Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 2, May 1999
Reog Ponorogo
Spirituality, Sexuality, and Power in a Javanese Performance Tradition

Ian Douglas Wilson

Figure 2: Entrance gate to the town of Ponorogo
(courtesy of Josko Petkovic)

  1. 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.[1] 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.[2] 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.

    Figure 3. Jatilan Dancer sits astride the Singobarong
    (courtesy of Charlie Jebb)

  2. 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.[3] 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.

    VIDEO CLIP: Figure 4. A singabarong dancer plays 'cat and mouse' with a jatilan hobby-horse dancer. In traditional performances the jatilan dancer was an attractive young boy known as gemblak. Government pressure has resulted in the gemblak dancers being replaced by young girls.
    (Courtesy Josko Petkovic)

    (To enable your computer to display a moving version of the video clips in this paper, you need RealVideo version 5 plug-in, or an alternative, for your browser.)

  3. Troubled by the growing popularity of Ki Ageng Kutu's reog, Kertabumi's forces mounted a series of attacks on his parguron, quickly defeating the warok rebels. The parguron were disbanded and warok practices outlawed. However, several of Ki Ageng Kutu's students continued their esoteric studies in secrecy. Ki Ageng Kutu himself is believed to have performed moksa. Due to its popularity amongst villagers, reog performances were still permitted, but the satire and political critique were replaced by legends from the Panji cycle of myths with the addition of several new characters taken from Ponorogo folklore: Kelono Sewondono, Dewi Songgolangit, and Sri Genthayu.[4] The Ki Ageng Kutu story can in many ways be read as a prototype for the warok's relationship with the state and the image of the warok as an idealistic rebel. From its beginnings through the colonial era and into the present day warok culture has regularly experienced intermittent periods of prosperity, suppression, and recuperation at the hands of colonial and indigenous authorities.
  4. In contemporary Ponorogo there are two contrasting sets of discourse which are seen to characterise warok: as a forceful, spiritually enlightened, charismatic leader and inspired artist, or as a ruthless predator, sexual deviant and criminal. It is commonly held that there are two types of warok: the warok sejati, or true warok, and the warokan, or pseudo warok, also a euphemism for a thief or bandit. Indeed, aside from informal leadership and esoteric learning, warok culture has frequently served as a pose for marginal and criminal elements within traditional Ponorogo society. According to the contemporary warok Kasni Gunopati, the ideal 'authentic' warok has the soul of a satriya [noble warrior] and acts without self interest [pamrih] whilst the warokan uses his supernatural powers for his own personal gain.[5] Yet both are endpoint examples of an ideal-type continuum. It is in the ambiguous space between these two representations that warok culture draws derives its power. The axis around which these two contrasting discourses of the warok revolve is the idea of kesaktian, supernatural power and potency.[6] Kesaktian in itself is 'beyond good and evil,' its possession not indicative of any particular code of ethics or morality. It has no intrinsic properties, only situational ones. The warok, as a potent individual, resides in an interzone of ambiguous potentiality. For some, he is a 'criminal' or 'revolutionary,' to others a leader and activist. The negative image, which the indigenous elite and colonial officials associated with the warok, was in part an effect of the increasingly bureaucratic and conservative political structures that began to develop after the political upheavals of the 1920s.[7] The warok's indiscipline, questioning of hierarchy, shallow loyalties and volatile sense of honour all impeded the formation of the colonial state. Due to its association with the troublesome warok, the Dutch colonial government prohibited reog performances from 1912 until 1932. As one Dutch administrator stated 'reog attracts large numbers of people seeking supernatural power, which undoubtedly poses a threat to security.'[8] As far as rural society was concerned, indeed, the warok came to be considered as semi-sacred figures. The warok's spiritual quest involved a dissemination of the esoteric knowledge associated with the political-spiritual elite to popular culture. The concept of kekebalan [invulnerability] attributed to warok was especially stressed within rural leadership, and in that sense it constituted a counter-elite value, contrasting with the quality of wahyu [divine providence] that was so important to aristocratic leadership as well as to the post-independence Indonesian government. The warok was kebal to the oppressive powers of the state, and it was because of this invulnerability that he could get away with so much.
  5. The 'rebellious' behaviour attributed to warok and their reog troupes by the newly formed Indonesian state, an attitude inherited from the former colonial government, was confirmed on 18 September 1948 when troops loyal to the Indonesian Communist Party took over strategic points in the Madiun area to the north of Ponorogo, declaring a new revolutionary government. Warok and reog troupes aligned with the communist Barisan Reog Ponorogo [Ponorogo Reog Front: BRP] swelled the ranks of the Madiun rebels. The crushing of the attempted coup two weeks later by the Republican army was followed by an eruption of violence between Muslim and communist villagers which resulted in the virtual elimination of village based reog troupes. In the 1950s the communist and nationalist parties used warok and reog extensively as part of their recruiting campaigns. The Communist Party's populist rhetoric and opposition to orthodox Islam appealed to many warok, and their focus on the recruitment of local strongmen meant that the warok found a ready place in party hierarchy. The reog's ability to attract large numbers of people made it the perfect campaigning tool. The discipline and secrecy demanded of party members also exerted a powerful appeal to warok and jago, having strong similarities to the structure of parguron and pesantren [religious boarding schools].[9] Under the New Order, communist affiliated troupes came under immediate suspicion, and many of those that weren't eliminated during the massacres of 1965 went into hiding.[10] Informants in Ponorogo recounted how troops loyal to Suharto were unable to kill several warok affiliated with the Communist Party due to their mastery of invulnerability.[11] It wasn't until the elections of 1971 that reog was performed publicly again. However, performances were from the traditionalist Islamic organisation Nahdatul Ulama, as part of official election celebrations and village chiefs now directly coordinated Reog groups. In 1977 the INTI [Insan Taqwa Illah: Loyal Followers of God] was formed by several Ponorogo reog troupes associated with the traditionalist Muslim organisation Nahdatul Ulama to 'clean up' reog, especially warok practices. Since this time, the New Order government has sought actively to eliminate warok as a political force, both through the marginalisation of reog as a 'traditional' or 'folk' performance, and more direct means. Several prominent warok and gambuh [troupe leaders of the jaranan trance dance] were targeted victims of the 1983 Petrus 'mysterious shootings'.[12]

