Forging Sacred Spaces through Sound: the Matua Community

Studying the ‘sound’ of religion has long been the domain of ethnomusicologists and anthropologists, but not so much the discipline of Religious Studies itself. Yet religion is never solely experienced visually; it involves ritual, singing, chanting, breathing, bell ringing, murmuring, and the vibrations and sensations that come with such sounds.

That was one of the main ideas Dr Carola Lorea, research fellow at the Religion and Globalisation Cluster, Asia Research Institute at the NUS, delivered in the first CRCS-ICRS Wednesday Forum of October by looking at the case of the Matua, a displaced ethnic community originating from East Bengal, now spread across modern day India, Bangladesh and the Andaman Islands. Borrowing R Murray Schaffer’s thought on ‘soundscape’, Lorea explained how for the Matua music is central in their religious practices. ‘Soundscape’ not only includes the ritualistic sounds, but also the background ‘noise’ and everyday peripheral sounds that make up one’s experience of the world. It gives context for the formation of Matuan religious identity to take place.

The displacement of the Matua

The Matua community formed in the 19th century following the teachings of the gurus Harichand Thakur (believed to be the reincarnation of Vishnu/Rama/Krishna/Caitanya) and his son Guruchand Thakur (worshipped as an incarnation of Shiva). The performance gatherings are devotional and bodily, including the recital of sacred texts and participants chanting the sacred word ‘Haribol’ as well as dancing, or matam, to reach the siddhi (perfection)The Matua begin their rituals by welcoming guests with garlands of coconut beads, sandalwood paste to the forehead and hugging before the performance starts. (To get a sense of how the Matuan rituals sound like, watch a documentary film on them.)

The formation of the Matua was also as a resistance to the caste system and oppression felt by the community as part of the Untouchable or dalit caste. Translated literally as ‘madness’ or ‘drunk’ in Bengali, ‘matua’ was initially a derogatory epithet directed at the South Asian community due to the loudness and the seemingly intoxicated nature of their music and dancing central to their religious life. The Matua took ownership of this term, turning it into a positive attribute to their customs and rituals, and continued to sing and dance. Although the caste system was made illegal after India’s independence, Untouchables like the Matua continued to be discriminated against through lack of rights and erasure from culture and history.

After India’s Independence and subsequent Partition in 1947 which led to East Bengal transitioning into Bangladesh, the Matuans who continued to live within their original homeland became a religious minority, despite being a community of around nine million at the time. Many Matuans crossed the border to India where some were given refugee status, but an unknown number became stateless. Those who were granted refugee status were relocated by the government according to the Caste system. As Untouchables, the Matua were sent to isolated, inaccessible areas around the country, and the government’s colonisation scheme transmigrated them to as far as the sparsely populated Andaman Islands lying in the ocean between India and Indonesia. Presently, it is thought there are around 15 million Matuans overall, but due to the high number of stateless Matuans and lack of collected data on the community, there remains no actual figures about the total population or how the community move and work within the various regions.

The Matua. Photo: Carola Lorea

The politics and poetics of religious sound

It is due to that erasure and fragmentation that Lorea feels it is crucial to study the aural make-up of displaced communities. To this day there remains little documentation or cultural acknowledgement of the Matua people, which means that despite their large numbers, they have had almost no political or cultural power within the general population. If we are to take Spivak’s question, ‘can the subaltern speak?’, perhaps for the Matua the question should be—if the subaltern can speak, or play in the case of the Matua—what are the politics behind the refusal to listen? While Dalit Literature has developed as a genre, this excludes the great body of cultural work created by the various Matuan community around South Asia. Where various other tribal communities around India and the region have developed an audience in the Jazz or ethnic music scene, the music of the Matua continues to be seen as “unnecessary noise”. As Lorea described it, this untouchable cultural heritage has never become intangible cultural heritage.

Taken from interviews with members of the Matua community during Lorea’s research, one Matuan likened their music performances to the adzan, a reminder for Muslims to pray. Yet in the primarily Muslim country of Bangladesh, when the actual adzan plays, the Matua have to stop the sādhanā, highlighting the sonic hierarchy that develops in a space that holds religious majorities and minorities. Lorea calls this ‘the politics and poetics of religious sound’. Here we can see the development of sonic territories, the license for one sound to preside over another.

