IIAS Newsletter 23

Page 27


A Mystic Journey to Mount Ciremai ferings and prayers at stone remains. (The cigarettes and cash left behind were unceremoniously pocketed by our guides.) Stories circulated of previ­ ous climbs. We were reminded not to urinate on the ground, as this was sa­ cred space, and provided with plastic bags for our excretions. A tale was told (more than once) of an unnamed commemorations of ancestors) and The callfo r prayer climber who had mistaken a bag of the major annual celebrations held at atop Mount Ciremai. fluid hanging from a tree for iced tea. the ancestral cemetery ofTrusmi and All of us, including the ‘mountain the royal cemetery of Astana Gunung climbers,’ observed the pollution Jati. N urul Islam was, for example, se­ long in coming. There was little water taboo. After a mid-morning meal, lected by the Cultural Section for an and practically no food left. My own most of the elderly female members, all-West Java arts festival in 1992. This supply of bottled water exhausted, j and some of the elderly men, turned artistic frame was officialized in 1995, some Brai devotees kindly supplied j back before the climb became too when the Nurul Iman ensemble of me with Water of Life to prevent dehy­ steep. This had been previously decid­ Bayalangu was invited to participate dration. We arrived at Cibuntu at ed, though they were plainly sad. in the national Istiqlal Festival of Is­ mid-day, slowed down by the crippled ] Around mid-day, the Cultural In­ lamic art. Cultural Inspector. Dakila, the Cul- | spector began to complain of pain in tural Inspector, most of the ‘mountain j his joints, and requested that we stop. P ilg rim a ge climbers,’ and I got a ride home with | He was in good physical condition (he The practice of making a pilgrimage the former headman (who had busi­ had been a sports inspector before his to Mount Ciremai was revived circa ness to attend to nearby). I discovered j current appointment), but suffered 1970, after an abeyance of some thirty that East Timor had voted for inde­ from arthritis, aggravated by the years because of to the Japanese occu­ pendence. The rest of the group wait­ climbing and chilly air. His pain be­ pation, the Darul Islam revolt, and ed for a bus. came unbearable, and we were forced economic hardship. None of the pil­ to cease the day’s climb and set up grims had made the pilgrimage be­ Afterthoughts camp, more than two hours short of fore. They drew on oral tradition and This was the first time that the Cul­ the level field that had been the day’s related rites to construct a new pil­ tural Inspector, a number of the destination. Some quietly suggested grimage form, and have been tinker­ ‘mountain climbers,’ and I had that we leave the Cultural Inspector ing with the structure ever since. climbed a mountain. It was also the behind, but they were overruled. We Traditionalists among the Bayalan­ first time that any of us had spent spent the night on an incline, huddled gu pilgrims say that to maximize the such an intense period of time being around a fire. Nobody slept soundly. pilgrimage’s blessings, one m ust walk with the Brai society. The Cultural In­ The next morning, we continued bare-foot from Bayalangu to the peak spector does not like to speak about our ascent, hacking our way through of the mountain and back. Economic what happened at Ciremai; he is per­ dense forest and climbing under and prosperity, however, has allowed the haps embarrassed by his frailty in over brambles. The Cultural Inspec­ Brai association to charter vans and comparison to the Brai devotees, some tor’s pain increased, and by the time busses - which in turn has made the of whom are septuagenarians but in we reached the level field, he could go pilgrimage open to a larger public and superb shape because of their farming no further. We ended up leaving him facilitated visits to a number of sacred work. Certainly, it provided him (and there by himself (despite his protests) sites ‘on the way’ to Ciremai. The de­ me) with a new view of and respect for and continued our slow progress. parture date was set by Dakila, who the devotees. Warsad used to liken The peak of Ciremai is a treeless pin­ had replaced Warsad as imam, and the nacle covered in long grass, cut off Brai devotees to Semar, the ageless decision to allow non-group members from the world by swirling clouds. A clown-servant of Wayang Kulit, who to accompany us on the pilgrimage goes wherever his masters require, burst of adrenaline hit me during the was his too. I was initially dismayed at charging up and down mountains if final struggle to the top, pulling my­ seeing this ‘sacred’ event become a need be. It is not easy being Semar, ef­ self up, clutching the grass, hand over leisure activity for the dozen or so facing self in mystical union. Climb­ hand, breathless but exhilarated, col­ (male) teenagers and youths, includ­ ing Ciremai made me trust others, lapsing at the rim of the cauldron. The ing one ‘heavy metal' youth sporting a stretching the physical limits of the Brai devotees sung a praise-song. One swastika patch. These young men possible and the acceptable. (I do not of the ‘mountain climbers’ knew the called themselves ‘m ountain clim­ ordinarily drink water from open Islamic call for prayer, and was en­ bers’ (in Indonesian) to distinguish pools.) I perceived the ‘mountain couraged by Dakila to stand upon a themselves from the pilgrims; their climbers' being recruited via the pil­ craggy overhang and cry it out: Allahu equipment (a portable stove, back­ grimage; one sung the call to prayer, Akbar! packs, tarps, sleeping bags) showed all observed the pollution taboo, Most of the climbers then descend­ heard Brai stories, were splashed with ed into the cauldron by way of a nar­ spring water, and sat respectfully dur­ row chute. People bathed in an iceing Brai chanting. All are young now, cold pool of water in the cauldron. and ‘wild.’ But most of Bayalangu’s (Nobody could remain immersed for devotees joined the society as elders. more than a few seconds.) The pool’s Some ‘mountain climbers’ m ight one Water of Life - ‘tasting like coconut day join too, attracted by the pilgrim­ water or Sprite’ - was collected in plas­ age and like practices and beliefs more tic bottles, and bits of sulphur were concrete and vivid than normative picked up from the cauldron floor. Islam, and the performative thrill of Finally, after all the climbers had redrumming, clapping, and singing de­ ascended to the rim, a fitting incanta­ votional songs. This is one future for tion [jog tumurun...] was sung and we Indonesians and Indonesia: aware of began our descent: half-running, halfthe past, flexible, egalitarian, and non­ flying down the mountain. In a few exclusive. My wife and I were never hours, we were at the level plain to asked about our ‘religious affiliation’ collect the Cultural Inspector and when we were initiated as Brai devo­ have a late lunch, consuming what tees. I food we had left. On the way down, the Cultural Inspector's arthritic pain Dr M atthew Isaac Cohen increased. Initially walking with a is a research fellow for the crutch, he eventually had to be car­ PAATI program m e at HAS. ried. Darkness descended, our guides E-mail: could not pick out our path, and we m cohen@ rullet.leidenuniv.nl Those with backpacks are the ‘mountain climbers'; the rest are mostly Brat devotees. set up camp. The next morning was