    VIDEO CLIP: Figure 5. Interview with Pak Sobrani, a contemporary warok, and his gemblak.
    (Courtesy Josko Petkovic)
      Pak Sobrani: In the past a warok was an outstanding person, a person who studied esoteric knowledge in its totality, achieving spiritual and physical invulnerability. They had much knowledge. They were invulnerable, you could do anything to them without effect. They could create anything.

      Question: Can they have wives?

      Pak Sobrani: In the old days waroks liked young boys, like these ones ... they are called gemblak. Warok and gemblak go hand in hand, they can't be separated.

  6. As mentioned above, warok forfeit sexual relations with women in order to accumulate spiritual power. According to Benedict Anderson, sexuality and power are inextricably linked in Javanese thought.[13] As is common in the Tantrayana Buddhist tradition from which warok/gemblak practices evolved, sperm is considered a concentration of power, as well as a means of its transmission, which can be transmuted into superior forms of energy/consciousness. Through sexual abstinence the warok accumulates this power within himself. Ascetic practice strives to deliberately transform sexual desire into spiritual attainment. The seeming contradiction between the emphasis on sexuality as a sign of potency and power and the sexual abstinence required to achieve it is reconciled in the warok tradition through the figure of the gemblak. As a 'substitute' for a wife the warok chose a beautiful young boy, who acted as his companion as well as a jatilan dancer in his reog troupe. The beauty of the gemblak, in the eyes of the warok, came from their androgynous like features, grace, and poise. The boy was chosen from a neighbouring area and usually aged between eight and sixteen years. The warok would send a delegation to the home of the boy's parents to 'propose,' the patterns of ritualised speech employed being very similar to that used in proposals for heterosexual weddings. Traditionally the boy's parents would be paid in the form of a cow, one for every year that he was with the warok. In addition, the warok took responsibility for feeding, clothing and schooling him. The economic benefits that arose from this agreement made it a desirable option for many poor farmers, who also gained considerable social prestige, as well as the protection of the feared warok. Not all parents however approved of their sons becoming gemblak, and many boys are afraid of warok. In Ponorogo a common threat used against children is that if they don't behave, a warok will come and get them. Warok are reputed to use magical powers obtained through extended periods of fasting to 'seduce' [merayu] reluctant gemblak. One method used was to recite special mantra over a cigarette, which would then be surreptitiously placed in the boy's clothing. On smoking the cigarette the boy would be rendered powerless to resist the warok's advances. Warok were fiercely possessive of their gemblak. Rivalry between warok over gemblak was intense and was a common cause of violent conflicts that often ended in fatalities. If in public, they would often carry them on their backs out of fear that they would be kidnapped by a rival. The gemblak performed domestic chores for the warok such as washing and cooking, accompanying him where ever he went. The physical appearance of the gemblak was a matter of immense pride for the warok and they dressed them in finest of clothes and powdered their faces so that they would maintain a pale complexion. Events such as wedding ceremonies or reog performances provided an opportunity for the warok to display his retinue of anything upward of ten gemblak. For many young boys, being a gemblak was accepted as a certain stage in the journey to manhood and the majority of gemblak stayed with their warok until their late teens. The warok played an active role in choosing the gemblak's wife and in many cases performed the religious rites at the wedding. On marriage, the gemblak's attractiveness to men is said to disappear.
  7. As a cultural practice, the warok/gemblak relationship could be seen as helping to preserve heterosexual relationships by providing an acceptable outlet for sexual desires. At the age of around forty, warok, whose powers at this time were thought to be fully developed, would often marry in order to produce offspring. Within Ponorogo society there is another similar social institution known as sinoman whereby a group of young village men choose a young boy to act as their mascot. In order to facilitate good relations with neighbouring communities sinoman groups would exchange their mascots for short periods of time. It was well known that the boy was expected to sleep with the sinoman members. Contemporary warok however, for the most part, stridently deny that they have sexual relations with their gemblak. On one level this denial could be regarded as an act of self-defence against accusations of immorality. It also suggests, however, that their conception of the relationship is radically different to that of outsiders. The logic behind their argument is simple: loss of sperm leads to a depletion of spiritual power. It is for this reason that warok keep gemblak, to help them in their endeavour to free themselves from all worldly desires. As Pak Sobrani, a contemporary warok, put it, 'with gemblak the most that can happen is a bit of harmless kissing and cuddling. But close association with women will definitely lead to sexual intercourse which will result in the warok losing his powers.'[14] Consequently, if a warok was to have sexual relations with his gemblak it would in affect defeat the very purpose of the relationship. By the same logic if a warok did succumb to his desires, he would by definition no longer be a warok but rather a warokan or 'pseudo-warok.' Even if we accept the warok's explanation we are still left wondering as to the emphasis placed on the boys' feminine beauty.[15] It could perhaps be merely an issue of artistic judgement, remembering the gemblak's role as a dancer in reog performances.
