How to be a pilgrim in Java

Java’s sacred places are remarkably open. Few will refuse admission to a visitor who shows respect, tolerance and patience. Occasionally non-Muslims and foreigners may be turned away if they intrude into a special ritual event, but usually they are allowed to observe it, and may even be invited to participate.

Foreign visitors should bear in mind that English and other foreign languages – even Arabic – are not much spoken in the sacred places of Java and Madura. This is no obstacle to entry, but some command of Indonesian (better still, Javanese, Sundanese and Madurese) enhances the pilgrimage experience.

At some sites you may be asked – usually out of simple curiosity – “Are you a Muslim?” or “What is your religion?” If you are not a Muslim, it is always fine to state another religious affiliation (Saya beragama Kristen / Katolik / Hindu / Buddha / Konghucu / Shinto …). But if you have no religion, avoid saying so.

As far as possible, try to acquaint yourself beforehand with the ritual timetable of a site. The two most important and most universal ritual occasions at Java’s holy places are the Javanese-Islamic New Year (the eve of the first of Surå, also called the first of Muharram), and the commemoration of a saint’s death, called the haul, the date of which will vary from site to site. At these times crowds of visitors pack major pilgrimage sites and there are special devotional events. In many places there may be colourful add-on attractions like shadow play performances, night fairs and popular music gigs. In the month of Sha’ban (also called Ruwahan in Java), in the lead-up to the fasting month of Ramadhan, the faithful undertake a ritual called nyadran, visiting family graves to tidy them up and eat a ritual meal there with other family members. Many also visit the holy graves of ancestors and saints to pay their respects as part of preparations for the annual Fast.

By following a few simple rules of etiquette your arrival, devotions (if any) and departure will be trouble-free and memorable. Here are some pointers.

Wear appropriate clothing. Pilgrimage sites are places where deceased individuals, or ancestors in general, are honoured. Visitors show respect for the deceased not only through their devotions, but also in their clothes and demeanour.

Dress need not be overly formal but it should be clean and neat. Men should wear long trousers (not shorts), a shirt (not just a singlet or tee-shirt), and should be neatly groomed.

Women should wear long pants or a longish skirt (not shorts or a short skirt). A long sleeve blouse buttoned at the neck would usually be most appropriate. A short sleeve blouse might be acceptable in some places, but never a sleeveless blouse or any other kind of skimpy top. Increasingly, women are being expected to wear a head covering – a simple scarf over the hair is usually enough.

Footwear is never a problem because shoes are removed on entry to a site. At some royal burial grounds (for example at the royal burial grounds of Imogiri, Mangadeg and Kota Gede in the heartland of Java) male and female visitors are required to wear traditional Javanese dress which can be hired on the spot.

Some sites are administered by government agencies so they are, in effect, public places that anyone can visit. But most sites are administered by private foundations, families or mosques, so they are not public places to which any member of the public has an immediate right of entry. On arrival it is polite, and in most places obligatory, to report to the site office (if there is one) or to the key-keeper (juru kunci or kuncèn) to introduce yourself and ask for permission to enter the site. You will probably be asked to write your name and place of origin in a guest book, and give the reason for your visit (usually ziarah, “pilgrimage, devotional visit”).

You will also be expected, and sometimes directly asked, to make a donation for the upkeep of the site and welfare of the local community. Key-keepers usually do not stipulate a particular amount – it is sukarela (up to you). The amount you give depends to some degree on your capacity to give – your wealth and status. But any amount is acceptable. Bear in mind that the custodians of many sites are not rich, so it is not reasonable to expect a variety of services from them “for free”. In a few places the local government has installed a box office where you pay a small fee and receive an entry ticket. Most sites also have alms boxes (kotak sedekah) where you may make additional donations even if you have already paid an entry fee or made an initial donation.

Before entering a sacred place, remove your footwear and leave it outside. It is always safe to do so. At some sites there are attendants who will keep an eye on your footwear for a small fee. For Muslim pilgrims it is recommended, but by no means generally enforced, that you perform prayers first in the nearest mosque, or at least perform a wudhu wash, before entering a tomb.

Before entering a sacred site say to yourself Bismillahir-rahmani-rahim (In the name of Allah the most gracious, the most merciful). At the threshold of the burial chamber you greet the saint with a quiet Assalam alaikum (Greetings / Peace be upon you). Take a seat on the floor somewhere around the grave. If you are accompanied by a key-keeper, sit a little behind him. Men sit cross-legged with knees splayed out close to the floor (duduk bersila). Women kneel initially then sit back on the heels, or place both feet to one side or the other of the thighs with buttocks resting on the floor. Visitors pray heads bowed, usually with hands held apart, palms up in front of the stomach.

At most sites it is not appropriate to stand casually in the vicinity of the grave. When you are moving around a tomb chamber it is polite to lower the body a little in respect, crouch, or even squat-walk (mlaku dhodhok). At many sites there are other graves around the main holy grave. Move between them: never sit on them or step over them. At some sites you should not turn your back on the holy grave. Retreat from the tomb chamber backwards.

The visitor should ask permission to take photographs inside the burial chamber, indeed anywhere in the vicinity of the tomb. Some sites (Mount Kawi, for example) strictly forbid photography in the tomb chamber. If permission is refused this should be respected (the selfie craze is driving some site custodians crazy).

It is polite to take your leave of the custodian when you leave and say thank you. It is impolite, even disrespectful, to simply walk out.