The weekend before Ramadan, visitors from all regions of Jojakarta came to Imogiri to pay tribute to the dead.
Imogiri, also known as the “Royal Cemetery,” houses the bodies of Central Java’s royal sultanate. Constructed in the mid-1600s, it serves as a pilgrimage site for Javanese traditionalists seeking sanctuary in prayer, and also for the spirits of deceased rulers who cater to the wishes of the devoted.
I visited Imogiri with another language student from Switzerland, along with two local women. Upon entering the site, we were told we had to exchange our Western clothing for traditional batik, as this was the garb most respectful for the dead. All four women entered a changing area the size of a gas-station bathroom and stood still as two elderly Indonesian ladies unclothed us and wrapped our sweating bodies in chocolate-covered fabric.
We walked barefoot up a series of stone steps to the first cemetery dwelling, which housed the graves of the seventh and ninth sultans of the Mataram region. Kneeling on a carpet outside the house of tombs, I listened to old men chanting Qur’anic verses: heads bowed, bodies rocking. Kneeling five feet ahead was the Sultan’s son, wife and two teenage grandsons. On one occasion one grandson’s cell phone rang, breaking the rhythm of the Qur’anic chants. I looked on with surprise as, without shame, the boy removed his cell-phone from his batik pocket, answered his text, and returned to prayer. Beside him an emaciated cemetery servant prayed over a bowl of burning flowers, which generated a sweet scent that wafted into the surrounding space.
After paying tribute to the recent sultans and their wives and after ascending 400 steps, we arrived at the resting place of Sultan Agung, the man who initiated the construction of the cemetery and who died in 1645. Beloved by the Javanese for the past three centuries, Sultan Agung rests at the very top of the site, built at an incline to resemble a mountain of snow.
Sultan Agung’s dwelling smelled like damp stone. I crouched as I shuffled beneath the ceiling into a small room where the royal coffin lay. As custom advised, I prayed beside the coffin for safety and prosperity, then proceeded to the other side of the coffin to complete my meditation. A man sat there cross-legged, candle in hand, and pointed to a crack in the tile in front of me. Kiss the crack three times while making a wish, he told me. So I placed my mouth where thousands have done so before, hoping there might be some truth in superstition, questioning the likelihood of a long-dead man reaching out to me: a sinful white woman, clueless about any sense of traditional belonging, bearing the nerve to fumble like a lost parasite through his tomb.
The Entrance into Imogiri