  8. The official view adopted by local government regarding the warok/gemblak relationship is that it is morally offensive and in conflict with the 'national personality' [kepribadian bangsa]. The relationship is deemed to be unacceptable because it is considered to be nothing more than 'socialised homosexuality,' and a potential threat to public order.[16] Up until recently, in Ponorogo, intimate same-sex relationships were generally considered to be both normal and acceptable for unmarried men in contrast to heterosexual relations outside of marriage which were seen as both morally and spiritually debilitating. As one warok explained, 'association with women will cause brittle bones, a soft stomach and a loss of spiritual strength,' adding 'that's why I've grown to be a man who harbours a hatred of women.'[17] The emphasis in traditional Ponorogo society on same-sex relationships evolved from a social system which segregated on the basis of gender. This quite naturally led to intense, but not necessarily sexual, relationships between men and between women. Within the context of closed all male communities such as parguron, this type of relationships were actively encouraged. In earlier times warok never received any moral condemnation on sexual grounds, only on grounds of black magic and other forms of violence.[18] Whilst one might assume that the practice of taking gemblak would find opponents in traditionalist Islamic circles, the religious boarding schools [pesantren] in the area have long been renowned for their homosexuality.[19] According to Dede Oetomo, homosexual relations between pesantren pupils, known as amrot-amrotan ['to play woman'], are condoned and even institutionalised as a part of the learning process.[20] Vocal opposition has emerged however from modern reformist groups such as Muhammadiyah. Several prominent kyai [religious teachers] from the famous pesantren Pondok Modern Darussalam have actively pressured local government to bring reog culture more into line with their own particular version of religious orthodoxy.[21] Whilst religious activists can be held partly responsible for the official condemnation of gemblak practices, the stance taken by the government also reflects a more general shift in moral standards brought about by the perceived demands of 'modernisation' [ modernisasi] and 'development' [pembangunan] in rural Indonesia. As early as the late 1950s and 60s some reog troupes aligned with the PNI and PKI had abandoned gemblak participation in performances on the grounds that they considered it to be at odds with their respective programs of modernisation and social reform.[22] The state run education system has played a substantial role in socialising the perspective that gemblakan is a negative and outdated cultural phenomenon alongside family planning programs that sanctify the nuclear family unit as the foundation of the nation. Fewer and fewer young men are now interested in becoming gemblak. Pak Kasni Gunopati notes that those who do become gemblak now are largely motivated by the promise of material gain. 'In earlier times the gemblak faithfully and selflessly served their warok. Now they aren't afraid to ask for money or new clothes.'[23]
  9. The government's moral condemnation of the warok/gemblak relationship is further clarified when situated within a historical context in which reog and warok culture are still closely associated with criminality, rural radicalism, and the outlawed Indonesian Communist Party, the bogey man of New Order political discourse. All of this was radically at odds with the New Order's characterisation of 'traditional Javanese peasant culture' as being emotionally self-restrained, regulated and orderly. One of the most distinctive features of New Order rule was the extent to which rhetoric of culture enframed political will. Culture, especially 'traditional culture,' came to epitomise order in contrast to 'politics,' which was considered synonymous with disorder. If it was to classify as an example of 'traditional culture' reog and the warok tradition had to be reinvented. Since the early 70s the New Order has undertaken an ambitious project in social and cultural engineering.[24] Their intention was twofold: to ensure that regional identities did not threaten national unity, and to 'create and maintain the socio-cultural conditions which can accelerate the progress of development.'[25] Performing arts were of central importance to this exercise because, as one Department of Education and Culture document states 'art constitutes the most visible aspect of culture, to the extent that culture is often considered to refer only to art.'[26] In 1985, as part of a nation wide program to establish regional identities, reog was chosen by the East Javanese Department of Education and Culture as the official art form for the Ponorogo regency. Working closely with the Nahdatul Ulama's aligned reog organisation Insan Takwa Illahi, the government actively sought to eliminate reog of elements deemed either politically or sexually subversive. Department officials 'upgraded' [meningkatkan] the 'artistic quality' of reog performance, creating a standardised and sanitised version that has become the benchmark for gauging 'authenticity.'[27] Based upon a dichotomy between what are considered to be two separate Javanese artistic traditions, the kesenian leluhur [high art] of the royal courts and the kesenian rakyat [people's art] of the rural and urban poor, local Department officials act as the appointed representatives of the state, the purveyors of 'high art' by comparison with the 'crude' [kasar] arts that local communities are assumed to practice.[28] Aside from discouraging practices involving communication with ancestor spirits, the government outlawed the taking of gemblak in 1983, encouraging reog troupes to replace gemblak dancers with young girls. The eroticism and sexual tension of the performance still remains, but does not challenge dominant state discourses regarding sexuality.

