The Tenggerese Hindus of Java

The Tenggerese Hindus of Java

The Tenggerese Hindus are inhabitants of the Eastern highlands of Java. Ethnographic research on the Tengger culture is currently in dispute as numerous religions have been present on the Eastern Indonesian Island. Historically these regions have been under the influence of other religious practices but the Tengger people have “preserved a non-Islamic priestly tradition” (Hefner, 1985:3). Although ethnographically there are undisputed resolutions about different religious practices, the Tenggerese religious identity is still sometimes unclear between Hindu, Buddhist, animist, or kejawenJavanists” (Hefner, 1985:3). According to ethnographic research by Hefner in Java, the Tengger people are historically considered “insignificant” as they have “no courts, distinctive art, or literature” (Hefner, 1985:4). Their identity is formed through the festivals, myths and traditions that are performed throughout the region and display the beliefs of the Tenggerese Hindu culture through religious practices as they are continually practiced.

Clifford Geertz presents three different “varieties of Javanese Islam and correlated each with a particular social class” (Hefner, 1987:533). These are categorized and separated as“Abangan, or Javanist Muslim, tradition was described as a syncretic blend of animist, Hindu-Buddhist, and Islamic elements that was predominant among the mass of rural Javanese” (Hefner, 1987:533).  A hierarchy establishes the structure for the community identities and the “Priyayi tradition was identified as an elite heritage strongly influenced by the Hindu-Buddhist values of earlier Javanese courts and linked to Java’s traditional gentry” (Hefner, 1987:533).  Hefner points out that there is a basic distinction between the orthodox and abangan, or “Javanist” traditions. Although both are practiced, the Tengger people have avoided such contact while these traditions were further developed in the wake of the Indonesia’s “New Order” government that took shape after 1956-66” (Hefner, 1987:534). While traditional Muslim schools were developed throughout Indonesia it was the “Hindu-Buddhist monasteries of medieval Java” that contained “secluded compounds in which monks or other adepts studied and composed holy writings” (Bellah, 1965:98).  These schools provided a place where pilgrims could rest and the youth could undergo more teachings from the monks. The Tengger tradition and identity has developed out of a region that has not created a “self-contained political identity” (Hefner, 1985:9). Therefore the community’s preoccupation with the past has weighed heavily on the processes that have shaped the cultural practices and identity of the Tengger people.  The comparison of the Tengger people with their Javanese neighbours has made visible their desire to be considered Javanese. Hefner has stressed that the Tengger people are distinct, despite numerous differences such as “speech, etiquette, and, most importantly, religion” (Hefner, 1985:10).

The identity of the Tenggerese Hindus of Java is divided geographically and there is a struggle in determining a clear separation between Tenggerese and non-Tenggerese culture. Javanese society is separated, isolating the Tengger people in the Eastern highlands of Java. The economic and political ties extend beyond the region and provides difficulties for distinguishing between the Tenggerese and non- Tenggerese people. Mountain Pasuruan in the province of East Java is regency that is “the most heterogeneous in all Java” (Hefner, 1987:536).  The movement down south in the region, and towards the Tengger Mountains provides entry into a region where the cultural terrain changes.  Although “‘Madurese’ and ‘Madurized’ Javanese predominate in the lowlands, the uplands are largely Javanese” (Hefner, 1987:536). The geographical landscape provides a diverse area that is separated by a vast mountain range. Some of “the highest mountain terrains are home to a culturally and linguistically sub variant ethnic Javanese population known as Tengger or Tengger Javanese, re-owned throughout Java for having preserved the only explicitly non-Islamic priestly tradition since the fall of Java’s last major Hindu-Buddhist kingdom five centuries ago”(Hefner, 1987:536).

The highlands in this region are “inhabited by a mixed Muslim population of Madurese and Javanese (the Javanese predominate)” (Hefner, 1987:536).These groups are approximately “sixty thousand people residing in nineteen administrative villages in the mountain sub districts of Puspo and Tutur” (Hefner, 1987:536).  The Tengger people residing in these remote mountain territories focus on practicing farming techniques and subsistence agriculture. Because the majority of the Hindu population has long taken refuge in this area, they maintain the “more fertile and inaccessible terrains higher up the mountain slope, around Mount Bromo, at the center of Tengger highlands” (Hefner, 1987:536).  This area was inhabited by the Tengger people as a strategy of “resistance to the Dutch and the Mataram court in Central Java” (Hefner, 1987:536). The Tengger resistance against the Dutch shows their resiliency against colonization and indicates that they were protective over their culture and communities. Hefner notes that the “Dutch forces throughout their military campaign had decimated the Javanese population from Pasuruan to Blambangan” (Hefner, 1987: 537). Although the Dutch forces “acquired political sovereignty over this entire eastern territory and much of Java’s north coast” (Hefner, 1987:537) the Tenggerese Hindus fought for their religious beliefs and cultural practices.  In Blambangan, moreover, the Dutch encouraged “Hindu conversion to Islam, so as to distance the local population from their former allies in neighboring Hindu Bali” (Hefner, 1987:537).  However, the Tengger people remain with their Hindu population surrounding the area of Mount Bromo. By combining Tengger and Javanese rites and ritual styles the Tengger people were able to revitalize their tradition and maintain their cultural practices in Java.

