Time and Time Again in Java

M C Ricklefs. History Today. Volume 49, Issue 10. October 1999.

Javanese civilisation is notable both for its antiquity and for its tendency to revel in the complex and mysterious. Animism—the belief in spirits in inanimate objects—has a long history and is a continuing force in Javanese society. The presence and influence in Java of Hindu and Buddhist mysticism, including extravagant forms of Tantric Buddhism, are documented from early in the first millennium AD in inscriptions, temples and works of Old Javanese literature.

Old Javanese mysticism tended towards the adoption of diverse religious imagery to form a distinctive mix describable as ecumenical syncretism. One example was the unity of the Hindu god Shiva and the Buddha. When Islam arrived in Java, at least by the later fourteenth century, mystical works not infrequently adopted ideas and imagery from Hindu-Buddhist thought and presented them in Islamic garb. Perhaps not surprisingly, the form of Islamic thought most clearly documented in early centuries is Sufi mysticism.

Javanese have long had a fascination with time. No doubt this reflects a sense of the antiquity of their civilisation and also a mystical curiosity about how macrocosmic forces influence mundane life. In recent centuries, this fascination included a curiosity about how the turnings of centuries influence great affairs of state.

From early times Javanese calendrical systems were complex. Inscriptions from the ninth century AD, for example, use triple week-days, giving the name of the day in a five-day, sixday and seven-day week. Indigenous Javanese terms are used for the days of the five-day weeks and six-day weeks; Sanskrit names for the seven-day-week days. Thus, we may find a day named as Pahing-Tungel-Adityawaa or Pon-Wurukung-Shukrawaa.

The spread of Islam throughout the Indonesian archipelago from the thirteenth century added new elements to the region’s calendrical systems, including that of Java. In AD 1633, Sultan Agung, the greatest king of the Mataram dynasty, replaced the Indian Shaka calendar, which began in AD 78 and which had been used in Javanese courts since Hindu-Buddhist times. Islamic lunar months and years were adopted for court purposes. But Agung did not adopt the common Islamic practice of counting the years from the Prophet’s moving (Hijrah) from Mecca to Medina in AD 622. Rather, the new Islamic lunar years of Agung’s calendar continued the sequence of the Hindu-Buddhist Shaka series, producing a unique enumeration of years which modern scholars call the Anno Javanico (AJ).

By the seventeenth century, the principal elements in the Javanese calendrical system consisted of:

Five-day week (pasaran); six-day week (paringkelan); seven-day week (minggu); 35-day (7×5) ‘month’ (mangsa wu); cycle of 30 seven-day weeks (wukus), producing a 210-day cycle (pawukon); lunar months of 29-30 days; quasi-solar agricultural months of 2343 days;

Anno Javanico year of 354-5 days; eight-year cycle (windu), each year marked by an Arabic letter; 32-year (8×4) cycle (also windu).

To express years, Javanese writers frequently employed chronograms. These are four words, each with a numerical value, which together expressed the numeral for the year and also, in the hands of an able writer, made sense as a statement. For example, one chronicle dates the accession of Amangkurat I Agung’s successor and Java’s quintessential tyrant—as Wednesday (in the seven-day week), Legi (in the five-day week), 24 Safar, mangsa Kapitu, wuku Kurantil, the year Be, Naga obah marganing wani (`serpents moved on the way of courage’), these words meaning respectively 8-6-5-1, giving the year AJ 1568. This date is full of supernatural resonances and significance, and loses much meaning when converted to the more prosaic April 11 th, AD 1646.

But this is just the beginning (though, readers may be relieved to know, for the purposes of this article, nearly the end) of Javanese calendrical complexities. A definitive reference work on this topic by Dr Tim Behrend is forthcoming in the Handbuch der Orientalistik Southeast Asia Series. In addition to the above elements, that volume will consider eight- and nine-day weeks (padewan and padangan) and various other combinations, as well as associations between calendrical elements and particular colours, directions, metals, liquids, trees, birds, gods and legendary Islamic figures.

This dating system has four principal functions. The calendar records dates of events, like any other calendar; it breaks up the passage of time into standard units and measures its passage, as does any other system; it is the foundation for much divination, providing guidance to humans who must make their way through a world thickly filled with supernatural powers; and finally, it is a tool for predicting the future. The last of these is of particular interest as we think about the approaching end of the twentieth century and the second millennium AD.

