Researching the experience of sacred space in Java, Indonesia
Date / Location
June - August 2008
Central Java, Indonesia
Across Indonesia, people visit sacred places to pray and meditate. This practice, called ziarah, usually happens at the graves of religious figures or in scenic natural areas.
Parangkusumo beach is a famous ziarah site in southern Java. According to legend, this was the place where a Javanese king fell in love with Ratu Kidul, the Queen of the Southern Ocean. The king, named Panembahan Senopati, was meditating on a large rock when Ratu Kidul emerged from the sea. Today, two rocks still stick out of the sand at Parangkusumo, marking the spot where they met. Thousands come to pray at these rocks.
Parangkusumo is not a typical ziarah site. Firstly, it doubles as a weekend beach destination, making it both a recreational space and a sacred area. Secondly, instead of being a tomb for a historical figure, Parangkusumo is associated with a mythical "Queen" who is very much alive in the eyes of local residents.
Little had been written in English about the practice of ziarah at Parangkusumo. The goal of my research was to understand and document the dynamics of the space: Why do people pray there? How do tourism, commerce and prayer coexist there? Is there any tension between the spiritual and recreational use of the beach?
I observed and photographed prayers at Parangkusumo on more than five occasions, and participated in some of them personally. Together with a translator, I interviewed visitors and local residents to better understand the spiritual, social and economic dimensions of the space.
Using this approach, I was able to:
- Document the practice of prayer at Parangkusumo
- Map the spatial boundaries of prayer and commercial activity
- Understand the economic dynamics of the space
- Understand local perceptions of the space and its many uses
- Understand the motivations that lead people to pray at Parangkusumo
Religion and prayer at Parangkusumo
Generally speaking, pilgrims visit ziarah sites because they believe that prayers are more effective there. In shrines where religious figures are buried, the spirits of the dead are thought to help deliver prayers to God. Parangkusumo does not have a tomb, but visitors believe that its two rocks are full of potent spiritual energy.
Ratu Kidul, the mythical Queen of the Southern Ocean, is also seen as a figure who can bring prayers "closer" to God. Many pilgrims see her as an intermediary (perantara).
Sutono, a Javanese man who regularly visits Parangkusumo, compared Ratu Kidul to a deputy governor:
"Suppose you want to talk to the governor. If you try to go to him directly, you will certainly be unsuccessful. However, if you know one of his deputies, they could surely communicate your concern to him."
Some Muslims in Indonesia see these kinds of prayers as blasphemous. The people I spoke to at Parangkusumo were aware of this criticism. Some were careful to emphasize that the pilgrims -- nearly all of whom are Muslim -- don't actually pray to Ratu Kidul. Nurul, a woman who sells flowers at the site, explained:
"When people pray at the rocks, they're praying directly to God. The setting makes it easier for them to communicate with God, but they pray directly to God."
At Parangkusumo, beliefs about Ratu Kidul are generally not in conflict with Islam. This harmony is reflected in the space as well: a mosque sits just a stone's throw from the sacred rocks. Nurul mentioned that every 40 days, the mosque holds prayers for Ratu Kidul and the king whom she met on the beach:
"Every 40 days, when (the Javanese weekday) Legi falls on a Friday, people have special prayers at the mosque. They pray for God to bless the souls of Panembahan Senopati and Ratu Kidul."
Another person I interviewed said that Ratu Kidul is herself a Muslim and that she recites the Qur'an in Arabic.
Inner peace, money, and sorcery
Many people report feeling a sense of inner peace when they pray at the sacred rocks. Some believe that this tranquility stays with them after they leave the beach, improving their relationships and livelihood. One pilgrim explained that his visits to Parangkusumo, in an indirect way, helped bring harmony to his home, improved his financial stability, and helped his children achieve success in school.
Some pilgrims visit the rocks to directly ask for things like love, career advancement, and money. Using the spiritual energy at Parangkusumo to seek wealth is controversial, and some associate it with sorcery. One woman, Yati, had a frightening experience after praying for wealth.
One night, after praying at Parangkusumo, Yati went to meditate at a tomb. There she had a strange vision: A woman approached and offered her three raw ducks. Yati refused them, and the vision ended. When she asked a psychic to interpret the vision, he told her that the ducks symbolized children. If she sacrificed her three children, he said, then her prayer for money would come true. Yati was startled because she did, in fact, have three children. After that experience, she never prayed for wealth again.
