Javanese Culture – Religion

In the first article of this series on Javanese culture, I have introduced the Javenese history, language and cultural tradition.

This second article will focus on the diversity of the religious practices among the Javanese.

I have used mainly sources written in the 70s and the 80s. However I have tried to fill the gap between the books and the present days relying on more recent research and my personnal experience as well.

The Javanese religions

For centuries, the Javanese ruler has erected Buddhist and Hindu temples. Then this tradition was shaken by the emergence of Muslim powers on the Pasisir (the north coast) that defeated the old empires.

Yet those Muslim port-states would be soon contained and pushed back by new power of Mataram emerging from the interior of Java.

Islam nonetheless circulated in towns and rurals villages, under the action of missionaries of various obediences : some more inclined towards mysticism and other towards orthodoxy. Most of the time it mixed with existing beliefs and rituals.

The Mataram court also promoted a form of Islamic syncretism in order to achieve balance between ancient Hindu-Buddhist traditions and the new Islamic dogma.

The result of these successive influences is that while the vast majority of the Javanese define themselves as Muslim, their attitude towards Islam can be very different.

Abangan, Priyayi and Santri

In his seminal book, US anthropologist Clifford Geertz formalized that the Javanese society of the 50s was actually divided in 3 sociological groups.

  • Most of the peasants are abangan : they hold communal feasts called slametan and believe in a variety of sprits. The dukun (witch doctor) plays an important role in their daily life.
  • Javanese that takes the Islamic doctrine seriously are called santri. They live together in specific wards of villages (the kauman) and send their children to the pesantren (Islamic boarding school). They tend to be better off than the peasants, with many traders among them.
  • The traditional Javanese aristocracy has long defined itself as priyayi. They live almost all in towns and usually served as functionnaries under the Dutch administration. The major focus of their cultural identity are etiquette, art and mystical practices.

Koentjaraningrat, while ackowledging the differences between the rural and the urban traditional religion (so between abangan and priyayi), stresses that the main difference is between santri (and their Agami Islam Santri ‘Islam of the religious people’) and the others (followers of Agami Jawi the ‘Javanese religion’).

I will stick to Koentjaraningrat distinction by covering first the aspects of the Agami Jawi and then of Agami Islam Santri.

A land of magic

The divine origin of magic

In an old manuscrit from the Majapahit era (15th century), the Tantu Pagelaran, one can finds an origin myth for the island of Java.

It was first an island floating freely on the ocean, rendering it very unstable. When Batara Guru (Shiva) commanded that the island must be populated, the God decided to attach a part of the Indian moutain Mahameru to Java to stabilize it.

The detached piece of moutain is carried through the ocean by Wisnu transformed into a turtle and Brahma into a giant naga serpent. The Meru is carried over Java and it’s laid at the place of the current Mount Semeru, while the fragments that it dropped on its way become the other Javanese volcanoes.

Shiva then comes to Java, make the summit of the Semeru its abode and becomes the first ruler of Java.

As in other places of South-East Asia, Hindu kings of Java were thus considered as the incarnation of the supreme God (here Shiva because Shivaism prevailed).

His divine origin attributed magical spiritual powers (kasekten or sakti) to the king that then radiated throughout the whole kingdom.

In the wayang stories, the aristocratic heroes concentrate so much power when they meditate that they can make the sea boil. They can fly through the air or shot arrows that turn into thousands of serpents or demons.


On the mythical origin of spirits

The Badad Tanah Jawi, royal chronicles composed in the 17th century, explains their origin :

Originally Java was covered with primeval forests and without inhabitants. There was only Semar, the key clown character of the wayang, that farmed a small parcel of rice fields at the foot of Mount Merbabu for ten thousands years.

Semar is actually the danjang (guardian spirit) of Java. This makes him the ancestors of the numerous spirits that roam Java.

A powerful Hindu-Moslem (typical sign of the syncretism nurtured by Mataram) is sent to Java by a mythical foreign king (something identified as the king of Rome). He is to populate the island, clear the forests for ricefields and set up villages. As the civilization emerges, the native spirits flee into the craters of volcanoes, to the woods or to the depths of the Southern Sea.

Semar is yet to remain, as the spiritual advisor and magical supporter of all the kings and princesses of Java.

Javanese spirits classification

Javanese, espacially in the countryside, believes in a wide variety of spirits.