The Tenggerese people, however; have defined themselves as Hindus. In the 1970’s Java’s half-million Hindus became subject to a “state sanctioned movement for Hindu reform” (Ramstedt, 2004:93).  Their social practices and cultural knowledge is distinctive and Tengger rites and ritual traditions are a clear marker of Tengger identity.  The appreciation of Tengger culture in Javanese civilization is one of the main reasons why the non-Islamic, priestly tradition has survived. Ramstedt notes that the “Parisada Hindu Dharma had taken hold in nearby Javanist areas of the countryside” (Ramstedt, 2004: 93). The Parisada was responsible for the inclusion of religious education into the public schools and initiated an ambitious project geared towards developing programmes that underwent temple construction. In 1984 there was a shift to focus on “Satya Hindu Dharma Indonesia” (Bakker, 1993:317). The council of the Indonesian Hindus was set up in order to design a course for the entire community of Indonesian Hindus.  Meanwhile the people of the island saw “Satya Hindu Dharma Indonesia had the task of propagating and strengthening true Hinduism in Indonesia” (Bakker, 1993:317).

The Tengger preservation of the tradition has permitted the continual practice and maintenance of the ancient traditions of Hinduism. The Tenggerese Hindus believe that there is a significant recognition of a king’s soul being “absorbed after death” (Stutterheim, 1931:2). Stutterheim (1931) looks at popular myth and shows that one practice involves the king as an incarnate and then at death it is believed that he should be “candied” (2). Once the king is candied a special monument contains his ashes and the corpse. This practice is derivative from the death goddess Durga. Only those candied were built in the Hindu temples and are long lasting because most of the Javanese temples were demolished.

Modern urban Hindus talk about Hinduism “being a ‘way of life’ rather than a religion” (Bharati, 1982:45). However, Hefner points out that the Tengger people have struggled to maintain their cultural practices as “the Hindu Tengger [have] been pushed further up into the highlands [and] assimilated into the economically dominant immigrant Muslim population” (Hefner, 1987:537).  The social organization and attitude towards such practices constructs knowledge, and proposes interaction “face-to face” (Hefner, 1985:12). Arguably this factor may be one significant reason why Hefner suggests that “oral traditions are more susceptible to revision and social feedback” (Hefner, 1985:12).

It is the oral traditions that have adapted overtime to the changing demands of society and have survived to carry on tradition. The oral traditions are suggested to be the original source and an “indestructible document belonging to one of the great (i.e. literate) religions” (Hefner, 1985:5). Although all traditions are not passed down orally, the cultural survival of a tradition is most dependent on “intellectual technology” (Hefner, 1985:13). The intellectual technology is the sacred scriptures that have been passed on and practiced. The dedication to scripture is a result of a social and political group’s commitment to “the system of restricted literacy that traditionally underlay the priests’ learning” (Hefner, 1985:13). The face to face process and the significance of cultural knowledge have allowed the Tenggerese Hindus of Java to define themselves through their religious practices that endure “strict discipline and formal training” (Hefner, 1985:13).

Priestly liturgy and popular religion is affected by numerous challenges that face the countryside in Java. The resiliency of Tengger culture can be in part owed to the practice and dedication of the Tenggerese Hindus.  Under the influence of other religions such as Islam, and Buddhism, Tenggerese identity is tested as the Tengger people define themselves in an “Islamizing Java” (Hefner, 1985:14).  However, the Tengger people illustrate their faith through the “hierarchy of languages” as only priests are given permission to “study and recite the prayers of the liturgy” (Hefner, 1985:14).

It is indicative of most communities or mountain sub districts in the surrounding area for the men with wealth to maintain their status by acquiring land. Once they acquire land they sponsor the “celebration of large ritual festivals (slametan) dedicated to the propitiation of village ancestors, territorial guardians, and the spirits of mountain land and water” (Hefner, 1987:538). According to Beatty (1996), the slametan or ritual meal is said to be “at the heart of Javanese popular culture” (271). Slametan takes place just after dark in the front room of a house. Offerings are placed on a mat and mark the beginning of the ritual practice. These annual festivals are carried out by the Tengger Hindus of Java and most importantly recognize and are performed at the “base of Mt. Bromo volcano” (Hefner, 1985:4).

