In Java, Indonesia’s traditionally relaxed Islam has lost ground to an assertive new orthodoxy.

The name Dieng comes from Di Hyang, Sanskrit for “place of the gods,” and the small cluster of squat, gray stone temples on the Dieng Plateau was said to be the oldest in Java. Even with missing faces and lost limbs, the disfigured thousand-year-old goddesses on the walls remained graceful; a fluidity survived in the curve of their hips. Despite the tropical latitude, the weather had bite here, three thousand meters above sea level. My fingers were soon numb, and a chill spread across my ears.

The temples were ringed with hills and volcanoes, and as the late afternoon sun played games with the clouds, they lit up in dazzling colors. Mist shrouded one; a patchwork of greens checker-boarded the next; a blanket of silver covered a third. At one time, temples dotted these hills—four hundred in all, they said. I could imagine the priests bare-shouldered in saffron robes, the temple fires lighting up the night sky. One didn’t have to believe to understand the impulse to elevate this magical natural beauty, to transmute it to the spiritual.


Borobudur, Java, Indonesia. Photo by “Dan Eckstein”:

The azaan rose from a nearby mosque, and then, as though passed like a baton, from another, and another, and the next. I counted seven mosques from where I stood in the center of the temple complex, though not all were within earshot, and a couple more were coming up. They were walking distance from each other. Like crucifixes in a horror film, onion-domed mosques to ward off the past.

Islam was a relatively recent import to this part of the world. It washed up on the western tip of present-day Indonesia in the twelfth century, took root in the fifteenth, and became dominant across much of the archipelago as late as the seventeenth. For the most part, it arrived through trade rather than conquest, by Indian dhow rather than Arab charger. It was preceded by more than a millennium of Hinduism and Buddhism, whose achievements included Borobudur, a massive ninth-century Buddhist stupa, and Majapahit, a Hindu-Buddhist empire whose influence stretched to present-day Cambodia. As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote in comparing Indonesia to Morocco: “In Indonesia Islam did not construct a civilization, it appropriated one.”

By the time the new faith took hold in the archipelago, its influence in other parts of the world had already begun to wane. The high-water marks of Islamic civilization—Abbasid Baghdad and Moorish Spain—had long receded, and in 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella’s armies completed the Reconquista by evicting the Moors from Granada. Portuguese gunships had already entered Southeast Asian waters when Majapahit, under attack from new Islamic kingdoms, sputtered its last in the early 1500s.

The advent of European influence in the archipelago meant that Islam was denied the long political supremacy it held in regions closer to the first flush of Arab power, and with it the chance to cement its hold on society, to shape habits of mind, to determine a way of living. In 1619, the Dutch established their headquarters at Batavia, today’s Jakarta. Except for a brief period of Japanese rule during World War II, they stayed until 1949.

You still see Dutch fingerprints here and there in the big cities, in the odd word (bioskop for movie theater, rekening for account), or in a sturdy old building; but it is the Hindu-Buddhist past that is felt most clearly. This is the only place in the world where you might call yourself Muslim yet name your children Vishnu and Sita; seek moral guidance in a wayang shadow puppet performance of the Mahabharata; and believe in Dewi Sri, the goddess of the rice paddy, Ratu Kidul, Queen of the South Seas, and Nini Tawek, angel of the Javanese kitchen.

Though I was Hindu by birth, I grew up in a westernized home in India and was never particularly religious. By the time I was sixteen, an early agnosticism had blossomed into full-blown atheism. Nonetheless, over time, living in Jakarta as a foreign correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review and Wall Street Journal Asia, I had developed a kind of sentimental attachment to the idea of Java. It was as though an invisible thread linked my Indonesian present to my Indian past. It was this sentiment that had drawn me to Dieng.

Historically, the Javanese had not confused being Muslim with being Arab. They had bent Islam to their culture rather than the other way round. In Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, V. S. Naipaul writes: “It was as if, at this far end of the world, the people of Java had taken what was most humane and liberating from the religions that had come their way, to make their own.”

[In Indonesia] Islam was denied the long political supremacy it held in regions closer to the first flush of Arab power.

They had taken the best of Islam, its simple egalitarianism, its ability to infuse drab lives with dignity, without devaluing their earlier achievements. The Javanese retained their own history and architecture, their own names, their own dress and dance and music, their own rituals at birth and marriage and death, even their own conception of the afterlife. It was these, expressed in a million subtle ways in gesture and carriage and voice, that gave their civilization such a high gloss at what remained, after all, a very low level of income.

It was these that the wave of orthodox Islam that had washed over Indonesia in the last thirty-odd years threatened to extinguish.

The Javanist priest lived down a narrow alley behind an unmarked door. On his living room wall hung a sepia-tinted photograph of a man who looked a little bit like the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore—a dark Indian face, a white beard, and shoulder-length white hair. He had a haunted look in his eyes, as though he had seen something terrible. The priest watched me examine the picture.

