Indonesian Rantau

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  • Chapter 2: Yogyakarta- "Of the Sacred and Profane in a Syncretic World"

     

    By John Michael Gorrindo

    Indonesian Rantau

    Chapter 2: Yogyakarta- “Of the Sacred and Profane in a Syncretic World

    In the fertile plains of central Java which gradually slope down south to the shores of the Java Sea lies Indonesia’s most fascinating city, Yogyakarta. Cradled in the shadow of Indonesia’s most dangerous volcanic giant, Mount Merapi, Yogyakarta is still home to a living sultanate and the worship of a syncretic type of universal religion.

    Yogyakarta- or simply “Yogya”- is situated in the geographical heart of Java, which is the world’s most densely populated island. Of Indonesia’s population of 240,000,000 spread over 17,000 islands, Java is home to more than one-half that total.  Yogya is a city of one-half million, surrounded by farmland.

    So, too, Yogyakarta occupies the cultural heart of Java, and if there was only one place a traveler had the time to visit in Indonesia, I would endorse Yogya without hesitation.  A relatively prosperous city and home to the arts, Yogya offers so much history, culture, art, archaeological wonders, and mystical intrigue that it is hard to know how to introduce such an embarrassment of riches.

    My travels in Indonesia had taught me one indelible reality- that religion was the most powerful hand at work in the life of the country.  Concomitant was the complexity of that religious life.  In a world now in the throws of religious revival and intensifying religious rivalries, Yogya sits like a monolithic glass onion rooted in the eye of a worldwide hurricane of sectarian difference.

    Peel away the layers of that onion, and the truth seeker shall be rewarded with a knowledge and insight that travel to a half-dozen religious Meccas around the world could only match.  Of the world’s dominant religions, only Christianity has not been of significant influence in the formation of Yogyakarta’s idiosyncratically syncretic religious nature and history.

    But Yogya is no icon of piety.  As tourism is a major industry, there are plenty of confidence men, pickpockets, a red-light district, and most interestingly, a “batik mafia” that lend a fibrous, seedy skin to that glass onion.  Yogya is a city whose self-importance would rather the visitor comes to appreciate and wonder at its religious veneer, but the life on its streets provides earthier dimensions compelling to the outsider.

    Yogyakarta provides the intellectually curious traveler with insight into what Indonesia used to be, currently is, and could eventually become.  It is one of the few places in Indonesia that can act as a sole prism through which an outsider can be exposed to the full bandwidth of colors that constitute the Indonesian heart and mind.

    Why Yogyakarta embraces so much historical, cultural, and religious importance is in part due to its origins.  Chronologically speaking, Yogya is a young city, having been founded only in the mid-eighteenth century.  Harvard University was already more than one hundred years old at that juncture in history.  In 1752, the dynastic royal named Mangkubumi had a falling out with his brother, Pakubuwono II, the last ruler of a dynasty of Javanese kings who ruled the Mataram Empire.  Mataram was the last ruling Javanese dynasty prior to the colonialist Dutch finally succeeding at creating an economic and political stranglehold over Java.  The Mataram seat was in present day Solo, a city in central Java which lies just northeast of Yogya.

    As the Dutch had neither the resources nor manpower to simply overwhelm their East Indies holdings with occupying forces, they depended upon political, military, and economic alliances with local power brokers to further their interests throughout Java and the rest of the archipelago.  The Dutch were deft at exploiting tensions between competing contenders for royal seats throughout their three hundred fifty year tenure in Indonesia, and so it was during the Third Javanese War of Succession the Dutch decided to lend aid to the desperate Mataram king, Pakubuwono II at the expense of his brother Mangkubumi, as the colonial power had much invested in their beneficial pact with Pakubuwono II.

    Mangukubumi’s ambition was to overthrow his brother and succeed him as ruler of Mataram.  The Dutch prevented this from occurring, but Mangukubumi was powerful enough to siphon a large group of dissenting followers away from the royal seat of Surakarta (Solo), move south close to the Java Sea, and establish his own rule.  Where he and his followers settled became the city of Yogyakarta.  The Mataram Empire had now been split in two, and never recovered its former predominance despite Mangkubumi’s efforts at reunification.

