Whilst Indonesia superficially has plenty to entice visitors, its hidden depths and great secrets are what provide the most seductive allure. Think of the country as an expansive leyline, a vessel through which life’s greater mysteries find providence.
Black magic, animism, shamanism, folklore: all give rise to the conviction that it is the ancient and ageless that wield the most influence across the archipelago. Magnify this across several hundred, if not thousands, of religions, languages, cultures and islands: the boundless stories hint at lessons beyond the kith and kin of comprehension.
Should a person, mortal or otherwise, stare into the sun too long, formless shapes and colours will insinuate themselves upon their sight. Conventional wisdom labels these visions sunspots; more obscure schools of thought, however, attach to them an altogether deeper meaning: a temporary link to another plane of infinite complexity. A world existing alongside our own, it bears a presence as fleeting as that of the mayfly’s lifespan. It is across such thresholds as these where Indonesia’s inner space, and the mysteries found therein, linger; here are nine such gateways.
Ijen Crater, Banyuwangi
In aeons past, during an age of antiquity, there bestrode a giant across Java. This hulking form, its countenance unseen and motivation never divined, trod with great abandon throughout the land. In its wake the island took shape; the figure’s colossal footprints shaped the earth into great volcanoes and lakes and valleys; its utterances, wordless and ancient, inspired devotion and folklore amongst all who heard them. So continued the formation of primaeval Java, a region forged in tumult.
Until one day the being became tired. To its east lay the ocean and beyond that, more land to mould. But that was a role for others to endure. It wanted nothing more than repose; its gigantic frame, already crumbling from endless toil, came to rest at the foot of an enormous crater. Over countless centuries, the giant’s body broke down. Its blood, as potent as acid, collected in the pit; the form’s final breaths slowly escaped and glowed blue in the dying light. As the behemoth decayed, so grew the smell of sulphur, its malodorous fumes tainting the landscape.
For now, the crater lay dormant, brooding and sullen; a profound sense of unease and repulsive stagnation reigned, as though a giant squat toad had draped itself across the landscape. Its malign influence stretched throughout the ages, given life in ghostly beings and mischievous spirits, arcane practices and ritual lore: all were birthed across untold millennia, unaware of their ancient inspiration.
And thus came into being the Ijen Crater, the most brooding of all Java’s mysteries.
Bedugul Hotel, Bali
Beyond Lake Beratan in Bali lies the ruined shell of an abandoned hotel. Precipitously placed atop a mountain ridge, here is the silhouette of a building steeped in folklore.
Grand plans were in store for the Bedugul Hotel. It was to be an opulent affair, as befitting the exotic otherness of its surroundings. This was the 1990s and the future, or at least an intimation of the future, was bright. Until one day.
Until one day when the Bedugul Hotel was deserted, for reasons no-one can ascertain. Investigations of its carcass reveal everything one would expect in such a setting: the balconies, once ornate and striking, now stand derelict and rotten; the halls, previously shining and imposing, now echo with the inert reverberations of silence. The whole building is no more than a shell, reclaimed by nature and a grisly monument of failure.
Stories tell of a project abandoned post-haste. The implication is startling: something so terrible as to force a sudden and hasty retreat with no explanation, as though a devil had removed the power of comprehension to retain its furtive existence. Elegance tainted by malevolence.
Some speak of the ghosts of dead labourers haunting the halls and passageways; others suggest the hotel was fully operational and replete with staff and guests until their sudden disappearance. Nowadays, taxi drivers refuse to enter the site, so strong are its ghostly machinations.
All that remains is conjecture. The Hotel Bedugul is a ghost palace, a repository for the mysteries of its sudden demise. What springs to mind is a landbound Marie Celeste: a mystery forever unsolved and doomed to sit out eternity.
Look to the centre of Flores, and there exists a small town known as Moni. It resides at a great height, where the air turns thin, and the temperature remains a chilly bite; this is a hilly region, a place of tribes and history and proud tradition.
From Moni it is a short ride to a vast plateau, piercing the clouds as though communing with the sky itself. It is here, on the great flatland of Flores at the base of a great volcano, where the most profound of all Indonesia’s mysteries lay: the crater lakes of Kelimutu. The water is uniquely unpredictable; it changes colour from white to turquoise to red to black, as though in thrall to power more substantial even than nature.
It is said these three bodies of water hold the key to life itself; more precisely, that they act as the gateway to the life after death. The folklore surrounding Kelimutu claims the site is a resting place for the dead; so the story goes, Mae, the god of the afterlife, sends the departed to different lakes depending on their actions in life.
The veracity of this is open to debate, but as an observer watches Tiwu ata Mbupu (Lake of Old People) or Tiwu Nuwa Muri Koo Fai (Lake of Young Men and Maidens) or Tiwu Ata Polo (Bewitched or Enchanted Lake), they may notice a swirling mist where no mist should be; the sorting has begun.
Such is the power of belief in Bali, the spirits and departed hold as much sway as the living. The reverence is palpable and widespread. Temples and shrines and all manner of places of worship, identifiable by their ornate Hindu and Javanese stylings, attract an unending supply of offerings. Attracting good luck, warding off evil, seeking permission to enter a sacred place; that which is unseen wields significant influence over the land of the living.
On the northeastern corner of Bali lies Lake Batur. There reside, to the lake’s eastern shore, the Bali Aga people of Trunyan. These villagers’ funeral rites are stark and visible and most unexpected for many who witness them. Here in Trunyan, on the lake’s shore, the dead are covered with cloth and bamboo canopies and left to decompose. A nearby banyan tree masks the stench of rotting corpses, and eventually, when the time is right, the skull is transposed to a stone altar in the village of Kuban, a sacred place accessible only by boat. The Powers That Lies Beyond thus sated, the corporeal procedure reaches its conclusion. Such is the power of belief in Bali.
Mount Merapi, Java
Java’s spiritual centre exists at the heart of Mount Merapi, the so-called mountain of fire. Head north from the ancient sultanate city of Yogyakarta, and eventually the most volatile of volcanoes on the planet will reveal itself. From its vantage point Mount Merapi, the most volcanic of all Indonesia’s volcanoes, forms a sacred north-south axis line between its peak and the Indian Ocean. It is the key to another plane entirely.
Lore dictates that a spiritual kingdom, the land of makhluk halus, resides within Mount Merapi, the most volcanic of all Indonesia’s volcanoes. The stories are considered so canonical, so ingrained in truth, that it forced the corporeal world into action; a juru kunci, or caretaker, appointed by the Sultan of Yogyakarta is responsible for ritual activities and the reverence of mountain spirits. It is they who are responsible for the upkeep of Mount Merapi, the most volcanic of Indonesia’s volcanoes; it is they who ensure the two realms exist in harmony.
According to the sacred histories, a palace of the spiritual kingdom, that of Empu Rama and Empu Permadi, forms part of Merapi’s domain. This edifice is the inverse of Yogyakarta, replete with the trappings of citybound existence; furthermore, so the legend goes, the spirits of Javanese ancestors live on in the palace as servants, appearing to their descendants only in dreams.