As Geertz has noted : “Abangan spirit beliefs are not part of a consistent, systematic and integrated scheme, but are rather a set of concrete, specific, rather sharply defined discrete images – unconnected visual metaphors giving form to vague and otherwise incomprehensible experiences.

Usually it falls into one of the following categories :

Memedi usually takes a human form and are encountered at night in isolated places. People often refuse to go to the toilet alone at night for fear of memedi.

Some adopt a very specific appearance like panaspati whose heads is where its genetals should be, walks on his hands and breath fire. Or the sundel bolong which appears as a beautiful naked woman with a large hole in the middle of her back behind her long black hairs.

The most common one is called a gendruwo, and they usually only play jokes on people. Yet they also often appears in the form of a relative and ask their victime to follow them. If the victims obeys, it becomes invisible. Its real relative must then go outside and so much noise that the gendruwo will be annoyed and will offer food to its victim. If the victim refuses it, then it becomes visible again.

Gendruwo can also sleep with a woman after taking the form of her husband. If she bears a child from the union, then the child will look like a monsters.

Lelembut are invisible beings that are able to possess one’s body. If not brought to a dukun that knows how to pull him out, the victim is likely to fall ill or even turn crazy.

The most powerful lelembut is probably Lara Kidul, the Queen of the Southern Sea. She drags to the depths of the ocean anyone who would dare to wear grean near the cost.

Tujul are children spirits that have the ability to steal without being detected. A tujul can be controlled a human master, through acute fasting and meditation, and make him very rich if given regular offerings. But this is a kind of devil pact, the master risk the death of a relative or his own slow and difficul death in the future.

Demit are place spirits, generally found in sacred places called punden like a small Hindu ruin, a large banyan tree, an old grave, a special rock … Demit may support the wishes of men, that gives them slametan in return.

Danjang also live in punden and protect men, but they are usually considered as the spirits of actual historical figures. Each Javanese village has at least one major danjang.


Javanese also believe in a large number of deities (dewata), each having his own puppet in the wayang. The wayang itself is inspired by the Hindu mythology as well as Buddhist sacred stories.

The king of the deities is Batara Guru (Shiva in the Hindu mythology) and his secretary Batara Narada. Batara stands for male and Dewi for females.

Koentjaraningrat notes that Bataras and Dewis “have very little meaning in the religious and ceremonial life of the Javanese”. In the wayang stories, they set the standards for morality and serves as examples for human action.

The exceptions are Dewi Sri, the goddess of fertility and rice, who plays a central role in rituals pertaining to agriculture. Batara Kala, god of time, decay, destruction and death, is also important for the ruwatan ceremony to repel misfortune and calamities.


Keris Java

Power can also be accumulated in revered objects known as the pusaka. The weapons of the rulers, kris daggers, spears and old banners were believed to be very powerful. Some kris are thought to be able to kill without physically touching anything.

Gamelan sets can also be charged with kasekten.

Javanese, and especially peasants, routinely wear protective amulets (jimat) prepared by a dukun.

They also held similar beliefs towards gemstones (batu akik) that are thought to host a spirit. Every design has its own name and is supposed to bring special benefits : tapak jalak make the wearer strong and powerful, kendit brings protection against one’s ennemy, cempaka favors romantic life … (if you are interested in this, you can check this blog in Indonesian).

The dukun

The master of the Javanese lore of curing, sorcery and magic is the dukun, the general magical specialist.

There are actually many kind of dukun, depending on their specialty : a dukun djapa is a curer that relies on spell while a dukun djampi uses herbs and natural medicines. A dukun sihir is a sorcer, a dukun siwer a specialists in preventing natural misfortune…

Some dukun are not especially into magic : for instance dukun calak (circumcisors) or dukun bayi (midwife).

Woman can become dukun, but they are usually limited to a few domains : dukun bayi (midwives) or dukun préwangan (medium) for instance.

Dukun is usually a side activity for people. They are not outcast, actually it is almost impossible to know that someone is a dukun without be told about.

Geertz : “partial skeptism about dukun and their ability to do the things they claim to do is nearly universal. Everyone believes in dukun in general but opinions about a particular ones vary tremendously“.

People tend to consider that a dukun cannot cure everyone but only the people is is compatible with. Dukun are known not to be able to cure their relatives for instance.