The rise o f fundamentalist Middle-Eastern style Islam has drawn attention away from the co-presence o f older styles o f ‘traditional’ or ‘folk’ Islam in Indonesia. A recent pilgrimage I took to the sacred mountain o f Gunung Ciremai in West Java with members o f an association o f Brai mystics, a Cultural In­ spector, and a number o f young ‘mountain climbers testified to the enduring power o f local beliefs and practices. ■ By M A T T H E W I SAAC C OH E N

may represent the oldest variant of Islam practised in the Indonesian archipel­ ago, mixing Sufic and in­ digenous Javanese prac­ tices and beliefs. Referred to variously as santn biraht, santn brahi, wong dul birhai, and santri dulguyermg biraht, its practitioners feature in nineteenth century Dutch and Javanese writing as exotic objects of entertainment and derision. Devotees were castigated for their variance with Islamic norms and supposedly loose morality; P.J. Veth called them ‘the scum of Javanese soci­ ety.’ Historical sources describe the central practice of dzikir - the Arabic term for remembrance of God s name - observed by mixed-sex singing of Arabic and Javanese devotional texts, coupled in the past with ecstatic dancing. The distribution of Brai societies in Java today is largely limited to the coastal regencies of Indramayu, Cirebon, and Brebes. A 1921 report de­ scribes a network of Brai associations, with weekly meetings drawing partic­ ipants from a number of villages to the houses of head gurus. This net­ work has attrophied; there is current­ ly no supra-village structure. Bayalan­ gu remains the most famous centre for Brai activity; a schism in the early 1990s resulted in two associations. The ‘original’ association is known as Nurul Iman, with about thirty male and female members (most over fifty), including a hereditary kiyai as nomi­ nal head and an imam who leads ritual and organizational activities. Bayalangu devotees speak of their all-night chanting, clapping, and drumming as religious devotion. In contrast, Brai is considered by Cirebon’s Cultural Section as an art form, largely because Brai associations use percussion instruments [kendhang and terbang) and perform publically at both small-scale unjungan (graveyard

Research Project


At the foothills of Mount Ciremai.

that they were from a different class, with different outlooks. I was also not pleased that the subdistrict Cul­ tural Inspector (a Department of Ed­ ucation and Culture employee) had been invited. The journey began early in the morning with incense, the display of food offerings, a hurried ritual meal, and incantations at the bale. Two of the society’s cloth-wrapped ritual ob­ jects - a signal gong (beri) and a curved blade (bayan) - were collected for the journey. (The musical instruments were left behind.) Everyone then climbed into the bus and we made the sacred-site rounds: the Cipanas hot springs (where Dakila splashed the pilgrims and ‘mountain climbers’ with sulphuric water), Trusmi, As­ tana, and Plangon. At each site, per­ mission was asked from the ancestors, prayers and incantations uttered, hymns sung, and small sums of cash were presented to shrine caretakers. We arrived late in the afternoon at the house of the former village head­ man of Cibuntu, in the foothills of Mount Ciremai. No groups other than Bayalangu’s Brai association climbs Ciremai from this departure point. It is a very hard climb, involving cutting a path through rainforest for much of the ascent. The Cibuntu start is clearly not determined by convenience, but is related to the megalithic and Hindu remains found in the vicinity. After obtaining the necessary permits from local authorities, and examining some of the remains, we spent the night at the house of the former village head­ man, Cibuntu, an old friend of the Bayalangu devotees. On television, President Habibie exhorted the people of East Timor to choose autonomy over independence. A slapstick come­ dy that followed attracted more view­ ers. We departed on foot before sunrise, accompanied by two Cibuntu guides. Local men forage for rattan and hunt on the slope of Ciremai, but they do not ordinarily ascend to its peak. They do possess ‘forest sense’ though, and compasses. The first part of the climb was on a footpath used by locals for their foraging activities. We then met up with logging roads, and spectacu­ lar views of the mountain. At several points, we stopped and presented of-

October 2000 • i i a s n e w s l e t t e r >^23 ■ 2 . 7