The Swingers’ Guide To Islam
By Aubrey BelfordOctober 11, 2012
On a hill in the centre of Java, thousands of Muslims regularly turn up to a religious ritual with a surprising stipulation: to seek their fortunes, they abandon spouses, find strangers, and have sex with them.
Every 35 days, the Friday of the Gregorian calendar intersects with Pon, one of the five days of the ancient Javanese lunar calendar. Its eve is an auspicious date at Gunung Kemukus, a hilltop Islamic shrine in the centre of Java, Indonesia’s main island.
If she happens to be feeling down on her luck, it’s also the date when Sarimah, a thickset, 63-year-old widowed grandmother, makes her pilgrimage from the city of Solo. Finishing work at her small cart selling soup in one of the town’s markets, she powders her face, applies a shock of red lipstick, slips on a headscarf, and makes the hour-long journey to Gunung Kemukus.
Sarimah arrives at dusk, ascending a path of stone steps that passes under a scattered canopy of trees in Java’s hyper-real green, to the single grave believed to hold the legendary prince Pangeran Samodro and his stepmother, Nyai Ontrowulan. In the cramped room, Sarimah drops aromatic leaves in a brazier and moves over to the grave, sprinkling it with flowers. She kneels down, raises her hands in supplication and mutters to herself surahs from the holy Quran.
Sarimah gets up, and plants herself by the yellow stucco wall by the shrine’s entrance, and waits to complete the next part of the ritual.
It’s just before maghrib, the fourth of the five daily prayers required of all Muslims.
It’s time to find a stranger — and have sex with them.
This is when I run across Sarimah. I’ve been standing at the top of the stairs, trying in vain to find someone to talk to among the waves of pilgrims who ascend the hill, dump their shoes, and enter the shrine. Sarimah spots me, and waves me over.
“I’ll talk to you. It’s better to be honest,” she says, as I sit cross-legged on the floor across from her. “Being a hypocrite just makes it worse. I’m already sinning, why add another sin?”
Like the of thousands of pilgrims that have turned up this night to Gunung Kemukus, Sarimah is here to seek her fortune. According to local belief, the ritual here can guarantee success in business, usually for those at or near the bottom of the ladder – bus drivers, rice farmers, market stall traders and the like. Pilgrims mostly come from Indonesia’s Javanese-speaking core, but some travel days across the massive archipelago to get here.
But the ritual needs to be done right. First, prayers and offerings must be made at the grave of Pangeran Samodro and Nyai Ontrowulan. At some stage, pilgrims must wash themselves at either one or two of the sacred springs on the hill. Then they must find a sex partner who meets two conditions. First, your mate for the night must be of the opposite sex; and second, they cannot be your spouse. Many people believe the ritual only works if you return at seven consecutive, 35-day intervals, either the night before Friday intersects with Pon, or when it crosses with another Javanese day, Kliwon.
The way Sarimah puts it, life became hard when her husband died back in 2001, leaving her to support two daughters by moving from her hometown, Semarang, to Solo. Each time she comes here, she finds a new man by about midnight. Often, the men will hand her money afterwards. She doesn’t ask for it upfront, or haggle over the price – sometimes up to 200,000 rupiah, or about AUD20 – but she accepts it gladly, she says, even though accepting money might detract a little from the ritual’s spiritual power. At about 2am she heads home after bathing at one of the springs, bringing the water home in a plastic bottle to sprinkle over her stall, which buys her about three weeks of good business.
This time, Sarimah has arrived with three friends, all middle-aged women. One of them, a woman in a headscarf, had declined to talk to me earlier. I tell Sarimah, of her friend, “Dia masih malu” – meaning, “She’s still shy.” Sarimah corrects me. “Dia masih mau,” Sarimah says, laughing at her own wordplay. “She still wants it.”
I ask Sarimah if she’s found a partner. Not yet, she says, but she agrees to an interview later, after she’s found someone. She hands over her mobile phone number, so we can meet in a couple of hours.
Unless, she adds, I want to be the lucky guy.
IT GOES WITHOUT SAYING that there is a glaring contradiction in the fact that Gunung Kemukus, a mass ritual of adultery and sex, is going on in the middle of Java, the demographic heart of the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.
