Sunday, November 27

Loro Jonggrang

Prambanan, the 9th century temple compound in Central Java, is one of the largest and the most beautiful structures in Southeast Asia, characterized by its tall, pointed spires, the majestic central structures towering nearly 50m above a large complex of 224 individual temples. While it is dedicated to the Hindu Trinity, i.e. expression of God as the Creator (Brahma), the Sustainer (Vishnu) and the Destroyer (Shiva), and while the focal deities in the major temples are, indeed, Mahadewa, Brahma and Wisnu, the temple-complex has locally always been called Candi Loro Jongrang.

Who is Loro Jongrang (aka Roro Jonggrang or Lara Djonggrang, meaning Slender Virgin)? To find out, we have to travel to 9th-century Java, when the sun was setting over 100 years of rule by the Buddhist Shailendra dynasty (under whose patronage Borobudur had been created.) The Hindu Sanjaya dynasty was increasingly assertive, and local rajas were shifting their allegiance from Mahayana Buddhism to Shaivaite Hinduism.

Complicating the power struggle were court-intrigues -- featuring Pramodhawardhani, daughter of the Shailendra king and object-of-desire of the Sanjaya prince Rakai Pikatan. Rakai Pikatan was in contest against Pramodhawardhani's brother Balaputradewa, heir to the Shailendra throne. Pramodhawardhini's role is ambiguous -- she may have tried to ally herself to both sides -- but eventually, intrigue or not, the Mahayana bhairavs (demons) could not help Balaputradeva, the gods of Rakai Pikatan triumphed, ending Shailendra rule in Central Java.

In the popular legend, which took its modern shape in Majapahit times many centuries later, there are two neighboring kingdoms -- Pengging and Boko. Pengging (the Sanjaya kingdom) is prosperous, for it is wisely ruled by its king Prabu Damar Moyo (in addition to histories even legends are written by the winners), and its clever prince Bandung Bondowoso commands a legion of netherworld-spirits. In contrast, the overlord of Boko (the Shailendra principality) is a cruel cannibalistic giant Prabu Boko, supported by another ogre Patih Gupolo. Despite his uncouthness, Prabu Boko has a beautiful daughter -- the 'Slender Virgin' Loro Jonggrang.

Boko is consumed by envy of his neighbor, and so raises taxes and armies for an invasion of Pengging. His forces launch a surprise attack, the ensuring war causes devastation and widespread famine, on both sides.

Prabu Damar Moyo sends his son Bandung Bondowoso to battle. After a furious contest, Boko is killed by the prince's supernatural powers. His assistant, the ogre Patih Gupolo, escapes with the shattered remnants of corps Boko.

The princess is heartbroken.

In short order, the Pengging host arrives to besiege and capture the Boko palace. Striding through the inner halls, prince Bandung Bondowoso comes upon the mourning princess and is mesmerized by her beauty. He proposes that the winning and losing sides be henceforth joined in matrimony. The shotgun (so to speak) pointed at her, Loro Jonggrang agrees, but on two surely-impossible conditions: first, the prince must build a well named Jalatunda; second, he must construct a thousand temples in one night.

Bondowoso immediately starts work on the well, calling upon his spirits and using his supernatural powers, and lo, it is done. She urges him to enter Jalatunda; when he does so, Patih Gupolo pours an avalanche of stones into the well to bury the prince alive. With great effort Bandung Bondowoso escapes. Loro Jongrang blames the no-hopers fighting on under Gupolo, and sweetly asks Bondowoso to fulfill the second condition.

Somewhat suspicious after Act I, the prince enters into meditation and conjures up a host of earth-spirits. They work through the night, and there come into being, one after another as the night wears on, the first 999 temples. Yet Loro Jonggrang has a clever plan. The princess and her maids light a fire in the east, and ask all the villagers to begin pounding rice, an activity traditionally done just before dawn. Fooled into thinking the sun is about to rise, the rooster crows, and the spirits flee back into the netherworld, leaving the last statue of the last temple unfinished.

The prince is furious when he learns of this deception. He leaves the palace, placing a curse on Loro Jonggrang, that her body turn into stone to match her heart. So she herself becomes the final statue of the temple, completing its construction and fulfilling the condition for their marriage. The gods intercede, releasing Loro Djongrang's soul which rises to the heavens.

There are several curious aspects to the legend.

First, the 1000th statue, which the locals revere as Loro Djonggrang, is easily recognizable as being one of Durga Mahishasurmardini. (Her many arms, the buffalo at her feet and the demon she holds by the hair place her distinctly within the framework of Durga, as does the placement of the statue in the Shiva temple next to a statue of Ganesha.)

From A Guide through Netherlands India (1906):

At the further end of the lobby are two images respectively representing Siva (as "Goeroe") the Teacher, and as Kala (the Destroyer Time), and in the central room is a large, but broken image of the same Deity as the principal god (Maha-dewa). In the west room is found an image of Ganesa Son of Siva, and in the north room is the famous eight-armed image of Loro Djonggrang (Durga, the consort of Siva). This image is 6 feet high and the entire ruin is often known, after it, as Tjandi Loro Djonggrang.

There is, however, no explanation of how the stories connect -- how did Loro become associated with Durga? Is it that, casting their eyes around the goddesses of the Hindu pantheon -- Saraswati, Lakshmi, Ganga, Sita, Radhika -- the Javanese could not find a match, the only strong woman being Durga? For Shaktas, the eternal virgin Durga is Adi Shakti (the original power) -- this notion may also have made the identification of Loro with Durga easier. But it remains a stretch; there is nothing of the story of Durga in Loro, and none of Loro in Durga, even if certain facets are claimed to match.

Second, why would this defiant maiden find such lasting worship in the sanctuaries of her opponents? Is it that we all identify with the tragic? Or, perhaps, each of the parties to the underlying conflict got something out of the deification of Loro Jongrang. For the Hindus, through her demands they got a thousand temples, and indeed she metaphorically became one of them. For the Buddhists, it was one of their own, their princess, who went to live in the temple of Shiva.

