Tengger Indians are
an ethnic group of about 30,000 people who live in eastern Java. The special
fact about them is that they belong neither to Indonesia nor India. Centuries
ago, they migrated to Indonesia from the eastern parts of South
America—crossing the Pacific in wooden rafts. Their “India” tag is a spiritual
one. In the Majapahit period—late 13th century—traders from south and east
Indian kingdoms, particularly Tanjore and Bengal, used to monopolise trade with
Java. They were frequent visitors to the island and Hinduism was transported
through them to Java and Bali.
With the others, the animist Tenggers also became Hindu. But when Islam swept across Indonesia through the influence of Arab traders in the 16th century, Tengger Indians refused to cross over. Probably their animist philosophy related to Hindu cosmology and symbolism more spontaneously. They preferred to remain Hindus even at the risk of turning into a shockingly small minority, pushed into a barren valley of smoke and ash, dotted with erupting volcanoes. Tengger Indians are living proof that India has no monopoly on Hinduism, whatever the claim of its rulers.
Exiled in a dead valley, Tengger Indians marked its deadly landmarks as living Hindu Gods. Being worshipers of the Indian Trinity—Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva—they named one volcano Brahma. With time this living volcano came to be known as “Bromo”. They also wove their fables around this dead valley. They believe Rona Anteng and Jaka Seger—the first Tengger couple—prayed to the God symbolised by this fuming Bromo for a child. Brahma consented but laid out a condition—their youngest child had to be sacrificed into the roaring depth of Bromo. This, Rona Anteng and Jaka Seger eventually did.
Tengger Indians now live more or less evenly distributed in three minor towns on the periphery of this valley of volcanic ash, now known as Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park. There are five volcanoes in the Tengger caldera, Mt. Widodengan, Mt. Kursi, Mt. Batok, Mt. Watangan, apart from Bromo.
Every year for a month they push up to the summit and sacrifice something into its depth—not a kid any more but fruits, chocolates, a hen, even a sheep. The Yadna Kasada festival brilliantly combines Latin American animism and Hindu symbolism. This is another reason to believe a dead land can be made lyrical through cross-cultural exchanges.