Tradition and Lore: Eight Intriguing Sites in Indonesia

Tom D

Whilst Indonesia has plenty to entice visitors, it is the hidden depths that often offer the most compelling allure. The depth and breadth of folklore and history mirror the cultural diversity across the archipelago, from the northern tip of Sumatra to West Papua’s border with Papua New Guinea, and indicate the influence of long-held customs. Magnify this across innumerable religions, languages, cultures and islands to have some idea of the myriad stories that only begin to scratch the surface of Indonesia’s mythology and teach lessons to those willing to learn. Here are eight such examples.

Legung, Mount Salak, Mount Merapi, Terunyan, Kelimutu, Bedugul Hotel & Restaurant, Tana Toraja Regency, Pelabuhanratu

  • Legung, Indonesia

  • Mount Salak, Indonesia

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      Volcanic Mount Salak dominates the West Javan skyline over Bogor. It is considered a sacred peak--one of many in Java alone--and is characterised by thick vegetation, steep slopes, fume-filled craters and numerous temples and tombs, the latter of which often act as sites of rituals conducted by those in need of help or guidance. One notable ceremony is that of Hyang, which sees the subject marrying a genie in the hope of acquiring financial prosperity. Rumours abound of strange creatures and lost climbers stalking the mount’s peaks and that visitors should watch their mouths for fear of angering Salak’s guardian spirits.

  • Mount Merapi, Indonesia

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      Mount Merapi, the so-called mountain of fire, punctuates the north of Yogyakarta and marks the spiritual heart of Java. The volcano's reach is so profound that a juru kunci, or caretaker, oversees ritual activities and the reverence of mountain spirits. Stories abound of a sacred kingdom, the land of makhluk halus, residing within the domain of the volcano. So too does a palace of the spiritual kingdom, that of Empu Rama and Empu Permadi, where, according to legend, the spirits of departed Javanese live on, appearing to their descendants only in dreams.

  • Terunyan, Indonesia

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      On the northeastern corner of Bali lies Lake Batur. There reside, to the lake’s eastern shore, the Bali Aga people of Trunyan village, whose funeral rites, retained from ancient times, see the dead covered with cloth, placed in triangular bamboo cages and left to decompose in the open. A nearby banyan tree masks the stench of rotting corpses, with lore dictating that only 11 bodies be placed underneath it at any one time. Eventually, when a body has completely decomposed, the skull is transposed to a stone altar in the village of Kuban, a sacred place accessible only by boat.

  • Kelimutu, Indonesia

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      According to folklore, the three crater lakes of Kelimutu, where the water takes on multi-coloured hues, act as a kind of anteroom for the afterlife; so the story goes, Mae, the god of the afterlife, sends the departed to the different lakes depending on their actions in life. From atop the site’s viewing platform, visitors may well glimpse a thin vapour dancing across Tiwu ata Mbupu (Lake of Old People), Tiwu Nuwa Muri Koo Fai (Lake of Young Men and Maidens) or Tiwu Ata Polo (Bewitched or Enchanted Lake) before dissipating without explanation into thin air.

  • Bedugul Hotel & Restaurant, Indonesia

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      Look beyond Lake Beratan in Bali and see the abandoned Bedugul Hotel, an edifice imbued with grand visions of opulence when construction began in earnest in the 1990s. That is, until the hotel was mysteriously deserted. Investigations of its husk reveal balconies, once ornate and striking, now derelict and rotten; vacant halls echo with the inert reverberation of silence. Stories tell of a project abandoned posthaste, of hauntings by dead labourers; others suggest the sudden disappearance of staff and guests. Nowadays, taxi drivers refuse to approach the site, such are its ghostly machinations, and the palatial shell continues its long, sullen silence.

  • Tana Toraja Regency, Indonesia

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      In Sulawesi, animist traditions dictate that all entities, both existent and inanimate, hold a spiritual essence. Complex funeral rites ease the passage of the departed to the next world and see livestock slaughtered, cadavers paraded, respects paid. Bones and skeletons are placed reverentially in the monoliths and megaliths of Tana Toraja. Such rites extend to children: those who pass before teething are considered pure and interred in growing trees, their bodies wrapped in swaddling. As the tree grows, so too does nature absorb the child, whose young soul will be collected by the wind and delivered to the hereafter.

  • Pelabuhanratu, Indonesia

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      Upon Java’s southern coastline is the fishing village of Pelabuhan Ratu, which grants access to the Indian Ocean and the sea goddess Nyai Loro Kidul. Her relationship with the region’s fisherfolk and boatmen is such that they hold a memorial day each year to appease her temper. The ceremony, sedekah laut, sees gifts and sacrifices set afloat in the brine to curry the deity’s favour in the hope that she responds with good catches and calm seas. Lore warns against wearing green in her realm, for it enrages the goddess, who will entice the wearer into the water to drown.