    Again, it was in the interest of the Dutch to support the legitimate indigenous royal courts throughout Java, as these power bases could be used as local agencies who could monitor the exploitation of peasant labor and Java’s natural resources, then manage the transport of mainly agricultural products (such as spices, coffee, and tobacco) to Dutch brokers in Java’s ports who in turn would reap tremendous profits by shipping the trade to Dutch ports from where the imported goods would be sold throughout continental Europe.
    Due to its power, Mangkubumi’s new court was granted official recognition by the Dutch in 1755, ensuring a peaceful interim in which Yogyakarta could grow and develop.  Mangkubumi declared himself Sultan, bestowing upon himself the title of Sultan Hamengkubuwono I (“He Who Holds the World in His Lap”).  So was born in 1755 the city and sultanate of Yogyakarta.  The sultanate survives today, and the current sultan is Hamengkubuwono X, who serves not only as sultan, but as Governor of the “Daerah Istimewa Yogyakarta” (Special Territory of Yogyakarta).  He is both religious and political leader of the region.

    Due to its origins, Yogyakarta, along with neighboring Solo, became the inheritors of all cultural riches descending from the Mataram Empire.  The Mataram absorbed much of its cultural heritage as well from the north Javanese empire that preceded it- the Majapahit.  The Majapahit practiced a form of Hinduism, and their empire was squeezed out of Java by the growing influence of Islam in the fifteenth, self-exiling to Bali.

    The Mataram Empire, though Islamic, respected and valued the high arts and rich religious traditions cultivated by the Majapahit and incorporated much of it into their own civilization.  In turn, the Majapahit had drawn upon both Indian and Buddhist legacies of the earlier Sanjaya and Saliendra dynasties, respectively, who constructed the fantastic Borobudur and Prambanan temples in central Java during the eighth and ninth centuries.  Borobudur lays claim as the world’s largest Buddhist temple, and Prambanan as the most important Hindu religious site in all of Indonesia.  Both temple complexes are located very close to Yogyakarta.

    Consequently, Yogyakarta became the repository of over twelve hundred years of Javanese culture, a meld of not only Islamic, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions, but also of  prehistoric animist ways as practiced by a variety of Javanese ethnic groups who worshiped their ancestors and pay regular homage to local spirits.

    Within the compound walls of the Hamengkubuwono’s palace, called the Kraton, not only artifacts of all these influences but their palpable aura can be experienced. Situated in the center of Yogyakarta, the Kraton is not just a museum, holy shrine, or primary residence of the current sultan, but a walled compound housing a vibrant community of 11,000 people and cultural home to gamelan music performances, shadow puppet shows, classical Javanese dance, batik makers, and puppet craftsman.  There are also art schools there which teach all of these artistic traditions and ensure their perpetuity.

    The Kraton is an unostentatious walled palace, and its architectural grandeur is not commensurate with its singular cultural treasury.  I have visited the Kraton on two separate trips to Yogyakarta, one in 2004 and the most recent in 2005.  During my last visit, I toured the Taman Sari, or Sultan’s Water Garden, which occupies only one small corner of the Kraton palace.  What I saw on my way there on my walk from a local hotel to the Kraton was of equal interest.
    It happened to be August 17th, which is Indonesia’s Independence Day, and 2005 marked the Indonesian republic’s 60th birthday. 

    I ambled down Yogya’s commercial strip, Jalan Malioboro, on my way to a ceremony to be held at the old Presidential Palace, as Yogyakarta was the republic’s first political capital.  A growing group of people pressed in against the palace gates, watching the ceremonial raising of the red and white Indonesian flag.  Ranks of soldiers representing the various armed forces stood at attention in military dress holding rifles aloft, attention riveted to the twenty meter tall flag pole planted in the heart of an expansive lawn carpeting the grounds in front of the palace.  Indonesian school children, dressed in red pants or skirts, and wearing white shirts or blouses, marched in rank and file away from the palace and towards the flag pole across the lawn, led in front by two goose-stepping teenagers- one boy and one girl- the girl carefully carrying upon her open palms and out-stretched arms the folded Indonesian flag.  A military band filled the air with martial pomp while the two teenagers commenced the ritual raising of the flag. 

    I happened to have my binoculars with me, and spied upon the large group of dignitaries who were seated along the broad portico lined with classical Greek columns that formed the architectural face and entrance to the palace itself.  The sober faced generals and other military high command sat stiffly in high backed ornately embroidered chairs next to their wives whose faces were powdered white; lips emblazed iridescent red; eyes adorned in liner and mascara; and piled hair sprayed carefully in place.  The elite group sat motionless under the portico, resembling sitting statuary frozen in time and place.