Or is it that, as some historians suggest, Pramodhawardhini/Loro was actually married to Rakai Pikatan/Bondowoso and helped plot the downfall of her Buddhist brother? There is a very faint nimbus around the head of the Loro Jonggrang statue in Prambanan, and some scholars have suggested reading into it a Buddhist iconography. There has been, from the beginning, confusion about how much Hindu-Buddhist fusion Prambanan actually represents.

From Allen's Indian Mail, "a register of intelligence for British and foreign India, China, and all parts of the East" (1851):

Visited and sketched by Colonel Mackenzie in 1812, and subsequently by Captain G. Baker, whose report to the Government contains facts of some value towards an elucidation of the question. "One of these arises from the circumstance of his having been accompanied by a sepoy, who would seem to have been a Brahman himself, and had resided two years among the Brahmans at Benares. Colonel Mackenzie considered these ruins at Brambanam to be decidedly Bauddhistical; the sepoy, on the contrary, regarded them as Brahmanical, though surpassing in number and style of execution anything of the kind which he had seen in India.

Why an 8-armed Durga? Mahishasurmardini appears quite early in Indian art. The Archaeological Museum in Mathura has on display a 6-armed Kushana period Mahishasurmardini that depicts her pressing down the buffalo with her lower hands. A Nagar plaque from the first century BC depicts a 4-armed Mahishasurmardini, accompanied by a lion. In the Gupta period we see various representations of Mahishasurmardini (2-, 4-, 6-, and at Udayagiri, 12-armed), the spear and trident her most common weapons. At Mahabalipuram (contemporaneous, roughly, with Prambanan), a relief (pictured below) shows the goddess with 8 arms (some on one side have broken off but the symmetry is clear from the other side) riding her lion and subduing with bow-and-arrow a Mesopotamian-looking buffalo-faced asura (as opposed to buffalo asura), a variation also seen at Ellora.

Third, there are actually 1001 statues. An accounting is provided in the book Rāma-legends and Rāma-reliefs in Indonesia. You don't have to be Holmes or Feluda to feel there is something very odd about the extra statue. The Loro legend very specifically builds up to 1000 statues; the temples were planned and executed with enormous precision bearing in mind a cosmic ritual significance; why, then, do we at the end find 1001 statues?

In terms of the disconnect between the Durga and Loro Jongrang traditions, it is of course possible that many of the royal family were models for the statues in temples, and the same statue could be both the royal and the divine, on different planes. In Angkor, Jayavarmana's face melds with that of the Buddha; in Java, here a King appears as Wisnu, there a pretty prince is immortal as a cherub on a panel. So it may not have been as remarkable that the Slender Virgin was the model for a Durga statue, and that in the minds of the audience the statue could be both the princess and the deity without contradiction. An uncle of mine calls every Sean Connery movie 'James Bond'; Hema Malini is forever Basanti Tangewali in rural India. A movie poster image could be Cleopatra, or Liz Taylor, or perhaps simultaneously both?

Finally, much has been made amongst scholars of Shailendra vs Sanjaya, Borobudur vs Prambanan. In practice, of course, both the Hindu and Mahayana traditions are too inclusive for there to remain a real schism in the population of the hinterland around Prambanan. Buddha is an avatar of Vishnu, and the Tara form of Durga is a female Bodhisattva. The conflict between clans (though not religions) was real at one time, and there was a couple whose story got tied up in the wars between their families, people understood that and made the story their own. Even today, lovers will avoid Candi Loro Djongrang; it is a place for breaking up.

Friday, November 25

Sei Sekonyer

We stop at various river villages. At Sei Sekonyer, a plaintive sign put up by the Friends Of The National Parks Foundation (FNPF) showing a bulldozer felling trees reads "Stop Destroying Our Land."

The klotok boats are approximately 40’ long, 6' to 7’ wide, with a draft of 3’. Their hulls are built of belian, the Borneo ironwood (Eusideroxylon zwageri.) Unlike in the Sundarbans where the garan mangrove hardwoods are used for building boats, the klotok ironwood comes from deep in the forest, though the upper structures are made of various cheaper local hardwoods. There are two levels of deck, the lower level is less than 4’ high. Powered by small single-cylinder diesel engines, only a few of these boats have a muffler or silencer. They are called klotok because of the noise -- klok tok kelo tok -- the engines make, like bhatbhatia for the motorcycle in India. The small engine can barely push the klotok up against the current at 5 knots.

Our boat has a crew of four. Apart from Padri, Eddie is the pilot, and his mate calls himself Kencan - gold. Kencan is newly-married, and his bride of 3 months Darmin is the cook on the boat. Before she came to the boat, Darmin handled the made-to-order egg-station at the Rimba lodge. As we berth at the Sei Sekonyer, Darmin leaps off nimbly and walks to the village store, emerging later with a packet of instant noodles -- a little afternoon change-of-taste snack for herself? her husband? -- between cooking banana-flour meals for everyone on the boat.

Boat building

The belian tree grows extremely slowly, taking up to 120 years to reach a foot in trunk-diameter. The decay is equally slow -- and therefore the wood is sought for marine or outdoor use. Stumps of logged belian trees are still around centuries after they were felled. You can apparently find such stumps in Sarawak, and researchers have carbon-dated some stumps to be well over 1000 years old. Belian trees are the oldest members of any rain forest in Borneo; since it will take a few centuries of commitment to grow them in a commercial plantation, belian are invariably selectively logged.

Belian wood is dense, resistant to insects, bacteria, fungi and marine borers. The heartwood is immune to termites; service-lives of up to 100 years in direct soil contact, and more than 20 years for marine work in these tropical waters, have been reported. It is also famed for its ease of working, despite the high density -- the wood planes, bores and turns cleanly, producing smooth, darkly-lustrous surfaces.

A klotok like our's would sell, Eddie says, for 70 million rupiah -- about USD 8000. He points at a sleeker and longer model that passes, with a better engine and brass fittings -- "those can be twice as much."

