Find the Guide within yourself and become its best pupil

After Ambarawa, the road leading to the Karimun Islands descends from the central volcanic range and through to the Javanese northern coastal districts, passing beautiful tropical landscapes strewn with several hills and old volcanoes. It eventually ends at either the harbors of Semarang or Jepara cities. Before or after their stay in Karimun, visitors can spend several days in the old coastal cities of Semarang, Kudus, Demak or Jepara, delving in the history of this part of Java and explore the lush outlying areas and natural wonders around Gunung Muria with its dense forests and cascading waterfalls. Besides Dutch colonial buildings and harbors, one can also find the oldest mosques in Java dating from the early 16th century, the first one being the Masjid Agung in Demak. Local culinary delights await the gastronomical explorer who might readily taste the difference with Yogyakarta’s sweeter fare and southern Javanese cuisine.

These districts dotting the northern coast of Java are known collectively as the “Pasisir Utara” and have since the 16th century been instrumental in the development of the entire Central and East Javanese cultural sphere. Two major factors above all determined the forthcoming fate and history of Java forever: Foreign trade and Islam. The first foreigners who arrived and came into contact with the Javanese people and the Kingdoms of the Majapahit Empire were mostly religious pilgrims or traders. As the trade with Java and outlying islands intensified between Portuguese, Dutch, English, Indian and Arab merchants at the end of the 15th century, the northern harbors increased gradually in importance. It is there that much of Nusantara’s spices, minerals, wood and fabric were stored, bought and then traded for export. The Arab, Chinese and Indian Muslim traders founded the first Islamic compounds or ‘kaum’, each with their own Mosques and this was initially authorized by the Hindu-Buddhist emperor at the time, namely Prabu Brawijaya V. It could be said that Islam and economic trade came hand in hand, slowly gaining in importance over the next centuries. Demak, Jepara and Semarang harbors later became the gateways to the heartland ruled by the Mataram Kingdoms.

The strategic position of these ports on the main Asian naval trading routes and their relative distance from the stronghold powers of first Majapahit and later the Mataram empire made them targets for conquest by successively Middle-Eastern and Gujarati Muslim preachers, the Dutch colonially minded VOC and even the English colonial imperialists under Sir Stamford Raffles during his invasion of Java in 1811. It is obvious that for the Dutch or the English, Semarang and the other harbors were essential in isolating the powerful Sultans from Mataram in their kraton in Solo and Yogyakarta as well as their numerous vassal kingdoms in Central and East Java. The colonial expansion and the huge plantation production or looting it entailed needed centrally located ports for shipping goods back to Europe. Yet before the domination of the Europeans, the entry points through Demak and Jepara saw the start of a massive subsequent conversion to Islam of an initially animistic and Hindu-Buddhist Javanese population. This conversion was instrumented both peacefully and by force through the efforts of the charismatic 9 Muslim Saints known as the Wali Songo.

It has to be said that the Nine Saints employed persuasive methods to bring about the Muslim conversion of Java, and the closeness of mystical Sufism to Tantric practices beforehand was undoubtedly a key for the acceptance of the new religion from Mekkah in Javanese land. Amongst them, two Pasisir natives named Sunan Kalijaga and Syeh Siti Jenar knew how to advance Islamic ideas into pre-existing cultural worldviews by utilizing popular traditional forms of art and performances (such as the Wayang repertoire). Soon Kings and spiritual gurus learned to accommodate the secret teachings of Sufism and integrated these in a syncretic form of spirituality known until today as Kejawen, incorporating Hindu and Buddhist values as well as Islam methods yet still respecting the cult of ancestors. Muslim purists often argue as a result that Islam in Java is an imperfect corruption of the original religion taught in Mekkah and that the present 21th century efforts to reform Javanese Islam are therefore legitimate.

However it may be, the perspectives of westernized and Muslim modes of thinking and production seem to have had a huge impact on intellectual and educational developments in Java over the last centuries and here again the Pasisir areas produced some renowned figures. One man in particular which needs mention is the late Raden Mas Panji  Sosrokartono, born in Jepara  and buried in Kudus. This personage is widely considered to be one of the genius founding fathers of the Republic of Indonesia as he was extremely influential to President Soekarno, the first president and charismatic leader of the anti-colonial Revolutionary struggle after World War II. A gifted child with clairvoyance capabilities, Sosrokartono studied and worked as a young man in the Netherlands. As a polyglot mastering 24 international languages and 10 local ones, he worked across the board from New York to Geneva via Paris and Den Haag. After successful career as interpreter at the UN he decided to study his passion of Medical doctor. Yet here he was disappointed with the limits of medical knowledge, decided to move back to Java and reverted back to his own Javanese culture to discover secrets on mental and physical health. Through the process he learned of the old Sufi and Javanese mystic ways of reaching universal balance from old texts and inspirational gurus. His writings on the topic of mysticism are to this day some of the most popular and widely quoted lines of Javanese wisdom. One of his most famous quotes, pertaining also to this text which deals with recurrent foreign knowledge and worldviews imported on indigenous subjects, says the following:

Dadiyo Guru, ya muride pribadi, Dadiyo murid ya gurune pribadi.

Piwulangane sengsarane sesamii.

Ganjarane ayu – Aruming sesame

Translation: “Become the teacher for your own self’s student; Become the student of your own self’s teacher. The teaching is about mankind’s suffering. The result will lead to finding the key to goodness and happiness”. Obviously this admonition is as relevant for today’s world as it was 5 centuries ago.

By Patrick Vanhoebrouck & Moko Pramusanto


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