Lord Jagannath stroll in the ‘Veranda of Mecca’
By Hari Narayana Das
Aceh is a semi-autonomous Indonesian province on the northwest tip of Sumatra Island. It’s known for beaches, diving sites and mountain wilderness areas. Banda Aceh, its capital, is home to the 19th-century Baiturrahman Grand Mosque, a regional icon with delicate Mughal tracery, black domes and a reflecting pool. Aceh used to be commonly known as the ‘ Veranda of Mecca’ under the rule of a strong Muslim Sultanate, up to 300 years ago. The city also rose to international prominence in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean earthquake in 2004. Banda Aceh was the closest city to the epicenter of a 9.2 magnitude earthquake which created 100ft high Tsunami waves which killed 1.5 lakh people in the city alone.
Indonesia is worlds fourth most populous country. With 87% of Muslims, it accounts for the largest Muslim population in the world. Because of its location between Oceania and Southeast Asia, it is considered a transcontinental country. The territory of Indonesia stretches over 1,000 miles from north to south and over more than 3,100 miles from east to west, making it the largest archipelago in the world with more than 17,500 officially listed islands. Aceh, the westernmost Indonesian province is closest to India and is separated by a distance of just 163 km from Indira point(India) through the Andaman Sea. Aceh is bordered by the Bay of Bengal in the north, the Indian Ocean in the west, the Malacca Strait in the east, and North Sumatra in the southeast and south. The province’s population is around 5,190,000.
Aceh is superficially a difficult place to preach Krishna Consciousness. It is considered to be the place to begin the spread of Islam in Indonesia and played an important role in the spread of the religion in Southeast Asia. At the beginning of the 17th century, the Sultanate of Aceh was the richest, strongest and most prosperous country in the Malacca Strait region. When compared to other provinces, Aceh is a religiously conservative region. The percentage of the Muslim population is 98% which is the highest in Indonesia. The history of Aceh is characterized by political freedom and strong resistance to the control of foreigners, including the former Dutch colonialists and the Indonesian government. The Free Aceh movement sought independence for the Aceh region of Sumatra from Indonesia and fought against Indonesian government forces in the Aceh insurgency from 1976 to 2005. The aftermath of the tsunami has seen a cessation of much of the conflict in the city and province. The insurgency in Aceh led to a peace treaty and special autonomy in Aceh. Granted a special autonomous status, Aceh is the only Indonesian province practicing Sharia law i.e. Islamic criminal law, officially. In 2016 Aceh carried out about 100 canning sentences under the Islamic law for various offenses like alcohol consumption , gambling, rape, sexual harassment, homosex etc.
Regardless of all these considerations, the people of Indonesia harbor great respect and adherence for their great Vedic legacy which flourished here up till just 500 years ago. This emotion can be gauged from few facts just like Indonesia having their national insignia as Garuda (Lord Visnu’s carrier). Their national air carrier is Garuda Airlines. The national library of Indonesia is called Perpustakan Ganesa or Ganesha Library. The wayang puppet and wayang kulit performances, as well as wayang wong dance and other Javanese classical dances, are derived from episodes of Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. Another instance, when in the nineties many countries including Indonesia were going through severe economic crises, Indonesian government took several steps under the guidance of World experts to arrest the downward slump of their rupiah with respect to US dollar, but in vain. Finally, Indonesian government withdrew old 20,000 Rupiah notes and printed new ones with the picture of Lord Ganesha (Indian God for removing obstacles), interestingly ceasing the depression.
Shri. Sudarshan, who is an Indonesian Muslim and director of the Art department, once explained: “Here in Indonesia, it is our custom to inscribe a verse of Mahabharat or Ramayana in the Javanese language on the tombstone when someone dies. Though we are Muslims, we deeply adore Ram and Krishna”.
Also, with the divine and dramatic spread of Jagannath Rath yatras, redefining history all over Indonesia since 2012, starting from its capital Jakarta and reaching upto Papua, once home to Cannibles, the devotees are now well known and respected amount the Hindu community here. It is definitely resolidifying their soft yet deep-rooted faith in Lord Krishna which they once learnt from their forefathers.
In a yet another instance, the brave devotees of ISKCON empowered by Srila Prabhupada got a very nice opportunity to spread the divine message of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in the form of Lord Jagannath’s Rath yatra procession in the religiously conservative province of Aceh, Indonesia. This is how the events unfolded.
Aceh, which has a small Hindu community consisting of both Balinese Hindus and Tamil Hindus (originating from India) have the only single Tamil Hindu temple in Banda Aceh by the name Kuil Palani Kamuwer to worship Muruga( Kartikey), since 1934. In order to continue the age-old Hindu tradition in Aceh, the local Tamil Hindus together with much larger Tamil community from Medan, little to the south, arranged the Sri Palani Andawer Thiruvila Sithirai Maha Puja in front of the Palani Kamuwer temple. They paraded Dewa Muruga, route WR Supratman Road to Malem Dagang Road and ended again at Palani Kamuwer Temple.
