Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Java Man (aka Where Are The Muslims?)

Of the little we in the West know of Indonesia, the fact that it's the most populous Muslim country in the world, with over 200 million officially registered adherents (more on this definition in a later post), is probably the most widely known factoid, helped by the odd Islamist bombing and display of irrational intolerance that make great media headlines. However it is an Islam that wouldn't be recognised in the Middle East. Islam came relatively late to the Indonesian archipelago, some time in the 12th century, by which time Hinduism had already been there for a millennium and Buddhism about half that, and it wasn't until the late 15th century that it became the dominant religion. Such a long legacy of Indian religions cannot but fail to leave a trace, a trace that is most evident in the Javanese heartland, which, paradoxically, is also considered to be among the most conservatively Muslim parts of the country.

Smoking Mount Merapi (one of the most active volcanoes in the world) towering above the ruins of Borobudur (visible in the centre-right of the picture as a small point, though trust me, it's big) in the pre-dawn mist.

Jakarta may be Indonesia's capital, richest city, centre of decision-making and beating heart of the nation, but the soul of Java is elsewhere. Despite Jakarta and Bandung being on the island of Java, their inhabitants would not generally consider themselves Javanese but rather Sundanese. The homeland of the Javanese lies further to the east around the cities of Yogyakarta (pronounced Jogjakarta and affectionately called Jogja) and Surakarta (universally known as Solo), where timeless traditions that predate the coming of Islam are still part of the fabric of everyday life. The Javanese arguably possess the most sophisticated culture and arts of Indonesia's many ethnic groups. This is most evident in the performing arts, but shows through in their more reserved and gentle mannerisms and interactions with others. Rarely will you hear car horns honking in Jogja or Solo (at least not compared to other Indonesian cities) and the Javanese language itself has three registers, with completely different vocabularies, depending on the hierarchical relationships between interlocutors. It also means that Javanese will rarely say no, even when it's what they mean, which can be quite exasperating.

Both Jogja and Solo continue to have royal families, headed by sultans who play important roles in social and religious ceremonies. Although Solo's sultan has a purely ceremonial role the sultan of Jogja is also the governor of its own administrative region and wields considerable temporal power. Both, however, are important patrons of the arts and the kratons (royal palaces) stage performances and rehearsals of Javanese dancing, puppetry and gamelan orchestra on an almost daily basis. Interestingly the performing arts heritage of the Javanese stems almost entirely from their Hindu-Buddhist past and seems strangely discordant with the professed Islamic faith of most of the population. In fact, if it weren't for the headscarves (worn by perhaps a third to half the female population) and the azaan waking you up at some ridiculous hour in the morning then you would be hard-pressed to believe that the majority is Muslim. A friend of mine who lives in Solo was lucky enough to meet one of the members of the royal family (who are far more accessible than the British royal family) and told him that he was glad to be in Indonesia as it was his first experience of a Muslim country. To which the royal laughed and said that they're not really Muslim, and instead uphold the Kejawen, or Javanese beliefs traditions, which have fused all the religious influences into a syncretic, esoteric practice centred on a multitude of rituals and customs.

A classical Javanese gamelan orchestra playing in Jogja's kraton whilst accompanying a wayang (puppet) performance.

On closer inspection Islam really seems to be an external veneer and many locals I have talked to (not just in Java, but throughout Indonesia) don't seem to know all that much about the religion to which they supposedly belong and just go along with the basics they've been instructed in (pray five times a day, don't drink, don't eat pork, etc.) without being aware of many of its details. An obvious example is the Sufi origin of Indonesian Islam, with the veneration of Muslim saints, acclaimed to have magical powers, and making pilgrimages to their graves, that contrasts with the complete lack of knowledge of Sufism today (many don't even know that there are different branches of Islam such as Sunni, Shi'ite and Sufi). Whatever the case it is most certainly the non-Muslim aspects of Indonesia that attract the crowds, from traditional music and dance to ancient Hindu and Buddhist ruins. The big daddies of these are the Hindu temples of Prambanan and the Buddhist stupa of Borobudur, both dating to the 9th century and only 50km apart, easily rivalling the ruins of Angkor or anything in India and attracting a deserved torrent of visitors. (I won't bother describing them as you can easily find better pictures and descriptions than I could ever write of them online.)

Side view of the Prambanan temple complex (note, the big temple you can see on your right is hiding an even larger one behind it).

It seems though that whatever the Javanese endeavour spiritually and culturally, they certainly run with it. Solo may be a centre for Hindu-Buddhist arts (just don't tell them that that's what it is), but it is also reputed as being the most conservatively Muslim town in all of Indonesia. And yet that doesn't stop it from also being home to Southeast Asia's largest evangelical mega-church, of the variety that one would expect to find in America's Bible Belt, complete with karaoke hymns, dancers, video projectors and a manically gesticulating pastor selling salvation. A truly odd experience, not least because it's not one you would expect to find amongst the reserved Javanese. Then finally, to round off the collection of religious confusion, on the slopes of Mount Lawu, above Solo, lies a Hindu temple, looking unlike any other I've ever seen and bearing more of a likeness to a Mayan pyramid. Festooned with imagery of phalluses and vaginas, some merely symbolic whilst others blatantly graphic, it is a popular destination for local women, irrespective of creed, who are looking to conceive.

Solo's evangelical mega-church, with a capacity of around 10,000 (it was about three quarters full or more when I was there) demonstrates Indonesia's religious diversity, even in places that are considered staunchly Muslim.

Java is undoubtedly one of the most culturally rich and vibrant destinations you can visit, just don't expect to be able to make any sense of it.

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