Of course, the ritual isn’t Islam as most would recognise it. Instead, it’s emblematic of Indonesia’s – and especially Java’s – syncretic mix of Islam with earlier Hindu, Buddhist and animist beliefs. But what is truly surprising is that even while Indonesia undergoes a steady shift towards more orthodox Islam, the ritual on Gunung Kemukus is exploding in popularity. It’s a quintessentially Indonesian contradiction.
Tracing the roots of the ritual at Gunung Kemukus involves dipping into the confused story of the fall of Majapahit, the last great Hindu-Buddhist empire of Java. At its height, Majapahit ruled vassals as far away as southern Thailand. But by the start of the 16th century, it had fallen apart and was being eclipsed by a plethora of small courts that were steadily adopting the new religion of Islam. The remainder of Majapahit’s court fled to the volcanic hills of eastern Java and Bali, where the old religion has carried on and evolved to today. Across Java, Islam spread unevenly. In some areas, a more orthodox form of the religion took hold; in other areas, a more pragmatic fusion was made with Java’s traditional beliefs, which are collectively known as kejawen.
All cultures are a blend of influences. But for the Javanese, a very cornerstone of their identity has been the ability to blend together contradictory ideas and belief systems that would leave other peoples hopelessly divided. It’s the kind of culture that will allow a ritual of adultery to exist alongside a moral code imported from the sparse deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. Nothing is black and white here.
According to one version of the local legend, Pangeran Samodro was a child born at the fall of Majapahit and raised in the court of Demak, a Muslim sultanate on Java’s north coast, says Floribertus Rahardi, an Indonesian writer who has studied the ritual. The young prince struck up an affair with his stepmother, Nyai Ontrowulan, and the two were forced to flee. They were staying on Gunung Kemukus when they were found out. “People believe that they committed incest in that place, but before they had finished having sex they were chased by the soldiers of Demak, killed, and buried together in the one hole,” Rahardi says. “From there, the word emerged that whoever can finish off their sex act will receive blessings from Nyai Ontrowulan.”
There’s no historical evidence that the two lovers ever existed, or if there are in fact bodies in the grave, Rahardi says. There are also radically differing accounts of the legend. Some believe Pangeran Samodro and Nyai Ontrowulan were Hindu, and not Muslim. In Sragen, the sleepy rural district that is home to Gunung Kemukus, the local government and religious authorities promote a G-rated version of the story, with the prince cast as a devoted proselytiser of Islam.
But what no one is doing is trying to shut the ritual down.
As recently as the 1980s, Gunung Kemukus was an almost entirely undeveloped hill marked by sacred dewadaru trees and the twisting roots of massive figs. At night, small groups of pilgrims would arrive and have sex mostly in the open, their anonymity protected by the dark. These days, electric lamps light up the hill, which is plied by scores of traders selling aphrodisiacs, food, novelties, miracle cures and kitchen appliances. The dewadaru are still there, but the trees are unhealthy, and share space with shacks offering drinks, karaoke, prostitutes and rooms for sex. There are multiple tolls to get in, and businesses are levied a daily charge. With between 6,000 and 8,000 pilgrims arriving on the busiest nights, according to official figures, it’s a big money spinner for the local community and the Sragen government.
At his house in Yogyakarta, about two hours away, Keontjoro Soeparno, a social psychologist from the city’s Gadjah Mada University, says he misses the old days. “It’s not as porn, as vulgar, as before,” he says, sitting in his garage with a neighbour, Wahyudi Herlan.
These days, prostitution is taking an increasing role in the ritual. By Koentjoro’s own reckoning, about half of the women who show up are commercial sex workers. Another 25 percent are “part-timers,” people like Sarimah who carry out the ritual but will accept money if it’s on offer.
The 1980s was when commercial sex workers, as well as other businesses, started moving into the area, Koentjoro says. It’s also when the local government decided to spread its own cleaned-up version of the ritual — while at the same time profiting from sex-seeking pilgrims.
“They’re getting payments, they’re clearly profiting from all of this. They’re hypocrites. Look at the entry fee,” he says. “They won’t admit there’s a sex ritual, but then they’re charging people to get in.”