    Meanwhile, I was surrounded outside the gates and street side to Malioboro by hundreds of locals, mainly groups of families. Children played with Independence Day party makers- pinwheels, exploder tubes full of graffiti, and noisemakers.  After taking several photos, I continued south along this main drag to the corner of Jalan A.Yani and Jalan Senopati, where a group of colonial era buildings are clustered.

    On one corner stood a mammoth government-built, bronze-cast monstrosity, “The March First Monument,” whose center piece contains statues of four soldiers set atop a tall plinth marching behind their commander, Colonel Suharto who holds forth a giant, rippling flag of the republic.  Behind this heroic-style monument design towers an expansively wide, towering wall, elevated above the statues with carved inscription memorializing the six hours it took to recapture Yogyakarta from the Dutch in 1949.  After three hundred fifty years, the Dutch were finally sent home packing from Java.

    The memorial was of little interest, but what I saw in front of its iron gates was. Two Indonesian boys, no more that twelve or fourteen, lay sleeping next to each other on top of the sidewalk in front of the monument’s gates- their heads flush against the foot of the tall, black wrought iron members that secured the entrance into the monument’s interior.  I surmised they must be homeless, but I couldn’t be sure.  It was as if they had tried to gain entrance through the gates sometime late the night before, and grabbing hold of the gates’ bars in futility, eventually succumbed to exhaustion, sliding down the iron bars until they slumped to the ground, finally giving way to sleep on the gray concrete.

    They were dead asleep and lost unto the world.  I had never seen two human beings so deep in sleep.  As Independence Day warmed into the sun of the advancing morning, the youths were asleep for a most celebratory festivity, but were cast away into unconscious worlds, like misbegotten waifs of the republic.  I stopped at their feet, took their sleeping bodies in to mind for a moment, and took their photographs.
    I pressed on to the Kraton, crossing the “Alun-alun Utara” at Malioboro‘s end.  The Alun-alun is a hundred meter square grassy field that has always served as a town square.  Hundreds of people were gathered, along with food carts waiting to serve them.  Banners and fences had been erected, and everyone awaited an activity whose nature I couldn’t divine.  Walking briskly across the square, I arrived at the Kraton’s north gates. 

    Before walking away from Alun-alun Utara, I gazed back at the seemingly carefree masses of Indonesians crowded together in the square, standing in tightly clustered throngs waiting for the commencement of some festive event.  Indonesians could patiently wait for hours, no matter the reason.  The scheduled event was probably running late.  This was true to Indonesia, a country that seemed to disdain punctuality.  Such a situation is referred to as “jam keret;” literally translated as “rubber time.”  If Indonesia had a national pastime, it was waiting.  I mused if Samuel Becket had ever visited Indonesia.

     I was approached by a most helpful man, asking me if I needed help.  I looked away from him for a moment, and noticed a score of scattered people, living under tarps tied on one side to the iron bars of the Kraton’s northern gates, and suspended out over make-shift frames to protect these homeless people from the elements.  They were surrounded by crumpled clothing, bedding, and dirty dishes.

    “The Kraton is mostly closed today, but you can gain entrance into the city compound if you walk down this way.”  He turned and pointed towards the street that formed the western boundary of the greater Kraton city compound.  I thanked him and moved on.  The heat and humidity was increasing by the minute.

    Ten minutes of walking delivered me to the west portal of the Kraton city compound.  Some 11,600 people lived within its walls- all “subjects” of the sultan.  Their pledged allegiance to the sultan was reminiscent of feudal loyalty, and as they were his subjects, the sultan, both a religious and father figure, was responsible for them.  The requirement was that of each family occupying a residence within the compound; at least one member had to be under the employ of the sultan.  The legions of his workers numbered between two and three thousand.
    Just as I crossed through a giant archway into the Kraton grounds, an English-speaking palace guide named Andre hailed me.  Assuring me there was no fee involved; he offered to guide me through the residential city and to the “Taman Sari” (Water Palace), the only tourist object within the Kraton open on this holiday.  I smelled ulterior motives, for no service is truly free in Indonesia, but I was game.

