A store selling roses and jasmines, two of the most common offerings to spirits said to inhabit nature.
A store selling roses and jasmines, two of the most common offerings to spirits said to inhabit nature.

RENI IS DELICATELY holding a clay pot while examining its smooth sides. “The Javanese believe that the placenta is the twin child of a newborn,” she tells me. “It is for this reason that when a baby is born, the mother’s placenta is placed in a pot like this, then buried in front of the house for 35 days.”

It’s early Tuesday afternoon. We’re on our way to the Kasihan Spring just outside the center of Yogyakarta and Reni suggests we stop by a store first to buy flowers we can offer to the spirits that are said to reside in the spring’s premises. While the store owner – a 50-something woman – places our purchase in a paper bag, Reni talks with me a little about the traditional Javanese culture.

Her first lesson: Javanese babies are gods incarnated as humans, and they are divine until they turn 35 days old. Which is why parents take a great deal making sure the placenta is okay, because it will eventually return to heaven and back to the mother’s womb.

Incidentally, the flowers we are buying are jasmine, sampaguita in Filipino and ronce milati in Javanese. “The local term for the jasmine means ‘tongue,’” Reni says, “because the Javanese believe these flowers cleanse one’s mouth.”

The woman finishes putting all the flowers we bought inside the bag and hands it to Reni. They say something in Bahasa and then laugh.

“What did she say?” I ask.

“She said you look like an Indonesian.”

I chuckle. “I heard that one before.”

Reni Reni burns offerings for the spirits said to inhabit the area around Kasihan Spring.
Yogyakarta guide Reni Fatmasari burns offerings for the spirits said to inhabit the area around Kasihan Spring.

CUTTING A VERY candid aura, Reni displays intelligence and wisdom that seems far advanced for her youthful facial features. She’s 24 but she looks like a teenager. She’s a language teacher at a local university, though she can pass off as a college student. But today, as a participant of one of ViaVia’s tours, I’m her student. She’s teaching me the various religions of Indonesia and how they shape the country’s social fabric.

We arrive at Kasihan Spring a few minutes later. The place is surrounded by large trees and only the chirping of birds and the children splashing in the water pierce the eerie silence. Reni leads me in front of a small mosque, where she burns our offerings for the spirits said to inhabit the area. As we sit on the porch, she produces a pen and a piece of paper from her bag, draws the map of Indonesia from her memory and proceeds to give me a crash course on the religious history of her country.

Indonesia believes in one God and enforces it through the recognition of six official religions – Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. The government’s advocacy of freedom of religion can be misleading, though, since a citizen can’t choose whatever religion he or she wants except for any of these schools of faith. This was especially true during the time of Suharto, who outlawed atheism because this was closely associated with communism and China, of which the former president was averse to despite being of Chinese descent himself.

Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Confucianism all came to the islands through contacts with outsiders. Hinduism was the first to arrive, brought along by traders from India in the fifth century. The religion gained a strong presence especially in Java and Sumatra, with Hindu leaders able to build powerful states on these islands.

The basic belief of Hinduism is the existence of a supreme being that manifests itself in three forms – Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the preserver; and Shiva, the destroyer. Shiva is the most revered among Indonesians, who have to regularly deal with the fact that their country sits in a region full of geological activities. “Since Shiva is the destroyer, many Indonesian Hindus believe that he is the cause of a lot of the natural calamities that befall our country,” Reni says. “For them, he has to be constantly appeased, which is why he gets more offerings than Brahma or Vishnu.”

Buddhism reached Indonesia at almost the same time as Hinduism, during the 6th century, and its adherents were able to coexist peacefully with the Hindus. The histories of the two religions in the country are very closely linked, with strong Buddhist dynasties established at around the same time as those of the Hindus. Buddhist reign peaked during the Sriwijaya Empire, which at one time became the largest Buddhist empire in Southeast Asia. It was around this time several Buddhist temples were constructed, the famous of which is the Borobudur in Central Java.

All the imported faiths, however, were not successful in fully replacing the traditional beliefs held on to by the people who first inhabited the archipelago, and animism to this day still exerts a very strong influence among many Indonesians. Instead of replacing the original sets of beliefs, the newer religions merged with the foundations of folk traditions and resulted in a unique brand of expressions of faith incorporating the worship of spirits inhabiting natural things and of ancestors. In one way or another, these religions managed to coexist with one another while maintaining a link with traditional beliefs.

For example, according to Reni, this spring we are in right now attracts many locals, and regardless of their religion, most of them believe that there are spirits living in the surrounding trees, and that they need to be appeased. “Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Hindus… it doesn’t matter,” my guide says. “When people come here, they bring with them offerings to burn so they won’t anger the spirits.”

Reni ends with a caveat that I’m really not surprised to hear from her: “I really don’t believe it, but it won’t hurt if we follow the tradition.”

We proceed to the altar where offerings are burned. We put our flowers on a shrine and set them on fire. Then I ask her what the nearby spring is for.

Kasihan means ‘love,’ so it’s where people go and bathe themselves to wish for a happy love life. You want to take a dip?”

“Can I?”

“Sure. I brought a sarong for you just in case.”