The source of the dukun’s power

Being a dukun means dealing with powerful forces that can drive one’s crazy is not spiritually strong enough. For this reason, the office of dukun is often hereditary. The dukun must learn the science (ilmu) from a mentor.

The most common kind of ilmu is specific : a dukun will be proficient in finding lost objects or getting someone rich or attracting the affection of someone else spouse… Memories of ancient “generic” ilmu that allowed some dukun to turn into a tiger or to fly have been passed on the oral tradition but it is widely believed to be lost now.

Besides the ilmu, the dukun is well versed in a number of mystical practices that help him to fulfill his office. Ascetic discipline (like extended fasts or long time of wakeful meditation), chanted passages from the Koran and magical formulas written in Arabic, amulets, herbs and spells are common tools of the dukun.

The art of curing

Dukun most prestigious duty is to cure afflictions. They are well aware of the psychological aspects of their powers and they often make a clear distinction between diseases with a physicial causes, that can be adressed by Western medicines, and the others one for which doctors cannot find anything. The most common cause of the second category of illness is to be entered by a spirit.

To establish their diagnosis, they can rely on an analysis of the symptoms, but also on meditation or even numerology (pétungan). They will use the birthdate of the patient and the day he fell sick to come up with a calculation that tells what treatment to use, usually an herb.

The key in the dukun‘s curing abilities is his spiritual powers. Patients very often get herbal medicine or massage, but the dukun will always add a spell to it to make it powerful by chanting or spitting over it. The most powerful dukun simply gives tea in which they have spat to their patients.

The dukun through its concentration and his chanting also acts as a medium between the patient and the spirits. He can locate the entry point of a lelembut in one’s body and pulling it out by massaging the point or call back the two guardian spirits of the patient to chase them off.

Sometimes, the dukun will simply advise to move the position of the toilet in the house or to rebury one’s child umbilical cord.


Dukun can cure but can also deal damages to people, even if they usually deny to practice sihir (sorcery).

Black magic is mostly used to make the victim horribly sick. But it also has the power to make a person come to place against his will (gendam), fall in love with someone (guna-guna) or to fall asleep (sirep) so that they can be robbed without risk.

The only defense against sihir is to hire another more powerful dukun that can return the magic against the ennemy. Geertz notes that sorcery matters are never brought to court or to the police, but are dealt with sorcery. Another interesting remarks he makes is that Javanese do not accuse outsiders of sorcery. They tend to use it only on the people they actually know.

The traditional ritual practices

The slametan

The main religious ceremony of abangan are communal meals called slametan.

A slametan is usually held in the evening after the dusk prayer. Women prepare the food but only males take part in the ritual.

A typical slametan would unroll that way :

  • First the host gives a formal introductory speech in which he thanks the guest for coming, explains the reason why he holds a slametan and then beg pardons for any error or offence.
  • Then a religious official (the village modin), or anyone else that is able to do it, would chant a prayer in Arabic.
  • Food is then served. Is is generally speaking better-than-average food. Dozens possibility exists, each with special method for preparation and symbolic meaning. The most striking feature is the rice cone (tumpeng) that stands between side dishes.
  • Actually the guests eat only for a few minutes and then leave. Most of the food is wrapped in banana leaves and taken home to be shared with its family.
Slametan Tumpeng Java
Tumpeng rice cone (source)

There are several accounts of slametan in Geertz’s book. To me the most interesting part is the description of the offerings. Within one single speech, one could hear offerings to :

  • Nini Tawek, the angel who guards the Javanese kitchen and to whom the women give a small offering before every slametan
  • The prophet Muhammad, his wife, children and Companions
  • Sunan Kalidjaga and the 7 other Walis.
  • To Baginda Ilijas (guardian of the earth) and Baginda Chilir (guardian of the water).

Besides the food, special offerings for the spirits are always prepared on top. They are called sajen (or sesajen).

The general goal of the slametan is double : fostering the sense of solidarity among participants (that invite their host in return) and appeasing the local spirits.

Geertz identifies 4 kind of occasions to hold a slametan :

  • Life cycle ceremonies : birth, circumcision, marriage and death.
  • Those associated with the Muslim ceremonial calendar (Idul Fitri, Idual Adha …) or the agricultural cycle
  • “Protective” slametan held as supplication (kaul) or thanksgiving to spirits ; but also to answer bad dreams or to bring one’s children protection against supernatural dangers (ruwatan).
  • The occasional ones : before the departure on a long trip, after moving to a new house, changing one’s name, when one gets a promotion… Those are rather unreligious slametan.