The committee of the festival also invited the Ratha yatra team to participate in the festival. This invitation was deeply thought over by the team as Aceh was a new and comparatively sensitive place for Lord Jagannath Ratha yatra. There was also no congregation in Aceh, not even a single local devotee. Over and above that there had been an air of misconception among the outsiders about Acehnese people, who are often considered fanatical about Islam without being open to the presence of other religions. Time and again there had been reports of a conflict with churches and damage to their property.
Hinduism is a small minority in Aceh, but there had not been any problem in a celebration of a Hindu religious day. The local community supported them. A small scale Rath Yatra was definitely possible.The devotees consulted H.H. Subhag Swami Maharaj, their mentor and their inspiration behind the successful Rath Yatras all across Indonesia. He told them that because of Aceh being a new place, take guidance from the South Indian temple as to how the devotees should act and behave so as to not to start any problem with the locals.The devotees discussed the ground situation with the locals, and made plan for the Rath yatra.
Srila Prabhupada says,
“This is very good proposal. Make the Ratha-yatra festival very great success. This will be a great introduction in your city and people will appreciate it”. SPL to Syamasundara, 4th May, 1967
“It doesn’t matter if you can or cannot establish a temple there, but if you can introduce the Ratha-yatra festival, surely it will be a great success. So try to execute this will as far as possible” (SPL to Yamuna, 27th May, 1969)
Everything set, now it was the time for execution. Available strength of the devotees was also less pertaining to the high flight fares to Aceh. The pioneer team consisting of Adiprana prabhu, Srigarbha prabhu, and Sundar Gopal prabhu, flew from Bali and Sridar prabhu, flew from Palu, Sulawesi, to meet in Soekarno-Hatta international airport in Jakarta. They stayed overnight in a hotel near ISKCON Temple, Jakarta. The next day Gadhadara prabhu joined followed by Adipurusa prabhu and Dinatarini mataji along with her sister. They flew to Banda Ache. Jagannath, Baladev, Subhadra, chakra Sudarshan deities came along with Tapana Misra prabhu and Satyaraj prabhu who flew from Jakarta.
The devotees though lesser in number are very valuable, getting empowered from the blessing of previous acharya and the spiritual master, they become an instrument in their plan.
After the arrival of all the members of the team to Banda Aceh, they were invited to the Muruga temple, Banda Aceh. The devotees attended the yajna performed by the South Indian priest in the temple. After the yajna, the devotees were requested to sing bhajans and deliver a lecture. The melodious bhajan followed with the Maha-mantra sung by Sridar prabhu was so mesmerizing that it attracted everybody present, even it attracted the local people who stayed outside the temple.
Srila Prabhupada says,
“Simply the Krsna consciousness electric energy can immediately be attractive by developing our sense of Krsna consciousness, which I am sure you are experiencing gradually how easily it can be done”. SPL to Aniruddha, 7th July, 1968
On the day of the festival, the devotees started to prepare a small chariot early in the morning from mentor ( like a rickshaw in India). The Chariot was decorated with flower garlands and a small altar was made for the lord to sit. As the evening set in, the Lordships Sri Sri Jagannath, Baladev and Subhadra devi were brought and nicely seated on the chariot. The festival started. Devotees began to sing the Hare Krishna Maha-mantra with full enthusiasm and distributed prasadam already offered to Lord Jagannath. Srigarbha prabhu and other devotees distributed Srila Prabhupada books. Many locals irrespective of their faiths bought Srila Prabhupada books from the devotees in their native Indonesian ‘Bhasa’ language. Many more people received the mercy of the Lord in the form of his Prasadam. The program went on very smoothly without any hassles.
All the devotees felt very joyful after the program. They had distributed Srila Prabhupada books in Aceh where there are practically no Hindus. An awesome feeling they had on seeing the smiles of the people holding mahaprasadam in their hands. In spite of their cultural reservations, people were very happy to participate in the yatra. The Ratha yatra was made possible only with the sanction of Lord Jagannath and blessings from Srila Prabhupada. The risk the devotees took for the program paid them off.
Srila Prabhupada says in Krishna book,
“Lord Krishna’s instruction to Sudama brahmin, “Regardless of which stage one is in, when I see that one is engaged seriously and sincerely in discharging the duties ordered by the spiritual master and is thus dedicating his life to the service of the spiritual master, that person becomes most dear to Me””
We would like to take this opportunity to offer our ever grateful obeisances to HH Kavichandra Swami and HH Ramai Swami, the GBCs of Indonesia, for their support and guidance to always looking for new avenues for sankirtan. His Holiness Subhag Swami whose guidance as a spiritual mentor has transformed our lives for better. His inspiration and encouragement is pushing us for arranging more Lord Jagannath Rath yatra throughout Indonesia.
Jai Jagannath ! Jai Baladev ! Jai Subhadra !!!