Archive for November 8th, 2012

Religion is probably, after sex, the second oldest resource which human beings have available to them for blowing their minds.  –  Susan Sontag

Westerners, mired as they so often are in black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking, often have difficulty understanding syncretism, the tendency for deities, religious practices or even entire religions to combine into new forms; they can’t imagine how a person could be, say, a Christian and a pagan at the same time.  Faced with religions like Voodoo or goddesses like Santa Muerte, the typical response of a Christian or Muslim is to brand such beliefs “heresy” or even “devil worship”; even most secular Westerners tend to think of their political faiths in the same way, as comprehensive systems that must be embraced completely or rejected totally, with no allowance for drift or fusion.  But while the Occidental mind tends to think of religion as a checklist, the Oriental mind tends to view it as a buffet from which each individual can pick and choose whichever elements of each faith appeal to him.  Chinese people traditionally practiced a mixture of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism; the Japanese mixed Buddhism with Shinto; my Vietnamese manicurist in New Orleans attended an Asian Catholic Church but displayed a crucifix, a picture of the Blessed Mother and a shrine to the Buddha in her shop.  And the Islam practiced in Java, syncretized with a mixture of Buddhism, Hinduism and the native Kejawen belief system, would probably be quite shocking to orthodox believers living much closer to Mecca (both physically and psychologically).  I recently discovered a fascinating article about how this fusion has combined with two other practices – ancient sacred prostitution and modern capitalism – to create the unique observances of Gunung Kemukus, a shrine in central Java.

…Every 35 days, the Friday of the Gregorian calendar intersects with Pon, one of the five days of the ancient Javanese lunar calendar.  Its eve is an auspicious date at Gunung Kemukus…[site of a] ritual [which] can guarantee success in business, usually for those at or near the bottom of the ladder…Pilgrims mostly come from Indonesia’s Javanese-speaking core, but some travel days across the massive archipelago to get here…First, prayers and offerings must be made at the grave of Pangeran Samodro and Nyai Ontrowulan…[then] pilgrims must wash themselves at…[a] sacred spring…then they must find a sex partner…of the opposite sex…[to whom they are not married]…Many people believe the ritual only works if you return at seven consecutive, 35-day intervals, either the night before Friday intersects with Pon, or when it crosses with another Javanese day, Kliwon

…Pangeran Samodro was [the prince of] Demak, a [16th-century] Muslim sultanate [which was one of the successor-states of the recently-fallen Majapahit Empire.  He had]…an affair with…Nyai Ontrowulan, [one of his father’s wives,] and the two were forced to flee.  They were staying on Gunung Kemukus when they were found…[in the act by the father’s soldiers,] killed, and buried together in the one hole…[the legend arose] that whoever [finishes] their sex act will receive blessings from Nyai Ontrowulan…local government and religious authorities promote a G-rated version of the story, with the prince cast as a devoted proselytiser of Islam…but…no one is…trying to shut the ritual down…scores of traders [sell] aphrodisiacs, food, novelties, miracle cures and kitchen appliances…[while] shacks [offer] drinks, karaoke, prostitutes and rooms for sex.  There are multiple tolls to get in, and businesses are levied a daily charge.  With between 6,000 and 8,000 pilgrims arriving on the busiest nights…it’s…big money…for the local community and…government…about half of the women who show up are commercial sex workers.  Another 25 percent are “part-timers”…who…accept money if it’s on offer.  The 1980s was when…sex workers, as well as other businesses, started moving into the area…[and] also when the local government decided to spread its own cleaned-up version of the ritual — while at the same time profiting from sex-seeking pilgrims…Since the 1998 fall of the Suharto regime, religiously-minded authorities have cracked down on many legal red-light districts…[but] Gunung Kemukus…has come to be seen as a safe place…

Neither the ritual itself nor the way the local government unofficially protects it while officially disavowing it are any surprise to me; government officials in every land and time have always been among the greatest patrons of and parasites upon harlots.  What I find especially interesting, though, is how religiously-connected prostitution, which is persecuted in both traditional and modern forms in other countries, has survived here by changing its form; and also how religion, which in some places is used as an excuse for persecuting whores, is in Java used as an excuse for protecting them.

Read Full Post »