Reuben Rutledge on the religious and philosophical beliefs of Java’s Wong Tenggar peoples




        The period between the late sixteenth century and the seventeenth century was one of warring in the Eastern Salient of Java. In 1628 the Dutch defeated them. The Eastern Salient was conquered in 1640.  In the 1680’s Madurese and the Makkasar rebels joined the Trunajaya rebellion. Dutch forces pursued these into the mountains of Tengger. These mountains contained some of the last Buddhists to resist Islamization. This marked a hundred years of political violence in Tengger. The most important of these rebels was Surapati. After being defeated by the Dutch he fled into the East Java. He was killed in battle in 1706. In the Tengger Mountains the Dutch continued to meet resistance. In the 1760’s Tengger fell to the Dutch.

       In the early nineteenth century he Dutch would change the demographic of East Java. In the lowlands surrounding Tengger the Dutch created rich sugar plantations. Many of these were run by traditional landowners, but there also was the presence of large plantations needed a landless worker. So the Dutch imported Muslim Madurese to operate these plantations. But this sugar crop could not be grown in the dry, arid highlands of Tengger. Many of the lowlands move inward up to near where the Wong Tengger lived.  Coffee production proved to be a very successful crop.

       During the late nineteenth century the Dutch took great interest in the Tengger religion along with the advancement of Islam. The preference towards Islam was because it was an organized political force. This was hoped to oppose the rebellious nature of inland Javanese. One problem that developed was a growing presence of Islamic fundamentalists that opposed traditional Javanese customs. This proved to be a problem to the Dutch.

           Because of this the Dutch began to pay more attention to the Tengger cultures. This began during the last decade of the nineteenth century.


Reuben Rutledge is finishing a Ph. D. at California’s Institute of Integral Studies (San Francisco.) He may be reached at and enjoys intellectual intercourse and local San Jose art galleries.

Marriage no longer could only be conducted by a Muslim; it also be conducted by a Tengger priest. Many Dutch suggested that the Tengger should be counterinfluence to Islam. Other Dutch officials denounced this. This was based on the theory of progressive evolutionism. Islam considered the Tengger religion as less evolved and therefore set to extinction. Islam was considered a better vehicle for the Javanese transition to Christianity. The Tengger leaders never endorsed this strategy as that it would put them in conflict with their Muslim neighbors. The Tengger approached religion in terms of tolerance and dualistic complementarily.  They considered themselves as one variety of Javanese religion.

      The construction of roads with accompanying support community allowed Muslims to settle inside Tengger. There was a massive flow of outsiders into the region. These constructions were aborted by the great depression.

       After the fall of the Majapahit the Tengger were primarily Buddhist. But the pressure of lowland Islamization and the Dutch caused a change to occur. There was suddenly a mass conversion to Hinduism, leaving only a handful of Buddhists in the region. This also left with the remaining population without a Brahmanic tradition. The priesthood found in these regions are Non-Brahmanic. The largest of these are in the Tenggar District in Western Java. This center is found on Mount Bromo. What is left is a fusion of the older Polynesian religions with Saivite Hinduism and Mahayana/Vajrayana Buddhism known as the Wong Tengger. What has resulted is a type of Hinduism that is similar to the folk religion found in Bali. Unlike Bali, what is left in Java lacks a royal court. Thus the Hinduism in contemporary Java is pure folk religion in Hindu guise. There is no Brahmanic caste. All priests are laity, as is found among the lay Hindus of Bali. The forms of Hinduism left in Java are the ancient ancestor worship practices in the guise of the form of Saivism and Mahayana Buddhism.  There is also a belief in nature spirits. These can be both benevolent and malevolent.  The benevolent are often associated with ancestors.  Shiva is associated with the God of the volcano known as Mt. Bromo.  Previously He was associated with the southern volcano named Sumeru. Mt. Bromo was then associated with Brahma, the god of fire. When the Moslems began occupying the Sumeru region, Mt Bromo became the abode of Shiva.  Mi. Sumeru became the abode of Brahma. Shiva has been historically associated with the Majapahit king. He has never been viewed in Java as an aesthetic. Shiva is always viewed as a king. The Wong Tenggar know him as the God Sang Hyang Widi. In this form He is seen as the spirit of the souls of the ruling class.  The various Gods are not seen to dwell in the temples, but rather on the mountains. In the various rituals to the Gods, they are called out of the mountains into the temples. The Gods are also associated with ancestors. The most important Gods are associated with the ancestors of nobility. But the laity tends to emphasize the ancestor spirits of the immediate family. Historically Hinduism entered Java with the trade that occurred with India. The temples found in Java are for the Gods.  They generally are of the open-air variety, but unlike Bali they lack images of the Gods. These temples are generally found outside the villages. The Indian style closed temples are no longer in use as that most of these are in Islamic territories.  These temples as mentioned earlier were built for the aristocracy, which fled to Bali with the coming of Islam. What is left is a fusion of the older indigenous religions with Hinduism.