    Our first stop was at a beautiful pendopo-style pavilion which was attached to a large residence which had been constructed by “two sultans-past” for his many daughters.  Steps led up to the elevated, polished stone pavilion’s landing, a great expanse of gleaming floor upon which at least two scores of ornately carved wooden support columns stood in rank and file, holding aloft the pendopo’s roof.  The ceiling was also rich in hand painted, ornamental carving.

    The interest lie not so much in the pavilion, as the main palace offered several other more grand examples.  It was the statuary in front of the pavilion that caught my attention.  As a group of five statues, this small collection of statuary better informed the visitor as to the syncretic nature of Central Javanese religion than any other sight I had yet experienced in Yogyakarta. 

    The four statues were of stone and bronze.  As the viewer faced the pavilion, the smallest statue was on the far left.  It was a sculpture of a Javanese God of Security, or warrior sentinel.  Sculpted from black, volcanic stone, the warrior was squat, bearded, helmeted, with dagger held upright by a clenched right fist held close at his side.  He was an iconic figure of ancient Javanese religion whose presence provided protection for the pendopo.

    To the sentinel’s right was a tall, bronzed Chinese “fat man,” with rounded bare belly, bald head, long mustache, and beneficent half-smile.  He held a pointed finger aloft as if making a philosophical point. The “fat man” is a Buddhist archetype, and symbolic of wisdom.  Next to this Buddhist statue was the centerpiece, another bronzed statue of Sinta, the wife of Rama, whose tragic story is dramatically told in the Hindu epic, the “Ramayana.”  She is a beautiful and self-sacrificial figure of Hindu mythology, and this statue has her standing atop a cow, wearing a queenly crown and possessing four arms- two of which are crossed and pressed against her heart, a third holding a long arrow, and the fourth a lit torch.  Sinta is symbolic of unconditional love, purity and devotion. 

    The last of the four statues was again carved from black volcanic stone, and featured the Hindu goddess, Shiva, the “dissolver,” who sits with legs draped around the neck of her cosmic transport, the fabled Garuda, or Javanese eagle, which is Indonesia’s national bird.

    Embodied in this statuary were the major tributaries of pre-Islamic religious influence that helped create the syncretic nature of Central Javanese religion.  Another example, and on a much grander scale, is the design of the Kraton itself, which is a scale model of the Hindu cosmos.  Every building and courtyard- including the landscape- is representative of a distinct element in that cosmos.

    But the sultan does proclaim first and foremost to be Muslim.  Many Arabic inscriptions can be found in the Kraton, including the Koran’s most seminal piece of scripture, “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet,” which is found inscribed on most of the ornate ceilings of the many pendopo-style pavilions found throughout the Kraton.   Still, the Kraton’s grandest pavilion, the “Golden Throne,” is designed to represent Mount Meru, Hinduism’s sacred mountain that lies at the center of the universe.
    Jerusalem may be the sacred city where can be found some of the holiest relics and sites of the three Abrahamian religions, but they exist as separate entities and are not in concordance.  In the Kraton, a melding of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and animism live in balanced harmony.  In a world ever suffering from religious strife whose tensions are so great that nuclear war could eventually result, a pilgrimage to the Kraton might provide a moment’s revelation and cause for hope.  Yogyakarta’s unique form of Islam is rightfully termed “syncretic”- an elaborate and complex layering of multiple religions in actuality. 

    As Islam swept across Java over several hundred years time, the adoption of the faith by the powers that be were added to the glass onion of Javanese spirituality.  Javanese Islam is often characterized as an amalgamation, and new articles of faith tend to become incorporated into the preexisting “body religion” rather than replacing older articles of faith.  Islam as practiced in Indonesia is a breed apart from what is found in the Middle East.

    But as noted, Yogyakarta provides for earthly delights as well, and this is reflected in the Kraton.  My guide Andre led me next to the Kraton’s Taman Sari (Water Garden).  A reconstruction of the original and only recently opened to the public; the Water Garden’s original function helps to “flesh-out” the predilections of lifestyle as practiced by Yogyakarta’s early sultans. Walking through a series of courtyards and breeze ways the visitor comes upon large, enclosed bathing pool fed by fountains, with a phallus-like three story tower erected and attached to one end.  Though the Koran limits a man to four wives, the early sultans of Yogya overlooked this proscription.  When the sultan “felt the urge” or need to increase his harem, he would arrange to have scores of women brought to the pool for a “swim.”  From the tower’s third story, he would perch himself, and through an open air window survey the bevy of bathing beauties below until one caught his fancy.  After informing his attendants of his choice, all the women save the chosen would be dismissed.  The sultan’s choice would then be escorted to the tower’s second story, which contained only a royal bedroom.  Consummation took place on a large bed in that second story love nest.  The tower’s first floor was devoted to the sultan’s dressing rooms.

