Paper on Sacred Wells and Shopping Malls in Indonesia, by Stephen Headley

Of Sacred Wells and Shopping Malls:

Glimpses of the Reconstruction of Social Confidence

 in Solo after Soeharto

Stephen C. Headley (Erasme, CNRS, Paris)

“L’individu est une valeur, ou plutôt fait partie d’une configuration des valeurs sui generis.”

[Louis Dumont 1979:23]

You can download the full text by clicking here: Reconstruction of Social Confidence Wells & Malls

It will be many years before historians, economists and other social scientists have a clear perspective on the changes wrought in Indonesia by the fall of General Soeharto’s regime in 1998. Javanese wayang, a highly “traditional” art form might be expected to evolve more slowly than other social indicators, artistic or otherwise, in reaction to such political upheaval. However, the very nature of wayang theatre, the nature of any living “tradition”, is indeed to evolve within its own structures. For once “tradition” becomes a completely static and immovable entity, it is in textbooks and museums, but not in the streets in tense times of rapid social change. Within wayang, the purification, or ruwatan genre, occupies a receptive place for change. For how can one claim to purify unless one heals today’s ills? The agency of wayang during exorcisms addresses the current needs of the local populace, but how does it do so? More specifically how can it address such all-encompassing social crises as the fall of the New Order regime?

The fall of General Soeharto created many new social currents in the later half of 1998 and during 1999. The social reconstruction of confidence, required for society to go on, took many forms. Local neighborhood committees in the town of Surakarta, as in many other places, were mobilised to protect the neighbourhoods (kampung) at night and help the poorest to get by through aid in kind and money[1]. The major Muslim movements increased their stress on religious tolerance and could be called upon to protect churches threatened with being burned down.[2] After the fall of Soeharto in May 1998, the status of the state was in question due to the daily lack of order and confidence. For instance, no one in Solo believed that the police were really police, just cowards and profiteers. The police, knowing they had lost their authority, kept a low profile. During the course of thirty lengthy interviews with Solonese of all walks of life in January and February, 1999, I heard described various types of efforts at the social reconstruction of confidence that had occured after May 1998: new labour unions, aid associations (panguyuban), NGO legal aid networks, and peddlers’ cooperatives.

Eldar Braten[3] has asked what relationship exists in Java between contemporary experience and cultural representation. Against the backdrop of rapid social change, we are asking how did wayang react? More precisely, one month or six months after the events of May ’98, did cultural representations in Solo reflect public experience? Many things changed in the Javanese way of being in the world in 1998-99. Obviously that had to be true on a personal level, but were there changes on the social plane as well?

Collective experience had always been reflected in ritual and theatrical discourse. In the purification rites I studied between 1983-1993[4], the dhalang always included in his monologues and dialogues references to the persons purified and their place of habitation, family background etc. The 1996 ecologically-oriented, “installation-art” earth purifications (ruwatan bumi) as well as the farcical imitations by live actors of political figures resonated with the concerns surrounding current events[5]. Commenting on the recent debacle of Soeharto, Ward Keeler (ch.?:23) stressed that not only the Javanese dhalang, but also his sponsors and fans would be likely to take wayang in new directions in the coming years. Yet during second half of 1998 theatre often illustrated a tendency which Hatley[6] describes:

“If performances of traditional theatre genre …celebrate the world as it is, modern theatre typically interrogates and problematises from a distance.”

Indeed, contesting the Soeharto regime had not been a major feature of traditional Javanese theatre, but of other more innovative theatrical genres. But once the regime fell, wayang, with its epic metaphors and tropes, set to work on the new situation, that is to say post-Soeharto Indonesia.

What it meant to be Solonese was being reviewed in the wake of the “war”, as the inhabitants often called the chaos that had devastated their town. The issue of who organised the riots has never really been clarified, but it was clear that the impoverished population had not been hard to provoke, and that outside criminal elements had been employed by elements in the army “loyal” to Soeharto to destroy the city. This pattern was avoided in extremis in Yogyakarta at the same period by a remarkable alliance of the court, the population and the universities.

During the night of 6 February 1999 I attended a purification (ruwatan) of a Solonese shopping plaza, followed by the performance of the wayang Pandhawa Timbul (the Appearance of the Pandava) by Ki Dhalang Manteb Sudarsono. That evening ritual is compared with the offering of a wayang play,Wahyu Kamulyan (The Revelation of Glory) by the dhalang Ki Warseno Slenk at another purification ritual, this time at the well of Mbah Meyek in the nearby neighbourhood of Bibis Kulon[7]. The latter took place on 11 June 1998, after having been delayed a month by the May riots in Solo and the collapse of the Soeharto regime.