“That’s Tumenggung Kaladete,” he said. “He ran away to Dieng in 1628 to escape conversion to Islam. He was a descendant of the King Brawijaya III. He climbed to the top of a mountain and attained enlightenment.” He used the Sanskrit word moksha for enlightenment.

“How do you have a photo if he lived four hundred years ago?”

The priest smiled enigmatically and didn’t dignify this with a response.

“He still appears on misty days,“ he said simply. “He still appears in white robes.”

We were at the birthplace of the Javanese, said the priest, not far from the village of Parikshit. The Javanese believed Parikshit, the son of Abhimanyu and grandson of Arjuna from the Mahabharata, to be their common ancestor. Parikshit’s son was Joyo Amijoyo, an ancestor of Joyoboyo, the Javanese king who had authored a famous prophesy about colonization by the Dutch, their displacement by the Japanese, and eventual independence.

They had taken the best of Islam, its simple egalitarianism, its ability to infuse drab lives with dignity, without devaluing their earlier achievements.

The priest remembered a time when there were many more temples in Dieng. As a boy, he had seen villagers stealing the stones and using them to build bathrooms. This part of Java was much poorer then. That was before someone invented a way to grow two crops of potato per year instead of one. The potato boom had more than doubled incomes. Many mosques came up. Many, many people discovered the hajj. A thousand headscarves bloomed.

The priest wore a checked sarong and a black cardigan over a brown silk shirt secured with a flap. He had wrapped a batik turban around his head. His eye sockets were as deep as mineshafts, his body squat and compact like a gymnast’s. I had tagged along to his home with four students from Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta whom I had met several hours earlier at the temples. One of them was writing a thesis about ancient religions in Java. (Another of his chapters was about the Badui in west Java, who barred outsiders from entering their villages.)

The priest led us downstairs to his prayer room and seated himself cross-legged on a straw mat stretched across the narrow floor while we watched from the doorway. He lit a cube of something dark and massy like nougat, and the room filled with a sweetish fragrance. On a small table beside the burning fragrance sat a bushel of small bananas and a dish with red roses, white roses, kenanga, and kantil flowers. A black and white flag with three stripes was propped against a wall. It was a holy flag, said the priest. Near it he had laid out fourteen small glasses filled with liquids—sweet tea, bitter tea, sweet coffee, bitter coffee, coffee with coconut milk, and so on—a glass each for fourteen generations of ancestors.

“I’m Muslim,” explained the priest. “But Aliran Aji Saka. I am the keeper of the keys to the holy sites.” Aliran referred to a stream of belief; Aji Saka was a legendary Javanese prince, credited with giving his people writing, chronology, and their first political organization.

As he put a match to the nougat, it came to life with a hiss, like a bonsai volcano, and sizzled and burned.

My thoughts turned briefly to Herry, my fundamentalist friend and traveling companion, his head filled with certainties, a Koranic parable never far from his lips. A week earlier, we had parted in east Java. After visiting his parents outside Surabaya, Herry would be back at work editing a Saudi-funded magazine that kept up a steady drumbeat of disapproval of anything touched by the pagan past. I felt glad to be here alone, away from the shadow of his disapproval.

The priest led us back upstairs to the room with the mystic’s photo. About an hour later, well after nightfall, we set out behind him, single file in the dark through a warren of alleys that soon gave way to grassy mountain paths. There were seven of us, not counting the priest: the students, two disciples from out of town (one a Balinese man), and me.

At length, we stopped at a steep-walled clearing where the priest unfurled a bamboo mat under white trumpet-shaped flowers. I could hear water fall through a carved stone spout above us. Someone whispered that this was the source of the river Sarayu. The clouds had parted, allowing the stars to shine through. The priest fashioned a small offering of flowers and kenanga leaves and unfiltered kreteks. He lit twelve joss sticks, tall and red. Then he sprayed something on a lump of the dark nougat he had lit in the prayer room. As he put a match to the nougat, it came to life with a hiss, like a bonsai volcano, and sizzled and burned. The priest said a prayer under his breath. He placed his palms over the flames and brought them to his eyes, and then the two other men did the same. The two university boys watched silently, but the girls—in jeans and headscarves and thick mittens—kept up a giggly chatter. The spray he had used on the nougat was called Marlboro No. 1 Deodorant Spray (NY Special). More giggles escaped from under the headscarves when they saw me jot this down.