    Hamengkubuwono I, the founding sultan, had a reputed forty-seven wives.  The second sultan was a tad more discreet, and settled on thirty-nine.  Hamengkubuwono III, though, was a man of unbounded sexual appetite, appropriating sixty-nine wives, and through them sired one hundred forty children.

    Today’s sultan, Hamengkubuwono X, is thoroughly modern.  He only wears royal garb when attending traditional ceremonies, and otherwise wears suits and ties and is found much of his time in the Governor’s mansion on Jalan Malioboro, tending to Yogyakarta’s civic affairs.  Moreover, he only has one wife and five daughters, but no son.  The big question is- who will be the eleventh sultan of Yogya?

    After an hour of cultivating my interest, it was time for Andre’s sales pitch.  Leading me out of the palace confines and down into the labyrinth of the walled city’s residential streets, he invited me into his house, whose front room was full of batiks of every size and color scheme; so, too, his bother’s “Wayang Golek” storefront which had on display over one hundred traditional handmade and painted Javanese wooden puppets.  Taken to a third stop-over, I was shown a demonstration of the lost wax technique of batik art.  Inside of this gallery were large, boldly modern works of batik, and one of the artists present openly agreed that surrealism and Salvador Dali had been major influences on his work.  

    “Every traditional art work crafted inside the Kraton compound must be endorsed as authentic by the sultan and should be sold with a certificate of authenticity apparently signed by the sultan himself,” Andre assured me.  “Don’t trust what you see in the shops outside of the Kraton,” he cautioned.  “They will tell you they are government sponsored and non-profit.  For instance, many fraudulent dealers sell stamped batiks, not the real batik made from lost wax and hand painted.  These people are known as the Batik Mafia, and the sultan does what he can to avert them.  If cited, a deal will be forced to close shop but soon enough reappear somewhere else across town.  Beware of them.”

    But it was too late!  I stood mouth agape staring at Andre as just the day before I had been casually befriended by an affable, mild-mannered young Indonesian museum guide on the streets of Yogya who cultivated my interests, and directed me to a so-called “government sponsored batik center” whose mission was to promote the art of batik.  Their batik stock as presented as a modestly priced inventory of student work produced at Yogyakarta’s branch of ISI (art institute).  I had taken the bait, hook-line-and-sinker, putting down nearly 900,000 rupiah towards the purchase of five small-sized batiks which featured scenes of traditional life from several parts of the Indonesian archipelago.  They were a slick operation which demonstrated the batik process to visitors as students sat in the gallery making batiks using the lost wax technique.

    At this point great confusion arose, and I didn’t know who or what to believe.  I couldn’t distinguish a real batik from a fraud.  I was no folk art connoisseur.  The same would have to be said of Keris dealers who sell the curvy-bladed traditional daggers of Java.  There were plenty of those shops around Yogya as well.  A Keris Mafia?  Definitely bad karma on that score, as Kerises are sacred objects that should not be misrepresented. (An authentic dagger must be ritually cleansed periodically or they are bound to disappear and fly away from their undeserving owner and land in the lap of a more caring guardian.)

    For the lustful sultans of Yogyakarta’s past, the Water Garden provided Yogya’s ruler with a tempting choice of fleshy delight.  For the flesh cravers of Yogya’s present day, there are Jls. Jlagron Lor and Pasar Kembong, home to the city’s red light district.  Skirting the train station that is about a thirty minute walk north of the Kraton, the two streets merge, forming the northern boundary of the Sosrowijayan district, one of the two hotel districts in Yogya catering to the tourist trade.

    Spanning two or three blocks and sandwiched in between rather attractive hotel facades, internet outlets, run down warungs, travel agencies, and money changers are non-descript cement structures housing brothels, and long, narrow, unlit alleys that lead to decrepit clusters of tiny, dilapidated rooms where pimps and prostitutes lie in wait.  On either side of the corner of Jalan Jlagran Lor and Jalan Joyoregaran reside two sizeable hotels- the Hotel Kota and Hotel Pariwisata.  Kota translates as “city,” and pariwisata as “tourism,” or “tour.”

