500 years on: Rebirth of a ritual


Stairway to heaven : Hindu followers carry two holy-cow-shaped coffins believed to be vehicles to nirvana for the Palebon cremation ritual in Mt. Lawu area, Central Java. Stairway to heaven : Hindu followers carry two holy-cow-shaped coffins believed to be vehicles to nirvana for the Palebon cremation ritual in Mt. Lawu area, Central Java.

Therefore the first Palebon in five centuries held for the remains of Hindu priest Romo Pandito Djajakoesoema and his wife in mid-February 2010 drew considerable public attention.

It was a bright morning on the western slope, leaving only some parts of the landscape shrouded in a thin mist. The vast expanse of tea plantations created a splendid natural environment, where a cool breeze blew in harmony with the waving coconut leaf arrangements on bamboo stems, known locally as penjor-penjor janur.
The penjor-penjor were erected to welcome visitors to the Shrine of Segorogunung, Ngargoyoso village, to observe the day’s ritual. It was exactly the 1,111th day after the death of Romo Pandito, who had led the community shrine nestled amid the plantations and whose last wish was for the cremation to be carried out according top tradition.

On the same day, his body, buried within the shrine’s complex, was exhumed to undergo a procession for the perfection of his death.

Handle with care: Religious leaders insert the body into the “holy cow” coffin.     
“To our knowledge, this Palebon ritual on the Lawu slope is the first by Javanese Hindus in 500 years,” said Agus Ismoyo, Palebon committee chairman and Romo Pandito’s third child.

According to him, while fulfilling Romo’s wish to transcend the perfect path to the heavenly realm of divinity, Palebon is also aimed at stimulating the dynamic socio-cultural life among the Hindu community in Mt. Lawu.
The mountain’s western slope was the last stop on the spiritual journey of King Brawijaya from the Majapahit Kingdom, East Java, after the monarchy had been cornered by its enemies.

Some of the kingdom’s faithful moved to Bali, where the Hindu way of life has been preserved, others roamed west along the thousand mountains range, while the rest settled on Lawu’s western slope, including King Brawijaya.

On this slope at the end of the 15th century, the last monarch of Majapahit and his loyalists built Sukuh Temple, Cetho Temple and other smaller ones around them. The temples and various historic artifacts of spiritual significance were among others set up in Ngargoyoso village.

It was here Romo Pandito built the Segorogunung shrine in 1997 and taught Javanese Hindu teachings known as Budaya Tirta, which he believed had been taught by the Majapahit kings.

Set on fire: A man adds kerosene to the already burning “holy cow” coffins of Hindu priest Romo Pandito Djajakoesoema and his wife.
After the demise of King Brawijaya, the Javanese Hindu faith began to contract due to the expansion of Islam across the archipelago. Consequently, Palebon is no longer practiced in Java.
This year’s Palebon ritual was thus also meant to preserve the once widely-practiced Budaya Tirta teachings.

“We hope the Palebon ritual in Segorogunung will serve as a model for locally-based Javanese Hindu ceremonies, while referring to the standard concept of Pitra Yadnya from Veda,” said Agus Ismoyo, adding that this ritual was not as lavish as those held in Bali.

Even with hundreds of friends and disciples of Romo Pandito in attendance, the ceremony observed by The Jakarta Post was very simple in contrast to Bali’s grand ceremonies. Yet the cultural blend of Java and Bali was noticeable in the visitors’ attire, the ritual’s procedure and the presence of two priests from Bali and Java.
“The big difference compared to Balinese Palebon is our offerings. Ours follow the Surakarta court tradition,” revealed Agus Ismoyo.

The Palebon procession started with the exhumation of Romo Pandito’s body five days earlier by Shri Beghawan Ratu Gayatri and several Hindu religious figures from Bali. The 1,111-day-old remains turned out to be intact as if embalmed, meaning the one-meter coffin prepared to carry the remains could not be used and a new full-sized one was ordered.

Pray,pray, pray: A Hindu leader from Bali (right) leads the cremation ceremony.
“It’s strange. In Bali, bodies buried for such a long time would surely decompose, leaving only the bones behind. This is rare,” said one Balinese community leader.

Romo Pandito’s undamaged body, according to the religious figures leading the ritual, means that the man’s spirit is inseparable from his devotion during his life. He was also respected by many for his religious tolerance.

“My father would accept and understand all circles of different religious backgrounds. His faith was known as Agama Mata Satu [one-eye religion]. As a child, I saw him close with the Christian clergy, performing Islamic worship, while also leading Hindu followers.

“When I was young, I was put under the care of a Buddhist monk, whose warm embrace I can still remember,” said Agus Ismoyo, now an artist in Yogyakarta.

This faith, recalled Agus Ismoyo, was displayed when his father wore official garb of a Dikse (Balinese Hindu leader). At the back of his headdress was a one-eye image, a symbol of Budaya Tirta Javanese Hinduism, which believes in only one God. The shrine built by Romo Pandito at about 1,000 meters above sea level, is emblazoned with the symbols of various religions and even has a grotto devoted to the Catholic Saint Mary.
On the fifth day after the exhumation, precisely the 1,111th day since Romo Pandito’s death, the priest’s final ritual was solemnly conducted on the slope. The bodies of the couple, laid in coffins, were placed in two cow sculptures representing the vehicles of the gods. In less than two hours, both cows were burned down and the ashes were packed for prayers and to be scattered in the southern sea.

The Javanese teaching of sangkan paraning dumadi (origin and destination of mankind) was fulfilled in Romo Pandito’s journey to the macro-cosmos, his soul returning to God.

The sacred flames accompanying his soul to nirvana that noon were a source of warmth for all relatives and followers at the shrine, who had long waited for the rare occasion. This warmth was also felt by the people of Mt. Lawu, who offered a lasting bond of amity to us all as taught by Romo Pandito Djajakoesoema.


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