Boat building

The river started off lined by Nipa palms, with tall mangrove trees behind. These gave way to Pandanus-lined banks, and forests of sandalwood.

The jackfruit-like Pandan (P. amaryllifolius) fruit are not edible, but the leaves are used in Indonesian cooking to add a distinct aroma to nasi lemak, to kaya (Indonesian jam) preserves, and to desserts. Fresh leaves are typically torn into strips, tied in a knot to facilitate removal after cooking, and placed in the broth while nasi or kari cook. The kewra essence used to flavor drinks, sweets or biriyanis in Indian cuisine is distilled from a type of Pandanus flower.

We see troops of proboscis monkeys at the river's edge, huge noses drooping down the faces of the males; several brilliant blue, red and yellow stork-billed kingfishers, black kites and white-bellied sea eagles soaring overhead, and huge black hornbills high in the forest canopy. We see a rare gharial poking his snout out; as evening draws in, bats emerge overhead.

At night we tie up at the dock of a reforestation depot; the place has a radio, it is 'safer' -- there is illegal logging around and the responsibility of looking after a 4-year old in the jungle has been lying heavy on the crew. It is dark by 6 pm, and by 8 we lie listening to the sounds of the jungle -- frogs, chain-saw crickets, squabbling tribes of macaques, that crocodile-splash at the stern. At 1 am it starts raining hard, by the time the wind dies down it is 4 am, the gibbons are calling out. Then Darmin is up, whisking banana-flour into batter for breakfast pancakes.

Thursday, November 24

Camp Leakey

Upon his arrival in Britain from Kenya in 1919, the future paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey (whose discoveries at the Olduvai Gorge would establish human evolutionary development in Africa) had notified the British government's register of people with a knowledge of rare languages that he was fluent in Swahili. Several years later, when his finals at Cambridge were due, he asked to be examined in Swahili, and after some hesitation the university agreed. Then, one day, he received two letters; one instructing him to report at a certain time and place for a viva-voce examination in Swahili, and the other asking if, at precisely the same time and place, he might be disposed to examine a candidate in Swahili.

Satisfying as that outcome must have been, Leakey might have been even more gratified to learn that the research station named after him -- not in East Africa but in Borneo, by a German woman of Lithuanian origin studying those most distant of hominids, the Orangutans -- is thriving today. The name was given by Dr. Biruté Galdikas, recognized as a leading authority on orangutans. Prior to her field studies of orangutans, scientists knew little about the species.

Biruté Galdikas met Louis Leakey at UCLA c. 1970. Determined to study and understand the world of the elusive "red" ape, Galdikas convinced Leakey to help orchestrate her endeavor, despite his initial doubts. In 1971, Galdikas arrived in one of the world's few remaining wild places, what is now Taman Nasional Tanjung Puting, in Kalimantan, i.e. Indonesian Borneo. Galdikas was thus the third of a trio of women hand-picked by Leakey to study mankind's nearest relatives, the other great apes, in their natural habitats. (Sometimes referred to as Leakey's Angels, or even The Trimates, the other two were Jane Goodall, who studied chimpanzees, and Dian Fossey, who studied mountain gorillas.) Leakey helped Galdikas initially set up her research camp to conduct field study on orangutans in Borneo, and Galdikas went on to further Leakey's legacy by greatly expanding the scientific knowledge of orangutan behavior, habitat and diet.

From Wikipedia:

When she arrived in Borneo, Galdikas settled into a primitive bark and thatch hut, at a site she dubbed Camp Leakey, near the edge of the Java Sea. Once there, she encountered numerous poachers, legions of leeches, and swarms of carnivorous insects. Yet she persevered through many travails, remaining there for over 30 years while becoming an outspoken advocate for orangutans and the preservation of their rainforest habitat, which is rapidly being devastated by loggers, palm oil plantations, gold miners, and unnatural conflagrations.

Galdikas's conservation efforts have extended well beyond advocacy, largely focusing on rehabilitation of the many orphaned orangutans turned over to her for care. Many of these orphans were once illegal pets, before becoming too smart and difficult for their owners to handle. Galdikas's rehabilitation efforts through Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) also include the preservation of rainforest. Although one Canadian author in the late 1990s was critical of the rehabilitation methods, the ongoing birth of new orangutans among the formerly-rehabilitated adult orangutans at Camp Leakey is part of what makes it the longest continual study of a single species.

From a year 2000 NY Times interview with Dr. Galdikas:

Q. Give us a report on the state of the world's orangutans?

A. They are poised on the edge of extinction. It's that simple. We're still seeing orangutans in the forest; they are coming into captivity in enormous numbers. You just know that there can't be that many left in the wild.

Q. How did the orangutans come to be so threatened?

A. The main factor was that until 1988, Indonesia had a forestry minister who was a real forester. In 1988, he was replaced by a forestry minister who was an agriculturist, a promoter of plantations. That signaled a shift in government policy from selective logging to clear-cutting of the forest. For orangutans, clear-cutting is a policy of extinction. If you selectively log, some animals will survive. But with clear-cutting, the habitat is gone. If that weren't enough, in 1997, there were these horrendous fires that devastated the forests.

Moreover, the last three years have been a period of intense political upheaval: an economic crisis, ethnic strife, student riots, President Suharto's resignation. After President Suharto stepped down in 1998, there was a vacuum of power in the center. Once people in the provinces understood that, some felt they could do whatever they wanted. And what some of them wanted to do was log the forest. So throughout Indonesia, places that had, more or less, been protected, became besieged.

At first, only local loggers came in. When nobody stopped them, the bigger commercial loggers followed. Suddenly, there were no more protected parks.

Q. Is this true too in Kalimantan, Borneo, where you have your research station?

A. Yes, though in the National Park where I work, we're doing what we can. We're trying to set up patrols of local men to go out with park rangers so that when they come across illegal loggers, they don't feel totally intimidated. We're working with the Indonesian government to set up new wildlife reserves at expired logging concessions. And of course, we're doing what we always have: saving wild-born orangutans who've been captured by humans.

