Sunday, June 1, 2008

Myth of Reog and Warok Ponorogo

The East Javanese town of Ponorogo, nestled in a remote valley between two extinct volcanoes, has long had a reputation throughout the island for the magical powers and sexual potency of its inhabitants. It has a long history of violent and radical politics, with a well-established tradition of rebellion. Two figures central to this image are the warok and gemblak. The term warok is said to originate from the Javanese words uwal and rokan meaning to be free from forced labour.Due to their martial and magical abilities, the warok were often advisers and strong men for the local ruler, and hence free from the obligations of ordinary villagers. Another popular interpretation suggests that the term originates from the Arabic word waro'a, meaning an ascetic, or one who practises mysticism. Onghokham draws attention to the influence of warok and jago (men of prowess] as leaders in village political life.The warok was rarely part of the official government, and thus played a somewhat ambiguous role, residing in the margins of social and political life. On the one hand his standing amongst villagers made his support crucial for any aspiring ruler and he often acted as an agent for higher authorities. At the same time, however, his unofficial status also made him a potentially dangerous adversary and troublemaker. The warok was a power broker, an intermediary between higher and lower powers, in the concrete and cosmological sense. His authority was intensely personal, depending on mastery of invulnerability, silat [martial arts], magic, and religious knowledge, as well as the fear and admiration with which villagers regarded him.

The warok tradition finds its roots in a mythology of rebellion. According to one popular historical account, the warok tradition began with Ki Ageng Kutu, the court poet of the last king of the Majapahit kingdom, Bra Kertabumi, in the fifteenth century. Angered at the political influence of Kertabumi's Chinese consort, and the king's endemic corruption, which he saw as a sign that the kingdom would soon come to an end, Ki Ageng Kutu deserted him, establishing a parguron [school for the study of esoteric knowledge] where he taught local young men invulnerability magic, martial arts, and ilmu kasampurnaan ['science of perfection'] in the hope that it would form the basis for a revival of the Majapahit kingdom. Students of Ki Ageng Kutu were known as warok. As a devoted adherent of Tantrayana Buddhism Ageng Kutu believed that spiritual strength could only be achieved through the negation of physical desires. Warok were said to follow a strict regime of ascetic discipline, one of the parguron's rules being that they were forbidden to have sexual intercourse with women. This prohibition was predicated on the belief that the resulting loss of sperm would deplete their supernatural powers. To aid them in their endeavour, each warok enlisted the aid of a young boy known as a gemblak who acted as a 'substitute' woman. Realising, however, that his small band of warok could never defeat the forces of Kertabumi in an armed struggle, Ki Ageng Kutu used performing arts to propagate his political message amongst the local population and thus build a movement of popular resistance. The dance drama that he created, known as reog, satirised king Bra Kertabumi and his court. A spectacular tiger mask known as a singabarong, the lord of the jungle, symbolised Kertabumi, whilst the fan-like peacock perched on its head represented his Chinese consort and the influence that she wielded over him. The effeminate jatilan [hobby-horse] dancers known as gemblak satirised the weakness of Majapahit's army, which contrasted dramatically with the very real strength of the warok who wielded the singobarong mask, weighing over 50kg, by a wooden strut held between his teeth. The hideous red faced clown Bujannganong represented Ki Ageng Kutu himself, his sexually provocative and acrobatic dance movements making a mockery of the affected refinement of royalty.

Traditional warok costumes can be bought in local markets and clothing stores along with other warok regalia such as akar bahar [a bracelet made from black coral] and walking sticks. Festivals such as Grebeg Suro see many young Ponorogo men become 'a warok for a day.' According to one renowned warok the authentic warok tradition of Ki Ageng Kutu still survives but is now 'invisible,' in the sense that warok are no longer socially identifiable. As he put it, 'those who go around now calling themselves "warok" are in reality warokan.' Perhaps what he is suggesting is that as soon as the warok is named, represented or mediated, he is no longer a 'genuine warok,' a warok sejati. The integrity of the tradition is maintained through a kind of occultation, by refusing to engage in the spectacle of 'traditional culture.' This tactic of 'invulnerability' finds precedent with the followers of Ki Ageng Kutu who, faced with the outlawing of their parguron and the recuperation of reog by the state, retreated into the realms of esotericism and secrecy. The state, through its invention of an 'authentic' warok tradition seeks to 'recover the horizons of its power by containing that which would appear otherwise.'


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