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Jakarta's rulers ever in need of ghostly guidance

New York Times - August 20, 2001

Seth Mydans – Just at the start of his ill-starred presidency, Abdurrahman Wahid slipped out of his official palace and made a secret pilgrimage to the tomb of a Muslim holy man who preached here in central Java 400 years ago.

Alone in the burial chamber, Mr. Wahid said later, he heard the voice of the holy man, Sunan Kalijaga, offering encouragement. Stay calm, the saint told him, and repeat the daily mantra: "God is with those who steadfastly persevere."

In the first week of her presidency, after supplanting Mr. Wahid last month, Megawati Sukarnoputri made a pilgrimage of her own, to the tomb of her father, Indonesia's founding president, Sukarno, whose spirit she often consults.

She was greeted by supporters who held up a sign saying "Welcome to the Just Ruler." It was not a mere political slogan. The just ruler, Ratu Adil, is the savior predicted in an ancient Javanese chronicle who will arrive when the time is right to end a long "era of madness."

Throughout their terms in office, and before, all five of Indonesia's presidents have made frequent visits to holy places tombs, caves, mountaintops, ancient ruins. At least four of them have consulted with spiritual advisers, both corporal and intangible, before making important decisions.

They have clearly sometimes used such gestures for political theater. But most experts believe that for those leaders, the mysticism of Javanese Islam was real and sometimes affected their decision-making.

"This is part of an underlying animistic magical strand of thinking that does see success in the world as due to the basic spiritual powers that run it," said Paul Stange, an American who is an expert on Indonesian mysticism at Murdoch University in Australia.

It is a level of political behavior that generally escapes analyses of Indonesian politics and, by its nature, often remains unknowable. At the same time, experts caution, the effects of mysticism on politics and daily life should not be overblown.

Nevertheless, for Indonesians and Javanese in particular the existence of a spiritual world is a palpable, if diminishing, part of their culture. "Humans are not born alone," said Permadi, a Javanese spiritualist who is also a member of Parliament. "We are connected like siblings with animals and plants and also with nonphysical beings, created by God, that also inhabit the earth."

Indonesians also believe that certain objects like huge trees, stones and mountains hold mystical power, he said, and that God has given certain people special talents to communicate with them. In Javanese tradition, power has an essence of its own, known as "wahyu," and is conferred like a mantle on certain chosen people.

Thus an overt lust for power can be seen as crude and futile. The enigmatic silences favored by Mrs. Megawati and by former President Suharto have carried a deep resonance. "Suharto really felt he had the mandate of heaven," said Onghokham, a prominent social historian. "A colonel suddenly becoming president. He felt he could do anything."

But there was always talk that the wahyu was not really his, that it came from his well-born wife, Ibu Tien. And when she died in early 1996, people began whispering that Mr. Suharto's heavenly mandate was slipping away. He fell from power two years later.

"There is a tradition of Javanese kings becoming kings because of their wives," Mr. Onghokham said. "When Suharto rose to power, people believed that the wife had the wahyu, the flaming womb, and whoever united with her would get the wahyu. After her death people began to sense the wahyu was gone."

Both Mr. Permadi and Mr. Onghokham said that they had tried to dissuade Mr. Wahid from becoming president but that he said he believed he had been chosen to rule. "I told him, 'You're mad, you're stupid'" Mr. Onghokham said. "'Two strokes, blind, how can you be president? You don't know what you're getting into.' And he said, 'No, I've got the mandate of heaven.'"

In a strange way, Mr. Wahid, popularly known as Gus Dur, may have been right, Mr. Permadi said. "Maybe it was a decision of God to raise him up as part of the time of madness." And now, he said, "I'm worried about Megawati." "If she is Ratu Adil she will save the nation," he said. "But if not, she will make things worse, like Gus Dur."

Mr. Wahid, who was the most overtly mystical of Indonesia's presidents, is a Muslim cleric who frequently communes with saints and had, as president, parallel groups of political and spiritual advisers. His sudden departures, often at night, to the tombs of the holy figures became a hallmark of his presidency. "If you go to the tombs to meditate, with all the incense, the dark, the smell of antiquity," said Mr. Onghokham, "it's easy to believe in destiny."

In his brief 21-month tenure as president, Mr. Wahid spawned an entire lore about his mystical adventures. There is the time he went to an all- night shadow-puppet show for spiritual inspiration but fell asleep before the good part. Or the time he prayed tearfully at a tomb, only to discover later that it was the wrong one.

Tales of ghosts in the presidential palace proliferated during his tenure, with one of his daughters calling the place "creepy" and reporting that her television set turned itself on at odd moments. On the advice of spiritualists, Mr. Wahid reversed the layout of his office and changed its carpet from red to blue.

Mrs. Megawati's father, Sukarno, is also said to have surrounded himself with magic charms and with dwarfs, albinos and others he believed to have spiritual qualities. According to one account, he declared Indonesia's independence in 1945 only after paying three visits to seek wahyu at the place of the death and resurrection of an ancient ruler, King Jayabaya.

It is this king who produced the mystical chronicle called Jayabaya, which describes the circular nature of history, with times of madness followed by the arrival of a just ruler. Jayabaya is said to have predicted the coming of the Dutch and the short-lived occupation by the Japanese in World War II.

The chronicle, which people here sometimes compare to Nostradamus, is open to shifting interpretations with changing times. "One day there will be a cart without a horse," it begins. "The island of Java will be encircled by an iron necklace. There will be a boat flying in the sky. The river will lose its current. There will be markets without crowds. These are the signs that the Jayabaya era is coming."

It goes on: "The earth will shrink. Every inch of land will be taxed. Horses will devour chili sauce. Women will dress in men's clothes. These are the signs that the people and their civilization have been turned upside down."

Mr. Sukarno referred to the Jayabaya chronicle in a famous speech to a colonial court in 1930. "Please consider, judges, why people constantly await the coming of Ratu Adil," he said. "Why until this day does Jayabaya light up people's hope? For no other reason than because the weeping people wait faithfully for their rescue like a person in darkness who never ceases to await and expect, every hour, every minute, every second: when will the sun rise?"

Seventy-one years have passed since then and it is a question Indonesians are still asking.