Another NY Times article, this one penned by Biruté Galdikas herself articulating her mission, is here. She has written several books about her years with orangutans, such as Reflections Of Eden.

An IMAX movie, titled Born To Be Wild, shows scenes from Camp Leakey, especially of baby orphan orangutans being hand-reared and then referalized. A trailer can be seen here.

Today, Camp Leakey is a collection of a dozen wooden buildings, where researchers from Indonesian and Western universities and local Dayak staff work on rearing orangutan babies, re-introducing them to the rainforest, and studying the populations that remain in the wild.

From the blog of a contemporary researcher:

"Misha's got a rat!" I yell to Tim in my astonishment. The young ape bites off the rat's head and swings it by the tail like a stuffed toy.

Orangutans rarely eat meat, and in this case Misha seems motivated more by curiosity than by appetite. She also occupies herself with the orangutan version of playing house, making a simple nest and practicing the skills of independent living she'll need when Marissa, her mother, one day turns her attention to a newborn.

The pioneering work of Biruté Galdikas suggests that orangutans bear offspring only once every eight years on average—an extremely long interval among mammals.

After a mother gives birth, her baby will cling to her for several years, rarely venturing away from her side, and continue to nurse for about six years. A juvenile sibling may stay with its mother for a few years, as does Emy with mother Ely and her infant.

Emy is learning how to fend for herself since, unlike human mothers, orangutans normally do not provide food for their offspring beyond lactation.

One of my research goals is to try to determine why these periods of juvenile dependency last so long.

On another continent, Dian Fossey, Dr. Galdikas' fellow-Angel, was found murdered in the bedroom of her cabin in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda on Boxing Day, 1985. The last entry in her diary read:

When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.

Fossey's skull had been split by a panga, a kind of machete widely used by poachers; from forensic analysis of the scene, she had been in the act of loading her handgun, but had apparently picked the wrong type of ammunition during the struggle. Fossey's will stated that all her money (including proceeds from the film version of Gorillas in the Mist) should go to finance anti-poaching patrols. However, her mother Kitty Price challenged the will, and won.

The final words of Louis Leakey's book Adam's Ancestors read:

We know from the study of evolution that, again and again, various branches of animal stock have become over-specialized, and that over-specialization has led to their extinction. Present-day Homo sapiens is in many physical respects still very unspecialized− ... But in one thing man, as we know him today, is over-specialized. His brain power is very over-specialized compared to the rest of his physical make-up, and it may well be that this over-specialization will lead, just as surely, to his extinction.

Wednesday, November 23

Heart of Darkness

We branch off into the Sekonyer river from the main trunk of the Kumai. This is Dayak country.

The Dayak are the native people of Borneo. The term covers over 200 hill-dwelling and river-dwelling ethnic subgroups, each with its own dialect, customs, laws, territory and culture but many common traits. Dayak languages are categorised as part of the Austronesian languages in Asia. The Dayak were animist in belief; however many have converted to Islam, and some embraced evangelical Christianity more recently. According to Wikipedia, estimates for the Dayak population range from 2 to 4 million.

The Dayak indigenous religion has been given the name Kaharingan, and may be said to be a form of animism. For official purposes, it is categorized as a form of Hinduism in Indonesia. Nevertheless, these generalizations fail to convey the distinctiveness, meaningfulness, richness and depth of Dayak religion, myth and teachings. Underlying the world-view is an account of the creation and re-creation of this middle-earth where the Dayak dwell, arising out of a cosmic battle in the beginning of time between a primal couple, a male and female bird/dragon (serpent). Representations of this primal couple are amongst the most pervasive motifs of Dayak art.

(The United Nations University has a video showing the life of the Borneo forest-Dayaks here.)

Our immediate destination, the Tanjung Puting National Park, is many hours upstream, so we settle down to talk as the klotok furrows upriver. Padri, our guide, tells me by way of introduction that he is a 'riot orphan'; his parents were decapitated around 1999 in the violence between 'Muslims' (settlers from Madura or Java, as well as those Dayaks in towns and river villages who have convered to Islam) and 'Christians' (Dayaks who are nominally Christian but who span proto-Hindu or animist practices, typically inhabiting the interior of the island.)

Padri calls himself Dayak Melayu. The "Malay" Dayak live in West Kalimantan along the coast, and also in the islands of the Karimata Strait. They are the Dayaks that have converted to Islam. The languages of the Dayak Melayu consist of Tapitn, Banana', Kayung, Delang, Semitau, Suhaid, Mentebah-Suruk dialects, and so on. Their arts and culture have been influenced by Islam, yet activities associated with birth, marriage, burial, building a house, planting crop -- all still involve traditional animistic beliefs. The dukun (shaman) of the Dayak Melayu remain influential in traditional medicine, and are called upon to give advice on when you plan your daughter's marriage or choose a name for your grandson.

Padri recounts how, as a young boy, he received the trunk of his father's body, hack-marks from mandau all over the gaping torso.

Along with a younger brother and a small sister, he was brought up by an uncle. His bewilderment turned into a determination to make something of himself, to learn English, which he now speaks well. Apart from freelancing as a tourguide, he is going to the local community college in Panglakan Bun, and has taken some coursework in IT. He is trying to decide whether to go to college in Java to major in computer science, or to stay in Borneo and build an Orangutan-tours business.

From The Inventory of Conflict And Environment:

The Madurese first arrived in West Kalimantan in the 1930's, but the numbers increased during the 1970's. This was the result of the Indonesian government's transmigration plan, which encouraged people to leave more populated islands such as Madura and Java for low populated islands such as Kalimantan. Little consideration was given to the indigenous Dayaks. As the rainforest was cut down and replaced by palm oil and coconut plantations, the indigenous tribes found themselves at the bottom of a complex hierarchy of different groups, unable to continue their traditional patterns of agriculture and slow to adapt new types of employment. (Economist, 1997) The Christian Dayaks now share the low end of the economic ladder with the Madurese. There are currently about 100,000 Madurese in various parts of Kalimantan and two million Dayaks from at least ten separate tribes.