         Over time the Tenggar have contributed much in the traditional Javanese style. What appears to be a lack in formal roles and status turns out to be a neatly meshed world of persons who call themselves Tengger. There is an absence of formal groups and status.  Marriage is unimportant in the mechanism of social alliance. The village indentifies itself by this. There is no privileged deep structure that is embodied in ritual performance. One has to look outside the ritual to the larger experience that informs the responsibilities of the actors to enable public performances. While the priestly liturgy has attained a high degree of cultural stability, the larger universe of the Tengger has not. Thus the interpretations of ritual have changed.

       Karo, the ritual blessing of souls, can be compared to the traditional forms found in other areas of Indonesia. It has parallels with a Majapahit practice of the rajapatni invocation of the souls of royal families. In both the spirit of the dead are invocated and invited to take up residence in a puspa flower figurine. The spirit is then entertained for a three-day period with offerings and dancing.  Little has changed in this practice over the last six hundred years. Yet the similarity does not inform the Tengger of the understanding of their tradition. The villagers tend to compare it to Muslim activities instead. In both occasions the memory of the dead are invoked. Family ties are reaffirmed with family, neighbors, and associates.

        The Tengger use the term japa for mantra. These ritual words are given power even their meanings seem to be unintelligible. The priest is the intermediate between humans and the gods. Other practices in effect the institutionalization of the priest so that his authority is well established. Ritual speech in turn must situate in the larger setting of authority. It helps define the value of sacred power. It is important that what is said in ritual speech. The attributes of the priest along generalized notions influence popular attitudes. The celebration of the liturgy has little to do with the villagers understanding of whet the priest prays. Sometimes the priest offers the prayers alone. The rite is done in such a way that the people are not drawn to the prayer. The language of the prayers is to the deities and not to the people.  The formal nature of the liturgy precludes repetition.  It is the deities and not the human psyche that are important.

      Liturgy speaks more clearly to who is the Guru that is Lord Shiva. The importance of the liturgies is to ensure the balance of the spiritual forces in the world that in transforming Kala (fierce Shiva). It’s basic plan is to balance invocation, purification, and maintenance of spiritual balance. The liturgy is the primary tool for this.

      As to demons the villagers may make little mention of these in public. If the existence of demons and gods are considered then the villagers will respond instead to disavowing such mysteries.  People more readily of speak of guardian spirits and spirits of the family dead. From popular perspective is ritual first then ancestor worship. Also guardian spirits of Mt Bromo are recognized. The villagers as opposed to the village chiefs understand the liturgy differently. As to the liturgy some deities are invoked through mantra while others through colloquial Javanese of the villagers. Some receive mounds of offerings and others receive scraps. Not all spirits are created equal. Ordinary villagers often know more than is expressed in myth and folk commentary.  The individual’s understanding of the liturgy remains an unspoken truth. 

