The Infinite Unseen and Its Many Faces

By Timoteus A. Kusno

In the colonialized Java, the late 19th century (up to the turbulent years of World War II) had marked the modernity, rapid changing mode of production, the shifting of maps and perception of the world—as the consequences of industrial revolution which boomed earlier in the Europe. According to Pemberton’s research on the photograph of Netherlands East Indies Governor General De Graeff blessing the sacrificial offerings prepared for machinery” (see Fig. 1), during that period in the  Tjolomadoe (Mountain of Honey) sugar mill in Central Java, workers would sacrifice heads of water buffalo and cows as offerings to a spectre of Javanese lady who inhabit the cogwheels. Her ghostly presences often took shape as a well-dressed lady, floating in the air, or sometimes in a form of detached head. Pemberton said that this ghost is believed to be the same age as the the Dutch milling machines themselves, it has became the remaining of antiquity. Both the ghost and the sugar mill stood as the remainders of modernity (Pemberton 2003: 75-90). This staged ritual had wedded the colonial & feudal power intimately, and had to be done in order to avoid any blood spill during the operation of the machineries—to fulfil the global demand on sugar. As this tradition had been done for years before and after the image of that ritual was taken, the lady ghost turned out never appeared in the photographic archive. She remained in “the unseen” sphere of the labor collective beliefs. Meanwhile, the presence of The Governor General sacrificial blessing signifies the colonial desire on efficiency by satisfying the unseen with offerings.

Fig. 1. “In Remembrance of the Visit of Netherlands East Indies Governor General JHr. Mr. A. C. D. De Graeff to Surakarta on Monday the 21st of May 1928”. Photographer: Unknown. Collection: Mangkunagaran Palace , Surakarta, Central Java, Indonesia.

            Two decades before The Governor General De Graeff put his palms against the sacrificial heads of cows and water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) at the ‘mountain of honey’, The Netherlands East Indies officially prohibited the Rampogan Macan[1], a ritual where (the protagonist) water buffaloes would be fought against the tiger. Rampogan Macan was a bloody ritual which  organised by the Javan king.  In this ritual which usually held in the middle of the palace square, the king would put the fight between a water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) or a banteng (Bos sondaicus; Simoons and Simoons 1968:15 in Wessing 1992:288) versus a tiger. The inevitable thing in this ritual was the death of tigers. According to Wessing (1992: 289), the first part of this tradition would be the fight between tiger versus buffalo or banteng, then the ceremony would be followed by direct engagement of a single tiger against thousands of Javanese men armed with spears (See fig. 2). This ritual was held  to celebrate the end of the month-long dawn-to-sunset fasting of Ramadhan. (Nieuwenhuys and Jaquet 1980:9; cf. Ruzius 1905; in Wessing 1992: 287).

File:COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM Een tijgergevecht TMnr 10017894.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Fig. 2.  Een tijgergevecht(ca. 1900-1927)Nederlands: Repronegatief. Photographer: Unknown. Collection Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures (Wikimedia Commons)

            This ritual manifests the collective desire to assemble certain power to get rid of the darkness and chaos—which are reflecting their collective lack and the repressed experience under colonial domination. Boomgard pointed out that (the tiger and leopard) rituals (at the Javanese Courts [1605-1906]) reveals the complex natural and supernatural constellation which were tried to be intervened. Rituals are very much connected to the social and the cosmic order, reproduction and the ancestor, life and death (Boomgard 2001:145).  In (the unseen) nature of this Rampogan Macan ritual, tiger was considered to be the manifestation of evil spirit and disorder. If the tigers succeeded in escaping the pit alive, the entire community would severe bad luck. In this bloody ceremony, a tiger signifies the “other” and need to be persecuted in order to cleanse the society from the evil spirit as well as establishing the ‘rust en orde’. The tiger had to be lynched in order to avoid the misfortune throughout the community (Kusno 2018: 63-64). Persecution has becoming an instrument of performing collective power under the authority.[2]

            In both rituals—the blessing of sugar mill and rampogan macan—the (colonial and feudal) authority  organised and legitimised such sacrificial acts to bridge the material world and the unseen dimension, in order to constellate the world of the living. In another hand, this unseen sphere also accommodated the  history of resistance against the colonial authority as well. In the Java War (1825-1830), Diponegoro, the most celebrated Javanese prince who played a key role in the struggle against the colonial authority, claimed to receive the revelation to cast out the foreign rulers under the spiritual guidance of Ratu Adil (literally means Just King) directly during his meditation (Dipanegara 1913:98-100; in Kartodirdjo 1984:16 ; in Kusno 2019).  For Diponegoro—and other Javanese mystics-religious believers— ascetic meditation is the medium to encounter the unseen world.

