Inside a volcanic ritual on the Indonesian island of Java
When I reached the top of the volcano and looked down, I could see the fog hovering over the thick carpet of ash that surrounds its base. A few golden rays of the sun were beginning to line the eastern horizon, illuminating the temple, Pura Luhur Poten, which I had visited earlier in the morning.
The steep climb to the crater rim had taken me 30 minutes, mostly through powdery dunes called sea sand. The wind was relentless. Here, at the top, with downcast eyes on the sulfuric abyss, I was able to witness closely what I had come to see on the Indonesian mountainous island of Java: the Hindu ritual of Yadnya Kasada, during which the Tenggerais threw offerings – food, money, flowers, cattle – into the misty crater of the volcano, Mount Bromo.
Indonesia is home to more than 120 active volcanoes, as well as several hundred more that are now considered extinct. On Java, the country’s most populous island, a chain of volcanoes stretches like a backbone from east to west for some 620 miles, giving rise to dense communities that depend on fertile volcanic soil for cultivation.
Among them are the Tenggerese, an indigenous people who live on the slopes of an inactive volcanic crater in the Tengger Highlands in the province of East Java.
I traveled here from my native island of Bali in June and July 2018 to visit two Tenggerais villages: Ngadas and Ngadisari.
Mount Bromo – named after Brahma, the Hindu god of creation – is an active volcano in the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park. Rising to 7,848 feet, it last erupted in July 2019, causing tremors and panic among residents of the highlands.
As if imitating a set of nesting dolls, Mount Bromo lies inside the massive caldera of an ancient and much larger volcano, Tengger, from which several new cones have emerged.
On Yadnya Kasada’s day, my friend Rizki Dwi Putra and I left our hostel in Ngadisari village at 1.30am, traveling slowly by motorbike through the dense fog.
The ritual began at the temple located in the sand of the sea near the base of the mountain. By 2 a.m., thousands of people had already gathered there. The Tengger shamans chanted mantras and prayers before beginning their ascent to the crater rim, followed by crowds of pilgrims.
Once at the edge of the volcano, the pilgrims prayed and began to prepare their offerings, lighting incense and chanting mantras. Then, one by one, they started to throw their gifts into the crater.
Other people, standing hastily on the slopes of the crater, tried to catch the offerings with nets, in the hope of recovering something of value.
There are several myths about the origin of the Kasada ritual, although the most popular version involves a husband and wife who, childless, prayed to the gods of Mount Bromo to provide them with offspring. The couple vowed to the gods that if they were blessed with 25 children, they would return to give the youngest to the mountain. The gods granted their wish and gave them 25 children, but the husband and wife broke their wish.
The mountain gods became angry, and as a result, Mount Bromo erupted, claiming the couple’s youngest son. Subsequently, the boy’s voice was heard from the mountain, ordering his family to return each year with offerings to ensure their prosperity.
In recent years, Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, which covers more than 300 square miles, has become an increasingly popular tourist destination. Here visitors can learn how the geology of the area – and the constant threat of eruptions that can endanger neighboring villages – has influenced local cultures and beliefs.
During my visit, the local Tenggerais greeted me kindly, asking me what I was doing and where I was from. Having learned a bit of Javanese while studying in the nearby city of Yogyakarta, I was able to communicate in the local language, which made conversation all the easier.
At one point, while walking through the village, I met a farmer named Suyono who invited me to his home and offered me tea and snacks, which I enjoyed with pleasure.
Suyono, who was 48 at the time, roasted two chickens while his wife, Rumini, 45, baked cakes to use as offerings at the top of the volcano. Like most of his fellow Tenggerese, Suyono was Hindu, a minority group in Java dominated by Muslims.
I asked him what Yadnya Kasada meant to them.
“Mount Bromo is a holy place where the gods reside,” Suyono said. “The Kasada ritual is a form of respect for the gods. “
The volcano had given everything to his family, he said, including the fertile soil surrounding their home, as well as their good harvest. And the mountain, he added, must be respected and honored in return.