    My travel guide referred to the Sosrowijayan, or Jalan Sosro district as a “budget traveler’s Mecca,” and touted Hotel Kota as the best on the street; a “lovely hotel” with a “real colonial feel.”  I decided to give Hotel Kota a try.  What the guide didn’t mention was that Hotel Pariwisata, a massive three story building just across the street from Hotel Kota was the largest brothel in Yogyakarta.  Needless to say, the guide book didn’t list Hotel Pariwisata as a choice of accommodation.

    I hold no aversion to neither prostitution nor brothels unless they engage in human trafficking, plenty of which occurs in Indonesia. Having grown up at Lake Tahoe, near to Nevada’s original adult entertainment center of Reno, I had watched my father work in the casino industry for thirty years, and I was no stranger to the concept and reality of prostitution.
    Having said that, there is no doubt prostitution draws upon the same sources of human misery the world over. Nonetheless, the working girls of Jalan Jlagran Lor comported themselves with humor and affability, attributes rarely seen in their American counterparts.  There were tragic stories behind many of their lives, but most showed resilience in strength without projecting a cold jadedness and hard attitude.  This was something I saw and admired in many Indonesians, no matter their walk of life.

    I met many friendly working girls on my many strolls from the Hotel Kota to the internet outlet, a walk that took me through the heart of red light district.  The girls appeared to work under three different sets of conditions.  The free-lancers were often older women who hung out on the sidewalks, maybe lurked in the doorway of a bar or restaurant, and would often approach to engage in agreeable small talk, sometimes in English, before pitching their proposition.  They may be alone, or work in tandem with a friend as part of a support team. 

    A second group worked in-house; were provided a work space with bed and bath and split profits with the brothel’s owner.  In American terms, they were sub-contractors who instead of filing a 1099 form and paying self-employment taxes to the government would hand such monies over to the brothel’s owner.  Pimps were next to invisible in these arrangements, but surely security lie hidden but close by.  A girl might choose to venture off the premises to a client’s nearby hotel if the situation felt comfortable, but she was sure to send a text message by cell phone to the brothel’s owner or manager, informing them as such before she left and prior to her return.  This second group ranged in age, but none I saw seemed to be teenagers. 

    Hotel Pariwisata provided rooms for this second group of sex workers.  The girls would gather out front the hotel come nightfall when the poorly lit streets became black in darkness.  Some would stand while others sat on plastic chairs set close to food carts that were stationed on either corner of the hotel’s frontage. The hotel’s looming edifice provided a darkly foreboding and sinister backdrop, and as such was wholly uninviting. Clients were free to choose to spend an hour or the night with a girl in one of the hotel’s rooms, or invite the girl to another hotel. Sometimes the girls would call out as you passed by; other times, just stare.

    A much different feel was found in another brothel barely a minute’s walk down the street.  A short series of steps led down off the sidewalk and into a subterranean entrance, next to which was a window large enough to see some activity inside while passing by, but small enough and with a poor enough viewing angle to restrict seeing much more than the girls, management, or clients would desire.  There were tighter controls in this brothel.  Girls did not venture out onto the street, and only upon occasion did one see a resident lady of the night sitting on a bench positioned just across the entrance’s transom and hence visible from the street.  A girl might call out to you on the street from inside the building, but I never saw a girl walk in or out of the front entrance.  They were restricted to staying inside, and most likely accessed the building through a back entrance.  There as nothing apparently sinister about this brothel.  It exuded a humdrum, business-as-usual atmosphere instead. Upon purchasing a girl’s time, a small room was included, a small group of which lined each side of a short, narrow hall way.

    Then there was the third group.  These girls were younger and appeared held hostage; closely monitored and controlled by groups of men who periodically paced up and down the long, dark alleyways that led off the street down into what looked like a hell hole of cubicles set at the end of the alley’s cul-de-sac.  The girls could be seen at a distance from the street, but they were mute and motionless; sitting upon their room’s porch or inside on a chair or the bed as if posing for an artist or photographer but in a most lifeless fashion.  As one passed by the mouth of the alley, an arm might reach out and a hand touch your shoulder.  Startled, you would turn and look to see an Indonesian man’s tense and humorless face appear out of the night’s darkness.  Rushed bursts of broken English would follow, his nervous solicitations sounding more desperate than inviting. “Hey mister!  Looking for a girl?”  After I pulled away and removed myself a step or two, he would linger for a moment, and then melt back into the blackness of the alley.    