    Figure 6. Advertising 'Traditional Culture':
    Roadside billboard promoting the 1996 Grebeg Suro celebrations.

  10. The warok tradition is not considered to be commensurate with modern day official concepts of law and order, hence 'official' documentation produced by the Department of Education and Culture promotes legends such as Kelono Sewondono/Songgolangit and Wijaya/Kilisuci, both of which link warok to 'legitimate' political structures. Archaeological findings in the late 1980s suggesting that Ponorogo was the site of one of the first royal courts in East Java [kerajaan Wengker] has led to a mini-renaissance of 'aristocratic' culture headed by the Regent of Ponorogo, who has used his new found status as a moral platform from which to implement far reaching reforms of warok and reog culture. Indeed it is common practice in Java that political leaders try to associate themselves through court legends and lines of descent (be they invented or otherwise) to previous dynasties. A performance as part of the official celebrations for Grebeg Suro [Javanese new year ] in 1991 involved an elaborate re-enactment of the Kelono Sewondono-Songgolangit legend, performed in the wayang wong style, a form of halus ['refined'] theatre associated with the royal courts of central Java.[29]

    Figure 7. A Kelono Sewondono performer:
    1992, Grebeg Suro celebrations.
    (courtesy of Josko Petkovic)

  11. In a speech preceding the performance, the Bupati, dressed in a warok costume, complete with a kolor, the thick white waist cord used by the warok as a weapon as well as being a symbol of his supernatural strength, stressed the importance of 'developing' reog as a tourist attraction as well as using it as 'tool' [alat] for ensuring 'order' [ketertiban] and 'stability' [keamanan].[30]

    Figure 8. Procession led by members of civilian defence units
    as part of the 1992 Grebeg Suro celebrations.
    The banner reads,
    'With Grebeg Suro let us preserve the art of Reyog Ponorogo.'
    (courtesy of Josko Petkovic)