The Dayaks feel that the Madurese have taken their land. The cultural conflict between the two groups has also been a source of the unrest. More importantly are Dayak demands for greater land rights and representation in government. Many analysts see the burning of three plantations in recent years as evidence of the Dayak's growing resentment of the government's appropriation of traditional land, and the forced selling of Dayak land at below market price. (Djalal, 1997) It is an accumulation of several conflicts. There of course is a cultural gap, but mainly it is the dissatisfaction in how Dayak land has been taken away illegally. One Dayak claimed that "the people in Kalimantan were harmonious until the bad people from East Java came." (Reuters, 1997

Between 1996 and 1999, as the regime of General Suharto collapsed and violence broke out all over Indonesia, Richard Lloyd Parry, a British foreign correspondent, forayed into some of the worst strife. His account, titled In The Time Of Madness — "a book about violence, and about being afraid" — tries to make sense of what happened in Java, Borneo and East Timor. Here are some snippets from his conversations with a Dutch Capuchin missionary amongst the Dayaks:

Since the trouble at the pop concert, Dayaks all over West Kalimantan had been preparing. When the fighting began in December they had had only sharpened bamboo poles and a few hunting rifles. A month later they had metal heads for the spears, and newly forged mandau, the traditional hacking machete ... Father Kristof passed an album of photographs which showed the Menjalin Dayaks preparing for battle. They had feathers tied to their heads with red ribbons, and ribbons on their spears ... The kamang tariu is the spirit which possesses the Dayaks in time of war. When it is present, it provides physical protection and immunity from thirst and fatigue, but it has a powerful appetite of its own. 'The kamang tariu drinks blood, it has to be fed blood,' said the pastor. 'There were Dayaks in Pontianak who could not go to war, but who were possessed.' Their friends had to cut the throat of a chicken and give it to them, to feed the spirit.'

I asked what happened when the Dayaks returned from an attack on a village.

'They brought back bags of heads. The heart, they eat directly. The idea is that it should still be fresh. A fresh heart has different power from lungs, and lungs are different from stomachs. Even the blood. From children to old people to babies, no exception at all. Four thousand of them, all beheaded with mandau. Yes, it is remarkable ...

I blinked and said, 'Father, as a priest, how do you see all this?'

'It's difficult to say in two or three words, but to understand you have to go back sixteen years to when I arrived here. Compared to then, all the Dayaks are now Christian. They go to war with a cross. They've all bought rosaries. They are not killers.' And then, in English, 'It's very difficult to explain. ...

'Dayaks have two sets of rules and teachings -- the ones of their ancestors, and the rules and regulations set by the government. But when they are under pressure and need to express what they are feeling in the face of that pressure, they have no choice. They have to go by the ancestral book.

Finally Father Kristof said, 'When we love people ...' then stopped, then started again. 'If a son commits a murder and goes to prison, the mother always loves him. She says, "My son is a good boy still." I don't say that what has happened here is good. You have to understand the position of the Dayak people now. They are ignored by the government. They have no political role. No one in key positions, no people of influence in the army. They are under pressure and they have no economic power. All they have is land, land that has been theirs for thousands of years. Now the government appropriates land for transmigration. The timber companies come, other commercial concerns. The Dayaks become upset, alienated from society. That's what makes them stand up for their rights. They are ...' - he struggled for the right word, back in English again now - ' ... natural people. They are in conflict with a tribe that has totally different traditions.'

Tagore the idealist of cultural essence, Conrad the sensibilist of the tragic - yet, poking in the ashes of history, the barbarians rising only after here Wenlock Wood lost to logging, there the Uricon dammed.

Friday, November 18

Pangkalan Bun

Neither of the two small airlines that have scheduled service to Pangkalan Bun seems to have any organized way to buy tickets; eventually, armed with wads of rupiah, we queue at the counter outside the domestic terminal of Soekarno-Hatta.

Two cheerfully cavalier eighteen-year-olds attempt to write up paper tickets. Outside, when a gust of wind makes a sandwich-board fall to the ground with a crack, the entire counter staff disappear under their desks in reflex. I have a sense of foreboding.

The airline we are taking has been decertified in the EU due to alleged poor maintenance, and recently one of their turbo-props crashed into a rice field after in-flight engine failure on a similar route. The other airline is reputed worse. There are ferries from the north coast of Java to the south coast of Kalimantan, but they take a day, and are, if anything less confidence-inspiring (the Senopati Nusantara sank with 600 on-board in 2006 while crossing from Kumai to Semarang.)

In the event, we board an aged but functional 737 (from the cabin fittings, a discard from Canadian Airlines, which ceased to function c. 2001), feeling cheated of drama. Our fellow-passengers are returning home to Kalimantan laden with the best Jakarta has to offer -- enormous buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, or trays of glazed Dunkins Donuts. Buffeted by chop, we fly north into towering cumuli stacked over the Java Sea.

An hour later, we come into Iskandar PKN airport, a tail wind driving sheets of rain onto the tarmac. The ground staff show up with a pallet of umbrellas, unfurling one for each of us just in time as we disembark -- no aerobridge, no problem. Masses of dark clouds start from the tops of the trees and cover the sky, the wipers of the old Toyota taxi slap time to the driver's pop and we set off to find our hotel. The town is spread out, a series of low rise compounds along roads cut into the jungle, many occupied by the army, red cockerels strutting on the brigade insignias on green-painted walls, the street dividers immaculate in black-and-white.

These parts are under severe petrol rationing; mile long lines of cars and trucks have formed outside every pump. Most people have left their vehicles parked overnight in line, hoping to get an allocation when the station opens in the morning.

The hotel is called the Blue Kecubung -- the blue amethyst. The term can refer both to a trumpet-shaped flower, and to the mineral. Since the flower belongs to the Datura family, and all parts of the plant, particularly the seeds, are poisonous, we are hoping it is the gem that the hotel aspires to live up to.