Divination and prediction are sustainable only so long as the calendar retains its complexity. Otherwise the calendar would become like the plodding, day-by-day, month-by-month, year-by-year boiler-suited thing which marks the path of Western civilisations. It is therefore not surprising that the Javanese calendar survives. Nowadays a published Javanese calendar not only has the time-honoured indigenous elements but also contains further layers of Western, Chinese, Arabic and Hindu dates. This is calendrical multiculturalism in full flow. To be sure, many younger Javanese have little understanding or sympathy for all its richness, but there are publications and experts available for guidance when needed. One may presume that the Javanese calendar, in its full complexities, was always the preserve of experts. Within the modern Javanese-speaking population of at least eighty million, there are still plenty of specialists in the occult, in matters divinatory and in calendrical complexities.

The Javanese conceive of time as a set of intersecting cycles. These repeat and intersect endlessly in sets of five days, six days, seven days, thirty-five days, lunar months, years, year-cycles and so on. Round and round: time and time again. It is the intersection of these various elements which gives divinatory power, determining auspicious and inauspicious days, directions, colours and so on.

Yet these cycles are not entirely stationary: they roll forward. Javanese chronicles from previous centuries make it clear that time also had linear aspects: events occur in sequence, they have antecedent causes and subsequent consequences, and the months and years march on relentlessly.

Javanese historical thought reconciled cyclical time with linear time by conceiving of repeating cycles, each one a century long. Such ideas may be very old, but the lack of chronicles from before the seventeenth century means that no evidence of such cyclical historical thinking has survived from earlier times. But more recent chronicles—and other historical evidence—show that the Javanese conceived of the moment when one century turned into the next as a time when major political change could be expected to take place. Specifically, there was a belief that, in each century, at the year ’00, a kingdom would fall and in the year ’03 a new one would be founded.

Some chronicles project such dynastic century cycles back at least into the twelfth Javanese century, but the earliest date to fit this pattern and found widely in Javanese sources is the fall of the once-powerful Hindu-Buddhist kingdom of Majapahit to Islamic conquerors in the year 1400 by the Shaka calendar (AD 1478). This is found in the chronicle Pararaton, manuscripts of which are dated Shaka 1522 and 1535 (AD 1600, 1613). It seems that the 1400s were indeed a troubled time for the kingdom of Majapahit, Java’s last and greatest Hindu-Buddhist kingdom which had been founded two hundred years earlier. It was then in its dotage, but the dynasty did not actually fall to an Islamic successor state until the 1520s. So the date in the chronicle is historically wrong, and is presumably contrived so as to fit the idea of a fin-de-siecle political catastrophe.

Several sources give Shaka 1403 (AD 1481) as the foundation-year for the kingdom of Demak, the Islamic successor state to Majapahit. The Pararaton ends with that date, though it does not say explicitly that it was the year when Demak was founded. Rather, it gives Shaka 1403 as the date of Gunturpawatu-gunung—apparently a volcanic eruption which the late Professor C.C. Berg interpreted as a supernatural sign of a new dynasty or ruler.

It therefore seems that the ’00-’03 cycle for the fall of one Javanese court and the establishment of its successor may be as old as the Pararaton manuscripts of the early seventeenth century AD.

In keeping with the theory, the last ruler of Demak is said in many Javanese chronicles to have died in Shaka 1500 (AD 1578). The first ruler of the next kingdom of Pajang (regarded as one dynastic unit, along with the successor state of Mataram) is said to have been invested in Shaka 1503 (AD 1581), as he should have been to fit the cycle. The history of Java in the sixteenth century is very poorly documented, but it seems possible that neither of these dates is historically accurate.

Theory and fact coincided neatly in the late seventeenth century. The tyrannical reign of Mataram’s Amangkurat I (AD 1646-77) produced the greatest rebellion of the seventeenth century. According to Javanese chronicles, as the rebels approached the court in the year AJ 1600 (now Anno Javanico, not Shaka, following Sultan Agung’s calendrical revision of AD 1633), the King saw no point in resisting: he knew God’s will that there would be no more kings of Mataram, for Mataram was exactly a century old. One chronicle says,

It was the will of God, then came the promised time … the houses were all set afire, like the Judgement Day was the uproar. `Disappeared, gone, was the feeling of the world’ [a chronogram for AJ 1600/AD 1677] when fell Mataram.