Since the 1998 fall of the Suharto regime, religiously-minded authorities have cracked down on many legal red-light districts. Gunung Kemukus, on the other hand, has come to be seen as a safe place.
“There used to be no water in the rooms. So if I was to have sex in one of the rooms, there’s no water, no handkerchief, so it depends on what you bring. If you bring a tissue, use a tissue,” Koentjoro recalls of the old days, before Wahyudi cuts in, cackling.
“Bring a newspaper! Use a newspaper!”
Another neighbour, Abdul Hamid Sudrajat, drives his motorbike by, stops and joins in.
“You don’t mind if my story is filthy, right?” he asks, as he takes his place on a stool.
Abdul tells us of a visit back in 1987. Standing on one terraced level of the hill with a friend, he decided to relieve himself into the dark on the next level below.
“It turned out I was pissing on the back of someone who was having sex,” he says. “He had no idea it was piss, I think. He just thought it was somebody pouring out some water.”
ENTERING GUNUNG KEMUKUS in the early afternoon, it is clear just how lucrative the shrine has become. From a main road, local villagers levy a charge on every vehicle entering, and ojek – motorcycle taxis – wait for those without vehicles of their own. During the wet season, when water fills up the Kedung Ombo dam, boats ferry pilgrims across to the hill, which rises symmetrically over the water like an upturned cup of rice.
At the other side of the dam, pilgrims pay another 5,000 rupiah at a post belonging to the Sragen government’s tourism department, before ascending a road of banana trees and shacks that loops around to the top of the hill.
Here, the man in charge of collecting the money, Suyono, hands over a government pamphlet that describes what he says is the real legend of Pangeran Samodro. According to him, Pangeran Samodro was a prince and disciple of Sunan Kalijaga, one of the Wali Songo, or nine saints, credited with spreading Islam throughout the archipelago. The prince travelled Java preaching, before falling ill and dying near Gunung Kemukus.
When Pangeran Samodro’s stepmother – with whom he most emphatically was not having sex – heard of his death, she rushed to grave. As reached the base of the hill she received a vision from the prince, telling her to wash in one of the springs. As she ascended the hills, flowers began falling from her hair, and sprouted into rare dewadaru trees behind her. Reaching the grave, she fell down dead. Her body then disappeared – whether it was into the air, or absorbed into the grave, nobody knows.
Suyono is adamant that few people turn up at Gunung Kemukus for ritual adultery. Ninety percent are chaste pilgrims, he says. “The rooms are for people to rest in if they’ve been on long journeys,” he says. “These are places for staying the night, not at all for prostitution or people having affairs.”
The official concedes that the sex that does go on at the mountain offends some conservative Muslims in the big towns, but says the site is well protected. When word got out recently that a radical vigilante group, the Islamic Defenders Front, was going to conduct a raid from Solo, the police showed up in force to protect the hill. The shrine is too valuable to shut down, he says. “This is tourism. Every component, every element, every layer of society gets something out of tourism.”
All over the hill, the nod and wink of officialdom is blatant. At the grave, Hasto Pratomo works as the juru kunci, or ceremonial head. He is the eighth generation of his family to hold the job (there is also a separate juru kunci for each of the two springs). His version of the myth is similar to the government’s, although he concedes the prince and his stepmother may have been sleeping together. “Maybe there was a sexual relationship – I don’t know,” he says. “But what’s important was that her love for him was extraordinary.”
Hasto also admits most pilgrims come here for sex, and that this is a misinterpretation of the ritual. If they come to talk to him about the ritual, he sets them straight. But he takes a laissez faire attitude to the couples meeting each other just metres away from where he sits, or the dozens of prostitutes that lean against the wall of the shrine waiting for customers.
Even when Hasto does correct the pilgrims, he does it pretty gently. He recounts a story of a meeting with one man who got rich from having sex at Gunung Kemukus. “He tells me, ‘I came here with nothing, but I found a partner. I was a bus driver. The woman I was with was a vegetable seller. We came here for five years and I’ve had success. If you don’t believe me, come to my house. I have more than 20 minibuses. I got these with my lover – not my wife, but the wife of someone else. That’s the reality.’