Berkas:Raden Saleh - Diponegoro arrest.jpg - Wikipedia bahasa Indonesia, ensiklopedia bebas

Fig. 3.  “The arrest of prince Diponegoro at the end of the Javan War (1835-1830)”. Painted by Raden Saleh, 1857. Collection: Indonesian State Palace, Jakarta

            This contemplation of Diponegoro was written in the Chronicle of Diponegoro, as Peter Carey quoted: If anyone asks you about what rights are you entitled to (leading the war against the infidel Dutch and the apostate Javanese who became their allies),said the shadow of Ratu Adil on Mount Rasamuni in May 1824, Tell them to look for the answer in the Quran.Diponegoro had been initially reluctant because he could not bear to witness deaths as the aftermath of the war. The shadow of Ratu Adil rejected his refusal, appeared once again and said, Hopefully not: this is Gods will, He has set the destiny of Java; you are fated to do this duty, because no one else will. (Carey 2001:xxii; in Kusno 2019). Diponegoro got his access to the unseen and communicated with Ratu Adil in his meditation on the mountain. For most of Javanese, mountain (and any other higher places) believed to be sacred and is having the transcendental & mystical quality. This formulation of the mountain as a transcendental medium can also be found in the shape  of ancient temples and shrines all across the island.

            However in Java during that period, religion and the mysticism often intertwine and influencing one to another in syncretic way, and the sphere of unseen is no exception. As Kusno explained according to Kartodirdjo, people’s anger and disappointment of European power demonstrated in radical attitudes through religious movements, which comprises a charismatic leader who had received a revelation from the unseen, and treated as prophet, teacher, shaman, wizard, or Messianic messenger by their followers. Based on the colonial report, Kartodirdjo figured out that the authority considered the religious movements that brought the spirit of Ratu Adil (millenarianism) as dangerous threats. Kartodirdjo also explained that this kind of millenarian hopes were something inherent in the Javanese culture. This idea constituted magico-mysticism, the spiritual aspect which people felt connected to the ancestors, sacred figures, or (the unseen) metaphysical world.  In the context of struggles against the colonial authority, Ratu Adil signifies the (desired) king who would bring justice and peace in Java. In the Javanese mythology, the Ratu Adil would set people free from hunger, wickedness, and disaster, although the arrival would be indicated by disaster and suffering (Kartodirdjo 1984:9-31; in Kusno 2019).       

                        For Balinese, the sphere of sacred unseen has its own term, they call it niskala. During the massive wipe out of communist under Suharto’s dictatorship (1965-1966), Bali had became one of a bloodshed among other places in archipelago. More than a hundred thousands people were exterminated by their neighbours or families during this period (Robinson 1995, Dwyer and Santikarma 2004, in Santikarma 2013:202). As the ruling regime put aside those tragedy away from the authorised narrative, people locate those memories in the unseen sacred sphere or niskala.

            Niskala had became a medium for remembering and to put respect to the ancestor and to those who already passed away, despite of their ideology (or the political claim subjected by the ruling regime). This sphere connects the past and the presents, cosmically powerful and is beyond the state authority. The living family would still mentioned those who (had been) vanished as their “ancestor”. And as a respectful ritual memory, they usually put some offerings to the spirit of the dead in a small altarpiece. For Balinese, “The Unseen” has the capacity to encourage and to embrace what had been missing in the “seen” world (Santikarma, 2013). The connection with the unseen offers a  momentuary sublimation on facing such a historical trauma.

            The unseen sphere has so many faces and had become an infinity space to reflect back to the material world.  It contains of unspeakable wound, the repressed. Nevertheless, this sphere inherently has it anachronic  quality. The unseen sphere contains a circular conception of time, where the past and future can intrude altogether in the present. The spirit of the ancestor from the past could intervene and possessed the present existence. This sphere is also the place where collective desires, memories and pain remain unconsciously. According to Lacan—on his reading of Hamlet—all desire is oriented and based on the phantasmatic object, in which the subject had to take this imaginary object as symbolic lack (Kesel 2009: 38-39). Specters and any  form of magical manifestation from the unseen signifies the lack and colonial wound. The subject will always be trapped in a never ending desire who always escaped being overtaken.

Collection of the Tropenmuseum

Fig. 4 “A priest or hermit at a forest shrine, with a tiger in front of him.” Balinese painting, dated ca. 1945 to 1952.  Collection: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures (Wikimedia Commons)

            The  beliefs of weretiger could be a pinhole to take a peek at the symptomatic eruption from the unseen world into the symbolic order. There are some stories across Southeast Asia where one can turn into a tiger, and this type of creature is believed to be a weretiger. Weretiger overlaps and twists the world of human beings and the unseen.

            Referring to Boomgard, the first report on the weretiger (macan gadhungan) were written in 1824 by an Indo-European (Boomgard 2001:195). By citing J.W. Winter, an appointed translator at the court of Surakarta, Boomgard said that Javanese believed human can transform themselves into  tigers, called Macan gadhungan. This believe based on the fact that in the Lodaya forest near Surakarta, there are some man-eating tigers during the mating season. Some poor people who hardly survive in make a living, turned themselves to be tigers at that period (Winter 1902:85, in Boomgard 2001:196). Boomgard pointed out that the first appearance of Macan gadhungan on the printed publication was 1870, written by the physician J.A. van Dissel in an article on superstitions and Javanese customs. Refering to Dissel, Boomgard added that the transformation of a human being into a macan gadhungan by means of dark magic and was part of esoteric knowledge.

