More than five hundred thousand people climb to the very crater of the active volcano Bromo each year for the Kasada Upacara ceremony, fulfilling the agreement with the gods that their king made in Legendary times.
Bromo is not the largest volcano in the Indonesian Ring of Fire. It's not even the largest within the Tengger Caldera on Java, as nearby there's the more dangerous and taller Semeru (3676 meters) and the smaller but active Batok (2440 meters).
Standing at 2329 meters in height, with a crater spanning 800 meters, it's densely covered in ash and smoke from constant eruptions over the past two decades, with the last one occurring in February 2016. Anyone who underestimates its potential danger risks their life.
In this inhospitable region, there are the Tengger people, roughly half a million individuals belonging to a vanishing ethnic minority.
The Tengger people are surrounded by Muslims, facing cultural pressures from Madura, surviving Dutch occupation, and living isolated from the world in thirty villages at the base of active volcanoes. However, they remain Indo-Buddhists since the 15th century, following their own traditions, considering themselves direct descendants of the rulers of the legendary Majapahit Kingdom, which was the golden age of Indonesian civilization and all of Southeast Asia.
View of Bromo and the caldera from space (NASA image)
Early morning. Guides prepare to cross the 'Sea of Sand': a section of dead desert, densely covered with ash from the constantly erupting volcanoes within the Semeru-Bromo-Tengger caldera.
They managed to preserve a unique archaic dialect, their own Kawi script, and a variety of Hinduism that no one else in the world practices.
The Tenggerese are to Hinduism what Old Believers are to Orthodoxy. Their version of Hinduism incorporates much more canonical Buddhism and, at the same time, far more animism - the belief in the spiritual essence of nature - than traditional Indian or even Balinese Hinduism. In general, their variant is much closer to the Indonesian Hinduism that thrived in the 15th century before Islam arrived in these lands.
No one would say that preserving this way of life was easy: Christian and Islamic missionaries have been circling here for centuries. Muslims from Madura, after liberation from Dutch rule, confidently led the region towards genocide, to the point where the Tenggerese officially requested assistance from the Balinese. Although the Balinese had moved away from orthodox interpretations of religion, they were still considered 'their own'. Fortunately, the Indonesian government declared this region a National Park in time, and now any attempts to influence the local ecosystem are prohibited.
Every twelfth month according to the Hindu calendar, or the tenth according to the Javanese one, the Yadnya Kasada festival takes place here. Tens of thousands of people gather for it, including the Tenggerese themselves and the curious.
The most interesting part occurs in the middle, on the day of Upacara Kasada. On the fourteenth day of Kasada (the entire month is named after it), people gather at the main temple, Pura Luhur Poten, where they seek the blessings of the gods. Then the entire crowd proceeds to the crater of Mount Bromo to make offerings.
Rain clouds rarely rise higher than two kilometers, so it's always sunny on the volcano's edge, except for those days when the sulfuric volcanic smoke blankets the sky for several kilometers. It's sunny, but not warm: during the European summer, temperatures can drop to zero at night, usually around +5°C in winter, and the wind reaches speeds of 50-55 kilometers per hour. Due to the intense sunlight, you can get sunburned almost instantly.
Local residents dress not only warmly but also in layers.
The vast sandy plain at the foot of Bromo is almost lifeless, with half of the sand consisting of black volcanic ash. To reach the volcano and the temple beneath it, you'll have to drive for a couple of hours through the desert on a jeep with special wheels. Locals prefer horses, while pilgrims walk.
The main events take place within the territory of Pura Luhur Poten, a temple built on the 'Sea of Sand.'
By evening, a huge crowd gathers. The ceremony will last the whole night. As is customary among Hindus, everything will be very beautiful, accompanied by the chanting of mantras, the music of gamelans, and Javanese drums. Immediately after sunset, a theatrical performance begins—a complex dramatic spectacle with dances based on the legend of the festival. It will conclude at midnight, when it's time for prayer and trance.
Those who directly participate in the ceremony or can afford it wear expensive and luxurious ceremonial attire. Future offerings are arranged in large compositions. Everything will be offered to the gods: vegetables, fruits, flowers, rice, candies, money. Roosters and goats. Those who have seriously transgressed against the gods carry cows. Children are no longer thrown into the volcano's crater.
A typical form of a minimal offering: a basket the size of half a palm, woven from a banana leaf, containing cooked rice, sweets, flowers, and incense.
Larger festive offerings. Here, only vegetables are shown, but this is far from the only option for an offering.
This is a tragic story, and it all started because of children.
This is a tragic story, and it all started because of children.
The legendary Majapahit kingdom – the origin and pinnacle of Indonesian civilization – was one of the greatest empires in Asia from 1293 to 1500, spanning from modern-day Malaysia to New Guinea.
In the 15th century, when Islam spread throughout Java, Queen Roro Anteng and her Brahmin husband Joko Seger found refuge in the Bromo area. There, they established their own principality, named it Tengger – a combination of parts of their last names – and lived a prosperous life while preserving their religion and customs. They did so well that they are still considered models of noble living and symbols of the last peaceful times.
However, they had no children. The royal couple turned to the gods. After several days of meditation and special ceremonies, a god appeared to them and promised that they would have enough children, that it would be sufficient. But the last one had to be given back to the volcano. A classic fairy tale plot.