This ‘place’ of sound created by the community not only enters through the ears of those in the surrounding area, but also affect the landscape in other ways, creating large, sonorous vibrations which have been known to interfere with mobile phone signals and cure the heart problems of patients in nearby hospitals. The border of this new space ends where the music can no longer be heard, or where the sacred sound can no longer be felt. The performers may be far from the original marshes of East Bengal, but in that moment, the space in which they inhabit is distinctly theirs, and those who are open to experiencing and learning about this world of the Matua, they can. This encompassing sound of drums, horns, singing of ‘Haribol’, crying and ululating is an egalitarian way of celebrating the teachings of Harichand Thakur. One music teacher within the Matua commented, “Harichand Thakur…  he did not prescribe any mantra or prayer: he said his message will spread as far as the sound of the danka will reach. …The message, it enters automatically inside of you.” In this sense, anyone who is willing to understand can. There is no requirement to be able to read or write, nor a background in theology. All one needs is the ability to feel.

 Photo: Carola Lorea

How to study the sound of religion?

As the presentation came to a close, the discussion moved in the direction of how to approach an academic study of religious sound: how does one actually study or theorize the sound of the sacred?

Lorea explained three main schools of studying sound. The first is looking at the content of the music, whether the lyrics or elements feature religious knowledge, about the life of the saints, the prophets, or religious knowledge. The second school can be termed a phenomenological approach, and this involves comparing religious or sacred music across cultures and regions and the universally shared patterns which can be found, whether that be a certain pitch, the pace, or the intensity of the religious music. Yet both of these school require certain conditions which some forms of religious sound won’t have. For example, to look at the content of the religious music assumes there will be words which represent the spiritual element, and if we are to look at sacred sound phenomenologically, there are a number of flaws with comparing different religions.

The third school, to which Lorea subscribes, focuses on context—the music is sacred when the community contextualises it and defines it as sacred. To develop a real understanding of the sacredness of the sound created, a researcher should develop an understanding of the local system, listen to the songs and learn the various parts, discuss the content and the story behind the songs. For Lorea, embodied learning is key to understanding religious sound.

The forum and subsequent discussion not only provided insight into the largely overlooked community within South Asia but also critiques against the existing tendency in Religious Studies which gives much emphasis on written sources. Citing Isaac Weiner (2013), this lack of sonic study is a ‘disciplinary deafness’, with departments instead focusing on the visual and the written, or a ‘scriptist bias’, as termed by Roy Harris (1986), using sacred texts as the dominant, reliable source. The Matua community exemplifies a religious community for whom ‘soundscape’ is vital in identity formation and therefore cannot be neglected.

Written for CRCS as part of my scholarship. Read this and more on the website:

Spiritual Queens and Real Queens in Jogjakarta.

Parangtritis beach on the Southern coast of Java is an atmospheric place. With deep black volcanic sand and powerful waves which leave the air salty and thick, it’s no wonder it has a spiritual resonance with the people of the region, Jogjakarta. Parangtritis is most famous for its spiritual inhabitants, Kanjeng Ratu Loro Kidul, or the Queen of South Beach. The Queen has long held a position of respect and fear amongst the Javanese. Nyi Roro Kidul who guards the queen and her seas is believed to love the colour green, so those that visit the beach are warned not to wear this colour as she could come out to drag them into the depths. Across the island, in hotels, in the Sultan’s palace, and around people’s homes, are shrines adorned with pictures of the Queen and Nyi Roro Kidul with green fabrics and symbols as a sign of respect and hope that she will bless them.

The Queen of South Beach goes by many names and features in countless stories. Thought to have emerged as a sea deity in the pre-Hindu era, her story developed during the beginning of the Mataram Empire in the mid-1500s where Panembahan Senopati, meditating on the beach, caused a stir in the spirit world; bringing the Queen to the shore to find out what was happening. She took him on an underwater experience to learn the art of love and war. Since this period, the Queen of South Beach has been intertwined with the world of men, power and love. When a King of Java is about to take the throne, he must gain the trust and acceptance of Kanjeng Ratu Loro Kidul by spiritually ‘marrying’ her.

Up until the last Sultan of Yogyakarta, on the night of the coronation, nine dancers must perform the Bedhaya Ketawang, a slow, enrapturing dance. During the performance, Kanjeng Ratu Loro Kidul appears and becomes the tenth dancer with one of the performers embodying her spirit. The new Sultan, the only one to see the spirit queen, takes the dancer and spends the night in spiritual lovemaking, thus sanctifying the marriage. The current Sultan removed certain elements of the dance – he no longer chooses the host dancer for the night, however the dance continues, and the relationship between Queen and Sultan is as prominent now as it has been through history.