Muslim devotees pray in the Mushalla Alamsyhur, a small mosque built by a wealthy family, whose departed members are buried in an adjacent graveyard
Muslim devotees pray in the Mushalla Alamsyhur, a small mosque built by a wealthy family, whose departed members are buried in an adjacent graveyard

AFTERWARDS, WE go to the Mushalla Almasyhur, an Islamic place of worship built by a wealthy family living in the area. The afternoon call to prayer had just been announced and a handful of men have started doing their prayer ritual. While we’re watching them, Reni sheds light on the matters of her faith.

Islam first came to Indonesia with Muslim Arabs, who established trading ports in many parts of the country between the 7th and 8th centuries. It was not until the 13th century, though, when the religion gained a stronghold in the country. Local leaders in Sumatra converted to Islam to allow themselves to get into the prosperous Arab trade links outside their islands. Islam then quickly spread east and through military conquests, Muslim leaders took the whole Sumatra, Java and even Sulawesi. This violent takeover forced the Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit Empire to retreat to East Java towards Bali, which today remains a bastion of Hinduism in the predominantly Muslim archipelago.

Indonesia today has the largest Muslim population in the world, with 88% of its citizens professing the Islamic faith. Many of them follow a moderate version of Islam, which means, in general, women enjoy the same rights as men and are not required to cover their head with a jilbab.

Still, most Indonesian Muslims, upon reaching legal age, follow the five Islamic pillars. The first of which is Shahada, the declaration of faith. A Muslim explicitly states that Allah is the only God and the creator of everything, and Muhammad is His messenger. This involves the daily reading of the Quran, with an individual required to read one letter of Muhammad per day. This is similar to a Christian reading a book – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and so on – of the Bible daily. When finished, he/she repeats the process all over again. All Qurans are written in Arabic “so it’s not uncommon for many Indonesians to be able to read it but not really understand it,” Reni says.

The second pillar obligates a Muslim to pray five times a day – at sunrise, in the morning, at noon, in the afternoon, and at sundown. The prayer ritual starts with wudhu, washing each limb and the face three times with running water. For women, they are then required to put on a special clothing that would cover everything but their face and hands. Each prayer requires a certain number of cycles that, when put together, amount to 17 cycles per day. The prayer is an essential component of the Islamic faith, since it symbolizes the rhythm of an individual’s life, and thus, is a mandatory activity for every Muslim. To miss a prayer time is to sin. It’s for this reason that throughout Indonesia, I see a lot of musholla, prayer rooms that often appear no larger than a small office. Here are where, when the call to prayer blares through public speakers, the devout go to pray, wherever they may be – in an office, in a government building, in a mall, at the park, in the restaurant, at a train station, or at the airport.

The third pillar calls for the faithful to donate to the needy. Muslims believe that the possessions of an individual came from God and that he/she is merely a steward while on earth. For this reason, a Muslim must set aside a portion of his/her belongings to be purified, and through this he/she achieves balance and spiritual growth, not unlike the pruning of a plant. In Indonesia, the most popular item for donation is 2.5 kilos of rice, which, according to Reni, can be given directly by a family to whomever they choose, or to the local government, which will in turn allocate all donations of rice to the poor.

The fourth pillar involves fasting. Every month of Ramadan, Muslims avoid eating, drinking or having sex from sunrise to sundown. Those who are sick or are too old may eat from time to time, but they would be required either to fast at other times of the year or to feed someone unable to feed himself/herself for every day he/she eats or drinks. The aim of this pillar is to help in the spiritual development of an individual by removing “worldly pleasures.” Through this, a person obtains true sympathy from those who are in fact without the capacity to feed or fend for themselves.

The last pillar is the pilgrimage, in which Muslims travel to Mecca and perform the rituals of the Hajji. This is not compulsory and only those with the physical and financial capability to do so are required. To be able to carry this out is nonetheless a great honor for many devotees, millions of whom flock to the city in Saudi Arabia every year for the pillar’s fulfillment.

“But it’s a very painstaking process,” Reni says, “especially if you do it through the government.”

In Indonesia, a Muslim who wants to participate in a Hajji can either do so by enlisting in a government-sponsored lineup or privately through a travel agent. While the latter is obviously costly, the former is subject to a lot of red tapes and can take a very long time.

“For instance,” Reni says, “if I enlist next year, I’ll probably be eligible to go in 2023.”

When the men are finished with their prayers, they stand up and greet Reni. They talk a bit and before long, Reni excuses herself.

It’s time for her to pray, and she invites me to watch.

The classroom for an animist school just outside Yogyakarta. The three men depicted in the portrait on the wall are the school's teachers.
The classroom for an animist school just outside Yogyakarta. The three men depicted in the portrait on the wall are the school’s teachers.

WE DRIVE NEXT to an animist school a few kilometers away, where students are taught various folk Javanese traditions and beliefs. An image of Ganesha, the Hindu god with the head of an elephant, greets us in front of the compound.

“I thought this was an animist school? Why is there an image of a Hindu deity?” I ask Reni.