Tengger religious rituals are supported annually and have become very distinct from the Muslim Javanese rites. The Javanese communities separate these rites and rituals as they separate Tengger and non-Tengger neighbouring communities. Festivals are a form of ritual that involves “the invitation of guests, the mobilization of festival labour, the exchange of food gifts” (Hefner, 1985:10). The creation of Mt. Bromo and the people of the Tengger Mountains are rarely taken seriously when the myths question Tengger identity and the legitimacy of their tradition, however; despite differences in religious ritual there are also concerns focused of the rituals of popular cults. By facing towards Mount Bromo or Mount Semeru while presenting an offering to the spirits, the Tengger people were able to show a sign of respect and acknowledgement towards the spirits that reside there. The belief and acknowledgement of the “nature of the spirit world are thus not generated by the liturgy alone, but are informed by concepts borrowed from the religious culture of larger Java” (Hefner, 1985:15).

Tenggerese Priest at a temple at the base of Mt. Bromo

Over the years, rites and rituals performed have had numerous cultural interpretations and popular accounts that are included in the festivities of some major festivals. This is apparent when discussing the regional festival of Kasada which explores how the “rite remembers a first-founding ancestor (cikal-bakal) who helped to establish Tengger society and religion by giving his life for their protection” (Hefner, 1985:16).  Similarly, the annual “all-souls festival in (Karo)” and other mythic accounts of the same rites and rituals have “addressed such Indic deities as Siva, Brahma, Visnu, Mahadewa, and Iswara” (Hefner, 1985:16). These rites and rituals provide a platform for Tengger religious practice to be involved and in turn respect the practices of others in larger Java. The rites and rituals are performed in order to “remove impurities from the souls of the dead, so that those spirits may rise (mentas) to the heavens” (Hefner, 1985:16).  The most remarkable moment in this rite is when the priest calls upon Siva while he is in his demonic incarnation as Kala. Although this is significant the villagers do not acknowledge its importance. Similarly the priest is identified as “resi pujangga, and includes a prayer known as the purwabumi (“prayer of world origins”), identical to a prayer of the same name recited in Bali by a ritual specialist known as the resi bujangga. The ritual parallel indicates that the priestly tradition [for the] Tengger was once linked to a form of popular Sivaism found in large areas of Java and Bali” (Hefner, 1985:16). The links that are recognized view ancestral religions and indicate that the Tengger people are aware of their histories and dependent upon the revival of ancient traditional practices.

The Tengger people have reshaped their cultural heritage in order to adapt to the surrounding plurality of Javanese society. Tengger identity is examined and the role of their tradition is undetermined on a national level as Islam has “played a great role in the redefinition of local and national identity” (Hefner, 1985:17). However, the Hindu reform movement allowed the Tengger people to redefine their heritage in relation to the larger society and the early Indic heritage that was once shadowed over by an Islamizing Java is now revitalizing its tradition through the Tengger Hindus of Java.

References and Further Recommended Reading

Bakker, F.L. (1993) “The Struggle of the Hindu Balinese Intellectuals: Development in Modern Hindu Thinking in Independent Indonesia”. Amsterdam, Netherlands: VU University Press.

Beatty, A. (1996). “Adam and Eve and Vishnu: Syncretism in the Javanese Slametan”. Cambridge: Wolfson College, Oxford.

Bellah, Robert N. (1965) “Religion and Progress in Modern Asia”. New York, USA: The Free Press: A division of the MacMillan Company.

Bharati, Agehananda. (1982) “Hindu Views and Ways and the Hindu-Muslim Interface: An Anthropological Assessment”. Santa Barbara, California: Ross- Erikson, Inc., Publishers.

Hefner, R. (1983) “Ritual and Cultural Reproduction in Non-Islamic Java”. A Journal of American Anthropological Association Durham, N. C10, 4, p. 665-683.

Hefner, Robert. (1985) “Hindu Javanese: Tengger Tradition and Islam”. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Hefner, R. (1987) “Java? Religion and Politics in Rural East Java”. The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 46, No. 3, p. 533-554.

Hefner, Robert W. (1990) “The Political Economy of Mountain Java: An Interpretive History”. Vol. 20, No. 1 (Feb 1993) p. 207-208.

Mujiburrahman. (2001) “Religious Conversion in Indonesia: The Karo Batak and the Tengger Javanese”. Center for the Study of Christian and Muslim Relations: United Kingdom, Birmingham; Royaume-Uni.  Vol. 12, Issue. 1, p. 23-38.

Ramstedt, Martin. (2004) “Hinduism in Modern Indonesia: A Minority Religion between Local, National, and Global Interests”. London and New York: Routledge Curzon.

Stutterheim, Willem. (1931) “The Meaning of the Hindu-Javanese Candi. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 51, No.1, pp.1-15.

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Article written by Crystal Kensley (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.