  12. Such 'rites of hegemonisation,' along with other contemporary dance creations such as the 'reog ballet' Warok Suromenggolo, seek to recuperate the image of the warok in accord with the demands of 'tradition' as constructed by the New Order. Both portray the warok not as a 'rebel' or charismatic spiritual leader, but as a loyal functionary of the state. In Warok Suromenggolo a highly exaggerated, stylised battle is enacted between two 'waroks' complete with fake beards, and chest hair.[31] The spiritual powers [or presence] of the real warok is replaced with dance movements that simulate and subsequently trivialise the magical power [and consequent political power] that the warok sejati once had. The warok tradition is recuperated, then cast off as a historical curiosity. Yampolsky notes that one way used by the New Order to disown unacceptable elements of a traditional art form, aside from openly suppressing them, has been to parody them.[32] During demonstrations in the build up to the resignation of Suharto in May 1998, the Regent of Ponorogo employed thugs dressed in traditional warok costumes to intimidate student protesters.

    Figure 9. A masked Bujangga Anom performer flanked by
    two female jatilan dancers on stage at the 1992 Grebeg Suro celebrations.
    (courtesy of Josko Petkovic)

  13. 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.'[33] 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.'[34]

    VIDEO CLIP: Figure 10. A reog troupe leader with his gemblak
    (Courtesy of Josko Petkovic)
      Warok: This is my boy ... this is the gemblak who I have cared for since he was in grade 4 of primary school. I put him through primary school, then I put him through high school, then to technical school. I got him a job in a craft factory. They make products that are sent to Germany and America, things like rattan chairs. I've let him go now as he's working. He used to be my jaranan dancer. I chose a good one. His nose is like an Australian's! He has a pointy nose. Basically he has a Western type face. Why did I choose him, because if my jaranan isn't as good as the village headman's I would be embarrassed. I must have a handsome boy. He's also always on the lookout for handsome boys.

  14. However the emphasis placed on the 'spirituality' of the relationship by the warok suggests that for them and their gemblak at least, there is also a metaphysical explanation. The 'beautiful face' is for the warok a sign of the perfection of created things. It is a sign of good fortune, and its contemplation a jealously guarded privilege. The late Mbah Mardi, a renowned warok, commented that the beauty of a gemblak could unite the community since 'everybody loves a handsome face.' Margaret Kartomi in her article on reog notes that the transvestite is a frequently occurring figure in Javanese dance, drama, and ritual, suggesting that the gemblak personifies the philosophical unity of male and female.[35] The juxtaposition of male and female elements within a single entity expresses the complementarity of opposites, which in turn reflects the unity of the cosmos. Errington also suggests that in the traditionally 'Indicized' states of island Southeast Asia, transvestites were considered to be embodiments of cosmic unity and ancestoral power.[36] In Ponorogo it was widely believed that gemblak possessed fertility powers, so they were often asked to share a bride and bridegroom's bed on the night of their sexual consummation in the belief that the bride would quickly fall pregnant. Reog involving gemblak dancers is still performed at weddings and circumcision celebrations in the belief that it will channel ancestoral blessings. However unlike the cross-dressing performers in the Javanese theatre ludruk, gemblak are not specifically identified as transgendered males or waria ['women-men'], an officially recognised 'third gender' in Indonesia. In everyday life, and within the context of reog performance, gemblak generally do not adopt distinctly female dress or persona, though there are exceptions (as can be seen in video1). Oetomo notes that within Indonesian society the category waria or banci is more generally used as a label for nonconformist gender behaviour and identity. They are tolerated, as it is commonly believed that they are asexual and hence not constitute a threat to heterosexual relations. While gemblak would appear to fit into this broad category, I have never heard the terms applied to them either by themselves, warok or ordinary residents of Ponorogo.[37] Hence we must resist the temptation to impose what to the warok and gemblak are alien categories.
  15. Pak Kasni Gunopati suggests that the gemblak 'contains a secret' [minyimpan rahasia] for the warok.[38] The gemblak is not merely an aide to the warok's asceticism, but is himself an object of ascetic contemplation. The attraction that the gemblak holds for the warok may refer to 'purely human' attraction or to 'spiritual attraction,' to the warok's desire to unite with the primordial essence as manifested in the gemblak, or both. Situating warok ascetic practices in the context of an essentially monistic spiritual tradition, be it Javanist-Hindu-buddhist or Javanist-Islam, one can begin to speculate, albeit tentatively, as to the 'secret' that may underpin the relationship. It is 'tentative' in the sense that I am abstracting, formulating a theoretical framework from a series of practices, customs, and popular accounts. As a tradition performed and patronised by the lower strata of Javanese society, warok culture is rich in oral tradition yet scarce in textual sources. Warok rarely refer to literary works when talking about their spiritual practices, and, due to the secrecy that surrounds their beliefs and practices, their own explanations are often obscure and indirect. It is also perhaps informative to draw comparisons with similar practices found in other mystical and martial traditions such as shahed bazi ['witnessing of the unbearded'] within certain strains of heterodox Persian sufism, and shudo ['the way of the young man'], the religiously framed pederasty practiced by the Samurai.[39] In each case a beautiful youth is transformed by the mystic's gaze into a symbol of the perfection of created form. According to Judith Becker, Tantric teachings in general, including those found in Java, place a particular emphasis on aesthetic appreciation in its original meaning as 'sense perception.'[40] The refinement of this perception can lead to a heightened state of consciousness and a dissolving of the boundaries between oneself and the thing perceived.[41] The key term for understanding this process is the Sanskrit derived Javanese word rasa which traces a continuum of meaning from 'feeling' in the literal sense, through progressively more subtle levels of perception of the emotions, and ultimately arriving at the experience of rasa sejati 'the absolute or true feeling which is itself mystical awareness of the fundamental vibration or energy within all life.'[42] At this level of meaning rasa also indicates rahsa or rahasia, 'secret' or 'essence.' It is possible that the warok's aesthetic contemplation of the androgynous form of a beautiful gemblak, combined with the accumulation of life-force produced by chastity, was intended to provoke in him a radical apprehension of the perfection of created form. As a symbolic embodiment of the incorporation of seemingly opposed elements [male/female] the gemblak functioned as a metaphor for cosmic unity, but through the agency of rasa he also acted as a modality for the warok, a means by which to experience it. This is the rahasia symbolised by, and experienced through, the gemblak.
  16. The primary difference between the warok and an ordinary man, or warokan, is that the latter indulges his passions without restraint, whilst the former maintains the disciplined steadfastness and focus necessary for the accumulation of power. Ascetic practice in Java generally requires that one withdraws from interaction, which is always fraught with the danger of desire, need and dependence, in order to gain potency. The warok on the other hand, in his intimate relationship with his gemblak, intentionally places himself in what, to outsiders at least, is perceived as an exceedingly dangerous situation. Through his refusal to succumb to the natural impulses perceived as latent in such a situation, the warok fulfils a cultural ideal of self-control and spiritual power. He resides on a 'plateau of intensity'[43] that can only be reached through the denial of sexual climax.