Abangans also held slametan to answer bad dreams, supplicate the village guardian spirit or as part of sorcery.

If possible, it’s better to arrange the slametan according to numerological divination (petungan). Usually one goes to a specialized dukun who is reputated for its divination. There is no general divination science, each dukun uses his own system, often inherited from his father or at least a teacher.

Abangan cares very much about petungan. For instance, families usually check the compatibility of a bride and groom by giving their birthdate to a dukun. Many are ready to cancel a wedding for this sole reason.

Life cycle ceremonies

A cycle of slametan always take place along the birth of the death of a relative.

At 7 months of pregnancy, the parents will organize a large slametan called tingkeban. From this moment, the mother must observe many religious and food taboos.

Another one called babaran takes place at birth. Any abangan child is thought to come to life along 2 spirits brothers, one in the umbilical cord and the other in the afterbirth. Those parts are buried outside the house after birth. Later in one’s life, it’s possible to contact those brother spirits through extended mental concentration and fasting.

5 days after birth, the pasaran is held. On this occasion, the newborn receives its name. According to Koentjaraningrat, in the 80s, this ceremony has been merged with the Muslim kekah sacrifice held on the 7th day.

At last, 7 months (35-days Javanese months) after birth the pitonan is celebrated. For the first time, the child is allowed to put his feet on the ground.

Further slametan will be organized for the boy’s circumcision (sunatan) and the children’s wedding.

Each child must organize a specific slametan 3, 7, 40, 100, 1 year, 2 years and eventually 1000 days after the death of one parents. It’s important to keep visiting his parents’ grave on each anniversary of their death as well as beofre the Fast begins.

Life after death in the Javanese culture

Geertz reports than 3 main conceptions of life after death exist in the Javanese society, and many people often believe in more than one :

  • Santri believes in an eternal set of retributions and punishments in the afterworld, based on the Islamic teachings. Outside strict Muslim circles, this view seems to be only half-believed.
  • Many abangan believe in the concept of sampurna, which means that the individuality of the deceased completely disappears after death.
  • A significant proportion of Javanese (but the santri who consider this view as heretical) believe in reincarnation. The spirit of a deceased person would enter a pregnant woman shortly after death.

Geertz notes that his informants “never seems to know who they were the reincarnation of, although they could almost always tell of whome their children were reincarnations“.

Nyekar : grave cult

Koentjaraningrat insists that on top of the slametan cycle, another major aspect of the traditional religious system is the tradition to visit the graves of ancestors and sacred graves in general.

There is an extended cult of saints in Java, whether they are legendary figures (like the Wali Sanga that propagated Islam or ancient kings), villages founders or famous persons of the past (like a powerful dukun or a gifted dalang).


Priyayi were traditionnaly versed in mysticism, either on their own or among a sect.

Priyayi’s mysticism was directly linked to their pantheistic conception of God. Various complicated metaphysical concepts exists but in the end, the final goal to get in contact with the purest form of feeling possible, which is both the individual’s true self (aku) and a manifestation of God (either called Gusti or Allah).

In other words, they are seeking spiritual enlightments by refinement of their inner feelings.

To achieve this goal, it is necessary to train its own focus by ascetism and meditation (semèdi).

Fasting was also a common practices. Geertz reports that many Javanese (but no santri) fasted on every Monday and Thursday all day in the 50s.

Spiritual movements : kebatinan kejawen

Numerous spiritual movements have emerged and disappeared in the Javanese history. They are called kebatinan kejawen and are usually associated with the priyayi.

Those movements or sects usually have only a local base of not more then 200 peoples. A few have around 1000 followers and different chapters across Java.

Geertz quotes Ilmu Sejati or Budi Setia as the most important ones in the region he studied. Koentjaraningrat quotes Sapta Darma from Yogyakarta or Hardapusara from Purworejo.

Abangan vs Priyayi

The priyayi etiquette

Priyayi and abangan are 2 highly distinct social groups in the Javanese society.

Abangan are the peasants masses of the countryside.

A priyayi is a noble, someone who can trace his ancestry back to the great legendary kings of Java. Under the Dutch, they were often part of the colonial administration. They live in towns.

