Monday, August 15, 2011

Decoding the Goddess of Java’s History

On July 23, 2009, Parangkusumo Beach, south of Yogyakarta, was witness to the Labuhan Alit ceremony of the sultan of Yogyakarta. The yearly ritual is a tribute to the mystical Nyai Roro Kidul, goddess of the South Seas. The sultan sends a myriad of offerings to the sea to symbolically affirm the link between himself and the kingdom’s patron deity.

Beneath this and other Javanese courtly rituals connected with the goddess lie a staggering number of questions as to who Nyai Roro Kidul is and how she has survived millennia of cultural and religious changes. And the answer to that would undoubtedly open a gateway to the retelling of Java’s oldest cultural and belief system.

Many modern intellectuals are bound to cast Nyai Roro Kidul into the realm of myth. The goddess is these days more often portrayed in popular culture as an evil demon queen. Literary giant Pramoedya Ananta Toer once slammed the sultanate’s attachment to the goddess as a subconscious form of compensation for its supposed lack of maritime strength.

Yet the name Nyai Roro Kidul still holds sway with many of those inhabiting Java’s southern coast. To followers of mystical Kejawen, she is as real as any natural phenomenon. For mythologists, she has a compelling mythographic existence, and behind her story lies clues to pre-Hindu Javanese society.

As comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell has successfully proven, a nation’s mythology is often the key to unlocking its historical past; he says that myths are usually abbreviated and coded metaphors for historical truths.

And when it comes to Javanese mythology, Nyai Roro Kidul stands out considerably from other mythical characters. In his 1997 essay “Tara and Nyai Lara Kidul: Images of the divine feminine in Java,” Roy E. Jordaan proposes that the goddess is an ancient Javanese fertility goddess predating even Hinduism.

In this respect, Nyai Roro Kidul is comparable to other chthonic goddesses such as Gaia or Mother Earth, Cybele, Rhea, Nerthus and Durga-Parvati. Indeed, Jordaan also suggests that in the Hindu era of Javanese history, the goddess managed to survive by being absorbed into the Hindu pantheon, being particularly associated with Hindu deities such as Durga or the rice goddess Dewi Sri.

And when Islam became the dominant religious force in the 14th century, Nyai Roro Kidul seemed to exert her historical omnipresence by becoming the patron goddess of the emerging Islamic Mataram kingdom. In the subsequent legend, she is said to have married Mataram’s first sultan, Panembahan Senopati, and promised his descendants her blessings and protection. This is indeed anomalous in any Islamic kingdom. Indubitably, by Koranic standards, the recognition of the power of a pagan goddess almost borders on heresy.

Yet it is a ritual norm, even today, that every sultan descended from Senopati — and this encompasses all the Javanese potentates in Yogyakarta, Pakualaman, Surakarta and Mangkunegaran — must be married to the goddess. Scholars have cited that this ritual marriage symbolizes the union the king enters with the land of Java as he ascends the throne. In this sense, any ruler of Java, regardless of the prevailing religious or social system, must obtain the transference of power and prestige from Nyai Roro Kidul as the primordial metaphor for the land.

There are a few versions of the legend of Nyai Roro Kidul. The most popular claims that she was a princess by the name of Kadita or Dewi Srenggeng in the Kahuripan kingdom. The name Dewi Srenggeng, or Fair Sun, indicates that she was probably once worshipped as a solar deity. While in the Western mythical mold the sun deity is usually male, as in Helios the Greek sun god and later Apollo, in the East, female solar deity is quite common as evidenced by Japan’s Amaterasu and the Egyptian Sekhmet.

In this version, Kadita develops a skin disease. When deciphering this piece of information, we must first remember that mythology begins as an oral tradition. Then as a culture develops, these oral transmissions may be rendered in pictures or art before the invention of writing.

This iconography may also be interpreted that Nyai Roro Kidul was a snake goddess or a nagin , as also proposed by Jordaan.

In his essay, Jordaan recounts that the late Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX, the current sultan’s father, affirmed in an interview that Nyai Roro Kidul was far from a fantasy. The sultan claimed that the goddess’s appearance changes according to the moon. When the moon is young, she appears young, and when the moon wanes, she appears as a crone. The sultan also said that the goddess’s title is Retna Dewati, the word “retna” meaning “moonlight.”

In this aspect, Nyai Roro Kidul seems to also have been a lunar deity, putting her on par with the Greek Selene.

So far, the memory of this Javanese goddess lives on. Sultans continue to pay her tribute and her power is still dreaded by many. People are wary of incurring her wrath if they choose to wear green, her favorite color, on the beach.

Yet to the mythologist, Nyai Roro Kidul is a reminder of the forgotten history of the land of Java. Many modern Indonesians, out of fear of being identified as irrational, would go to great lengths to discredit stories such as Nyai Roro Kidul or Malin Kundang as mere fantasies.

Someday, Javanese courtiers may stop paying tribute to Nyai Roro Kidul on Parangkusumo Beach and Yogyakartans may cease to “imagine” hearing the jingling of her chariot passing by at night on the way to the palace for a conference with the sultan. Yet when this comes to pass, let us hope that Indonesians will have successfully cherished and decoded our own national mythology, for the deities are part of our own fundamental past.


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