Tumbang Saan, Indonesia - In this village near the heart of Borneo’s great, dissolving rainforest, Udatn is regarded as a man of deep spiritual knowledge.
Of all the people in this tiny settlement, he speaks better than any other the esoteric language of the Sangiyang, the spirits and ancestors of the upper world, known simply as “Above.” His is a key role in the rituals of Kaharingan, one of a number of names for the ancestor-worshipping religion of Borneo’s indigenous forest people, the Dayak.
“In the beginning, when God separated the darkness and the light, there was Kaharingan,” said Mr. Udatn, as he sat smoking a wooden pipe on the floor of his stilt home. (Like many Indonesians Mr. Udatn uses only one name.)
The Indonesian government thinks otherwise. The world’s most populous Muslim-majority country is no Islamic state, but it is a religious one. Every citizen must subscribe to one of six official creeds: Islam, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Confucianism or Hinduism. Kaharingan, like dozens of other native faiths, does not officially exist.
Even in this village, a frontier where land clearing and mining is fast erasing ancient forest, people have long seen their faith under threat from officialdom.
“When I was in school I was a Catholic,” said Mr. Udatn. “For us, if someone wanted to keep going to school then they had to convert to another religion.”
Now, however, things are changing, and the missionaries are being held at bay. That is because villagers have seized on a strategy being used by many Dayak: They are re-branding. On paper at least, most of the people of Tumbang Saan are now followers of Hinduism, the dominant religion on the distant island of Bali. Few here could name a Hindu god or even recognize concepts, like karma, that have taken on popular meanings even in the West. But that is not the point. In a corner of the world once famed for headhunters and impenetrable remoteness, a new religion is being developed to face up to an encroaching modern world and an intrusive Indonesian state. The point, in short, is cultural survival.
“The Hindus have helped us,” said Mr. Udatn. “They’re like our umbrella.”
What exists in Tumbang Saan is a strange compromise, born of the Indonesian religious system, where government functionaries play a key role in allocating funding and guiding religious doctrine. Called Hindu Kaharingan, it is a religion for the Dayak of Central Kalimantan, one of the four provinces that make up the Indonesian part of Borneo. Just 30 years old, it is administered by Indonesia’s official Hindu bureaucracy. It exists in no other province.
Hindu Kaharingan polarizes opinions. Some see it as a fake faith, invented for appearances; others hail it as a rediscovery of long-lost beliefs. But in both government offices and remote villages, Hindu Kaharingan leads a precarious existence.
At the complex that houses Hindu Kaharingan’s Grand Council in Palangkaraya, the capital of Central Kalimantan, the head of the advisory board of the religion, Lewis Koebek Dandan Ranying, bristled with suspicion at questions.
“Christians are the ones who are pushing hardest into Central Kalimantan, and we’re still in a fight to the death with them now,” Mr. Lewis said.
Government officials in Jakarta, he alleged, routinely ignore Hindu Kaharingan’s existence in the province, while Christian and Muslim bureaucrats at all levels deliberately undercount the religion’s adherents so as to limit its funding and political influence.
In Mr. Lewis’s view, the Dayak people have been Hindus for centuries; they just did not know it. The beliefs of the various Dayak tribes, he says, descend from the Kutai kingdom, an eastern Borneo state dating from the fourth century whose religion was imported from India. Over time this was lost amid colonization by the Dutch, and the Christian missionaries who came with them.
“That’s what the Dutch, what Westerners do: divide and rule,” Mr. Lewis said. “We don’t want that to happen again. We’re returning people to their original faith.”
Under the dictatorship of Suharto, from 1968 until his forced resignation in 1998, the government promoted mainstream religions as a counterbalance to communism, while seeing tribal religions as an impediment to modernization. Government rules require an official religion to have a holy book, so Dayak leaders in Central Kalimantan created one, the Panaturan. A clergy was needed, so priests were trained. Religious rituals once held in fields and homes were transformed and placed inside new worship halls, called Balai Basarah.
At the Grand Council’s complex in Palangkaraya, a town where Christianity and Islam dominate public life, Hindu Kaharingan appears to have found purchase. Scores turn up for weekly services of chanting and prayer. But upriver, where both missionaries and bulldozers have made less of an impact, the new religion appears to have put down few roots. Getting to Tumbang Saan requires a jolting 12-hour ride by car and motorcycle over dusty, pot-holed roads and then 45 minutes on foot along a mud-slicked track. Mobile phone reception is nonexistent, and the only electricity comes from a handful of generators.
Here, past a shifting territory of Dayak tribes with different legends, different languages and different words for Kaharingan, rituals follow the cycles of life. On one night, much of the village crowded into a single home for a healing ritual as a medium, Ardiman, smeared in white paint, prayed over a prostrate girl.
Outside, wooden poles topped with likenesses of human heads stood in clumps as commemorations of deaths and marriages. Simbur, one of the village elders, explained the poles were “like a church, like a mosque.” Down a dirt path, the Balai Basarah, built with government funds, stood empty. It was being used as a kindergarten. In the district capital of Puruk Cahu — a boomtown with imposing new government buildings — the Balai Basarah was similarly empty.
“Let’s say you came to this village from India. You would see absolutely nothing that you would recognize as a symbol of Hinduism,” said Morgan Harrington, a doctoral candidate in anthropology from the University of Melbourne, who has lived in Tumbang Saan since early this year. “There are no swastikas. They do not know who Shiva and Vishnu are. None of the Hindu rites take place in this village.”
The senior Religious Affairs Ministry official for Hinduism in Central Kalimantan, Sisto Hartati, veers between seemingly contradictory positions on the new faith. Hinduism has always been part of local beliefs, and Hindu Kaharingan was no “made-up religion,” she said. At the same time, she conceded, the holy book, rituals, bureaucracy — even the name of the faith — would not have existed without Indonesian government rules mandating adherence to one of the six official religions.
“If the rules hadn’t existed back before 1980 when we integrated” with Hinduism, and indigenous beliefs had received legal recognition as a religion, “the term Hindu Kaharingan probably wouldn’t exist,” said Ms. Hartati, who is herself a member of a Dayak group.
“I feel that it’s a tool to protect ourselves,” she said.
But spreading the influence of the new religion is a challenge. “Our own people will say ‘I’m not Hindu,’ even though what they’re doing is in line with the teachings of Hinduism,” she said.
Back in Tumbang Saan, the signs of change are everywhere. Using newly acquired air rifles, villagers have killed off much of the game in the forests. At the next village downriver, the water is so polluted with mercury from mining that it is unsafe to drink. People name their children after Indonesian soap opera and sports stars, and food wrappers litter the ground. There is eager anticipation of the building of a mining road that would reduce the village’s isolation, and locals have begun fighting over the expected windfall from land sales.
Many villagers appear overwhelmingly enamored with modernity, even when it poisons the water and scars the land. When it comes to religion, however, they are wary.
Mr. Udatn, the medium, said he was thankful that local tribes had been able to shield themselves behind Hinduism, but regretted the compromise. “We should be free to practice our religion,” he said.
Some Dayak have been arguing for a push to create Kaharingan as a separate official religion. But Mr. Udatn said Tumbang Saan was still too poor, isolated and uneducated to stand up to the organizational clout of the established religions. For now, he said, strength lies in adaptation.
“I tell them ‘Don’t do it,”’ he said. “We need to bide our time.”