During a shadow puppet theatre, the dialogue (ginem) between a wizen old mother (Cangik) and her plump and slow daughter (Limbuk) deal with many topical issues. The final chapter of Jan Mrazek’s dissertation[8] has demonstrated the importance of these limbukan exchanges for understanding the place of wayang theatre in the social debates of the late 1990’s. Day’s discussion here(ch.?) of the  treatment of hybrid identities in East Java wayang also encouraged me to scrutinise the ritual accompanying the play and the dialogues of Limbuk and Cangik in these two Solonese wayang performances for glimpses of the social reconstruction of confidence in central Java.

Both theatrical events described below contained a distinct ritual dimension. They also both provided ample opportunity for the dhalang to comment on events. The village well purification was an annual event that never before had occured in such an atmosphere coloured as it was by the recent riots. When village well purification was celebrated the city was still a series of burnt out ruins. The burnt-out shopping mall purification which took place eight months later occured next to a cleaned up, but not rebuilt building. The Bètèng plaza purification was a direct result of the rioting which took place in Solo seven days before Soeharto’s fall. The parallel dimensions in the two performances, one in an urban village and another in a shopping mall just north-east of the main Solo palace, across the street from the eighteenth-century Dutch fort, suggested that a comparison should include at least two levels, the ritual and dialogic. The longed-necked, scrawny peasant Cangik and her plump indecisive daughter Limbuk could not ignore the recent events which encroached massively on every aspect of Solonese life. I have chosen to present the village purification after the shopping mall purification. The village ruwatan presented neighbourhood bonds and social linkage with home which the “non-lieu” of a shopping mall can’t claim to possess. On the other hand, the shopping mall ritual united the Bètèng plaza merchants with mutual economic interests far greater than that those between the villagers of Bibis Kulon. How purification (ruwatan), the communal ritual meal (slametan) and wayang theatre relate aspects social morphology and facilitate the exchange of values will be taken up in the conclusion.


[1]– Hari Mulyadi, Soedarmono and a team of researchers belonging to the Lembaga Pengembangan Teknologi Pedasan (LPTP) produced in 1999 a 659 page book entitled, Runtuhnya Kekuasaan “Kraton Alit” (Studi Radikalisasi Social “Wong Solo” dan Kerusuhan Mei 1989 di Surakarta) [The Collapse of the Reign of the “Small Palace”. A Study of the Social Radicalisation of the Solonese populace and the Riots of May 1998 in Surakarta.] The title does not give justice to the breadth of economic, social and political analysis. It is as if after more than thirty years of stultifying demagogy, the social lens of the Solonese suddenly focused on the realities that previously had been taboo and social scientists suddenly saw their whole history, and not just the last thirty years, brought into focus. The urban history and the ethnic relations that were weaved into that history, just as the radicalisation of the population, are seen in the persepctive of the whole twentieth century political and economic developments. The state violence against citizenry, and the clashes between social classes against, are not ignored. As many social facets of the aftermath as possible were taken into consideration: from the “national” purification ritual (ruwatan) held by the Brayat Ageng Masyarakat Surakarta on the 23rd of July 1998 (1999:553-555) to the numerous  ” marché aux puces” (pasar klitikan) that grew up after the looting of the city. This attempt of a description of the total social fact  in a regional, here urban, monograph is especially welcome.

[2]– Interview with the head (ketua) of the Solo branch of the Nadhatul Ulama (2 February, 1999), H. M. Dian Haji. Few foreign observers, reading about the provoked and unprovoked outbreak of inter ethnic and religious violence in Indonesiain 1998 -99, have been able to integrate into their  vision, an Indonesia seeking better relations between Christians and Muslims. Robert Hefner’s Civil Islam (Princeton University Press, Princeton,2000)is an important exception to this failure.

[3]– Eldar Braten “Recapturing “Java”: a call for a Javanese Anthropology”. unpublished ms. pp, .9-10.

[4]– Cf. S. C. Headley, Cosmogeny and Exorcism in a Javanese Genesis. The Spilt Seed, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2000.

[5]– Cf. The Surabaya Post April 6th. 1998 article describes a provisional schedule of performances including “seni instali”, performance art, ketoprak, comedies, danse theatre (jatilan), pantomine, and shaddow puppet theatre. The program began on Idul Adha (7 April 1999) and apparently only borrowed the term ruwatan to baptise ther sereis of assoicated performances. In the same vein an author claimed (Suara Merdeka 6 April 1998) for his exorcistic qualitiesSastra Tegalan. The idea that one needs to purify the kingdom (or nation) during times of disorder is a very old one already present in the Panji corpus some four hundred years ago.

[6]–  Barbara Hatley, “Cultural Expression and social transformation in Indonesia” p. 268 in  Arief Budiman, Barbara Hatley and Damien Kingsbury, Reformasi. Crisis and change in Indonesia. Monash Asia Institute, Clayton, Australia 1999.

[7]– My understanding of the event in the village of Bibis Kulon is entirely second-hand and based on Sarwanto’s master’s thesis ( tesis S-2), Wayang Kulit Purwa Dalam Upacara Bersih Desa di Bibis Kulon, Surakarta. Gadjah Mada University,1999. This study included a transcription of the play.

[8]– reference   ???


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