    VIDEO CLIP: Figure 11. Interview with Pak Sobrani, a contemporary warok.
    (Courtesy of Josko Petkovic)
      Question: Did you have a gemblak?

      Pak Kasni Gunopati: Yes. In the times when I was seeking ilmu [knowledge], as we say in Javanese. The gemblak was my friend. If I was tired and wanted to rest he would accompany me. But it wasn't like it is now were it's always inside the house. Then it could be anywhere quiet. As a gemblak he would assist the warok in carrying out the teachings of his guru.

  17. Such power is accumulative: the greater the number of gemblak a warok has, the greater his 'potency,' both spiritual and economic. The late Mbah Mardi claimed to have had up to 90 gemblak at the peek of his power.[44] This is not to suggest however that the relationship between the warok and his gemblak did not have a physical aspect, for in many cases it undoubtedly did. Ascetic self-denial is, for the warok, a means to an end, not inherently 'good' in itself. Hence if a warok was to succumb to his desire for the gemblak it would not be considered a 'sin,' so much as a set back on his quest for power.
  18. My intention here has been to provide an alternative, albeit 'ideal-type' explanation of the relationship that foregrounds the 'spiritual' dimension emphasised in the discourse of warok's themselves, as well as situating it within the cosmological framework from which it may have emerged. Tantric and 'power orientated' forms of spirituality have been increasingly marginalised in New Order Indonesia in favour of more orthodox forms of religious expression. The suspicion with which such practices are viewed is at least partly due to the tendency of the movements based upon them to transform into political activism.[45] From the perspective of both religious modernists and government officials the warok/ gemblak relationship is simply unrecognisable as an example of 'spirituality,' let alone formal religion. Taking this into account the accusations of homosexuality express not simply a moral judgement, but a clash of worldviews. Consequently, if the relationship is to continue it must be redefined in language that is both recognisable and acceptable to local authorities. One response adopted by certain sectors of the reog community has been to frame the warok-gemblak relationship as being an example of a 'foster child' arrangement in which the warok, in his role as a village elder [sesepuh], takes responsibility for a disadvantaged local youth. INTI has long argued that the 'real' meaning of gemblak is in fact that of a foster child, insisting that homosexuality only occurred due to the degenerative influence of the Dutch.[46] Yet not everyone has been convinced. In the words of a former Regent of Ponorogo, 'they [warok] claim that their gemblak are really foster children, so what can we do?'[47] Whilst the Regent does expresses scepticism towards the warok's explanation he also concedes that he is powerless to act against it. Perhaps ultimately what is important to the government is not whether or not warok really do engage in sexual relations with their gemblak, but that the relationship at least has the appearance of 'respectability.'
  19. With the first multi-party democratic elections in Indonesia in over forty years scheduled for this June it will be interesting to see if reog and warok culture is once more 'politicised' as it was in the campaigns of the 50s and 60s. In the current climate of political and social upheaval and popular backlash against the authoritarian social engineering of the Suharto era, it is possible that the warok tradition may once more become a vital force in the political and cultural life of Ponorogo.[48]