A key concept in the priyayi ethic is the opposition between alus (subtle, refined, civilized) and kasar (impolite, rough, uncivilized). Alus is of course a priayi value, while abangan are considered kasar.

The ascent from the uncivilized animalstic peasant to the hyper-civilized divine king takes places not only in terms of greater mystical achievements, more and more highly developed skills of inward-looking contemplation and refinement of subjective experience, but also in greater and greater formal control over the external aspects of invidual actions, transforming them into art or near-art.

In the dance, in the shadow-play, in music, in textile design, in etiquette, and, perhaps most crucially of all, in language, the aesthetic formalization of the surfaces of social behavior permeates everything the alus Javanese does” (Geertz).

Priyayi must always conceal his inner feelings to the others. They follow the 4 following principles :

  • Always adopting the proper form given the interlocutor’s rank (especially in the Javanese language)
  • Indirection
  • Dissimulation of the truth, the actual intentions or the real opinions
  • Never show any sign of lack of self-control or internal disorder

Differences between the abangan and the priyayi religion

Priyayi regard many parts of the abangan religious practices as superstition and the abangan people as over-credulous, even if they won’t do it publicly.

Abangan had a long-standing resentment against the exploitive ruling aristocracy. Besides that, they view the priyayi mystical theories as too complicated.

Geertz summarizes the differences between the 2 groups with this 3 oppositions :

  • Mystical practices about the relation to God and spiritual enlightment are mostly a priyayi concern. Abangan are much more interested in curing techniques.
  • Abangan live in a world inhabited by a concrete polytheism. Priyayi believe more in a sort of pantheism.
  • Abangan religious rituals are centered around the cycle of slametan and their web of reciprocity. The religious experience of the priyayi is more individual.

The Javanese and Islam

Syncretic Islam

I have already discussed the historical reasons of the Islamic syncretism in Java :

  • The mystical nature of the original Islam that arrived in Java
  • Its slow progression among a population that was attached to its tradition
  • The syncretism encouraged by the ruling Mataram to achieve balance between Islam and the culture that was anteriors to it)

Traditionally, Javanese had a specific practice of Islam :

Javanese do believe in one God (called either Allah or Gusti) and in its prophet Muhammad. They have pronounced the Muslim confession of faith. They also believe that one’s actions during his lifetime will send him either to heaven or hell in the afterlife.

The Javanese practice circumcision and they have adopted Muslim-style burial (instead of the Hindu-Buddhist cremation).

Yet many of them don’t perform the 5 daily prayers, don’t go to the Mosque on Friday and sometimes eat pork. Geertz explains that in the 50s, they recognized the Quran but usually had practically no knowledge of it. Most of them fast during Ramadhan, but fasting was a already a popular practice inherited from Buddhism.

Basically, Islam was considered as a mystic science among others.

The conception of God

Many Javanese still adheres to a conception of God inherited from their pre-Islamic tradition. For instance the one found in the Nawaruci, a book written in the early 17th century.

God is the totality of nature, manifested as a small divine being, so tiny that it can enter any human’s heart at any moment, yet he is in realityas wide as the oceans, as endless as space, and he is manifested in the colours which make up and symbolize everything that exists on earth” (Koentjaraningrat).

They are thus attached to pantheism (the believe that God is the manifestation of the universe itself).

Traditional santri Islam

The Javanese who were “serious” about Islam have been called the santri (the term for Islamic boarding school pesantren, simply means ‘a place for santri’).

Being santri did not prevent many to keep holding slametan, with accentuated Islamic elements, or to believe in many kind of spirits now designated as djin.

They tended to live together in special wards of villages, the kauman, and to give a great importance to their appartenance in the global community of Islam, the ummat.

Yet, santri as the people of the Javanese society with the most advanced knowledge of Islam were often hired by non-santri to participate in their own religious office. For instance :

  • A santri would be asked to give the Arabic chant-prayer during the slametan.
  • After the death of a relative, even anti-Islamic people would sometimes hire them to do Islamic chanting for a few hours each night in their house for 7 days.
  • Santri were also often asked to shout the Confession of Faith in a dead man’s ear before his burial. Once the grave was shut, they would read the tèlkim, a funeral speech adressed to the deceased. He was reminded to wait for the visit of Mungkar and Nakir, 2 angels that ask question to “fresh” deceased like ‘who is your God and what is your religion?’ or ‘What is the direction in which you turn to pray ?’
  • The same is true for newborn child. If his father is not able to pronounce the ritual Arabic phrases, then he would be assisted by a santri.

