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The Mystique Of Javanism

Steeped in myths, legends, ancient traditions and mystical practices, Javanism is a fascinating study on centuries’ old rituals that continue to govern the lives of the people of Java. 

Words: Travel 3Sixty° Editorial, Aditya Suryaputra & Gembong Nusantara             Photography: Gembong Nusantara

In Javanese philosophy, man co-exists in a world that merges the physical realm with the supernatural or spiritual one. Locals see it as the coming together of the macrocosm and microcosm. The macrocosm is the larger existence, one that covers spirituality and the supernatural, and is laced with mystery and things the naked eye is not able to perceive.

     The microcosm is the physical plane – one that encompasses everyday living. Like many traditional beliefs in Indonesia, the aim is to bring these differing philosophies together in perfect union. Having roots in Hinduism and Buddhism, the life principles of Javanism advocate finding harmony – be it while living or in the life thereafter. With strong emphasis on inner peace, fi nding balance and achieving harmony in everything that one does, the philosophy of this tradition is rich with life lessons that help man live, understand and interpret his existence, be it sein (being) or the werden (becoming). Javanism, right from its inception, has been able to withstand changes from within the Javanese society, due to its enduring qualities that transcend time and space. It is less of a religion, and more of a set of codes that govern life, ethics and worldviews, and is inspired and influenced by the Javanese mindset. The practices are widespread and although Java island is predominantly Muslim, the Javanese people have successfully assimilated their religious beliefs with ancient traditions. Here are some of the more prevalent cultural practices of the locals that continue to thrive. 

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The Tenggerese people who live around Mt Bromo believe that their ancestors, Princess Roro Anteng and Prince Joko Seger, sacrificed their 25th child to the volcano after being granted progeny. They continue the tradition of honouring their forebears with ritual offerings such as vegetables, fruits, money, livestock and paddy to the volcano during the Yadnya Kasada celebrations, seen here at Lumajang, East Java.


The native Tengger people live around Mt. Bromo, one of Indonesia’s renowned mountains and an active volcano that offers spectacular views of sunrise. In Probolinggo, East Java, about a four-hour ride from Surabaya, the Tengger people practise a culture that merges Hinduism with Javanism. 

     Their religious practices include prayers to Hindu gods such as Shiva, Vishnu and other deities, but when the Tengger people conduct prayers, there is a marked difference between their religion and the Hinduism from India. The locals mix their own mythology and local beliefs with Hindu teachings, creating a very unique form of Hinduism, which is manifested in ceremonies such as Kasada

     For the Tenggerese, Mt Bromo is not merely part of their landscape, but a sacred entity that is revered and feared for its might and destructive forces. Once a year, they hold a ritualistic ceremony called Tengger Yadnya Kasada or Kesodo at a temple on the northern slope of the mountain. The festival is celebrated from midnight to early morning on the day of the full moon in the month of Kasada (the 10th month in the Javanese calendar, around mid-July). 

     This fascinating tradition is based on the legend of Princess Roro Anteng and Prince Joko Seger, from which the name Tengger is derived. The childless couple prayed at Bromo, beseeching the gods to bless them with progeny. Appeased by their devotion, the gods granted their wish by blessing them with 24 children, but with the condition that the 25th be sacrificed to the volcanic mountain. It is said that the couple kept their word and in memory of the 25th child who was returned to the volcano, the Tenggerese visit every year to offer gratitude, seek blessings and pray for prosperity by climbing to the top of the mountain to sacrifice livestock, fruits and vegetables; they even throw money into theactive volcano! 

     Dressed in batik sarong and bundled in jackets and scarves to keep the biting cold at bay, the locals gather at the Luhur Poten temple compound located in the middle of the Bromo Caldera, some 2,930 metres above sea level to commemorate Yadnya Kasada. Before embarking on the final ascent, the Tenggerese pass by a small platform where a shaman blesses all the offerings that are to be flung into the volcano for a small fee. Once blessed, the devotees climb the staircase and finally gather at the rim of the volcano where they perform the sacrifice, along with a prayer. Nothing goes to waste here, as on the inner side of the steep sandy slope, villagers jostle and risk their lives to catch the offerings, which are collected and sold off later. 

     The ritual has become a very important event in the local tourism calendar and attracts thousands of local and foreign travellers who hope to catch a glimpse of an ancient tradition that continues to endure. 


In Central Java, abangan, which is an amalgam of animistic, Hindu-Buddhist, Islamic and Javanism way of life, emerged around 1500 BC. The arrival of Islam was first accepted by the local elites, which thenspread further to the different classes in society. The locals followed a tradition that came to be known as abangan and priyayi. American anthropologist Clifford Geertz described abangan and priyayi respectively as, “the lower class and elite varieties of Javanese syncretism”. In a nutshell, having converted to Islam, the locals follow Islamic laws and prayer methods, but also apply ancient Javanism traditions like ziarah makam, a ritual that involves visiting the tombs of Javanese kings to attain salvation. In addition, Javanism also extols ‘super-consciousness’ in which a higher level of consciousness can be achieved through meditation and rituals; inanimate objects and weapons like the keris (wavy dagger) and tombak (lance) are said to have supernatural abilities and need to be appeased with offerings and prayer. 

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Worshippers with gunungan offerings containing vegetables and fruits during a sacrificial ritual to mark the establishment of their village on the hills near Yogyakarta.