Contemporary Dutch sources confirm that Mataram indeed fell to the rebels in June 1677.

Three years of warfare followed, notable among other things for the Dutch East India Company’s first significant military expeditions into the interior of Java. The rebels were defeated and the ruler of the Mataram dynasty, now Amangkurat II (r. AD 1677-1703), founded his new court of Kartasura in AJ 1603 (AD 1680). Was this late seventeenth-century sequence of events the foundation of the theory itself? It is not impossible that this was so, though the evidence of the Pararaton suggests that the theory was older. If so, then one must consider the possibility that the theory, which predicted the fall of a court at the end of each century in a state as fragile as that of seventeenth-century Java, itself actually encouraged the acts of sedition and rebellion which led to the fall of Mataram. Perhaps the King did, indeed, feel that resistance was futile because the year AJ 1600 had arrived.

Certainly the ’00-’03 cycle was well known before the next turning of the centuries, in AJ 1700-03 (AD 1774-77). This time around, there is evidence of a dynastic attempt to shape events so that they would fit the cyclical theory, without, however, allowing a court to fall.

By this time, Java’s political circumstances were altered as a consequence of seventeen years (1740-57) of nearly constant civil war. The kingdom was partitioned between the courts of Surakarta (founded 1746) and Yogyakarta (founded 1756), which eyed each other jealously and, it seems, were apprehensive of the end of the seventeenth Javanese century, as a time when they might be overthrown. In the final years of the old century, from about AJ 1694 (AD 1768) to AJ 1699 (AD 1773), a series of agreements between the courts over land ownership, legal procedures and jurisdictions removed many of the causes of conflict between them, thus providing enhanced stability to both. Neither the ruler of Surakarta nor that of Yogyakarta was apparently prepared to contemplate renewing the civil war which had produced the partition of Java and which was unlikely to lead now to its reunification.

It seems that the Javanese turned to literature as a means of surmounting the challenge of AJ 1700-03. In AJ 1699 (AD 1773), the crown prince of Yogyakarta (who was to reign as Sultan Hamengkubuwana II from 1792), composed a verse chronicle of his father’s reign, as if it were about to end. When AJ 1700 came, the crown prince undertook a major work of literary magic. Such activity is attested at other times in Java, involving books whose supernatural powers were meant to change the world in some way, to cure disease, to act as an amulet protecting one from harm, or to produce blessings or merit. The Yogyakarta crown prince’s work of AJ 1700 is a major example of such a book.

In the first month of AJ 1700, on a date equivalent to March 21st, 1774, the crown prince commenced his Serat Surya Raja (`Book of the Sun of Kings’). In the opening of the book, it is described as a work containing `the secrets of mystical knowledge and of the ordering of the kingdom.’ For, it says,

This book has many meanings … which are rendered into verse, causing the withered heart to flower, and which are made a mirror, a reminder of mystical knowledge and of the ordering of the kingdom.

The text is a lengthy allegory about the divided kingdom of Java. After many adventures (the manuscript is about 1,000 pages long and bound in two volumes), the kingdom is reunited by a young prince who seems to be the allegorical representation of the crown prince himself. He then goes to war against enemies from overseas, who are unmistakably recognisable as the Dutch East India Company. The battle is evenly balanced, with powerful spirit armies on both sides. Java’s most powerful local deity, the Goddess of the Southern Ocean, tells the Javanese to recite the Quran and to pray to God for success. Thereupon the overseas ruler is struck by illness. His prayers to his god bring no cure. A disembodied voice then tells the sick ruler to embrace Islam, which he does and is thereupon cured. After this conversion, the war ends and the former enemies embrace in Islamic brotherhood. The foreigners return to their own land.

Serat Surya Raja seems to have been a powerful piece of literary magic by which, in the year AJ 1700, the Yogyakarta crown prince reunited the kingdom and solved the problem posed by the Europeans’ presence by converting them to Islam. It had not happened in the real world but somehow it happened magically in the literary world—implicitly by supernaturally creating a new future. Serat Surya Raja has continued to be regarded as a supernaturally powerful book in the court of Yogyakarta down to the present. In 1948, when there was much sickness and some deaths among courtiers, the power of this book was identified as the cause. It was moved from the court library to the Sultan’s private quarters, where the ruler’s own supernatural qualities could better control it. The book is now regarded as among the powerful sacred heirlooms of the court.

