Lawang Sewu, Semarang
When the traveler reaches Central Java, they are immediately drawn to its capital city, Semarang. They find the Tugu Muda roundabout and the vast edifice beyond it. In such a sprawling and chaotic place, it is too easy to forget the presence of such grandeur and pomp; something the traveler feels is a boon for both the living and the departed.
Superficially at least, the building belongs to another time and place, and upon closer inspection, it is thus proven: the rounded towers and arched pathways, stretching around a vast bewooded courtyard and shimmering under the light of ecru brickwork, bear all the hallmarks of colonial influence. This is Lawang Sewu, otherwise known as ‘Thousand Doors’, and it served as the Indonesian railway headquarters during the Dutch era.
Its alternate history is all the more bloody, however. Occupied by the Japanese during the Second World War, it housed all manner of atrocities: bloodshed and torture and death all cast their grim shadows upon the walls of Lawang Sewu.
Legends abound that echoes of the building’s violent past linger in its depths. Believe the rumours, and headless spirits wander the long corridors; it is even claimed that a Pontianak, the vampiric ghost of a suicide, dwells in the unlit basement. It is to here the traveler goes, leaving behind them the opulence of Lawang Sewu: the stained glass windows; the magnificent marble staircase; the open rooms of such height and depth that they seem somehow to breathe of their own volition.
The traveler notices the cold first and then the creeping oppression; senses heightened in the pitch black, they feel the air part, as though something was slowly advancing toward them. An advancement, the traveler perceives, of somewhat grim surety and violent intent. They move forward but fail to notice something of grave importance: the thousand doors are shut and the world outside has disappeared.
Pelabahun Ratu, Java
Mysteries abound on the south coast of Java where lies the small fishing village of Pelabuhan Ratu, the queen’s port. Here is a portal to the Indian Ocean there in the depths exists the story of the sea goddess Nyai Loro Kidul.
Sundanese locals speak of a deity who reigns supreme along the coastline. Hers are the fishermen and the boatmen and the people whose lives are governed by the ocean; she is the benefactor, they are her charges; the link is symbiotic, the bond unbreakable.
The Javanese fishing folk want their deity to feel respected, needed, cherished. Thus, every year they hold a ceremony in the goddess’ honour to appease her temper. Sedekah laut – or petik laut for the fishermen of Madura – sees offerings made to Nyai Loro Kidul: gifts and sacrifices set afloat in the brine as a sign of respect for the waterborne presence. It is believed the ritual will curry her favour and she will respond with good catches and calm seas and better weather. Maintaining a strong relationship is vital: should she desire it, the goddess can fling tsunamis or violent storms at the coastline, a sign of her effortless elemental power.
Her body is that of the mermaid: a beautiful young princess with a fish-like lower body. Her colour is green, and this is where the folklore takes a sinister turn. Visitors are warned never to wear the colour for it enrages Nyai Loro Kidul, who will entice the wearer into the water to drown. An enraged deity wields incomprehensible might and here in Java, along the southern coast, the truth is no different.
Baby Tree, Tana Toraja
Such is the power of death in Tana Toraja, Sulawesi that funeral rites take on a social significance. Entire families gather, communities bond and all reaffirm their links to this world and the next; the traditions and ways of the past, of their ancestors, manifest themselves once more.
Here in Sulawesi, animism, the belief that all entities, both existent and inanimate, wield a spiritual essence, reigns supreme. Funeral rites are complex and they are elaborate, designed to ease the passage of the departed to the next world. Livestock is slaughtered, cadavers are paraded, respects are paid. Bones and skeletons are placed reverentially in the monolith and megaliths of Tana Toraja.
Moreover, these rites extend to the region’s children. Not for them are there burials in caves; instead, those who pass before teething, and are thus considered pure, are interred in growing trees, their bodies wrapped in swaddling and placed inside the trunk. The hole is sealed and, it is believed, as the tree continues to grow the child is absorbed by nature; their young soul is then collected by the wind and sent off to wherever awaits them in the hereafter.
On the island of Madura, family traditions take on a most unforeseen appearance. Head to the east and there you will find Sumenep, an understated regency of such significance that the whole country would eventually fall under its influence. Dig deeper still and all manner of influences reveal themselves; and within this beating heart, as without, exist the villages of East Legung, Legung Barat and Dapenda, places where mythology and folklore resolutely manifest.
Each house in these villages holds their own historic portals: rooms and courtyard entirely dedicated to sand to the exclusion of all else. There is neither furniture nor accoutrements nor any distractions. It is a tradition passed down from generation to generation and serves a great communal purpose, where friends and family can spend time together. People are born on the sand, they live on the sand, they die on the sand.
The highly pliable sand mattresses create a preternatural atmosphere of comfort and calm, and it is here where the folklore becomes apparent: when humans do good to nature, it is said, nature will respond in kind. Thus, the villagers care for nature and respect their surroundings and sleep on the earth; in return, the insidious grasp of witchcraft and black magic is deflected. As the saying goes: ‘When one unites with the earth, no evil thing can come to them’