Making the paranormal the new normal

Last Monday was going to be the most spectacular splash of all, a grand semi sesquicentennial commemoration of Indonesia’s independence. Then came Covid19. While the Jakarta government promised a vaccine, others were relying on ritual.

Tucked behind guardian stone lions at the foot of the three-tiered Kidal temple was a black plastic bag holding a pot of sand. This sprouted a cluster of burnt incense sticks, that morning’s purification rite inherited from the pre-Islamic kingdom of Singhasari (1222 – 92).

Ruwatan promotes good weather, rich harvests, community cohesion and a society free from evil forces – in this case, a virus which has so far killed at least 7,000.

The offering couldn’t be seen from the road about 100 metres distant where it might infuriate religious fundamentalists keen to stamp out Kebatinan. Here, and in other East Java villages, ancient beliefs co-exist with the imported monotheistic faiths citizens are supposed to follow.

Fortunately, Kidal is well-watched by caretaker Romlah and her four related households at the rear of the 13th century Hindu tower temple, though all families are Muslim. “We burnt the incense while praying for protection against disease,” she said.

Then showing her culture’s skills at stirring the paranormal with the normal, past and present, beliefs and politics, she added: “We also did so to celebrate our independence.”

As part of its pandemic lockdown, the government has closed Kidal and many other sites around the city of Malang, though the official reasoning is weird.

Indonesians prefer shopping malls to historic locales and few foreign anthropologists seek the poorly-signed monument in the village of Rejokidal. It’s more easily tracked by following the stench of an adjacent chicken farm.

Until the coronavirus hit in February and began to run amok, 17 August was going to be the most splendid show of the year as Indonesians celebrated Soekarno’s 1945 declaration of independence from Dutch colonialism. They’d ruled much of the archipelago for almost 350 years till ousted by the Japanese in 1942.

Two days after Japan surrendered the revolutionary leader proclaimed Merdeka (freedom). The speech is bland. There’s no US-style soaring rhetoric, no foundation principles, just a 25-word statement of separation drafted in a Japanese admiral’s house on a borrowed typewriter.

A colony no more – now a republic. ‘Matters which concern the transfer of power etc’ were to come later.

The divorce from Queen Wilhelmina was delivered outside Soekarno’s (now demolished) home under a flag sewn by Fatmawati, his third of nine wives.

The fasting month of Ramadan was underway so no feasting. And no time to celebrate for the Dutch were heading back and the armed Japanese still in control despite Tokyo’s surrender.

A vicious guerrilla war against the stubborn Netherlanders ran for four years until the Europeans realised colonialism was dead. So were 100,000 Indonesians – including citizens caught in massacres – and more than 6,000 Hollanders, many of them conscripts.

From simplicity to pomposity. Since then celebrating the Proclamation has become a grand outpouring of ultra-nationalism that bemuses Australians with its strange mix of strutting militarism, huge crowds, giant flags and jolly japes. Greasy-pole climbing and sack races are standards.

The national anthem Indonesia Raya (Great Indonesia) was composed by muso and journo Wage Rudolf Soepratman in 1928, but it’s Western classical, not the traditional ensemble drum and metallophone gamelan that haunts the nation’s interior. Gamelan is infectious, rarely melodious, unpredictable, difficult for outsiders to absorb and impossible for marchers. It’s egalitarian.

The official music might have been imported but the rest had to be homegrown. Malay became the basis of the national tongue to keep all 300-plus language groups on side, though Javanese was the most widely spoken.

A set of five values (Pancasila) was devised and all citizens required to show allegiance. Enthusiasm for the code cools and boils as religious fanatics repeatedly try to make Indonesia an Islamic state.

This year attempts in Parliament to trim the creed to three points labelled Pancasila Ideology Guidelines have been shelved following howls that changes would turn the nation ‘secular and atheistic’.

But back to Kidal where the hunt for emblems for the new nation turned to the temple. On its sides are three carved images of the mythical semi-human Garuda eagle who released his enslaved mother Dewi Winata. Soekarno saw the chance for a metaphor and promoted the Hindu bird into the heraldry giving it 17 wing and eight tail feathers to match the date.

In his claws the national motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, old Javanese for ‘Unity in Diversity’ – a smart blending of old and new.

Compounding the difficulties in understanding our big neighbour’s birthday bash this year was the parallel celebration of the local Arema soccer team’s 30th anniversary. Banners (in English) ‘Our Souls Already Blue’ and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ were draped around intersections, sometimes masking oncoming traffic, and competing with the red and white bunting.

The sport was introduced by the Dutch and has become the national game, though seldom played well. As with the Kidal temple architects, the footy fans have borrowed the beast to represent their ferocity. Asiatic lions live in India so their image presumably accompanied Hinduism.

This year the pageantry had to be online. It was bolstered by TV coverage of a few well-spaced dignitaries at the Presidential Palace watching the flag raising from a distance, like Kim Jong-un at a missile launch.

Community leaders urged residents to stand outside their gates at 10 am and salute – but in our area, few bothered. Maybe they were snapping to attention inside their kitchens; does that count, or is it like a tree falling soundlessly in a forest because no-one is listening?

Cellphone videos show market crowds singing Indonesia Raya and a few flag wavers. There have been some stirring virtual choirs.

Detecting a universal mood from a nano-glance at a segment of 270 million is clearly flawed. Like a Russian vaccine, the sample size is too small. But I’ve never seen such a passionless response in more than two decades of participating.

The way the 75th anniversary of Indonesia’s independence was celebrated when tested by a modern pandemic prompts the question: Is patriotism instinctive, or an emotion constructed by governments to create an image of cohesion?

It was prompted by contemplating curious images carved on volcanic rocks eight centuries ago, smudged with the smoke of burning incense.

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Duncan Graham has been a journalist for more than 40 years in print, radio and TV. He is the author of People Next Door (UWA Press) and winner of the Walkley Award and Human Rights awards. He is now writing for the English language media in Indonesia from within Indonesia.

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