When the priest had rolled up his bamboo mat, we washed our faces and hands in cold, fresh river water before scrambling up a set of slippery steps cut into a cliff. This time we stopped at a large flat stone. The priest repeated the ritual. When the time came, the two followers from out of town held their weathered hands over the flame a long time, as though warming their bones. I took the flames, too, quickly and self-consciously. The priest asked the university kids to join in, but they declined. He tried to reassure them. “Don’t worry, this is for all people,” he said. They declined again. He could not reach them; their Islamization was complete. But one of the university boys showed a touch of sensitivity by requesting the chattering headscarves to be quiet. After a while, they decided to return to their guesthouse, escorted by one of the boys.

Our dwindling band followed the priest to a third holy spot and then a fourth. The fifth was Gua Semar, the abode of Semar, guardian of Java. According to legend, he had tended a small plot of rice for ten thousand years before the first settlers arrived to clear the forests. Gua Semar was one of the most famous meditation spots in Java. General Suharto would visit to bolster his spiritual power, and had once brought an Australian prime minister here as a token of special regard. The priest unlocked a metal gate. We followed him down mossy steps to a low-lipped cave that demanded we stoop to enter. Inside, the confined space sharpened my senses: plastic bags rustled like small explosions; the scent of flowers thickened; the flame, hissing and spitting, concentrated both sight and hearing. When my turn came, I allowed my hands to linger over the flame, savoring its heat before passing it over my eyes and ears.

Once we were outside again, walking briskly in the cold and dark, our breath foggy, I asked the priest about Gua Semar. Where were the locals? He said some of the villagers wanted to follow him, but the local representative of the orthodox Islamic group Muhammadiyah—he had studied somewhere: Egypt, or Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia; the priest wasn’t sure—had forbidden it.

We tagged behind him to another two caves, dank and cold and holy, but my mind had deserted the rituals; it had been invaded by the tale of the potato hajjis, their sudden wealth and its unforeseen consequences. Something about the story illustrated the special cruelty of Islam in poor countries far from its heartland. Farmers in Thailand or Vietnam or China might have ploughed their extra income into schools and hospitals, or into business. But here they caught a flight to Saudi Arabia and paid to have their sons educated in intolerance.

It was the most successful form of colonialism: the colonized mind identified completely with the colonizer. The Javanese had held out for centuries, but finally they had lost. Their idea of there being many paths to God, none better than the other, had broken under the weight of the orthodox Arab injunction about the one true faith. The Javanese now skulked like criminals where their president had meditated just twenty years earlier.

Sadanand Dhume was born in New Delhi and educated in India and the United States. He currently divides his time between Washington and New Delhi, where he is researching a nonfiction book on the impact of globalization on India. Sadanand has written for publications including the Wall Street Journal, the Far Eastern Economic Review, and Foreign Policy. His book My Friend the Fanatic, about radical Islam in Indonesia, has been published in Australia, the U.S., Indonesia, and India.

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14 Comments on “The Colonized Mind

  1. as far as i know di hyang is not a sanskrit word. it may have originated from sanskrit though. the author may check on this.

  2. Thankyou for this revealing piece. Although the narratives are markedly different, I see some parallels to “Krakatoa” by Simon Winchester in terms of the Javanese conversion to Islam. An inability to think beyond the identity of Saudi wahabbi doctrines bodes ill for the global community. There can be no conversation with those who refuse rational engagement.


  3. This is a more thoughtful description of Islam in practice than I am accustomed to reading. It tends to confirm my view that Islam has no internal defenses against purism. Every other important religion does.

    That the Javanese held out for a relatively long time against purism may be related to the split between civil and religious authority, unusual in Islamic countries.

  4. I was looking for a topic absolutely different than this topic but I’m very glad I stumbled upon your blog. I found this post very intriguing. I plan on visting the rest of the site when I finish typing this message. Thank-you

  5. It does seem that everybody is into this kind of stuff lately. Don’t really understand it though, but thanks for trying to explain it. Appreciate you shedding light into this matter. Keep it up

  6. After reading this I’d like to say that not all conventional Western answers work for everybody, yet we’re so inclined to consider without thinking that it is correct and anything else suspect we do not question an alternative? Why not just try an alternative? It is at least worth a chance.

  7. Obama is largely powerless to stop it though; if he had said he opposed it, many in NYC, especially in Manhattan (the opposition is primarily in the outer boroughs) would have seen it as an unwanted intrusion into local issues.

  8. It’s really Embarrassing that individuals allow for Extremist Foreign Political People on our soil after years of hate towards our nation. The usa should get free from the UN and show these types of extremists what we think of there idiotic ideological background. Qaddafi, Ahmadinejad, Chavez, and others have far to long been made welcome to this particular Sacred and Unique nation. I only say Enough will do, Shut down our doors to those Hateful Bastards and Say No to the U.N. Get out, your NOT nor have never been welcomed.

  9. Exceptional! Ahmadinejad did us a favor! While we desperately delude ourself into considering this guy (and people who applaud him) are fit to be thought of as good humans, he spits in our face to tell us that many of us are (again) fooling ourselves.

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