A Bali family pray at Mandara Giri Semeru Agung in Lumajang, East Java.
Hinduism is the fourth largest official religion in Indonesia with more than 4 million adherents, according to the census. But those who practise the faith of the Majapahit dynasty claim double that number. Data juggling — or a seer’s predicted resurgence?
The headscarves worn by goat-milk distributor Novi and her five sightseeing friends wandering the temple courtyard made one thing clear: The women were not at the East Java Mandara Giri Semeru Agung complex to worship.
“We’ve just tourists and have come to look,” she said. “We’re curious. We are Muslims, but that’s no problem. Why should there be?”
The women walked through the unguarded red brick candi bentar [split gate] and started smartphone snapping, unaware that the interfaith situation hasn’t always been so relaxed.
In the 1950s, according to cultural anthropologist Martin Ramstedt, the Indonesian government declared the Hindu Balinese as “people still without religion” and “targets for Muslim and Christian proselytizing”.
Yet a decade earlier Hinduism had been recognized in the foundation of Indonesia. The national emblem features the Garuda — a mythical bird-beast that carried Lord Vishnu, one of the religion’s three supreme deities.
Indonesian law requires citizens to be monotheistic, while traditional Hindus worship many gods. The impasse ended when a translation of Hindu scriptures settled on the term “undivided one” as an essential part of the belief.
Despite this, it was not until 1962 that Hinduism officially joined Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism and Buddhism as an approved religion. Confucianism was de-listed in 1978 and reinstated in 2000.
Mandara Giri is the center for Hindus in East Java. It was built in the village of Senduro on the eastern slope of Mount Semeru and opened in 1992. There’s nothing secretive — it’s a massive sight that looms over the main street
“There are at least 7,500 Hindus just in and around Lumajang [the closest city],” said Ngatemin, a juru mangku [temple priest]. “They worship here though most come from Bali. On holy days and on full moon nights hundreds participate.”
Even during normal weekdays, car loads of pilgrims come to pray before a shrine so weathered it looks authentically ancient. At the bottom of the shrine is a giant turtle, and at the top an image of Acintya, the supreme god of Indonesian Hinduism. The Sanskrit word translates as “the inconceivable one”.
Murtiyasa gets ready to lead prayers.
Families dressed in white sit together on the grass before a small pavilion where the priest rings a bell and chants prayers. Flowers and food offerings are made.
Hinduism probably arrived in Java about 1,900 years ago. Until the 16th century it dominated the island though it was often mixed with Buddhism and local traditional beliefs.
Islam appeared in the 13th century and spread rapidly, often through the change of faith of feudal rulers like Madura’s Sultan Pragalbo. He switched to Islam on his deathbed in 1531, and so his subjects were forced to jettison their original beliefs.
Islam is now Indonesia’s major faith though legally the Republic is secular. There are more Muslims here than any other nation, and more than all the Middle Eastern countries combined.
According to government census figures, only 1.7 percent of the Indonesian population is registered as Hindu. That’s about 4.25 million. Most live in Bali.
Like other minorities, Hindus dispute these figures. They allege that a discrepancy in the figures has come about because Islam is often the default religion used by officials when confused or indifferent citizens are registered. Finding a factual figure is next to impossible.
Said Wayan Swardhani Wiraswastiningrum, a Brawijaya University cultural studies lecturer, said it is important to understand that there are two groups of Hindus — the Bali Aga, or original Balinese people, and the Javanese Hindus, descendants of the Majapahit kingdom.
“Some of the Bali Aga descendants have moved to Java and of course they want to practise their faith.”
— Photos by Duncan Graham