Another person mentioned that rituals at Parangkusumo can be used to acquire a tuyul -- a child-like spirit that can be used to steal money for its owner.
Some pilgrims, like Sutono, are critical of people who do rituals in hopes of attaining wealth. In his view, they were overlooking the true, mystical purpose of ziarah:
"The motivation of the people coming to pray at [Parangkusumo] is what’s wrong. Most of them pray for money, love, and so on. They don't understand the true motivation of Panembahan Senopati: the search for [mystical insight]. They just want practical things."
He suggested that desperation and poverty are making people turn to sorcery or sacrifice:
"People say things like, 'Ratu Kidul has a mystical bank full of riches, which you can get if you sacrifice your children.' These ideas are very common today, and they demoralize the people. The problem is only exacerbated by the government, which neglects the economic needs of the people."
Sex work at Parangkusumo
On a typical day, Parangkusumo is a dusty, empty place. But when the Javanese weekday Kliwon falls on a Tuesday or Friday, hundreds of people flock there. These nights are said to be the best time to pray at ziarah sites. Prayer, however, isn't the only thing drawing people to the beach.
During these special nights, restaurants at Parangkusumo overflow and vendors sell music, jewelry and clothes in a bustling night market. The most lucrative activity, however, may be sex work. Women from cities across Java come to Parangkusumo to find clients on these nights. In central Java, the beach is well-known as a center for commercial sex work.
In some cases, sex work actually has a connection to the spiritual activities at Parangkusumo. The custodians of the area do not approve of it, though. A large sign next to the sacred rocks warns pilgrims not to "corrupt their intention to do ziarah by committing foul, sinful deeds."
Many men who seek sex are not involved in prayers at all, but some use sex as a part of their ritual. Dina, a single mother from central Java, rents a room at the beach and earns a living through sex work. She described the connection between sex and prayer:
"Some of the people who do rituals at Parangkusumo bring their own girls (for sex). They'll have sex, and then clean themselves thoroughly before doing the rituals. But there are also many men who look for girls at Parangkusumo. I don’t have any idea why they use sex as part of their ritual. Some people say it makes their prayers and wishes more likely to be delivered."
Like other people I spoke to, Dina said that many of the small businesses and restaurants at Parangkusumo rent rooms to sex workers. Because of the economic boost that sex work brings the otherwise quiet area, some residents are not opposed to it. But others feel that it damages the sacredness of the site. One man described a tension between religious figures and people who own businesses:
"The people who disagree with the prostitution are mostly religious people and religious leaders, but the business owners support it."
The people I spoke to felt that sex work would be tolerated as long as it brought money and visitors to Parangkusumo. But no one saw it as a positive situation. Dina, for example, described her wish to return to a "normal" living situation:
"If I could do something to change this place, I'd want to help people like me find their way back to a normal life. None of these sex workers are doing this without a pressing reason. Most of them are struggling financially, or come from poor families... And personally, I really want to stop doing this and live normally, with a responsible husband."
Sutono believed that further developing the area could solve the "problem" of sex work at Parangkusumo:
"This is a very complex problem; it is the symptom of an impoverished society. You know, I once had a conversation with [a local government official]. He asked me what should be done to address the problem of prostitution there. I told him: make Parangkusumo into a family tourism resort. If families started visiting Parangkusumo, their presence would shame the men who came looking for sex, and they would be discouraged from returning."
It would be fascinating to follow this research up with a more thorough study that revisits Parangkusumo and also explores the dynamics of ziarah at other sacred places in southern and central Java.
Respect the cultural norms of the people you're interviewing.
One of the challenges of interviewing people for this project was the need to respect Javanese cultural norms. Asking strangers direct, candid questions would have been offensive and, ultimately, ineffective. Instead, I had to build rapport and engage with people in a way that showed respect and deference. In many cases, I had to spend considerable time "chit-chatting" before it was appropriate to discuss my research.
Spend time in the setting you want to understand; insights will come when you least expect them.
Many of the observations and interviews for this project happened by sheer coincidence. "Being there" and staying open to opportunities for insights was crucial. This example was typical: One night, while I ate dinner at a small restaurant, I met a woman who did sex work at beach. In an impromptu interview, she and her husband shared the story of how they ended up in debt after their business was destroyed in an earthquake, and eventually came to Parangkusumo.