A Whirlwind Tour of Javanese History and Religion through the Eyes of a Young Man


YOGYAKARTA - I first meet Heru with a six-foot snake wrapped around his neck. “You get used to it,” he assures me. “I was scared at first too but now I love him.” His running joke with guests is that they cannot check out unless they wrap the reptilian prehistoric beast across their necks as well. I like him immediately, with his warm approach to the guests at the backpacker hostel and his easygoing attitude.

Heru explains to me an ancient Javanese saying: sabda pandita ratu, which roughly translates to “if you speak it, you can not take it back.” He has a way of saying this phrase with a certain conviction, a forceful determination behind his words. He explains that it’s an idiom to express a binding promise, a promise he made to his parents that he will not return home until he has secured a scholarship to study in Europe. It’s been three years and he hasn’t been home since. For a Javan, I can only imagine the torture that this must be. His almond shaped eyes betray a hint of sadness behind typically Javanese stoicism.

We become friends instantly. I ask about visiting the Dieng Plateau, a three-hour drive north of Yogyakarta, the cultural capital of Java, where we have met. His eyes light up and I can see ideas forming in his head. He is from that area, he says, and will take me camping there to show me around. We will not, however, be visiting his home. He insists that he cannot go back until his promise is complete.

Dieng comes from the Sanskrit Di Hyang, meaning “Abode of the Gods.” This is where the original Hindus in Java lived under the Majapahit Empire, one of the great ancient empires of present-day Indonesia. With the spread of Islam in the 15th century, many Hindus either converted to Islam or fled east to the island of Bali. Hindus believe that the gods drove a stake through the Dieng Plateau right in the middle of Java, and that this is what binds this landmass to the sea. As he explains, Bali is considered the “island domain of Indonesian Hindus, and Dieng Plateau is known as the “highland” domain. Hindus from Bali make their pilgrimage to Dieng Plateau to this day.

As the smoke of his cigarette dissipates before me, so do the complexities of an ancient culture that I had, until recently, found inaccessible. I had read several books on Indonesian history but had always been overwhelmed by the archipelago’s many competing empires, religious influences, and complex systems of government. Heru guides me through a whirlwind tour of centuries of Indonesian history: not intentionally, through a dry historical lecture, but rather unintentionally, through the story of his family and lineage.

You see, Heru is of royal blood. He traces seven generations of ancestors on his mother’s side to a royal follower of Prince Diponegoro. Prince Diponegoro led the largest war in Java’s history during a five-year uprising against Dutch colonial rule, in which the city of Yogyakarta was held under siege by their colonial rulers. Heru is proud of his heritage. He points the faint, straight dent running top to bottom between his two nostrils, and explains that all of his family members which trace their royal blood to this warrior have the same little dent on their nose.

The recent history of Indonesia begins to unravel before me as Heru tells me about his life and background. I can clearly make out the turbulent changes in this 70-year old nation in just three generations of his family. He is Christian. His father is a Christian Batak from North Sumatra. His mother was Muslim, but she converted when she met his father. His maternal grandparents, however, were Kejawen - an ancient Javanese religion which blends Javanese animism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam (which, for the purposes of clarity and simplicity, I will refer to as an indigenous religion). Already, we can see three major influences and religions in just three generations: Heru, a Christian; his mother, a Muslim who converted; and her parents, who practiced a Javanese indigenous religion.

I understand that his mother converted to Christianity after meeting his father, I say, but how did it happen that his grandparents were Kejawen, and then their daughter (Heru’s mother) became Muslim? Heru explains that in 1965, President Sukarno issued a decree recognizing six different religions. These were Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Protestantism, Catholicism, and Confucianism. Kejawen was not recognized, so his grandparents had to choose an officially recognized religion, and chose Islam.

To this day, Indonesians must choose an official religion, which appears on their state-issued ID cards and even determines which laws they are subject to (for example, Muslim men may take more than one wife, but this is not permitted for Christians). Belief in one God, after all, is a core tenet of Pancasila, the ideological and philosophical foundation that holds together and unifies this incredibly diverse country.

We broach the topic of the 1965-66 Communist massacres; a topic I have never broached with other Indonesians, and do so delicately due to its sensitivity, much as I approached the “Armenian issue” with my Turkish friends. However, he speaks openly and freely about the nation’s ugly chapter.


“Actually, my grandfather on my fathers side was a colonel in the army. During the massacres, he went away for a few months. My grandmother didn’t know where he went, but he came back in the spring. He never spoke about where he was, nor was he asked, but later that year he received a gift from an important military officer.” By some estimates, over a million people died in the massacres. I acknowledge that my own country had a role in the killings as well. Recently unclassified documents reveal that the CIA provided what was essentially a hit list to the military and paramilitary organizations carrying out the exterminations. For a brief moment we sit in silence, recognizing our own helplessness in the tides of history’s great forces, and ponder silently the forces that we may well be helpless to change today.

Heru pulls up a picture of Jomblang Cave, popular tourists spot near Yogyakarta that I was planning on visiting. “You know this cave?” he says. I nod. As it turns out, that cave was where the perpetrators dumped hundreds, if not thousands of bodies, during the killings. I have suddenly lost my appetite to visit the cave, and I’m admittedly a bit shocked that tourists continue to visit it, surely ignorant of its history.

After a moment of reflection, I come to realize: Heru’s grandfather on his dad’s side was a colonel in the army who likely supervised and directed mass killings in Java, a cataclysmic event that continues to effect Indonesian politics and society today. But his grandparents on his mother’s side practiced an indigenous religion, Kejawen, before converting to Islam after these same killings in 1965. He confirms, sadly acknowledging the irony of his family’s history.

Trying to switch to a slightly lighter topic, I ask about more positive news. The constitutional court recently decided to recognize followers of indigenous faiths by allowing them to write down their beliefs on ID cards. “Do you have a desire to convert back to Kejawen, the religion of your ancestors?” I ask somewhat jokingly. “No,” he says sheepishly, “I like drinking beer, but my mother would kill me if she knew. Plus, if anyone tries, they will get discrimination from the predominantly Muslim bureaucrats.”

This turns into a conversation on extremism, which he points to as a growing threat to Indonesia’s pluralistic society. As a Christian, he says, he faced discrimination at an early age, even having to move schools and cities because of bullying he faced from his peers. It’s because, he says, there is growing intolerance as Muslims use politicians and politicians use Muslims to acquiesce and consolidate power. In turn, these attitudes trickle down to the rest of Indonesian society. Heru also points to growing Saudi influence, investment, and capital throughout the country, which he says is a leading cause of the increasingly intolerant and conservative brand of Islam we see today.

It is four in the morning and our conversation has reached a sleepy lull. In our brief conversation, Heru has unwittingly (or perhaps wittingly) explored centuries of Javanese history, and revealed major trends in Indonesian society today: the waning influence of indigenous religions, the communist bloodletting of the 60s, the continued proliferation of Islam, the Javanese-centric approach of Indonesian politics, and the experience of a religious minority in a vastly diverse nation. It is my hope that one day, he will be able to fulfill the promise he made to himself and his family, and once again find himself at home, back with his family members, some of whom may well be older than Indonesia itself.

Certain identifying details, as well as Heru’s name, have been changed to protect his privacy.