Sekaten is a week-long festival that celebrates Mawlid, the birthday of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). In Yogyakarta, the event is a joyous celebration with the main event conducted at the Yogyakarta Palace. It is said that Sultan Hamengku Buwana I used the Sekaten (from the Arabic word syahadatain) celebrations to invite locals to embrace Islam. During the celebrations, offerings of food, vegetables, fruits and rice from the palace in the shape of a mountain called gunungan is blessed and distributed among the congregation. Symbolising prosperity, many take the sacred food home to be scattered in the fields for a bountiful harvest and to avert disasters. 

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Men in traditional Javanese attire deliver gunungan or offerings in shape of a mountain made up of vegetables, fruits and stalks of paddy to the spirits of the sea during a ritual called Sedekah Laut (Sea Sacrifice) in Depok beach near Yogyakarta.

     At Depok Beach, on the southern outskirts of Yogyakarta, locals, especially fishermen and coastal dwellers, gather to offer gunungan to the ocean. The mountain-shaped offering is presented to the sea in hope that the sea will reciprocate with a good catch and protect the people from harm.  

     As the gunungan is set out to sea, the waves wash the fruits, vegetable and rice stalks back to the beach. Local  enthusiastically grab these blessed offerings hoping that consuming them will bring good luck and prosperity. 

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Javanese worshippers preparing the gunungan offering. A communal activity, the whole village contributes the raw material that goes into the making of the offering.

     The gunungan is a truly interesting study of the local ethos as it stems from the Javanism principle that mountains represent nirvana (a transcendent state attained as a result of being released from the cycle of rebirth) and are the dwelling place of spirits and deities. An offering shaped like a mountain pays respect to this belief and provides a physical manifestation of man’s grateful offerings (sajen wilujengan in Javanese) to the gods. 

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Thousands gather at the palace courtyard to witness the ancient ritual of Kebo Bule (albino buffalo) held by the Surakarta royal household of Solo in conjunction with the Javanese New Year.


Similar mystical practices deeply rooted in Javanism take place in the city of Solo during the Javanese New Year, which is celebrated during the same time as the Islamic New Year; Sultan Agung of Mataram (1613 – 1645) adapted the local calendar to the Islamic one. 

     What’s unique about this celebration is the inclusion of the Javanism ritual of the Procession of the Water Buffalo named Kebo Bule. Thousands gather at the palace compound to accompany an albino water buffalo that is believed to have descended from a mythical buffalo called Kyai Slamet. During the procession, Javanese people wait for the buffalo to  defecate and later, jostle to collect the dung. Locals believe that the excrement will bring fertility and a good harvest, which makes sense as cow dung does fertilise the earth, thus symbolising bounty and fertility. 


In Javanese tradition, myths are an integral part of life and exist in every aspect of living. In fact, even the Dutch colonists deviously reduced resistance from the Javanese by lacing myths and legends into the setting up of sugar mills. In Madukismo sugar factory, located in the outskirts of Yogyakarta, at the beginning of the sugarcane milling process, workers hoping to get the best produce and to avert any untoward incident, sacrifice two buffalo heads to appease spirits in the milling machinery. Besides the buffaloes, grilled chickens and other food items are also offered to take care of any mischief-making spirits. The ceremony starts with a 1.5-km procession comprising workers and locals carrying two bundles of sugarcane named Kyai Tumpak and Nyai Kasih. The two bundles are ritually ‘married’ in a ceremony called manten tebu or cembengan and will be the first sugarcane fed into the mill for juice extraction. As for the heads of the sacrificial buffaloes, one is buried in front of the mill building while the other is placed near the milling machine. 

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A Javanese trance dancer performing a ritual cleansing of a woven bamboo horse used in the Jathilan dance in the middle of a river confluence in Kulon Progo, Yogyakarta. The Javanese believe the place where two rivers meet is filled with mystical powers that can infuse the Jathilan horses with supernatural qualities.


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Jathilan dancers go into trance during a dance performance in Cangkringan Sleman, Yogyakarta. The trance dance is part of a ritual held by villagers who inhabit the slopes of the Merapi volcano.


It is customary for Javanese people to communicate with spirits for various purposes. Going into a trance is a popular method to reach out to the supernatural world. In Yogyakarta, a trance dance called Jathilan continues to bridge the gap between the human and the spirit world. In Cangkringan, on the southern slope of Merapi volcano, during the commemoration of Yogyakarta’s empire formation, groups of Jathilan dancers hold the trance dance performance to convey sacred messages. 

     The dance starts with men in colourful attire prancing astride cut out bamboo horses in a war-like dance surrounded by whip bearing ringmasters. As the accompanying gamelan (traditional Indonesian musical ensemble) music gets frenzied, the dancers match the rising tempo with furious dance steps till they reach a point where they fall to the ground and start writhing. Notably transformed, their eyes bulge; they speak in an unfamiliar language, screaming and screeching. Some take on animal characteristics and start acting like monkeys or tigers. 

     At this moment, it is said that spirits have entered the dancers’ bodies, infusing them with superhuman powers like eating glass shards and even red embers. Some swallow live chickens and ducks while others peel coconuts with their bare teeth. They also show off their physical strength by receiving whip lashes or breaking hard material like roof tiles and bricks using their bare heads. 

     After the performance, a local shaman revives the dancers by casting the spirits out of their bodies. The dancers, though exhausted, are generally unaware of what has just transpired. 

     And thus, Javanism continues to live and flourish in the hearts, minds and lives of the Javanese people who have assimilated centuries-old traditions quite seamlessly into their present-day existence. Mystical and seemingly baffling to onlookers, these traditions continue to establish identity, provide a solid link to their roots and mark the uniqueness of the Javanese people and their cultural milieu. 

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