Deep at night a ferocious thunderstorm unleashes even more rain. I wake from the doors and windows shaking up a fearsome racket, the a/c unit mounted outside threatening to be torn off the wall by the mauling gale. By morning it has blown itself off, and the school across the street is noisy with the drums of military children marching into assembly.

We get a ride to Kumai. The waterfront is dotted with 3-storey boxlike buildings with no doors and no windows. They turn out to be swallow nesting-houses, a big business.

Bird's nest soup is a delicacy in Chinese cuisine. A few species of cave swifts are renowned for building the saliva nests used to produce the texture of this soup. When dissolved in water, the saliva from the nests turns gelatinous. These nests could well be the most expensive animal products consumed by humans, the choicest types selling for USD 10000 a kilo in Hong Kong, a bowl's-worth from the more common varieties easily going for USD 30-100.

From the blurb accompanying the sales pitch of a Bird's nest vendor:

Birds nest has been regarded as highly nutritional as wild ginseng for thousand of years. It is a very valuable natural tonic due to its health promoting qualities. Birds nest is made from Swiftlets in the world; three species produced Edible-nest. Some of these Swiftlets are feeding on sea-products, while some feeding on flying insects or worms from the wild jungle. Birds nest is rich in protein with a slight present of calcium and iron. The protein contents in Edible-nest are more easily absorbs by human body. Research has found that birds nests help to strengthen our body resistance against diseases. It is one of the best tonics for all age groups due to its high nutritive value to human body. If taken regularly, it can help to improve blood circulation, relieve coughing, asthma and maintain good complexion.

Birds nest is expensive because its supply is low and collection work is tedious. It is the nest built from the saliva of male esculent swift after feeding on insects. The salivary gland is particularly developed in the male esculent swift and it produces large amounts of sticky saliva like that of silk. The male would build a nest on steep cliffs and deep caverns near the sea which becomes edible birds nest after solidifying. The female would lay and hatch her eggs in it.

Edible birds nest can be divided into 3 types -- Bashi Cave Nest, imperial/house birds nest (i.e. White birds nest), and hairy birds nest (i.e. Black birds nest). Bashi Cave Nest is the most nutritious and the most expensive.

We learn from Amitav Ghosh's River of Smoke that at the time of the Opium Wars, junks from Hainan stopped at Great Nicobar to pick up nests collected by local tribes:

This was when the Serang revealed to us that the island was not new to him; in his youth, while working on a Hainanese junk, he had come here many times. It was called Great Nicobar and it was by no means a deserted wilderness; on the far side of the mountain, down by the water, there were some surprisingly rich villages.
How so? we said.
He pointed at the sky, where flocks of swift-flying birds were wheeling and soaring. See those birds, he said, the islanders call them hinlene; they revere them because they are the source of their wealth. Those creatures look insignificant but they make something that is of immense value. What?
Nests. People pay a lot of money for their nests.
You can imagine the effect this had on us three Hindusthanis! Your grandfather and Jodu and I all thought the Serang was making gadhas out of us.
Where in the world would people pay to buy birds’ nests? we said. China, he said. In China they boil and eat them. Like daal? Yes. Except that in China, it’s the most expensive food of all.
This seemed incredible to us, so we turned to Ah Fatt: could this possibly be true?
Yes, he said, if these were the nests that were called ‘yan wo’ in Canton, then they were indeed of great value, as good a currency as any that existed in eastern waters – depending on their quality they were worth their weight in either silver or gold. A single chest of nests could fetch the equivalent of eight troy pounds of gold in Canton.
Our first thought was that we were rich, and that all we had to do was to find the nests and scoop them up. But Serang Ali quickly put us right. The birds nested in enormous caverns, he said, and each cave belonged to a village. If we walked in and helped ourselves we would never leave the island alive. Before doing anything we would have to seek out a village headman – omjah karruh they called them there – to ask permission, arrange a proper division of the proceeds and so on.

(So much for Tagore's view of Europe as the origin of the pestilence of mercantilism. It seems the subaltern can source, and the habildar haggle.)

In Borneo, the gathering of nests used to be centered around the lime caverns of Gomantong and Niah. As the Chinese become prosperous, demand is soaring, and purpose-built nesting-houses are sprouting up in coastal towns that border the jungle, since the birds flock in such places. This has become an extraordinary industry, and local towns have been completely transformed by the activity. The nests are mostly exported to Hong Kong, which has become the centre of the world trade, and from there they are retailed to mainland China. It has been estimated that swallow nests now account for 0.5% of Indonesia's GDP. A vibrant counterfeiting industry has also sprung up side by side, so it is apparently prudent to ask to see the nest before it is cooked for you.

It is mid morning as we climb into our klotok. Past the nesting houses, past the docks, past the chimney of the power plant rising out of the jungle, where the Sekonyer river empties into the Kumai.

Wednesday, November 16


In July 1927, Rabindranath Tagore sailed from Chennai towards Bali and Java, several distinguished traveling companions in tow. One of them, the linguist Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, wrote an account titled Dwipamay Bharat (“An India Made of Islands”; the name Indonesia in fact deriving from the Latin Indus for the lands around that river, and the Greek nesos, meaning island ). We also have the poet's own account in Java Jatrir Patra (The Letters of a Traveller to Java, original in Bengali here), collected in the volume Jatri (Traveler). He returned in October 1927, taking a boat to Kolkata from Penang. This was a time when crossing the Bay of Bengal by steamship took a week.

Rabindranath was Asia's first Nobel laureate, and as such a guest of distinction for local potentates wherever he went. Barring a few discordant moments, the tour was solemnly highbrow, made up with visits to Borobudur in Java, with discourses on the Mahabharata with the Raja of Gianyar in Bali, and such. Rabindranath lectured extensively, cut ribbons on roads and bridges (one named after him), and managed to compose only 18 poems or songs in the 18 weeks he was traveling away from India -- the most attenuated production of his adult life. From Rabindranath's own account, he was distracted and exhausted by his packed tour schedule (he was 66 years old at this time.)