They made a deal, but, of course, they couldn't simply take their beloved prince Kesuma, by the way, the twenty-fifth in line, and throw him into the volcano. The enraged god almost caused an eruption, scared everyone badly, and took the prince. According to another version, the prince himself jumped into the volcano.
The brothers and sisters of the victim held a ceremony where they asked the volcano to spare the rest. In return, they vowed to conduct a ritual with offerings every year, on the very day when Prince Kesuma disappeared into the mountain.
In this harsh landscape, medieval morality prevails: the more children are born, the more will survive. The more that survive, the more laborers there will be. This increases the chances of survival for the entire tribe.
Indonesians take their history quite seriously.
Firstly, they remember all their rulers very well. Who ruled when, where they fled to, and what they did there - it's all more or less documented. Secondly, finally, evidence has been found. According to the Jakarta Post in 2005, Winston Mambu, the head of the archaeological artifact preservation center, claimed to have made the greatest discovery in modern Indonesian history: he found an ancient ruined temple on the slopes of Bromo. And, according to him, this temple provides 100% evidence that the Tengger people indeed inherited the kingdom of Majapahit. The Tengger people are descendants of princes.
Although there is no evidence that a god participated in the negotiations and demanded a sacrifice, we can confidently assume that the main events in the festival legend are described correctly. That's how it all happened. They threw the prince into the volcano. And they continue to fulfill the terms of that deal to this day.
The Pura Luhur Poten temple is a relatively new construction and doesn't hold historical value, but the Tengger people are not concerned about that. The key factor is not its antiquity but whether the ancestral spirits agree to consider the temple a suitable place for them. In this case, they have approved it.
The Tengger people, dressed in ceremonial attire, walk to the temple across the "sea of sand," a layer of volcanic ash. This journey takes about one and a half to two hours in the heat.
The main ceremony takes place the night before.
It is led by 27 chief priests: one from each village and three assistants for each of them. No other ceremony gathers so many high-ranking spiritual leaders in one place. The reason is that the dukuns, as the chief priests are called, once a year, on this very night, take qualifying exams in front of their entire people.
The position of the high priest is hereditary, and only the son of a brahmin can become a brahmin. However, this position offers almost no privileges, but rather elevated expectations. The work is not easy, as they bear the responsibility for the well-being of the entire community. They are not just, and not even primarily, priests; they are spiritual leaders in their villages.
Today, they must prove that the gods hear them and still grant them access to secret knowledge. They must demonstrate wisdom, maturity in judgment, and good memory. In particular, each of the dukuns recites complex ancient mantras from memory, performs healing rituals, and invokes the mercy of the gods and ancestors.
Brahmins are not just priests but also spiritual leaders in their villages. They address issues for the entire community and each individual. This night, they must once again prove to the people that the gods hear them and respond to their prayers.
In the morning after the temple ceremony, they begin with offerings: they ascend to the caldera and, after praying, toss the offerings into the volcano.
While some offer goats and roosters to the gods, others are determined to prevent such a transfer of products. What surprises tourists the most is not the ceremony itself but the people with covered faces who stand guard on the inner slope of the volcano from dawn. Right in the crater. Almost everything that the faithful throw into the abyss, these individuals will collect and use for their intended purpose.
Most of them are local Muslims. But why aren't they chased away then? It's because the most important thing in offering to the gods is the right intention. When you have properly prayed, spiritually prepared, and performed the ritual of offering a gift, the rest is not your concern. At the moment when you released the offering from your hands, it belongs to the gods, and when and how they take it is their decision, not ours to dictate. The gods take the spirit of the offering, its essence. The material embodiment of the gift—a coin, candy, cigarette, or the body of an animal—is secondary.
If the gods temporarily entrust you with their goat, then hold onto it firmly, even if it initially seems like it will drag you down.
Most of the offerings people will take back. There's nothing strange about this: they offer the spirit of the animal to the gods, they don't need the meat.
Every year, a few people fall and die, unsuccessfully catching too heavy an offering, even though the animals are drugged beforehand to prevent resistance. The hot volcanic smoke is highly toxic, and the rocky surface of the crater is slippery and crumbles with every move.
They use sarongs to catch the coins thrown from above by the pilgrims. The gods are not offended; they take the essence of money, the concept of wealth.
A steep slope into the volcano's crater. It's tough work, but judging by the faces of the local residents, they seem fine with it.
Hindus offer sacrifices not to kill but to verify the correctness of the ritual. Usually, an old animal is sacrificed, and it is reborn in a young body and at a higher level of consciousness. In Christianity, there is no concept of reincarnation, but they also believe that those who die as martyrs for the glory of God go straight to heaven.
As for the current era of Kali Yuga, according to the Puranas, it is forbidden to sacrifice animals now. The sacred Hindu text, the "Brahmavaivarta Purana," explains that in this age, animals should not be sacrificed because there are no longer any Brahmin priests capable of correctly performing such rituals. Balinese Hindus, for example, have long switched to offering flowers and fruits.
The little goat has been temporarily saved; it will live a bit longer.
Tourists are taken away, but the Tengger people stay near the crater almost until sunset. It's a day off, dedicated entirely to prayers and reflection, questioning if everything you do in life is right.
Text : Nikki
Photographs: Agung Parameswara