If the magic of Serat Surya Raya was thought sufficient to overcome the principal threats facing Yogyakarta in AJ 1700 (AD 1774)—the divided kingdom and the presence of the Dutch East India Company—then what happened next? According to the cyclical theory, a court should fall in ’00 and a new one should be founded in ’03. Serat Surya Raja may have been an adequate answer to the dangers of AJ 1700, but what of AJ 1703? Again, it seems that a book was written to deal with this.

In the month Ruwah AJ 1703 (September 1777) one hundred Javanese years to the month after the founding of the court of Kartasura in AJ 1603 (AD 1680)—a senior Yogyakarta courtier wrote a history of Java called Babad Kraton (`Chronicle of the Kingdom’). Its contents are mostly quite unremarkable, large parts (perhaps all) being copied from earlier versions of Java’s past, beginning with mythological times. But it is worth noting what the author chose to regard as the right episode to end his work. Though writing in AD 1777, he did not carry his narrative to the founding of Yogyakarta in 1756, nor to the end of the civil wars in 1757, nor to the end of the Javanese century. Instead, he stopped at the fall of the court of Kartasura in 1742. After that, Babad Kraton implied, there was no further history that needed recording in a chronicle written thirty five years later, in the court of Yogyakarta, in AJ 1703—a year in which a new court should have been founded. Kartasura was the court that had been founded in AJ 1603 (AD 1680), in accordance with the cyclical theory. But it had fallen in 1742, thirty-two years before the theory said it should.

Babad Kraton’s message seems to have been that Kartasura had been founded in accordance with the ’00’03 cycle and therefore, from the perspective of the next turning of the cycle, was the court which ought to have fallen in AJ 1700 (AD 1774). So its successor Yogyakarta could be regarded as the court which should have been founded in AJ 1703 (AD 1777), though in fact it was established twenty-one years ahead of schedule. Everything was under control after all. While this interpretation of Babad Kraton is necessarily speculative, there can be no doubt that the court of Yogyakarta did regard the turning of the Javanese century as a very significant time.

Though there is no evidence of this literary kind from the rival court of Surakarta at this time, there are reasons to think similar concerns about the turning of the century were felt there and comparable ritual or supernatural steps may have been taken.

Nor was this the end of such thinking. A hundred years later, in AJ 1800-03 (AD 1871-74), Java was firmly under Dutch colonial rule. No Javanese court fell, but Dr E. Van Rijckevorsel, a knowledgeable Dutch traveller, wrote the following in AJ 1808 (AD 1878):

Every hundred years … the kraton [court] is demolished and rebuilt anew in another place. In Solo [Surakarta] this ought to have taken place a short time ago, but the [Dutch] government had no inclination thereto, because of the great costs which it entailed for us and for the Susuhunan [king], and got out of it. It was made clear to the Susuhunan that, in order to remain near the kraton, the fort and the residency would also have to be moved at the Susuhunan’s expense, and that was too much for His Highness.

Van Rijckevorsel does not say this was supposed to have been done in AJ 1800-03 (AD 1871-74), but it seems reasonable to guess that this was so. The years around that turning of the Javanese century, and the turning of the Islamic century a decade later (AH 1300, or AD 1882), both also saw a general upsurge of millenarian protest movements in Java.

It seems unlikely that this cycle of centuries can have had any great influence when it came around again in our own time, in AJ 1900-03 (AD 1968-71). By this time Java was part of independent Indonesia. But it was ruled by the Javanese President Soeharto, who was a man of modest education who adhered to many traditional Javanese ideas and superstitions. He often took advice from traditional healers, soothsayers and mystics. But did anyone by this time remember the old ’00-’03 cycle and believe in, perhaps fear, its power to topple kingdoms? Could anyone have feared that Soeharto’s relatively new regime—which had only been established in 1965-66—might be toppled? Perhaps not. But it is worth noting that near the end of AJ 1900 (that is, in the first months of AD 1969), Soeharto’s `New Order’ government announced that its first general election would be held in three years’ time. That general election took place in July 1971, in the Javanese year 1903. There were plenty of other reasons of Realpolitik involved in the history of these elections, but the coincidence—and perhaps it is no more than that—with the old cycle is at least intriguing.