In undertaking the trip, Rabindranath Tagore's immediate purpose was to raise funds for Visva Bharati, his perennially impoverished ashram and multiversity at Shantiniketan. He was met with a generous response, especially from the expatriate Indian communities, though what they got in the lectures was, as was usual from Tagore, political and social criticism "at $700 a scold." Rabindranath's trip had been financed by Marwari businessmen like Ghanashyamdas Birla and Narayandas Bijoria, who were interested in reviving India's links with influential people in Southeast Asia through the prise of Indian high culture.

Rabindranath himself evinces the same motive, though in a more latent way. His letters are filled with anguish about the exercise of European (Dutch) power over the East Indies, thoughts on why India in modern times is not able to exercise such power over the world, and also what the right form the proper exercise of power might take.

য়ুরোপ সর্বদেশ সর্বকালকে-যে স্পর্শ করেছে সে তার কোন্‌ সত্য দ্বারা? তার বিজ্ঞান সেই সত্য। তার যে-বিজ্ঞান মানুষের সমস্ত জ্ঞানের ক্ষেত্রকে অধিকার করে কর্মের ক্ষেত্রে জয়ী হয়েছে সে একাট বিপুল শক্তি। এইখানে তার চাওয়ার অন্ত নেই, তার পাওয়াও সেই পরিমাণে। গত বছর য়ুরোপ থেকে আসবার সময় একটি জর্মন যুবকের সঙ্গে আমার আলাপ হয়। তিনি তাঁর অল্পবয়সের স্ত্রীকে সঙ্গে নিয়ে ভারতবর্ষে আসছিলেন। মধ্যভারতের আরণ্য প্রদেশে যে-সব জাতি প্রায় অজ্ঞাতভাবে আছে দুবৎসর তাদের মধ্যে বাস করে তাদের রীতিনীতি তন্ন তন্ন করে জানতে চান। এরই জন্যে তাঁরা দুজনে প্রাণ পণ করতে কুণ্ঠিত হন নি। মানুষসম্বন্ধে মানুষকে আরো জানতে হবে, সেই আরো জানা বর্বর জাতির সীমার কাছে এসেও থামে না। সমস্ত জ্ঞাতব্য বিষয়কে এইরকম সংঘবদ্ধ করে জানা, ব্যূহবদ্ধ করে সংগ্রহ করা, জানবার সাধনায় মনকে সম্পূর্ণ মোহমুক্ত করা, এতে করে মানুষ যে কত প্রকাণ্ড বড়ো হয়েছে য়ুরোপে গেলে তা বুঝতে পারা যায়। এই শক্তি দ্বারা পৃথিবীকে য়ুরোপ মানুষের পৃথিবী করে সৃষ্টি করে তুলছে। যেখানে মানুষের পক্ষে যা-কিছু বাধা আছে তা দূর করবার জন্যে সে যে-শক্তি প্রয়োগ করছে তাকে যদি আমরা সামনে মূর্তিমান করে দেখতে পেতুম তা হলে তার বিরাট রূপে অভিভূত হতে হত।

এইখানে য়ুরোপের প্রকাশ যেমন বড়ো, যাকে নিয়ে সকল মানুষ গর্ব করতে পারে, তেমনি তার এমন একটা দিক আছে যেখানে তার প্রকাশ আচ্ছন্ন। উপনিষদে আছে, যে-সাধকেরা সিদ্ধিলাভ করেছেন—তে সর্বগং সর্বতঃ প্রাপ্য ধীরা যুক্তাত্মানঃ সর্বমেবা-বিশন্তি; তাঁরা সর্বগামী সত্যকে সকল দিক থেকে লাভ করে যুক্তাত্মভাবে সমস্তের মধ্যে প্রবেশ করেন। সত্য সর্বগামী বলেই মানুষকে সকলের মধ্যে প্রবেশাধিকার দেয়। বিজ্ঞান বিশ্বপ্রকৃতির মধ্যে মানুষের প্রবেশপথ খুলে দিচ্ছে; কিন্তু আজ সেই য়ুরোপে এমন একটি সত্যের অভাব ঘটেছে যাতে মানুষের মধ্যে মানুষের প্রবেশ অবরুদ্ধ করে। অন্তরের দিকে য়ুরোপ মানুষের পক্ষে একটা বিশ্বব্যাপী বিপদ হয়ে উঠল। এইখানে বিপদ তার নিজেরও। ...

এই পৃথিবীতে মানুষ যদি একেবারে মরে তবে সে এইজন্যেই মরবে—সে সত্যকে জেনেছিল কিন্তু সত্যের ব্যবহার জানে নি। সে দেবতার শক্তি পেয়েছিল, দেবত্ব পায় নি। বর্তমান যুগে মানুষের মধ্যে সেই দেবতার শক্তি দেখা দিয়েছে য়ুরোপে। কিন্তু সেই শক্তি কি মানুষকে মারবার জন্যেই দেখা দিল? গত য়ুরোপের যুদ্ধে এই প্রশ্নটাই ভয়ংকর মূর্তিতে প্রকাশ পেয়েছে। য়ুরোপের বাইরে সর্বত্রই য়ুরোপ বিভীষিকা হয়ে উঠেছে, তার প্রমাণ আজ এশিয়া আফ্রিকা জুড়ে। য়ুরোপ আপন বিজ্ঞান নিয়ে আমাদের মধ্যে আসে নি, এসেছে আপন কামনা নিয়ে। তাই এশিয়ার হৃদয়ের মধ্যে য়ুরোপের প্রকাশ অবরুদ্ধ।