The pesantren education

Traditionaly, santri parents send their male child to a pesantren (also called pondok) to receive religious education.

A pesantren is a community of male pupils (up to a thousand) receiving teaching from a kyai, who has usually undertook the pilgrimage in Mecca.

The school is traditionaly located in the countryside, a bit secluded from nearby villages. The pupils live in dormitories, do their own cooking, cleaning and laundry. In the past, they used to work the fields of the kyiai too but this was already rare in the 50s.

The kyai is not paid and there is no tuition, the costs are borne by contributions of the family in rice or money and the contribution of the ummat (under the form of a religious tax called zakat).

The kiyai holds classes for 1 to 5 hours a day, he chants in Arabic and the santri echo him line by line. Conservatists traditionnally used mostly books of religious commentaries but under the influence of modernists, more and more they teach passages from the Koran and the Haddith.

There is no required attendance, no grade and no graduation at the end. Santri notes whatever comment of the kyiai they like. Some santri stays a few weeks and then switch to another pesantren while others stay a few years and assist the kyiai in teaching the least advanced students.

Conservatist and modernist movement within Indonesian Islam

In 1870, the Suez Canal is opened and sea travel to the Middle-East becomes easier. This had 2 consequences :

  • More Indonesian can undertake the pilgrimage in Mecca, where they are exposed to Islamic reform movements from Egypt and Saudi Arabia that praise the necessity to return to the “uncorrupted” Islam of the time of the prophet.
  • Arab traders (with a large part of Hadhramauts) settles in Indonesian towns.

In Geertz’s book, one can find a fascinating account of the ongoing debates among the santri community of the region he studied in the 1950s.

On one side, there were the conservatives (kolot) that defended the tradition the Javanese santri have built up in 4 centuries :

  • An Islam based on the custom inherited from their parents and the consensus of the kyai.
  • A rather passive view towards life : for them fate rules everything and the best thing one can do is to lead a pious a moral life to be send to heaven after death.
  • Flexibility about what can be considered Islamic or at least tolerable for a Muslim : they hold slametan but simply put the emphasis on the Islamic elements rather than the other spirits. They also tolerate mysticism if it follows the rules of the Sufi brotherhoods. On the other hand they are also more inclined to attack ‘infidel’ practices by non-santris that are the modernists (which are mostly worried about the heterodoxy within the ummat).
  • Maintaining the artistic tradition nurtured in the pesantren like terbangan (chants inspired from Persia), gambusan (Middle-Eastern type orchestra) or pencak (martial art that is mainly associated with Islamic schools).

On the other hand the modernist (moderen) are influenced by reformist Islamic movement from abroad :

  • Their Islam is based on the Koran and the Hadith.
  • They believe in self-determination in life, leaving the fate only to unforeseenable events like natural disasters or accidents.
  • They tend to simply rule out all cultural elements that are not considered Islamic enough, for instance slametan.
  • Modernist approves few forms of art : moral stories for children and the chanting of Islamic verse. They tend to encourage sports like football or badminton.

The notion of conservatism and modernism applied to Javanese Islam can be misleading. It’s the modernist that advocate a return to the strict Islamic doctrine while the conservatists are often the least Islamic of Javanese santris. Conservatists are actually closer to abangan (from which they still share many traditions and habits, even if the appearance is more Islamic).

But modernists are also the one advocating self determination in life or independence of secular institutions when kolot think that the best society would be governed by kyai. They also introduced education for both sexes and teaching of modern subjects and not only religion in schools.

To oversimply, and old, rural, uneducated and deeply pious peasant is likely to be kolot (conservatist). While the typical modernist leader is young, educated and urban. Of course they are very few true modernist or conservatists, most people being in between.

Conservatism is represend by Nathladul Ulama, while modernism is leaded by Muhamadiyah. Both organizations are two now two of the largests Muslim organizations in the world.

There is no religious education among abangans, children simply absord the tradition by participating to rituals.

Javanese religion in 2019

A few comments from the 50s

Already in the 50s, Geertz clearly noted a strain between santris and the two other groups. For him this antagonism was the distant heir of the ancient struggle between the Muslim powers of the Pasisir and the kingdoms of the interior that was more willing to preserve the Hindu-Buddhist heritage.

