Published in Now! Jakarta, May 2009



A temple in a lake in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India.

The Java-India Connection: More than just the import of Bajaj and Amitabh Bachchan


For the last few months I have written about the Java-Bali connection.
Last month I went to South India, as I do most months now, since  the second krismon wiped out my Bali-based romantic landscape movement (“Let them eat Zen”). I travelled to Hyderabad, an important South Asian cultural capitol (read William Dalrymple’s ‘White Mughals’), where I have, over many trips, unearthed evidence of an Hyderabad-Java Islamic connection; and I travelled to Kochin, in Kerala, on the Cinnamon coast, from where Portuguese and Dutch traders used to set sail for Indonesia’s spice islands and from where, hundreds of years previously, Muslim clerics on Arab trading vessels set sail for Hindu-Java. It was from Kochin too that Francis Xavier launched his Christian expansion into Asia—converting Flores, Malacca, East Timor and Macau as he went.


Roadside election poster for Chief Minister’s son in Tamil Nadu, India.

I also went to Kilakarai, on the Pearl Coast, 200 kilometers south of Chennai, in Tamil Nadu state, an important trading port during the beginning of trade between India and Sumatra-Java and Bali from the 4th century A.D.
The hundreds of years of Islamic expansion from South India into Java has not been as well documented as the Hindu Expansion which preceded it. With my eyes now trained to the architecture of both cultures and my camera trained on the  ‘pesisir’ coastal cultures that connect Indonesia to the middle east—from Bengal, via Burma, and from Yemen via Kerala—I see  all over South India ancestors of the picturesque green and white Javanese mosques, and Javanese candi temples.


Kilakarai Tamil fisherman.

New generation ‘slumdog style’ on Indian building sites.

Likewise I see the similarity in wedding processions—the trumpets (terompet) that proceed Islamic wedding processions in Java and Sumatra are in fact descended from Hindu processions in South India; as are the old carved timber house fronts in the classic Hindu villages of Central Java, such as Kudus, descended from the domestic architecture of certain areas near Hyderabad.
In the ancient port of Kochin one can see the forefather of nearly every colonial and traditional window and door detail found in the architecture of Java and Sumatra.
And the similarity in cultures continues to the present day!
The wild Hindu yatra processions that criss-cross major South Indian towns on holy days are almost identical in fervour and style to the malam takbiran processions that proceed Ramadan in Indonesia. Even campaign posters are similarly theatrical and high camp, if we accept, however, that Indonesia’s houses of parliament are far more somnolent than their Indian counterpart!!
The wonderful expression ‘lidah keling’ (the affectionate ‘lying bastard’ would be the Australian equivalent) dates from the arrival in Java and Bali of Indian traders from Kelinga, Orrissa (Bengal Coast) in the 6th – 8th century and has been in currency, as a vivid descriptive phrase, in regional languages, from Batak to Balinese, for at least the last 1000 years! Ha!
Now read on:

10th March, 2009: I drive from the magnificent colonial-era hilltop Taj Gateway Pasumalai, near Madurai, to Kilakarai on the Pearl Coast
Madurai, the cultural heart of Tamil Nadu, is a vibrant colourful city with some pretty funky buildings and many classical temples with adjacent tanks (man-made lakes). My favourites are the Tamil Art Deco style terrace houses, which positively scream for attention, like most things Tamil Nadu, home of technicolour architecture.


A traditional Kilakarai terrace house.

The island of Madura off Surabaya in East Java was no doubt named after its Indian colourful culture counterpart.
The oldest Hindu stone inscriptions in Indonesia, in Kutai, Kalimantan, which date from the 7th century, use the ancient Tamil Pallava script.... and the early temples of East Java, such as Candi Jawa on the road to Tretes have a marked Tamil-Pallava character.
Today I travel South East  from Madurai, past village after village plastered with outrageously nepotistic campaign posters— depicting the chief Minister of Tamil Nadu’s son in various attitudes; various as Holy Messiah, Godfather, Matinee Idol and Marlboro man—on to a quaint Muslim coastal village that was once home to South Asia’s best known gem traders. The ‘West Street’ Bahari clan that hail from this village—now energy czars and property magnates all over the Middle East and Asia—are my hosts and they show me with great pride all that they have done for this charming ‘mini-medina’.


Indian Pallava script on 6th century stella in Kutai, Kalimantan.

Column in the selasar of the Mesjid Agung Demak, originally from the 15th century Kraton Majapahit (Hindu) palace.

The Hindu interior of the old mosque at Kilakarai.

They have lovingly restored the old mosque, which, like the Mesjid Agung in Demak, Central Java, has utilized Hindu Era temple columns as part of the structure; and have built, in the colonial era, a magnificent school, which seems to take up half the town, and, most-recently, for the Christian community, a funky Tamil church complete with coloured neon, back-lit Crucifix.
With great pride my host, Ismael, shows me his grandfather’s house, the last traditional Kilakarai home still standing: it is remarkably like the terrace-houses of the East Javanese coastal towns of Gresik and Lasem  near Madura (see photo this page).
We have an amazing fish meal in the old ancestral home—now a glossy, Mogul-modern,  tiled dining hall, basically—and check out the idyllic bay, from which Muslim traders once set out for Burma and Sumatra in search of precious stones, but which has now been converted into a large outdoor toilet.

•     •     •

Driving back on the road built and donated by the Buhari clan, I dream of all the Sinbad types in Palestinian turbans  I have seen in the village and think  that perhaps  the origin of the black Madurese pyjamas, with their red and white ‘Madras cheque’ sashes, is from along the Kilakarai coast.

March 25th, 2009: Sydney Opera House, for the State Memorial for architect Jorn Utzon who died late last year.
I met Lin Utzon, daughter of Jorn, in Bali in 1995 and we have been friends ever since.
Today I join Lin and her husband, old Bali-hand Hughes de Montalembert, and the whole of Australia it seems to celebrate the life of her father.


Australian Aboriginal ceremony at dawn at Sydney Opera House, 25th March 2009

The day starts with a dawn ceremony—by one of Sydney’s original aborigine tribes, the Gaddagook—in the forecourt of the opera
house. Gum leaves are burned and a didgeridoo blown as Lin and her brother Jan trade mementos with the performing tribes people; all part of an appeasement ritual, long overdue!
The Balinese, in traditional dress, are intrigued that people that they perceive of as Ancient Indonesians are still around, and are still pulling so much weight in this modern metropolis!!

•     •     •


Jorn Utzon - 1919 - 2009

Dancers from the Gaddagook Aboriginal tribe with their miniature boat memento from Jan and Lin Utzon at the Sydney Opera House.

The service at 11. 30 a.m. in the Concert Hall is extraordinarily moving. There are glowing tributes to Jorn Utzon, and performances by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the Sydney Opera Compound and a reading by Cate Blanchett, director of the Sydney Theatre Company.
“Renown Be Thy Grave” is the general theme.
“The creator has finally been re-united with his building,” the Prime Minister’s representative announces.
The Balinese eyes are on sticks as a chesty opera singer brings the house down with Mascagni’s ‘Easter Hymn’! 


| back |

Subscribe to the Poleng Magazine! Get your hard copy of the diary with large format photos and contributions from some of the island's more talented essay writers, cartoonists and photographers. E-mail your request, and kindly send letters or useful travel tips to: wwords@indosat.net.id


Copyright© 2009, strangerinparadise.com