“It is,” she assures me, “but, remember, religions in Indonesia are interconnected. It’s common for many locals to incorporate some elements of another religion to theirs, depending on how they see fit.”

Thus, it makes sense that Ganesha, a symbol of wisdom, stands guard in front of a school, never mind that it inculcates a tenet of a different faith.

To further make the point, Reni leads me at the back of a the compound, in what appears to be a living room. She takes a calendar off the wall and shows it to me. At first glance, it looks like a regular Western calendar. But upon closer look, I see the dates arranged vertically, and aside from the Gregorian ones, there are a sets of other dates as well.

“These are the Javanese, Arabic and Chinese dates. Each one is very important to many Javanese, and they will regularly consult a Javanese calendar to find out whether if it’s good fortune to hold a major event in a certain date. For example, even if it’s good by Javanese standards to hold a wedding on a certain date, but not with the Arabic one, they won’t hold a wedding on that date.”

We go further to the back of the school. I spot a couple of men sitting near a large tree trunk. “It’s another spring, but this one’s for good wealth. It’s mainly for people who are starting up a business. They’d go here to wish for a successful endeavor.”

A The Chinese cemetery contains gravestones showing the different religious orientations of its occupants.
A Chinese cemetery contains gravestones showing the different religious orientations of its occupants.

LEAVING THE SCHOOL behind, Reni takes me to a Chinese graveyard up a hill. The land is leased by the government and whoever wishes to have his/her beloved ones buried in this site has to pay a substantial amount for rent. For this reason, only the well-heeled can afford to have their departed rest here.

But the cemetery is technically open for everyone regardless of faith, and as a result, every grave marker is designed differently. There are cherubs on one, lion statues on another, and Hindu elements on yet another. Most of them, however, bear two names – their Chinese name, and their Indonesian name.

Suharto’s anti-Chinese policy during the Cold War era ensured that all expressions of Chinese culture and beliefs were banned, including Confucianism. Many ethnic Chinese were forced to change their names to Indonesian ones and their religion to any of the five other recognized ones. Most Confucians declared either Buddhism or Protestantism as their religion, though for the most part this was nominal; many of the converts would covertly go on with the traditions and rituals of their original culture and religion.

“For instance, I didn’t know that I am of a Chinese descent,” Reni recalls, her gaze across the graveyard. “I only knew because when I was young, we went to my grandparents’ house, I saw them burning incense and praying just as the Chinese would do.”

Nevertheless, Confucianism became one of Indonesia’s recognized religions in 1998, when the reign of Suharto ended and a new era of Indonesian governance was born.

A Catholic Church in Yogyakarta has no seats; the congregation is instead expected to sit on the floor, in keeping with the Javanese tradition.
A Catholic Church in Yogyakarta has no seats; the congregation is instead expected to sit on the floor, in keeping with the Javanese tradition.

JUST BEFORE EVENING, Reni takes me to a church on a hilltop a few kilometers outside the city proper. A well shaped like a ship marks the entrance, and this is where the priest gets his holy water. Since the well is so deep and obtaining water can take minutes, reserves of the liquid are kept in plastic bottles on a nearby shelf.

Christianity came last among Indonesia’s recognized religions and its presence made not much of an impact in general, since Islam already has had a strong grip among Indonesians, and also because religious conversion was not the European colonizers’ priority. The Portuguese brought with them Catholicism, which made headways in the islands of Flores and West Timor in East Nusa Tenggara. Protestantism, on the other hand, arrived with the Dutch, who wanted to control the spice trade in Southeast Asia. The Dutch established settlements in Maluku and several other sites across Indonesia in the 1600s. At present, majority of Indonesian Protestants are in Sulawesi and Maluku.

“Which is weird,” Reni says. “Sulawesi has a sizable Christian population in a mostly Muslim country, and yet it is close to the Philippine island of Mindanao, which has a significant Muslim population in an otherwise predominantly Christian country.”

We climb a stairway to the building itself, which has a distinct Javanese architecture. Reni recognizes it as a Catholic church, since in front is a large cross with an image of a crucified Christ and along the walls around the building are sculptures of the Stations of the Cross. The main hall has neither pews nor chairs, and the congregation is expected to sit on the floor during services, which are held every fifth day of the Javanese calendar, rather than on Sundays. Another religious mash-up.

Outside there is a much larger cross and at its foot is a large bowl containing ashes of incense and newly burnt offerings. I’m looking at the cross, which stands much higher than me. “Do you want to make a wish before we return to the city?” Reni asks.

I nod.

She takes her pen and another piece of paper from her bag and hands it to me.

“Dear God…” I start to write. I pause. I have so much going on in my head, but I write just the first three things that come to mind. I fold the paper into a long rectangle and nod to Reni.

She takes a live coal from underneath the bowl, then we wait for a moment for the paper to catch fire. I place it in the bowl and watch it become among the ashes of previous wishes. I say a little prayer, look up to the heavens, and send my thanks.

First published in TravelBlog on September 13, 2013.

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2 thoughts

  1. Never knew they HAD to choose a religion and that their Catholic churches didn’t have pews or chairs. I learned a lot from your post. Thanks for sharing. Beautiful pics as usual.

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