He also observed that the antagonism was increasing over time.

The resentment against the santri was usually directed at their moralism, they are often considered hypocritic. They were often called ‘Javanese Arabs’.

The santri accused in return the abangan of idol-worshipping and the priyayi of not separating themselves from God (because they consider that God is found within one’s spiritual realm).

Fast forward to 2019

My personnal feeling is that those trends that were already visible in the 50s got stronger. But I believe that the santri and especially the orthodox won have secured a kind of ‘higher ground’ in the public debate.

In politics, I have the impression that it pays off way more to pose as a pious Muslim rather than a patron of ancient Javanese culture.

In short, Islamists got more rigourous, mystics got less vocal (but still exists) and the traditional Javanese arts got less popular among the masses.

A more orthodox Islam ?

The influence of foreign orthodox Islam gained more and more tractions among Javanese santri. One of the most dramatic illustration of this movement is the apparition of women wearing niqab in the streets of Javanese towns. But one could also thinks about sporadic police raiding food stalls that keeps selling for the day during the Ramadhan.

This ‘anti-infidel’ attitude is not new among santris that already attacked movies, playing cards or gym shorts for girls in the 50s. But my personnal feeling is that not many people are willing to oppose them publicly, even for illegal actions.

Various regular incidents point at a declining tolerance from the santris, for instance :

  • In December 2018, villagers of Purbayan, Kotagede, Yogyakarta cut off a wooden cross on a Christian’s grave because they didn’t want such a religious symbol in the village’s cemetery (Jakarta Post).
  • In January 2019, a rather baroque controversy happened in Surakarta, against some kind of artistic road pavements that were thought to form a cross (Jakarta Post).
  • In April 2019, a ward chief (Ketua RT) refused that a Christian family moved in his village in Bantul, although they had already rented a house (Detik).

Yet traditional Javanese santris, that engage in preserving the Javanese culture are also well alive. I think that the current president of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, is typically one of them.

His public image is that of a pious Muslim, regularly praying and despite having attended public school, he is quite proficient in Koran reading. On the other hand, he is very willing to show his attachment to the Javanese culture, for instance when he married his daughter.

From religion to tradition ?

On the other side of the spectrum, I think that the most obvious thing is that tenants of the ancient Javanese culture failed to organize themselves as as public group.

Maybe the abangan and priyayi communities were too heterogenous and opposed to create a unity. The two main political powers of the post-independence : the Muslim and the nationalist probably looked down on them. Santris did so because they consider their practices infidel, nationalists because priyayi were partially viewed as an exploitative nobility that hindered the ideal of equality between the citizens of the new Republic of Indonesia. Abangan were often regarded as overcredulous and backwards by the independence leaders.

On top of that, the decimation of the communists in 1965 and 1966, which were associated with atheism, pushed many Javanese to abandon, at least publicly, their pantheism or polyteism to join one of the established modern religions.

The urbanization of the Javanese society also weakened many traditions that were associated with the rural life. In the 80s, Koentjaraningrat reports that the urban Javanese already delivered most of their babies in hospital and did not perform many rituals associeted with birth. It was perfectly normal to whisper mantras in the ears of the newborn to bring him protection. I’m convinced that some people still do it, but discreetly.

Yet until today, some entire families still make a living as pawang hujan (rain shaman) and if you pay attention you can hear some drivers honk their car’s horn when they drive by a graveyard to keep spooks away.

Slametan are still widely held, but I believe that they have lost most of their religious signification. It’s now a kind of tradition. But be certain that on any significant occasions, a nasi tumpeng (rice pyramid) will be bring along at one point or another.

Most of Javanese rituals, even if still performed on various occasions in Java are more and more regarded as an ancient custom to preserve, rather than real religious practices.


  • C.Geertz – The Religion of Java (1960) : if you had to read only one book about Java, pick this one. An absolute classic of Indonesian ethnography. Full of lively descriptions.
  • Koentjaraningrat – Javanese Culture (1985) : covers a much broader scope than Geertz book but it’s so dense that it’s easy to miss things. Best read after Geertz.
  • B. Anderson – Language and Power. Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia (reprint from 1990) : a series of essay. The authors knows a lot about the Javanese culture.

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