Whilst this may sound like just a myth, a fairy-tale passed down through generations, the importance of Kanjeng Ratu Loro Kidul has real-life implications in Java. It is a common rumour that the late Indonesian dictator Suharto took it upon himself to visit the Queen to assert his power over the country. Famous for his policies of oppression, Suharto enforced strict policies for women, “encouraging” them to be passive mother figures who stay at home and protect the nuclear family. For him to ‘marry’ Kanjeng Ratu Loro Kidul and in effect making himself the king of Indonesia highlights the ways in which he tried to control the nation on both a political and spiritual level. Many in Jogjakarta believe there is an underground tunnel which the kings use to travel the 30km from the Kraton to the beach and it is suggested that even current President Joko Widodo has paid his respects to the Queen of South Beach.

Presently in Jogjakarta, there is a crisis. Whilst the rest of Indonesia is governed by elected political parties, Jogjakarta is the last region to have its own working monarchy with the Sultan Hamengkubawana X in charge of both politics and maintaining the spiritual soul of Jogjakarta. The city is exceptionally proud of their monarch and has fiercely opposed moves to bring in a democratically elected governor. Yet the current king is facing a historical problem. He has no official heir to the throne as all of his five children are daughters – and daughters cannot become kings. Many believe it is time for a modernisation of the palace.

There is a large body – including the Sultan’s eldest daughter, Gusti Kanjeng Ratu Mangkubumi – who argue, if subtly, that it is time to stop this sexist ruling. Alongside arguments for women’s empowerment, Gusti Kanjeng Ratu Mangkubumi says that historically there has been a whole host of Indonesian Queens like Aceh’s Cut Nyak Dien and Java’s Tribuwana Tunggadewi who have been powerful and successful, both Islamic and Hindu rulers so Jogjakarta should be no different.

Putri Raja Keraton Ngayogyakarta, Gusti Kanjeng Ratu (GKR) Mangkubumi membuat kue apem saat tradisi Apeman di Bangsal Kedaton Sekar Kedaton, Keraton Ngayogyakarta, Yogyakarta, Minggu (17/5).
Gusti Kanjeng Ratu Mangkubumi in the Kraton, Jogjakarta

For some Jogjakartans, most prominently the Sultan’s brothers in Jogjakarta and in neighbouring Solo, this is not so simple. For them, there is no way there could be a female sultan in Java. For them,  it would not be acceptable for the Sultan’s daughter to marry a female spirit, nor could she engage in the spiritual coupling that ultimately occurs on the ‘wedding night’ between the Sultan and Kanjeng Ratu Loro Kidul. Some comment on the other goddess, often forgotten, Nyi Gadung Melati who lives in the volcano Merapi which towers over the city. She too enters a special union with the Sultan who has to balance the forces of the volcano and the ocean.

By changing this relationship between the Queen of the Sea, the volcano and the Kingdom, they would be throwing the spiritual connection out of balance, causing catastrophes in the form of natural disasters and dark encounters from the spirit world. The Sultan’s brother GBPH Yudaningrat believes that this itself is reason enough for the throne to be passed on to other males within the family.

Yudaningrat also points out that the central role of Sultan within Islam is as an Imam, or religious leader — a role which he claims can never be filled by a woman. He has gone so far as to warn that once the current Sultan has died, his wife and daughters will be driven out of the palace for disrespecting traditions and religion.

The Sultanate of Yogyakarta practices ‘Javanism’, connecting Islam with older, Javanese beliefs surrounding kings and spiritual practices. As Islam becomes more prominent in Java, and more and more turn away from traditional beliefs and practices, this religious argument has generated much debate as the role of the Sultan in modern Jogjakarta itself is questioned.

The daughters argue that Javanese Islam is already embedded in all they do, and in other regions of Indonesia. Yet for the current Sultan and his family, spiritual and cultural traditions are above religion – an increasingly controversial position – and believe that this isn’t a consideration for the next in line.  Yet what does this mean culturally when arguing about the Queen of South Beach? The dilemma becomes, does one break away from cultural traditions, and allow his daughter to heir, opening the door to further breaks from culture – or does one simply see this as a sweep into the modern era?

For the Sultan, it looks increasingly that his daughter will be the first female sultanah of Jogjakarta, regardless of what his family and some members of the community believe. Only time will tell what will happen, but until that time comes, Kanjeng Ratu Loro Kidul will continue to reign the shores of South Beach, intimidating locals and tourists alike. Maybe you will catch a glimpse of her in the waves, at the top of the hills that surround the beach, or in the breeze. I personally am hopeful the Queen of South Beach can collaborate with Gusti Kanjeng Ratu Mangkubumi the Sultan’s daughter, along with Nyi Gadung Melati in Merapi Volcano, and create a powerful female trio to rule the region, becoming the next powerful Indonesian sisterhood.