Ghost Hunting Around the Pesantren

  By: Jovana Bozilovic

“The world of reality has its limits, the world of imagination is boundless.”
What is your first thought when somebody mentions students’ dormitories?
Now again, what’s your first thought when you hear about Pesantren? Never heard about it? Neither had I. If I say Islamic boarding school, it might make a little more sense. 
Pesantren is the name of Muslim boarding house, a place where Muslim can learn and practice not just about Islam, but also about human values, good behavior, family life and the other things that are usually missing in formal education curricula. There are many in Indonesia, it’a obvious as it’s the country with the biggest Muslim population in the world. Pesantrens are definitely not the same everywhere, the organization is different, some are only for girls, other just for boys or mixed. More modern or traditional, smaller as a household or way bigger.
The Pesantren I visited was a two storey Javanese house, split in two parts, on one side where Bapak (Mister; Indonesian word for father, head of the family) and his family lived, and the other with girls’ bedrooms and rooms for daily activities. Not even close to how I imagined student houses and dormitories would look like, Nurul Ummahat Pesantren (meaning: The light of a woman) had more than ten bedrooms and each was shared by three to five students.
I’ve been told that one of the visions was “to be modern”. I couldn’t relate the building to anything modern I knew. Sharing bathroom on the ground floor (forget about idea of regular house bathroom, because there were no showers and regular toilets, just a sink and big bucket that you fill up with water, also a small bucket that was used to grab some water from the big one so you can wash your body – you can’t find water heaters there), wooden floor with many holes around, no ceiling, just a roof on the top, and there were not regular comfortable beds with fancy bed sheets – just an empty floor with some blankets, pillows and something that looked like tiny mattress folded in the corner. The room I was sharing with friend of mine (yes, just two of us, foreigners, but this room was usually shared with 4-5 girls) had a huge teddy bear and a lot of books about Islam and Arabic language.
Some plastic shelves and drawers, clothes hanger hanged on the wooden wall and some boxes filled with personal belongings. There was also a tiny light hanged on the wooden beam under the roof. Basically every bedroom was small, modest space, with a few pieces of simple furniture, mattresses, wooden or concrete ground and walls, depends on which side the room was placed, with no ceiling, just a simple roof on the top, to protect it from the wind and rain.
Bedroom at Pesantren
Santriwati (Indonesian word for female students at Pesantren) had different academic backgrounds which was found as an advantage as they could share different perspectives and discuss topics from various aspects. Besides learning about Islam and religion, the aim of living in the Pesantren is to be taught how to be a good human and respect others as well as how to cooperate with other religions. They also organize various “extra curricula” activities such as singing, playing music and sewing. The boarding school represents itself not just as a “tradition keeper”, but also as a modern place where all religion and all people are welcomed. The only criteria that distinguish people from one another is whether they are good humans or not.
Required dress code for all of us were long sleeves and trousers. We also agreed to wear scrafs, in addition to hijab, to show a respect to the other people that were living there. It seems like Ibu (Mistress; Indonesian name for mother) was really happy that every girl said yes to that idea without a single doubt. I must confess that I regretted the decision we made after spending maybe less than an hour in Pesantren. It was so hot, there were no fans and I could feel how drops of my sweat are sliding under the scraf. My summer long sleeve shirt and jeans made me feel like I was wearing some winter costume. My whole body was itchy all day long and it was so hard to concentrate on what people were talking about. That means that during the daytime my favorite activity was taking a nap! In our bedrooms, we were allowed to wear some clothes that fit the weather condition.
I remember the question I’ve been asked a million times upon my arrival in Indonesia: “How do you deal with the cultural shock?” And my answer was always that I don’t feel like any cultural shock affected me at all. In this case, I must admit that I was, I wouldn’t say shocked because of the negative connotation it can contain, but slightly surprised by how this dormitory looked as well as how everyday life functioned in there.
It was Jumat Kliwon (It’s Thursday that matches with Javanese 5-days wee Thursday), the special day for Javanese people as they believe that’s the perfect time to increase their spirituality, meditate and pray – therefore visiting the mosque was even more interesting than I expected. The first mosque in the Mataram kingdom can be found in Jogja, Kotagede – Kotagede Mosque. Beside it’s been known by silver craft, Kotagede (or the big city as it was called) has also been represented as one of mystical place in Central Java. With one of the oldest mosque. Starting from the building itself and architecture, it doesn’t look like a regular mosque you would expect to see. It’s built in Javanese traditional style, with Hindu architecture elements such gates and walls of the mosque. The whole place and atmosphere was a Javanese, Hindu and Muslim mixture confirming that there’s the order even if it doesn’t look there is one. Javanes people believe that the Kotagede Mosque has a special power and it’s one of the most mystical places. According to local beliefs, the only criteria to enter the Mosque, to pray and collect the mystical energy, is to be clean and open-hearted. It’s also the only requirement in order to achieve and improve your spirituality.
“Let’s go for ghosts hunting” – that’s how the night started. I believed it’s just a metaphor for eating chicken sate nearby, but I was mistaken. Sure enough we had some sate at the neighborhoods’ Warung (small “street” shops that sells traditional Indonesian food), but who expected a late night Mosque exhibition!
“Close your eyes! Concentrate, and you’ll feel the spirits”. Even though majority Javanese are Muslims, a lot of them still try to keep their spiritual roots and connections with their ancestors.
I really tired
There’s still crystal clear picture of all those families laying down and sleeping around the mosque in my mind, and I’m still wondering if that night really changes something. At certain part of the mosques’ garden, seeing all the people wearing traditional Javanese costume meant just one thing – there was sultans’ grave, and for sure I was not allowed to enter. I just anjoyed the scene and, in a while, white the rest of the “hunting” group I heade back to the Pesantren, with no ghost in my hunting net. I guess I was not Javanese enough to catch any spirit or ghost around, but I had to get over it.
The best way to finish one, I can say adventure, was to meditate in front of the Pesantren while listening to the history of Mataram kingdom. It was definitely way better idea than trying to take a few hours of sleep under the bed sheet, fighting with hungry, annoying and persistent.

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