জাভায় যাত্রাকালে এই-সমস্ত তর্ক আমার মাথায় কেন এল জিজ্ঞাসা করতে পার। এর কারণ হচ্ছে এই যে, ভারতবর্ষের বিদ্যা একদিন ভারতবর্ষের বাইরে গিয়েছিল। কিন্তু সেই বাইরের লোক তাকে স্বীকার করেছে। তিব্বত মঙ্গোলিয়া মালয়দ্বীপসকলে ভারতবর্ষ জ্ঞানধর্ম বিস্তার করেছিল, মানুষের সঙ্গে মানুষের আন্তরিক সত্যসম্বন্ধের পথ দিয়ে। ভারতবর্ষের সেই সর্বত্র-প্রবেশের ইতিহাসের চিহ্ন দেখবার জন্যে আজ আমরা তীর্থযাত্রা করেছি। সেই সঙ্গে এই কথাও দেখবার আছে, সেদিনকার ভারতবর্ষের বাণী শুষ্কতা প্রচার করে নি। মানুষের ভিতরকার ঐশ্বর্যকে সকল দিকে উদ্‌‌বোধিত করেছিল,—স্থাপত্যে ভাস্কর্যে চিত্রে সংগীতে সাহিত্যে। তারই চিহ্ন মরুভূমে অরণ্যে পর্বতে দ্বীপে দ্বীপান্তরে, দুর্গম স্থানে, দুঃসাধ্য কল্পনায়। সন্ন্যাসীর যে-মন্ত্র মানুষকে রিক্ত করে নগ্ন করে, মানুষের যৌবনকে পঙ্গু করে, মানবচিত্তবৃত্তিকে নানাদিকে খর্ব করে, এ সে মন্ত্র নয়। এ জরাজীর্ণ কৃশপ্রাণ বৃদ্ধের বাণী নয়, এর মধ্যে পরিপূর্ণপ্রাণ বীর্যবান যৌবনের প্রভাব।

Through what Truth has Europe has touched all places and all times? That Truth is her Science. Her Science, which has occupied all the domains of Knowledge and thence won in all the domains of Action, is an enormous power. In this way, there is no end to her Wanting, and her Getting is in the same proportion. Last year when returning from Europe I became acquainted with a young man from Germany. He was coming to India with his young wife. For two years, he would be spending time amongst the tribes who live unknown to the outside world in the forests of Central India, and look in every nook and cranny of their customs. To this end, the couple are not shy to risk their lives. Man must learn more about Man, that learning does not stop at the boundary of barbarian tribes. To organize and learn all that can be learnt, to encircle and collect, to free minds from all other infatuations in the pusuit of Knowledge -- when one goes to Europe one realizes how enormous Man has become in being able to do these. Through this power Europe has made the World into a World of Man. If we were to be able to visualize the Power that has been applied to remove all the obstacles that confront Man, we would be overwhelmed by the enormity of that Manifestation.

In this aspect the light that Europe shines is enormous, something that every Man can be proud of; but there is another aspect in which Europe's light is occluded. The Upanishads say - The Seekers who have Found, enter the all-encompassing Truth in an union of the soul with Everything. Truth goes everywhere, in so going lets Man the right to enter thence. Science has let Man into World-Nature, but today in Europe there is the lack of a Truth that hinders Man enter inside Man. From the standpoint of Interiority, Europe has become an world-encompassing menace to Man. And in this she is a menace too, to herself ... If Man becomes extinct from this world, he will become so because he knew the Truth, but not how to rightly use the Truth. He got the power of the Gods, not Godliness. In the present age the power of the Gods has appeared in Europe; but did that power appear only to the end of taking human lives? In the last war, this question arose in a frightening form. Outside Europe, Europe has become a horror, the proof of this today lies all across Asia and Africa. Europe has not come amongst us with her Science, she has come with her Desire. Thus, Europe's entry into Asia's heart is blocked.

You may ask why all these questions came to my mind before embarking for Java. The reason is, India's learning had in one age gone outside India. And that learning was accepted by the peoples outside. In Tibet, in Mongolia, in the islands of Malaya -- India had spread the Dharma of Knowledge, through a path of heartfelt connection of Man and Man and Truth. Today we are embarking on a pilgrimage to see the signs of the history of that all-enveloping entry of India. And, at the same time, it is to be seen that the Idea India propagated in that day was not one of barrenness. India had inspired the inner bounty of Man -- in architecture, sculpture, art, music and literature. The signs of that inspiration remain in deserts, in forests, in mountains, in island upon far-flung island, in remote places and in impossible imaginings. This inspiration was not the ascetic's mantra that empties Man and strips him naked; that cripples his Youth, that diminishes in many ways his natural self and wishfulness. This was not a message of an age-worn shrunken-hearted old man, in this message was the influence of a tremendous youthfulness, full of life and of virility.

Upon encountering the Inner Bounty of Man in Java, though, Tagore had to admit that he did not care for the architecture of Borobudur: it seemed to him to have no proportion or integral form, being merely a hodge-podge of Buddhist lore and iconography. He revised his initial aversion over the weeks and months; later, he was inspired to even write a poem titled “Borobudur”.

In the poem (Bengali original here), he starts:

That dawn, too, the sun had risen thus in the sky --
The forest murmured in greeting below.
Craving a touch of the blue mist, above
The mountains had seemed an image dreamt by the earth.

At the edge of the coconut woods, some king
meditative-eyed, had sat alone
Exuberant had arisen an endless desire, his own
prayer mantra to send to the end of all time.
From what courage had this wish come?

He continues (I paraphrase): Blending with the surrounding forests and farmland -- a great text inscribed in the stone -- to be read with joy by all people in all ages. The island holds the inscription to its heart, the mountain raises it to the skies, the farmer sows and reaps rice by the river. Through all the changes in the world and through the shadow-play of time, the text in stone sounds the same mantra: “I thus take resort to the Buddha”.

Today, uncomprehending hordes come to trample up and down the stone. Greedy, seeking only to possess, always dissatisfied, hearts withered with pride -- they come, pointlessly, only to watch and to take, their hands empty of offering. The earth trembles beneath the joyless rush of their ever-speeding desire, their headlong hunt for the trophy, across this road and that, ultimately reaching nowhere, the flame of their all-devouring hunger demanding as sacrificial offering infinite accomplishment and endless accumulation. The day will come when the only way to become free again will be to come back in humble pilgrimage to this bank of silent stone, and raise to the heavens across the span of endless time that same undying mantra of love: "I thus take resort to the Budhha."