Hindus would not have imposed their style of Hinduism on them.


As I fly back to New Delhi, sweet memories of my hosts fill my thoughts. I find the ewuh pakewuh quality a charming feature of the Javanese Hindu persona, being humble yet holding firm to what they want to do and think. They follow the path of equanimity in all circumstances, which is why at least some have persisted for hundreds of years since the last Hindu kingdom of Java fell. There is much we can learn from them.

First published in Hinduism Today. To read article with all pictures click here

Also see pictures

1. Prambanan Temple Java

2. Mother Temple Bali

3. Naga Temple Batam

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