            As Boomgard studied the comparative stories of weretiger beliefs, he noted that there are no stories of tigers turning into people (Boomgard 2001:197). It means that one is hardly break into “the unseen”, but the unseen can disrupt, haunting into the world of people—the universe of language and order. “The unseen” is the place of impossible; sphere of ‘specters’; desires, the colonial wound and trauma which are repressed and could symptomatically bursting into the symbolic reality (the realm of signifiers). Colonialism as a historical trauma is a labyrinth which is too enigmatic to solve. In this sense, “the exorcism” could also be an alternative way to encounter the sublime experience on dealing with the invisible colonial wounds—which might happen in only a fraction of a second, but feels relieving.



Boomgard, Peter. “Frontiers of Fear” Tigers and People in the Malay World, 1600-1950”. Yale University Press, U.S. 2001, p. 145

Harimurti, Albertus. “Crowd, Vergadering, and Anticolonial Nationalism: Rampogan Sima and What Made it Prohibited in Dutch East Indies”. Centre for Tanah Runcuk Studies, 2017, Accessed 20 Oct. 2019

Kartodirdjo, Sartono. 1984. “Ratu Adil”. Jakarta: Penerbit Sinar Harapan

Kartodirdjo, Sartono. 2015. “Pemberontakan Petani Banten 1888”. Jakarta: Komunitas Bambu

Kesel, Marc De & Jottkandt, Sigi (translator). “Eros and Ethics: Reading Jacques Lacan’s Seminar VII”. State University of Newyork. 2009. p. 11-47

Kusno, Timoteus A. “The Death of a Tiger and Other Empty Seats”. How Little You Know About Me, edited by Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Seoul, South Korea, 2018, p. 61-74.

Kusno, Timoteus A. “Out of Darkness Comes Light: The Time of Famine and The (Expected) Arrival of Ratu Adil.” Centre for Tanah Runcuk Studies, 2019, Accessed 30 Jan. 2020

Pemberton, John. The Specter of Coincidence.” Southeast Asia over Three Generations: Essays Presented to Benedict R. O’G. Anderson, edited by James T. Siegel and Audrey R. Kahin, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 2003, pp. 75–90. JSTOR, Accessed 27 Aug. 2018.

Santikarma, Degung. “Menulis Sejarah dan Membaca Kuasa: Politik pasca-1965 di Bali”. 2013. in H.S. Nordholt (ed), Bambang Purwanto (ed), Ratna Saptari (ed). “Perspektif Baru Penulisan Sejarah Indonesia.” Jakarta: KITLV & Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia.p.201-215.

Wessing, Robert. “A Tiger in the Heart: The Javanese Rampok Macan”, in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 148 (1992), no: 2, Leiden, p. 292.



“Forest Fire”, Oil on canvas by Raden Saleh. 1849. Source: National Gallery Singapore



[1]Rampog means “killing with lance”, and Macan signifies the big cats, such as tigers, leopards, panthers. The colonial authority banned it in 1905, due to the ethical reason and their claim that this ritual would endangered the tiger population. Paradoxically, the extinction of Javan tiger also very much triggered by the increasing of monoculture plantation under the cultuurstelsel (enforcement planting) which followed by the economic liberalisation in Dutch East Indies around mid to end of 19th century. The prohibition of this ritual occurred in the time where the anticolonial nationalism began to be developed politically in Indonesia, coincide with the wave of global anarchism in its strongest peak (see also: Harimurti 2017).

[2] The spectres of the dead tigers inevitably incarnated in the post-colonial dictatorship in Indonesia. During the Cold War, as the ideology of capitalism and communism are being propagated to the post-war world, The South East Asia had to bathed in their own blood. Around the mid 60s in Indonesia, communists were considered as ‘the other’ that bring disharmony and evil spirit in the society, and “was needed” to be exterminated. The community needed to be cleansed with a violent ritual and ‘performances’. The performances of this cleansing are staged statically  in the museum, cinema, and any other ideological apparatuses. However, in the early to mid 80s, Indonesian people had became more and more “familiar” seeing corpses in public places. During Suharto’s dictatorship, many men considered as scumbag found died by gunshot in the street, market, or in some crowded spots around 1983-1985. They were mysteriously shot to death by ‘invisible’ shooters. Their dead bodies were placed in public in order to “warn”  people. Usually, people would just cover those ‘anonymous’ dead bodies with any blanket or mat. This violent performance of power were part of the authoritarian government effort in reducing crime and showing people ‘who’s the master’. The actual number of killings remains a mystery until today. Mysterious Shooting as one of Suharto’s disciplining system—among others—were very much resonated to the politic of ‘Rust en Orde’ (state repressive force to establish tranquility and order) organised under the Dutch Colonial regime in the 19th century. 

Share on whatsapp
Share on facebook
Share on twitter