      For the Tengger, ritual words contain an accorded power by the faithful. This is true even when the text is unintelligible.  The priests ritual instruments, assistants, and ritual prerogatives reinforce the idea that the priest is the primary intermediary between the living and the gods. Ritual speech in order to be effective it must be dependent on in sustaining belief and sacred power. The role attitudes of the priest must influence popular attitudes on the power of ritual language. The celebration of Tengger liturgy does not depend on the understanding of what the priest says. People are drawn into the liturgy with little effort. The power of ritual speech does not depend on the people’s understanding of the prayers as the right person, in the right condition, in the right place, says them

        The Tengger tradition provides a curious variation on the Indian influences of Farther India. Much of the Hindu symbolism is visible, but altered in a fashion that is consistent with popular beliefs.  Cultural space is focused on a Meru-like mountain that is the meeting place between gods and humans. There is no royalty that is superimposed on this mountain. Instead it is the home of the deified ancestor.  The ritual invocation of the Majapahit’s queen mother into a puspa flower figurine; her spirit descending to the Earth for several days, is honored with offerings and dance. In her presence all humans are considered equal. Household ritual shows a similar concern with ancestral and village spirits.  Their invocation in priestly rites ensures welfare for the living, abundance of the Earth, and the flow of life-giving water.

      It is difficult to see how the Tengger differ from the older Javanese Hinduism. The fall of Majapahit was a turning point for Javanese civilization.  Eastern Java was Balkanized such that the older Hindu-Buddhist courts survived. In the rest of Java Islam became the state religion. Hindu-Buddhist communities gradually disappeared. Only Tengger remained in complete isolation. The region lacked the courts, castes, and religious scholars that are found in neighboring Bali. Dramatic arts were few. The priest’s liturgy was extended into the more general religious climate, and identified itself as the spiritual foundation for societies natural and social communities.

       The force of cultural meanings did not focus the people in their religious tradition. The ritual tradition was embedded in their system of social practice. Religious performance was a part of the general social rhythms. This interaction helped to create the cultural truths as to the ancestral nature of the tradition. Social practice and cultural ideas were well integrated. As Java changed the process that sustained ritual reproduction could be undermined with small shifts of consumption, a change of village leadership, and the erosion of popular faith.

      The ritual tradition has embedded has embedded the Tengger in a larger tradition of social practice. The roles of the priest, chief, among other things combine to create a system in which ritual performance that was but the culmination of general social rhythms.    In changing Java communities these were the rituals that could be under mined by small shifts in consumption, change in leadership, in ordnances for maintenance.

       In recent decades the amount of villages that called themselves Hindu have more than doubled. Many Indian Hindu teachers arrived there in order to instruct the populace in Hinduism.   Many classes were opened in order to instruct children in the practices of Sanskrit prayer. This has been titled the Hindu reform movement. Many priests opposed them because they conflicted with Tengger practices.  Many of these Hindu practices were new to the region as most of the Tengger were Buddhist at the start of the twentieth century. As the century progressed Hinduism replaced Buddhism as a faith. There are very few hamlets left that still practice Buddhism.  Islam also made inroads into the region.

       The Hindu Reform Movement appeared in post World War II Java. During the fifties and sixties expeditions went out from Tengger to Bali in order to learn about their religion. This movement took up residence in the northwest Tengger province. The remainder of the Tengger rejected it.  Still there was tension between the two groups that is the Balinese reformers and the Tengger villagers. The programs that seemed popular were education and prayer. Yet what were rejected were the priestly rites.  There were also concern the few remaining Buddhists would join forces with the Hindu neighbors.  Overpopulation and poverty has confronted the movement. This affects the common ways and the ancestral solidarity, which the Tengger had rationally relied on.  Buddhist Tengger chose to reduce ritual experience so that may sponsor a rite.  The movement encouraged a more modern way to approach cosmology. There was a need to develop theoretical tools to explain and control natural events. There was the effect that it would have that it would deny traditional cultural beliefs. The creation of the movement was defensive in that it thought to develop a vocabulary that existing religious beliefs would be considered legitimate. It institutionalizes them. It also distinguishes these religions from tribal societies.  The Tengger never had an autonomous traditional society, and its religion was never just local.


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