Pilgrims to the Centre of the Earth

They were all waiting for the same thing. When a squawking chicken tumbled over the volcano's rim into their line of sight, nets moved in unison trying to predict the hapless fowl's trajectory. Only one villager might have enough luck to bag the bird, while others can only wait for more to come. It's not only chickens that fall into the smokey, gaping mouth of Mount Bromo, located in Indonesia's East Java. Fruit, rice and money are some other objects that net-wielders in the volcano might find themselves trying to catch. The source of these items is a crowd of ethnic Tengger worshippers perched on the narrow crater lip, performing a sacrifice ritual as part of the Yadnya Kasada festivities. 

Sacrifices To A God

Held on the fourteenth day of the Kasada month in the Javanese calendar, Yadnya Kasada is the most significant festival for the Tengger people, an ethnic minority in East Java. On this day, Tenggerese from all over East Java make a long trek to ascend the isolated Mount Bromo and make offerings to Ida Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa ("Big Almighty Lord") and their ancestors.

Food and livestock are thrown by worshippers into the volcano's crater, in hope that blessings of safety and prosperity may be received for their families and communities. During this ritual, some people make their way into the crater in order to try and collect these offerings. While many of these scavengers can be non-Tenggerese, some worshippers believe that taking such offerings home will bring good luck, too.

With a population of roughly 90,000 that is concentrated in some thirty villages surrounding Mount Bromo, the Tengger people are Java's second-smallest ethnic group. Although most Tenggerese are farmers, some are part of the tourism industry, providing accommodation and guiding services to those visiting the volcano. Tenggerese worship of Ida Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa is similar to the practice of Balinese Hindus.

As this implies, Hinduism is the dominant religion within most – if not all – Tengger communities. While Buddhism and animism have also influenced the Tenggerese faith, these people are staunchly loyal to their religious roots and attempts by Christian and Islam missionaries to convert the Tengger people were all met with little success.

It is not only chickens, but goats, fruit, rice and money that are thrown in for good luck. © Agung Parameswara

Heirs of a Great Kingdom

The fondness that Tengger people have for their religion is an extension of the pride that they have in their ancestral heritage. Tenggerese believe that they are direct descendants of the Majapahit empire, which was one of the greatest empires in Southeast Asian history. Lasting from 1293–1527, this Hindu-Buddhist kingdom unified much of the territories that comprise modern Indonesia, and its influences on Javan culture and Indonesian architecture have lasted even until today.

It was in the waning years of the Majapahit empire that the Tengger people established themselves. As Islam spread throughout the region and the Sultanate of Malacca’s power grew, Hindu communities found themselves retreating to the island of Bali as well as the Eastern Javan mountain ranges. Among those who settled in the Javan mountains were Roro Anteng, a daughter of the last Majapahit king Brawijaya VII, and Joko Seger, a man of the Brahmin caste. This couple came to rule over the Hindu communities in eastern Java, calling their people the “Tengger” – “teng” from “Anteng” and “ger” from “Seger”.

Origins of the Yadnya Kasada ritual also happen to be closely linked to Roro Anteng and Joko Seger. Although the two were adept governors of the Tengger people, they were distressed by the fact that they were unable to have children. At the end of their ropes, the couple scaled Mount Bromo to pray for help from the gods. Moved by their sincerity, Roro Anteng and Joko Seger’s wish was granted with a blessing of 25 children, but on one condition – their youngest child was to be sacrificed in the volcano’s crater.

Years later, the couple were faithful to their vow. Although unwilling to part with the child, the couple fulfilled their promise to avoid catastrophe befalling the Tengger people. And so the community began their lasting tradition of sacrifices on Mount Bromo – though instead of humans, the Tenggerese now offer farm produce and livestock as tribute. It is believed that this ritual was necessary to appease the gods, which will prevent the volcano from erupting.

The Tengger people are Java's second smallest ethnic group, seen here warming themselves during the festival. © Agung Parameswara

The Tengger Caldera

Mount Bromo’s name comes from the Javanese pronunciation of “Brahma”, the Hindu god of creation. It is one of five volcanic cones that sit within the massive, primeval Tengger Caldera, which is believed to have formed from the collapse of a nearly 4,500 metre-tall stratovolcano more than 2.5 million years ago.

Apart from this cluster of volcanoes, much of the landscape within the 10-kilometre wide Tengger Caldera is a vast moonscape of volcanic ash and gravel. When wind stirs up clouds of dust from the ground, it can become difficult for a traveller to endure without adequate protection. Nonetheless, this is the route that all travellers must pass through in order to get to Mount Bromo – and it is a pilgrimage that the Tenggerese take on annually during the Yadnya Kasada festival. The most tangible symbol of the Tenggerese’s faith, a temple called the Pura Luhur Poten, is also built on these dusty plains.

Standing at a height of 2,329 metres, Mount Bromo can barely be considered one of the tallest mountains in Indonesia, but it is certainly iconic. This title arises not just from its special significance to the Tenggerese and its scenic settings, but also the volcano’s fiercely active status. With its last eruption in 2011, Mount Bromo has been under close monitor since December 2015 for increasing tectonic activity.

Faced with tedious routes and a journey with inherent danger, an unwavering dedication to their faith is attested to with the Tengger people’s five centuries of annual pilgrimages to the rim of Mount Bromo.

To the Tenggerese, it does not matter that they are one of the smallest Javan minorities, nor does it matter that Hinduism is practiced by a mere 1.7% of their nation; They remain unyielding in their beliefs. If there is a lesson we can glean from the Tenggerese, it is that strength lies not in numbers, but in spirit.

A Tanggerese man smokes as he arrives at the top of Mount Bromo. © Agung Parameswara

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Article and photos by Agung Parameswara

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