How Java’s controversial female ruler grew into the job
Pembayun’s greatest concern was a conundrum that virtually no one addressed. It was clear-cut, really. Historically, the world over, all sultans, kings, rajahs, emperors, grand dukes, tsars and emirs enhance their power through a connection with a spiritual entity. Sultan Hamengkubuwono, the 10th in his line, ruled largely because his consort was Kanjeng Ratu Kidul, the mythical Queen of the Southern Ocean. According to legends familiar to every Javanese, Kanjeng Ratu Kidul had helped Senopati, an historic 16th-century prince, start the Mataram Dynasty, which includes the royal families in Yogyakarta and Solo (Surakarta). And Kanjeng Ratu Kidul had pledged to give her spiritual and supernatural support to Senopati’s descendants, which included, of course, Hamengkubuwono X and his successor.
The catch is this. As every school child knows, Kanjeng Ratu Kidul is, how shall we say this, all woman. According to every tale told about her, she likes men, she appreciates men, she inspires men, she manipulates men.
In a more philosophical analysis, one could argue that Kanjeng Ratu Kidul understands that the male/female relationship is not a dichotomy but merely two sides of a continuum. Because she had her origin in Animist and Hindu belief systems, Kanjeng Ratu Kidul represents the balance of forces, the cycles of life, which govern our existence on Earth. Male and female. Day and night. Sun and rain. Hunting and agriculture. War and peace. Exploration and settling-down. Risk-taking and family protection. And to this day, maintaining this type of male/female balance is one of the job descriptions of a Javanese king. He must mediate with nature to ensure that his farmers have sun, but not too much, adequate rain, but not flooding that destroys the crops, biodiversity but without a plague of locusts. Life is a constant swirl of contradictions, and maintaining the male/female balance in nature is essential if a sultan is to stay in power.
That’s the conundrum Pembayun faced. The Sultan of Yogyakarta gets his power from his relationship with the Queen of the Southern Ocean. What would happen if the sultan were actually a strong-willed woman? Would Kanjeng Ratu Kidul refuse to support Pembayun, thereby signaling the end of a centuries-old dynasty? Would Pembayun and the Queen of the Southern Ocean fight for power? Or would they get along like two head-strong sisters, sharing mystical duties and responsibilities, perhaps even makeup tips and recipes for gado-gado (roasted cashews replacing peanuts in the sauce was the hot idea of the moment)?
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And Kanjeng Ratu Kidul, the respected and feared Queen of the Southern Ocean? She is known, at least to my disrespectful friends, as the Mermaid Queen.
In one of many versions of the myth, a beautiful princess from the Padjajaran kingdom was chased out of her palace by an evil step-mother (yes, there are parallels to Cinderella and the Ramayana). In despair, the unfortunate young woman went to Java’s raging southern coast to kill herself. While she was performing the necessary pre-suicide rituals, a divine voice enticed her to chill out, enter the ocean and become reborn as a beautiful aquatic queen.
Meanwhile, Prince Senopati, a very real Javanese ruler, was trying to come to grips with his own emotional challenges. He, too, headed to the southern coast for prayer and contemplation. While sitting on a rock on the dramatic sea cliffs south of Yogyakarta, Senopati was lured into the ocean by the spirit who had become Kanjeng Ratu Kidul, the Queen of the Southern Ocean. During their three-day honeymoon bacchanal in her submerged palace, Kanjeng Ratu Kidul taught Senopati the secrets of love and the intricacies of good governance.
They exchanged vows, and Kanjeng Ratu Kidul promised to be the consort for all of Senopati’s descendants – most prominent being the royal lines of the Susuhunan (King) of Solo and the Sultan of Yogyakarta. All great kings benefit from a spiritual connection; in central Java, that divine guidance for the rulers is provided by Kanjeng Ratu Kidul. She protects the kings. She protects the sea. She protects Mount Merapi, Indonesia’s most sacred volcano, which lies just north of the Yogyakarta palace. It is said that a straight underwater/underground tunnel connects Kanjeng Ratu Kidul’s nautical palace with the sultan’s terrestrial palace in Yogyakarta and with the summit of Mount Merapi; some suggest this is the umbilical cord of the world. The tunnel is invisible and straight. It is accessible only to the Mermaid Queen and the sultan.
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Like other Asian mythological icons — like Ganesha, like the White Elephant, like Kuan Yin — Kanjeng Ratu Kidul is likely a compilation of cultural greatest hits. Historians (who enjoy scrambling for minutiae and esoteric clues in old manuscripts, crumbling temples and the hidden corners of their own imaginations) have theorized that Kanjeng Ratu Kidul might be related to the Tantric goddess Tara, to an animistic nature spirit, to a universal Earth Mother. Maybe all of the above.
Culturally, the Javanese are a nation of hoarders, and they hang on to dusty ideas and legends that just might, you never know, come in handy someday. Roy E. Jordaan studied the architecture, inscriptions and legends of Candi Kalasan, an eighth-century temple that is a short distance from Yogyakarta, and came up with the not-implausible idea that Kanjeng Ratu Kidul evolved from an animistic spirit, which evolved into the Hindu mother goddess Uma (or Parvati, or Durga, take your pick), who in turn morphed into the Green Tara of Tantric Buddhism. Like Green Tara, like Uma/Parvati/Durga, Kanjeng Ratu Kidul has a fearsome side and a benevolent side. (Some wags might suggest this indicates she is the ultimate female goddess, unable to make up her mind). And, like Green Tara, she changes form between an old hag and beautiful maiden based on the moon’s cycle. All of the members of this cosmological sorority have a relationship with the sea and with sacred Naga serpents, have a reputation as protector of navigators, and all share a protective fondness for the color green.
But these analyses are rarely clear-cut. We could be making this too complicated.
Kanjeng Ratu Kidul might be something simpler, a nature spirit given human form — in The Religion of Java, Clifford Geertz says Ratu Kidul is “perhaps Java’s most powerful single lelembut,” referring to her origin as an ethereal spirit. Or Kanjeng Ratu Kidul might be a marine counterpart, separated at birth perhaps, of her twin Dewi Sri, the Javanese rice goddess who is unremittingly terrestrial.
She could be none of these things. Or all of them. The point is that Javanese accumulate beliefs like a chef cooks a curry. A bit of animistic chili? Of course, throw it in. Some Hindu cardamom, nicely grilled and pounded? Can’t hurt. Some Buddhist turmeric, golden and subtle? Absolutely. Some Islamic prayers and Christian guilt? Sure, the more the yummier.
(To read Part 4, click here.)
Paul Spencer Sochaczewski is a Geneva-based writer who has lived and worked in more than 80 countries, including long stints in Southeast Asia. He has written 13 books; the latest, Exceptional Encounters: Enhanced Reality Tales from Southeast Asia, was published by Explorer’s Eye Press in late 2017. Paul’s next book will focus on his experiences with mediums, psychics and spirits, which seers predict will be published in early 2019. He can be contacted at www.sochaczewski.com.