The South Coast of the Yogyakarta Province’s eastern district Gunungkidul is formed by a long stretch of craggy and rough limestone cliffs peppered with some bright sandy beaches and bays. The wild currents of the Java Sea beat relentlessly on the rocky base of these cliffs, in which crashing waves, colored stone, palm trees and white sand form an unsettling décor of a rare natural beauty. Even though wet rice culture is practically unknown here for the climate is too dry, people farm the thin topsoil for several crops mainly teak plantations, cassava roots and corn. By the sea, many make a living from fishing with typical ‘perahu’ outrigger boats and yet others harvest swallow bird nests in hidden caves by the cliffs.
A quite forbidding coastline, which is to this day still relatively untouched by mass touristic infrastructure, this landscape was for quite a long time sparsely inhabited. For this reason mainly it was in the past often sought by fleeing armies and solitary hermits. Many legends and myths are still believed to hold truth here amongst the local communities living near the coast. Nyai Roro Kidul, Queen of the South Seas, is considered as the ruler of the spirits who live along the south coast, indeed of all the spirits on Java’s land according to some. These include both the spirits of the ancestors, generally perceived to be a force for good, and those who inhabited Java before the coming of humans. Many of the latter though were caused to move from their original habitation and sent to reside on the south coast. Partly because of the ambiguity of their power and partly because they have been disturbed, these spirits are often feared.
Nyai Lara Kidul is primarily worshiped by people living along the coasts of the Southern Ocean, especially by ordinary fishermen and collectors of bird nests, who have to face the dangers of the ocean in order to earn a living. Fishermen perform offering ceremonies to the Queen consisting usually of fragrant flowers, incense, and various types of cloth that are carried in procession to the shores of the ocean and abandoned to the waves. The relationship is one of asking protection and determining specific beach rights. For example, many fishermen do not take their boat out to sea on a weton day (Javanese calendar birthday), both of the fisherman himself as well as of the boat! To do so might cause regrettable accidents.
Amongst these Gunungkidul beaches, one in particular deserves our attention to illustrate the importance of the southern coast through Javanese history and spirituality. The place is called Pantai Ngobaran and is located in the Saptosari commune, Panggang sub-district, about midway between the more famous Parangtritis and Baron Beaches. Ngobaran’s natural panorama and sites are indeed a delight for the eye, especially when one takes in the vibe around sunset time. But more important to many Javanese is the fact that this particular spot is a historical highlight of kejawen style mysticism, as a consequence of a historical fact often debated by non-followers of this indigenous belief system. It is affirmed by many to be the last refuge of Brawijaya V, the last ruler of the mighty Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit Empire of old. Around the year 1500 he would have fled here with his trusted inner court servants and his son Bondan Kejawan, on the run from a Muslim army led by his renegade son Raden Patah, ruler of Demak Kingdom on the North coast. Here he would have expressed his last wishes and hopes for the sake of future Javanese rulers yet to come, mainly revolving around the idea that the immense cultural and spiritual heritage of the old Javanese kingdoms (Mataram Kuno, Singhosari and Majapahit respectively) was not to be lost and had to be preserved at all cost from predicted successive foreign dominations and related ideas. Many Javanese holding dear to this very sacred heritage consider this royal edict as the foundation of what was later to become the syncretic Kejawan religion and worldview. It is further told that after having proclaimed this, Brawijaya V would have performed Moksha, or self-initiated death process, eventually vanishing in a fireball (kobaran, from where the place takes its name).
This episode in Javanese history indicates a grand change, as rulers thereafter converted to Islam as the official religion of the state, albeit a very particular Javanese form of Islam. Hindu-Buddhist iconography and outward practices soon disappeared and replaced by dogmatic Muslim manifestations and cult. Yet the Javanese heritage expressed by Brawijaya V survived concealed in the hearts and minds of consecutive generations of Javanese lineages of teachers and royalty alike. Tensions have often arisen and faded between both religious views over the past 500 years. Yet Ngobaran, amongst others remained a ritually venerated spot, a symbol of the old religion and philosophy, including for Balinese Hindus who perform their annual Melasti ritual at the local Pura (temple) built there. Present-day kejawan followers believe that the invisible ancestral forces represented by the triad Airlangga (11th century King), Bondan Kejawan (usurped Crown-prince of Mojopahit) and Dewi Kilisuci (11th century ascetic princess) use this place as a gateway between the ocean and the land and beings of Java, functioning as the Javanese version of the famous Hindu Trimurti of Brahma, Siva and Vishnu. You will therefore see a Wayang statuary court dedicated to these and autochthonous Javanese characters representing the values of Hindu-Buddhist Dharma and especially the principles of the sacred teaching called Hasta Brata.
A philosophical interpretation of Ngobaran states that the fact that Brawijaya V performed a self-initiated fire cremation (moksha) here indicates he was extremely burdened by the destructive invasion of Islam upon his Mojopahit capital. A famous story recounts how the two deity helpers of Brawijaya, Sabdopalon and Noyogenggong, talked him out of accepting to convert to Islam under the pressure of his renegade son Patah and his council of prophets, the nine Wali (Saints). Brawijaya had done many mistakes and misjudgments during his rule that helped cause the eventual downfall of Majapahit Empire. His main pitfall was the loss of Jatidiri (Wisdom of the Self), to which the 2 helpers remedied by advising “Kabar kabur karena Kibir” (a confusing situation caused by a misplaced ambition or ignorance) should be purified by a “kobar” or fire process in order to return the wisdom of self-knowledge. For Javanese, the knowledge of Jatidiri is indeed something deeply valued, and its absence or loss of it is a cause for fatal mistakes and incidents, especially for a leader. It is likened to a state of possession, whereby the agent does not see the essence of things and cannot therefore take clear decisions because of a disturbing effect to one’s own consciousness. It leads such a vulnerable person to merely follow others without ever questioning or distinguishing the deeper meaning and values of the new situation. The Javanese quote for such a vulnerable state of delusion is “Anut Grubyug, ora ngerti Rembug”. To remedy this, one has to practice contemplation and reflection mind-training through meditation techniques, hopefully arriving at a state of clear purifying light which burns all negativities away and reclaim a state of self-awareness of jatidiri. The clear message being “don’t ever follow other’s ideas without truly judging the essence of it first”. Pantai Ngobaran is regarded as an ideal place for such purifying meditation ritual as it is assumed that the venerable spirit ancestors described above would benevolently help the practitioner in that noble inner quest.
By Moko Pramusanto & Patrick Vanhoebrouck