Historian and art critic Jean Couteau brings us stories depicting the life on Bali, sometimes real, sometimes myth, always meaningful. All day long the peak of Mount Bromo stands with a thin trail of smoke looming over it. From its rumbling volcano spurts the ash that covers the higher land of the Tenggerese with a brownish “snow”. Mount Bromo is the Javanese abode of Brahma, the Hindu god of fire. It is known as the furnace of the gods, with the mountain Tenggerese people, who inhabit its slopes, as its guardians.

TEXT by jean couteau illustration by dewa putu kantor

Historian and art critic Jean Couteau brings us stories depicting the life on Bali, sometimes real, sometimes myth, always meaningful.

All day long the peak of Mount Bromo stands with a thin trail of smoke looming over it. From its rumbling volcano spurts the ash that covers the higher land of the Tenggerese with a brownish “snow”. Mount Bromo is the Javanese abode of Brahma, the Hindu god of fire. It is known as the furnace of the gods, with the mountain Tenggerese people, who inhabit its slopes, as its guardians. Next to Bromo is the smaller Mount Batok, whose bare flanks give the impression that the mountain has been carved out in the shape of a reversed coconut-shell. Surrounding these two mountains is a huge caldera of some 30 km of circumference.

Sitting in the shadow of these two mountains is a large plain, the “Sea of Sand” (Segara Wedi), covering an area of thousands of hectares, and totally devoid of any vegetation. Behind Bromo looms a stretch of yet more rolling mountains, with the smoking Mount Semeru – the Meru of the Javanese, abode of the gods, in the farthest background. One of the most fantastic landscapes of the world. In the vicinity of the volcano live a few dozens of thousands of Hindu Tenggerese, brothers in faith of the Balinese.

If the Balinese make offerings to the gods, the Tenggerese make offerings to the mountain. It is even said that in the days of yore, before the arrival of the Hindu gods, when the mountain rumbled too loudly, or when a blanket of snowy ash threatened to destroy the waiting crop, the Tenggerese would choose one of their own to throw into the gaping volcano, and hence appease what they deemed as their holy mountain’s wrath. Then, with time passing, perhaps nagged in their dreams by the screams of those loved ones they thus killed, they decided to stop those human sacrifices. This is when love came to their land. But with it, as they soon discovered, followed new pain, until they established the rites and offerings they now present to the gods every full moon of the Kasodo month (tenth month), usually corresponding with March. Here is the story that led to this transformation – that of Roro Anteng.

One day, Roro Anteng, flower of the Tenggerese, was engrossed in the beauty of her Bromo surroundings, when she saw a man climbing up the mountain slope. He jumped over rocks with the nimbleness of a mountain goat. Impressed by what she saw, she drew closer to get a better look. What she saw coming up was a well-built young man with dark brown skin. His moustache curled at his side and his round eyes seemed to reflect a piercing light. When he caught sight of her, he was taken aback by her beauty. They stared at one another in mute wonderment. Handsomeness had met beauty in the land of the mountain god. The hearts of the two youths were beating so hard that they caused the mountain to rumble.

The man was the first to find his voice: “Oh, most beautiful flower of this place. Am I dreaming? Am I looking at a mountain fairy or at a human being?” With such praise, Roro Anteng found the stranger all the more attractive. His smile spoke of sincerity. “Oh, I am just an ordinary village girl,” she replied.”But tell me, beautiful lady,” he then asked, “what are you doing here? Aren’t you frightened of the mountain? Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Joko Seger, and I come from the lowlands of Majapahit.” At hearing his name and origin, Roro Anteng smiled up at him, which made his heart beat even faster.

So before long, Joko Seger and Roro Anteng were not only in love but married, witnessed by the rumbling mountain. From that time onward, they loved each other dearly and never exchanged a harsh word. Not only were they polite and friendly to all they met, but they were in return respected and admired by all who knew them.

Their happiness would have been perfect except for one thing: Roro Anteng could not become pregnant. Was she barren? No local dukun (shaman) could find them a way out of their predicament. Until Joko Seger recalled that he was from Wilatikta, the capital city of Majapahit, where he knew of a Brahmin reputed for his knowledge and wisdom. So they went to Wilatikta. Once there, what did the priest advise them to do? To recall that Brahma was not only a mountain, but also the creator, and to address rites and prayers to Paramasiwa, the Supreme. They should also meditate, he told them, facing the four corners of the world, 44 days in each direction. Completing that, they should then prostate themselves on the ground for another 44 days, after which they were to sit with their eyes cast heavenward, also for 44 days. Only then could their wish be fulfilled.

They did as told by the old Brahmin. By a whim of nature, or a whim of the gods though, as they were sitting thus, lost in their meditation, the same thought came to their minds simultaneously. They each made the vow that, if they were to be blessed with children, they would sacrifice the youngest to the mountain, as the Tenggerese had done for thousands of years. Did the mountain hear their vow? It probably did: we know that it rumbled, and a cloud of smoke puffed out the Bromo’s mouth.

Soon afterwards, Roro Anteng conceived. She did not have one child only, but twenty five, each born one year after the other, all handsome and pretty like their parents had been. The favourite of the family, however, was the youngest, Raden Kusumo. Not only was he an obedient youth and a skilled farmer, but was well versed in the holy books brought by his father from Wilatikta.

Many years passed. One day, Joko Seger heard a lound, thundering voice speaking to him from the mountain heights.”Oh, Joko, have you forgotten your debt to me? Why haven’t you kept your promise?” As the voice rose, Bromo spluttered and spit out hot, angry fire.

The family of Raden Kusumo was deeply aggrieved. They knew what had to be done, but they could not bear the thought of parting with their child. In the end the whole family furtively made plans to leave their home in the hope of escaping the wrath of the mountain. They managed to find a hiding place on the slope of nearby Mount Pananjakan.
Yet, debts must be paid and in full, all the more so to the gods. The angered Mount Bromo erupted in a big explosion. Scorching lava flowed from its slopes all the way to Mount Pananjakan, destroying everything in its path. The family was dispersed in their effort to save themselves from the deadly lick of lava.

It is when they thought they had all escaped that they heard a child’s voice, loud over the deadly rumble of the mountain. It was Raden Kusuma’s: “Oh, Father, oh, Mother, whom I love deeply, I have surrendered myself to the mountain so that your debt be paid and that you may live. Don’t mourn me. But hence, from this day forth, remember to pay me and the mountain your respects in an offering from your crops on every full moon of the Kasodo month. Don’t forget the creator, and the god who is God.”

Since that day, the Tenggerese have become Hindu. They make yearly offerings to the great mountain, and daily offerings to the god who is but God. Recently a temple has been built at the foot of the caldera. The mountain rumbles, but does not kill anymore.!

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