    [1] Soedjono Hardjomartono, 'Rejog, Warok dan Gemblakan di Ponorogo: Tritunggal jang tak dapat dipisah-pisahkan,' in Brosur Adat Istiadat dan Tjeritera Rakyat, Departmen Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan, 1962, p. 17.
    [2] Onghokham, 'The Residency of Madiun: Prijayi and Peasant in the Nineteenth Century,' Ph.D Thesis, Yale University, 1975, pp. 63-9.
    [3] There are at least five different popular accounts of the origin of warok and reog. I have chosen to focus upon the Ki Ageng Kutu version as in Ponorogo it is believed to represent 'history' rather than being a mere 'legend.' Descriptions of all five versions can be found in Reog di Jawa Timur, Departmen Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan, Jakarta, 1978-9. A more detailed account of the Ki Ageng Kutu story can be found in Herman Joseph Wibowo, 'Drama Tradisional Reog: Suatu Kajian Sistem Pengetahuan Dan Religi,' in Laporan Penelitian JARAHNITRA, Balai Kajian Sejarah Dan Nilai Tradisional Yogyakarta, 1995-6, pp. 1-59, and Tape 24, 14/7/1991, video archive of Josko Petkovic.
    [4] Department Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan, 1978/9, p. 95.
    [5] Petkovic, East Java Reog Project (archive), video, Murdoch University, 1991, tape no. 2.
    [6] See Benedict Anderson's essay, 'The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture,' in Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia, ed. Anderson, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1990, pp. 17-77.
    [7] These upheavals included the Communist rebellion of 1927 and the increased political activism of nationalist groups.
    [8] Hardjomartono, 'Rejog, Warok dan Gemblakan di Ponorogo: Tritunggal jang tak dapat dipisah-pisahkan,' p. 22.
    [9] Anderson, 'The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture,' p. 57.
    [10] The devastating effect of the events of 1965 on warok and reog culture is dramatically highlighted by statistics from the Department of Education and Culture. In 1964 there were 385 registered reog troupes in the Ponorogo regency. By 1969 the number had dropped to a mere 90.
    [11] Petkovic, East Java Reog Project, tape no. 2.
    [12] John Pemberton, 'Musical Politics in Central Java (or how not to listen to a Javanese gamelan),' Indonesia, no. 44, October, (1987):21.
    [13] Anderson, 'The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture,' p. 40.
    [14] Petkovic, East Java Reog Project, tape no. 5.
    [15] Petkovic, East Java Reog Project, tape no. 26.
    [16] For an articulation of this view see Herman Joseph Wibowo, 'Drama Tradisional Reyog: Suatu Kajian Sistem Pengetahuan dan Religi,' Laporan Penelitian Jarahnitra, 1995/1996, pp. 1-58, and 'Di Bawah Lindungan Warok: Gemblak dan Tradisi Homoseksual,' Matra, November, 1988, pp. 64-5.
    [17] Interview, 23/3/97, Ponorogo.
    [18] Personal communication with Ben Anderson, 1/10/97.
    [19] Dede Oetomo, 'Gender and Sexual Orientation in Indonesia,' in Fantasizing the Feminine in Indonesia, ed. Laurie Sears, Duke University Press, Durham, 1996, pp. 259-69.
    [20] Oetomo, 'Gender and Sexual Orientation in Indonesia,' Fantasizing the Feminine in Indonesia.
    [21] To which the local government has largely conceded. As recently as last year rites associated with Grebeg Suro celebrations were modified after complaints from several kyai that they involved communication with setan.
    [22] Margaret J. Kartomi, 'Performance, Music and Meaning of Reyog Ponorogo,' Indonesia, no. 22, October, (1976):117.
    [23] Petkovic, East Java Reog Project, tape 1(a).
    [24] Philip Yampolsky, 'Forces for Change in the Regional Performing Arts of Indonesia,' Bijdragen tot de Taal-Land-en Volkenkunde, 151/4, 1995, pp. 700-25.
    [25] Judistra Garna, The Socio-Cultural Strategy of Development in Indonesia, PT. Gasco, Bandung, 1977, p.5.