    If human trafficking was a factor along this strip, it was happening in these alley brothels.  Some may consider prostitution a form of slavery.  Many would say some form of enslavement is at the root of any type of flesh-peddling.  That may be true.  But to be physically held against one’s will, or trapped in indentured servitude is where I would draw the line and commence with defining human trafficking as it pertains to prostitution.  My instincts told me the alley brothels had crossed that line.

    My conversations with the girls of Yogyakarta revealed a set of motivational factors that are common to the life stories of many Indonesian prostitutes.  The older prostitutes I met in Yogya were often widowed or divorced.  Life can be brutally cut short by illness or accident in Indonesia.  Many young women turn to prostitution after their husbands die unnaturally young.  Death could be due to an untreated disease such as malaria; a disease otherwise curable if the family had the money to seek proper treatment.  In such a scenario, poverty is a death blow.  What often remain are orphans and a bereft widow who must somehow manage. Grandparents are not always able to help out financially.  A woman in this position will often turn to the streets, sometimes moving away from her hometown to practice her nightly rounds out of sight of her family and community she grew up in; sending money home to pay for her children’s food, clothing, and school fees (education is not free in Indonesia).  Some women cut themselves off completely from their past life, and abandon their families.  Still others commute between the world of work and the world of family, hiding the true nature of their work life from those at home.   This is a feasible ploy as many Indonesians are migrant workers, live away from home during the work week, and visit home on off-days. 
    Divorce can also foster the same kind of upheaval that can drive an Indonesian woman to the streets.  It is often physical abuse that ultimately drives a woman away, often for fear of their lives. The sad irony is that most Indonesians can only survive as functional parts of larger family cooperatives, and to be without a family is to perish.  Indonesian women driven into prostitution learn to find and become a part of another form of family protection. Their family becomes their coworkers and potentially their clients. A steady clientele offers potential for finding a new spouse.  Prostitution offered some real incentives besides money.

    Death and divorce are more than enough to make a young Indonesian woman turn to a life working on the streets.  Motivational factors as such define Indonesian prostitution as an enslavement resulting from those limited options affording survival.  These disadvantaged women suffer from both poverty and lack of education.  Many have no more than a sixth grade education. There is little to fall back on.

    Substance abuse is much less a factor in Yogyakarta, though ecstasy can easily be had. Some prostitutes drink, but most are Muslim, and consumption of alcohol is forbidden by the religion.  The draconian drugs laws in Indonesia also serve as deterrence. Unlike the modern day American prostitute, Indonesian working girls are much less likely to trade sex in order to satisfy drug cravings.  One stroke of bad luck can put an Indonesian woman on the streets of any Indonesian city, and she is much more likely trying to raise money to take care of herself and her children than feed a drug habit.

    I cannot vouch for every story I heard from the working girls on the streets of Yogyakarta. But they all sounded hauntingly similar.  And familiar as well.  The sociological studies I have read echo the same.

    The sacred statues and pendopos of the Kraton may reflect a special kind of religious history found nowhere else outside of Indonesia, but do not insure a future characterized by religious tolerance, nor automatically confer the encouragement to the sultan to live by an ancient, informed moral grace.  The sacred can be defiled as sure as religious art can only be a symbolic expression of the true invisible powers that Yogya’s artists have always attempted to make available to the senses. Conversely, as some would cite the prostitute’s trade to be in league with the profane does not necessarily cast the Indonesian “perempuan malam” into league with the devil.  She is most likely just trying to feed her children with whom she may not even be able to visit let alone live with.

    Every city has its sacred symbols and profane realities, but it is the nature of both to confuse and sometimes they can be misidentified as being their opposite.  This elusive game of identity swapping finds its own narrative in the intrigue of Yogyakarta.  Take your pick- the Water Gardens or Jalan Jlagran Lor.  The sacred and profane together make up a syncretic religion or their own.  The “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” takes on a special meaning in Yogya.  I cannot wait to make another visit.