“I replied to him: ‘Everything you got was because of yourself. If you’re convinced it’s because you had a lover here, go ahead. I won’t forbid it. If that’s what you believe, by all means.’”
Further up the hill, Trihardjatmo, the owner of one karaoke shack — where customers drink beer and ginseng spirits while singing with sex workers — cracks up when I mention a sign by the door from the local police that says alcohol and prostitution are forbidden. Trihardjatmo explains he’s a retired cop, and introduces me to one of his customers, Erry, a police intelligence sergeant in the city of Semarang. All the customers in the next room, it turns out, are police.
IN THE RITUAL ADULTERY of Gunung Kemukus, there are many ways to reach your goal. Some people arrive with the blessing of their spouses; others do it secretly. For some, paying for sex invalidates the ritual; for others, it’s just a shortcut. Everyone has a different idea of just how Islamic the whole thing is.
Mohammed Saputra, a 43-year-old clothing trader from Mantingan in East Java, is something of a purist. “I’m looking for the ladies” – he uses the English word – “with good intentions, not the ones looking for money,” he explains. “If their intention isn’t good, then they’re just here to seduce you. It’s only the genuine ones that are good for your business.”
Saputra says his wife doesn’t know he’s here, and that in two visits he hasn’t yet found a woman he fully trusts. This might be a self-serving statement; during a break in our interview I see him try, and fail, to pick up a younger woman beside us. But already he says he’s seen benefits from coming here: he recently bought a new house, a garden and some rice paddies.
“This is all Islam. There are those here who are only Muslims on their identity cards, but there are also people here who have been on the pilgrimage to Mecca, who come here to help out their business. Sure, adultery is against Islam but it’s no big deal if it’s to benefit your business.”
Near one food stall further down the hill, I come across Murni, who is clicking along in heels, a headscarf and a blue leopard skin dress. She looks drunk, or wasted on something at least. Murni is 46 and from the town of Jepara, as is her partner, Rosidi, 50. Both have been meeting each other here for a year. Rosidi has been coming behind his wife’s back, but Murni has the full blessing of her husband – although the two men still haven’t met.
Even though they’ve already completed the mandated seven consecutive meetings, they’re still meeting up, and seem to have formed some sort of attachment. Rosidi says he has gotten richer, but still wants more. “I haven’t reached my goals,” he says, before correcting himself. “Well, I have, but there’s still temptation.
“It’s always this isn’t enough, this isn’t enough. There’s no limit to it.”
Finally, on a bit of concrete wall near the shrine, I run into Sarimah again. I don’t recognise her at first – she’s changed her clothes.
“I just finished!” she exclaims gleefully.
It turns out Sarimah had already found herself a partner, Wagiyo, a rice farmer from Purwodadi, not so far away, who estimates he’s in his mid-sixties. Wagiyo isn’t very keen to meet at first, but he also seems a little smitten and, after some goading from Sarimah, he comes and sits down to talk. He opens up fairly quickly.
Wagiyo says this is his first visit to Gunung Kemukus. His wife died in 2007, and his joint business with family and friends selling rice and beans was flailing. “I heard from a friend that if you came here you’d get your fortune, so I thought I’d try it out,” he says.
Wagiyo was approached by two younger women who offered themselves in exchange for money before he spotted Sarimah. “He sat down and then he came over closer to me,” Sarimah recalls. “He asked me where I was from. ‘Semarang,’ I said.”
“He said: ‘Purwodadi.’ Yeah, that’s it, it was on.”
The two went together to one of the small rooms for rent on the hill. Afterwards, Wagiyo slipped Sarimah 100,000 rupiah and bought her a cup of tea. He asked her to come back home and live with him on his farm. Sarimah’s not so sure about this. In a moment when Wagiyo isn’t paying attention, she says she doubts his wife is really dead, and, miming her own throat being slit, says she’s afraid of the fracas that would take place if the two ever met.
Whether the two will meet again or not seems to be an open question.
Since he seems taken with Sarimah, I ask Wagiyo if he’ll be back in 35 days.
It all depends if God wills it, he says, and if Sarimah is keen to meet again, too.