A chance conversation at an ancient shrine in East Java helped me understand Indonesia’s tradition of religious pluralism—and the Islamic puritanism that now threatens it. I had traveled with a friend to the ruined fourteenth-century temple complex of Panataran, at the foot of the still-active volcano known as Gunung Kelud. Panataran is a remnant of Indonesia’s pre-Islamic past—on its carved walls appear writhing monkey-gods in combat with demons from the Hindu Ramayana epic—but most Javanese Muslims today regard this place as part of their own heritage. Panataran was part of Majapahit, an empire based on the island of Java that extended from Sumatra to New Guinea. Majapahit combined the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism with local animistic faiths. Although eventually overwhelmed by Muslim conquerors in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Majapahit is still remembered with pride by the people of Java, who consider it a precursor to modern Indonesia.
On the stone floor of one of the shrines at Panataran, a young woman sat alone, apparently absorbed in prayer or meditation. I wondered to whom she was praying. Two hours after we arrived, a sudden storm forced me and my friend to take shelter under a makeshift plastic awning; soon others joined us. “Do you recognize her?” my friend asked me, as he nodded at one of the newcomers: it was the young woman we’d seen in the shrine.