Chinese temples boast distinct local flavor
By Ida Indawati Khouw
Jakarta is home to 70 Chinese temples, some of them dating back to the 1650s and declared protected buildings. Da-bo-gong and Jin-de-yuan are the two oldest extant temples. This is the 24th article in a series, published every Saturday, on Jakarta's historical sites and buildings.
JAKARTA (JP): Many assume that Chinese temples are the exclusive domain of the ethnic minority population. But a temple in North Jakarta is unique because Muslims, including native Indonesians, also visit there.
Although the building is large, it is quite difficult to find the Taoist temple, which is situated in a remote area near the Ancol recreational park in North Jakarta and encircled by exclusive housing complexes.
The temple, whose official name is Da-bo-gong Miao, was built when the area was dotted with sprawling mansions with spacious grounds.
"But they were abandoned because the whole area became heavily infested with malaria," said historian Adolf Heuken in his book Historical Sites of Jakarta.
Historians Denys Lombard and Claudine Salmon described Ancol in the past as "an area far from the city's wall (present downtown Kota area in West Jakarta, the center of the Dutch colonial government) with no inhabitants".
Quoting A. Teisseire who wrote about the temple in an essay on Batavia published in 1792, Heuken said it was the oldest Chinese temple in the city and erected in about 1650.
The building has been restored several times, with the current structure dating from around the 18th century, he added.
It is little different in physical appearance from others, with several altars, statues and a place for the ritual burning of offerings.
The difference is in the names engraved beneath the statues of the temple's deities.
The names are not Chinese, as one might expect, but Indonesian -- Ibu Sitiwati, Ibu Enneng, Ibu Mone and Embah Said Areli Dato Kembang.
Statues of the female figures are dressed in outfits befitting Chinese goddesses but Embah Said is part of an Islamic-style tomb bearing an Arab inscription.
More surprising still is that worshipers are not allowed to bring offerings of pork, a favorite food in the Chinese community, jengkol (a large type of bean with a pungent odor) or petai, a smaller but equally strong-smelling bean.
Temple official Suryanto said that anybody who broke the rule would suffer a stomach ache.
"To this day, we still maintain the rule," he said.
How did this apparent harmonious mixing of religions and culture occur?
Heuken wrote that both Muslims and Chinese people visited the temple because "it is a Chinese klenteng (temple) but at the same time a kramat (sacred) place to Muslims"
Documents show the temple was built by Kong Toe Tjoe Seng under the order of a Chinese helmsman, identified as Sampo Soeisoe.
But before the temple was completed, the helmsman and his wife Sitiwati -- a Muslim Sundanese ronggeng dancer -- died and were buried together with the wife's younger sister Ibu Mone, Heuken said.
Before their wedding, the couple had vowed that they would never eat pork because it was forbidden for Muslims, or jengkol and petai, which the totok (Chinese-born migrants) detested because of the smell.
"That's why the deities become angry if somebody brings those kinds of food into the compounds," Heuken wrote.
He added the temple's builder, Kong Toe Tjoe Seng, changed into a Toa-pekong or Da-bo-gong, an incarnation of the "God of the Earth", the main deity of the Ancol temple.
The tomb of Embah Said with his wife Ibu Enneng is situated behind the main sanctuary. They are believed to have been the parents of Sitiwati and Mone.
Although this temple's mixing of cultures is unique in Jakarta, similar ones are the Sampo Kong temple in Semarang, Central Java, and one found on Kemarau island of Palembang, South Sumatra.
An expert on Chinese architecture, Edison Yulius, said the phenomenon should not be considered unusual.
"Anybody's name can be inscribed in temples because those are constructed out of respect for generous people or those considered to have rendered the community many services. Such people were then believed to have turned into deities," said the lecturer from privately owned Tarumanagara University.
The people were believed to be closer to God, and thus wishes could be delivered through the deities.
"That's why sick people went for cures to the temple when standard medicine had yet to be discovered, while others hoped they would find marriage partners," he said.
Experts said that besides Ancol, there were four other temples in the city dating back to the 17th century, but two of them have been demolished.
One of those which survived is Jin-de yuan temple, now Wihara Dharma Bhakti, considered the largest temple in the city and located on Jl. Petak Sembilan in West Jakarta.
The temple was built in the center of the Chinese community at about the same time Da-bo-gong was constructed.
The Buddhist temple was the "chief temple" in the city, according to Lombard and Salmon, and was believed to have been built by a Chinese official. With a name meaning "Temple of Golden Virtue", it was built in 1755 by a Chinese kapitein, a Dutch term for captain given to Chinese leaders in the Dutch East Indies.
There are few records regarding the temple's history. Heuken only noted that the Petak Sembilan temple was used for the Chinese New Year festival and pudu (the festival in the middle of the seventh month of the Chinese calendar), which were sometimes marked with Chinese puppets.
Edison said the word for Chinese temple originated from the word miao, which means to worship in the morning. However, the use of temples was misinterpreted by lay people.
He said Chinese migrants to Indonesia came from the southern part of China, including areas like Guangdong, Fujian and Hakka, which was far from the center of the kingdom where intellectuals and rulers lived.
"There is a different understanding of religion between lay people and the intellectuals. Lay people, like those residing in southern China, had their own interpretation of worshiping in temples in which mystical factors also played a role."
Edison said the distorted concept was brought to Indonesia "so it is not surprising if the Chinese temple is now full of superstition."
He said there were three kinds of temples -- Buddhist, Confucianist and Taoist.
"Taoist temples have the biggest number of deities, or 70, compared to others." He said the Buddhist temple had 16 deities and the Confucianist only one.