    [26] Departmen Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan, Kebudayaan: Naskah Sementara Ke-1, Djakarta, 1972, p. 107.
    [27] Department officials regularly attend the training sessions of local troupes, making suggestions as to how they can 'improve' their performance. Local government is currently proposing to introduce the study of reog as compulsory for all high school students.
    [28] Amrih Widodo, 'The Stages of the State: arts of the people and rites of hegemonisation,' Review of Indonesian and Malay Affairs, vol. 26, nos. 1 and 2, (1995):18.
    [29] Petkovic, East Java Reog Project, tape no. 22.
    [30] Petkovic, East Java Reog Project, tape no. 19.
    [31] See Ensiklopedia Seni Musik dan Seni Tari Daerah: Laporan Penelitian dan Pencatatan Kebudayaan Daerah Jawa Timur, Dinas P dan K Daerah Prop., Daerah Tingkat I Jatim, Surabaya, 1986, p. 112.
    [32] Philip Yampolsky, 'Forces for Change in the Regional Performing Arts of Indonesia,' Bijdragen tot de Taal-Land-en Volkenkunde, 151/4, 1995, pp. 712-13).
    [33] Petkovic, East Java Reog Project, tape no. 1.
    [34] Pemberton, On the Subject of 'Java,' Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1994, p.9.
    [35] Kartomi, 'Performance, Music and Meaning of Reyog Ponorogo,' p. 108.
    [36] Shelley Errington, 'Recasting Sex, Gender, and Power: A Theoretical and Regional Overview,' in , Power and Difference: Gender in Island Southeast Asia, ed. Jane Monnig Atkinson and Shelley Errington, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1990, p. 52.
    [37] This is after spending a total period of around six months in Ponorogo and the nearby towns of Tulungagung and Trenggalek as well as viewing numerous recorded interviews from the video archive of Josko Petkovic with warok, gemblak, and other people closely associated with the reog scene.
    [38] Interview with Pak Kasni Gonopati, Tape 1: 'bearded warok,' video archive of Josko Petkovic.
    [39] For a fascinating study of shahed baz, see Peter Lamborn Wilson, Scandal: Essays in Islamic Heresy, Autonomedia, Brooklyn, 1988, pp. 93-122. According to Jose Ignacio Cabezon, shudo evolved out of the Japanese Buddhist practice of chigo in which a monk took a young acolyte as a lover whom he identified with a bodhisattva. See his essay in Homosexuality and World Religions, ed. Arlene Swidler, Trinity Press International, Valley Forge, 1993, pp. 81-102.
    [40] Judith Becker, Gamelan Stories: Tantrism, Islam, and Aesthetics in Central Java, Monographs in Southeast Asian Studies, Arizona State University, 1993, p. 6.
    [41] Becker, Gamelan Stories: Tantrism, Islam, and Aesthetics in Central Java, p. 7.
    [42] Paul Stange, 'The Logic of Rasa in Java,' Indonesia, no. 38, p. 119.
    [43] Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1987, p. 22. For an exploration of this concept in relation to warok and gemblak see Josko Petkovic's article in this issue.
    [44] Petkovic, East Java Reog Project, 'warok mita' tape 1(a).
    [45] For a detailed discussion of this process see Stange, '"Legitimate" Mysticism in Indonesia,' Review of Indonesian and Malay Affairs, 20, 2, (1986):76-117.
    [46] Interview with reog performer, Ponorogo, 15/3/96.
    [47] Hardjomartono, 'Rejog, Warok dan Gemblakan di Ponorogo: Tritunggal jang tak dapat dipisah-pisahkan,' p. 24.
    [48] I wish to express my gratitude to Josko Petkovic for allowing me full access to the extensive video archive of interviews that he conducted with warok, gemblak, and reog experts as part of a documentary project on Reog Ponorogo. The material I drew from them was invaluable in the writing of this article.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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