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Roy E.


The Mystery of Nyai Lara Kidul, Goddess of the Southern Ocean

In: Archipel. Volume 28, 1984. pp. 99-116.

Citer ce document / Cite this document :

E. Jordaan Roy. The Mystery of Nyai Lara Kidul, Goddess of the Southern Ocean. In: Archipel. Volume 28, 1984. pp. 99-116.
doi : 10.3406/arch.1984.1921


Roy E. JORDAAN (1)

The Mystery of Nyai Lara Kidul,

Goddess of the Southern Ocean

and with
late evidence
to start
and religious
Paul Mus
Among the Javanese, Lara Kidul is regarded as the Goddess of the Sou
thern Ocean, i.e. the Indian Ocean off the southern coast of Java. In local his
tory she is especially known for her alliance with Central Javanese royal
courts, with the House of Mataram and with superseding Sultanates of Surakarta and Yogyakarta. Generally, the alliance is traced back to Senapati, the
founder of the kingdom of Mataram.
The first encounter between Senapati and Lara Kidul is recorded in the
chronicle Babad Tanah Jam (Olthof 1941 : 79-83). Undoubtedly, the main
element in this description is the appearance of Lara Kidul as 'king-maker'. It
is she who tells Senapati that his prayers are heard and that he and his descen
dantswill become the rulers of Java. Through her is Senapati instructed in the

principles of statecraft. In addition to that, she promises him her support and
tells him how to call in her help whenever necessary.
Senapati saw the relationship with Lara Kidul to be eminently suited to
prove his predestination as king; for according to the Javanase, such contact
is only reserved to people who have superior qualities : eux seuls peuvent
commander la fois deux mondes : celui des esprits et celui des hommes
(Hadiwidjojo 1972 : 130). The wording in this quotation points to the position
of the ruler as mediator, which is held to be a determinating factor for the sta
and well-being of the country.
After the reign of Senapati the alliance between Lara Kidul and the
House of Mataram was continued. According to the Babad Tanah Jawi, Sul
tan Agung, a descendant of Senapati, took her as his bride and often stayed
with her in her underwater palace off the southern coast. It was probably
during his reign that the cult of Lara Kidul was further elaborated. There are
vague reports about a palace-tower where she and the king had their nightly
rendezvous (De Graaf 1958 : 111). In the reports of the V.O.C. mention is
made of ceremonial expeditions of Javanese rulers to a cave, Guwa Langseh,
near the southern coast, to meditate there and to have a meeting with the Godd
ess. It is known that the meditations of the rulers were intended as consulta
with Lara Kidul about important matters of state (Encyclopaedia 1918,
Ricklefs 1974). The contact with Lara Kidul has also been admitted by the pre
sent Sultan of Yogyakarta (Roem 1982 : 102). It seems certain that the Labuhan, the royal rite which is held yearly at the beach near Parangtritis, is also
related to Lara Kidul (Bigeon 1982).
Apart from the alliance with Central Javanese dynasties, Lara Kidul is
also known as a fertility goddess, especially among local fishermen and gather
of birds' nests. In many places along the Javanese southern coast regular
ceremonies are still held to beseech her protection and blessing (Lombard
1972, Helmi 1982) (2).
Lara Kidul is a strange and puzzling figure. There is a certain incongruity
between her prominent position and the little that is actually known about
her. It is curious that the scanty information repeatedly mentions a connection
with skin disease (3). According to some legends Lara Kidul in her former life
was a beautiful princess from Pajajaran, who, after contracting a horrible
skin disease, committed suicide by throwing herself from the cliffs. The sea
then restored her former beauty and made her queen of the Southern Ocean
(Encyclopaedia 1918, Moertono 1968, Hadiwidjojo 1972). The connection
with skin disease is also apparent from the fact that, according to popular
beliefs, the souls of victims of smallpox are snatched away by her to become

servants in her underwater palace (Van Ossenbruggen 1916).
In passing, we may point out an interesting parallel between Lara Kidul
and the figure of Ragapadmi, a mythical princess from Madura. Legend has it
that Ragapadmi also suffered from a serious skin disease (leprosy). Although
the circumstances differ, she too died in the legend and was buried on an
island off the southern coast of Madura. This island, Mandangin, was an
important place in Madurese history, for it was the place where the prince
Trunojoyo retired for meditation before unleashing the revolt that was the
shake Mataram to its base. Because of the supernatural influence which since
ancient times has been credited to the graveyard, it does not seem improbable
to suppose that Trunojoyo sought a divine inspiration to legitimate his ambit
ious undertaking, just as Senapati sought in Lara Kidul.
It has been suggested that the cult of Lara Kidul is much older than the
days of Senapati. Pigeaud believes that Lara Kidul originally was an ancient
Austronesian mythical figure, who represented a chthonian power (1962 :
319; personal communication). In this connection he not only notes her
resemblance to Prajnaparamita, but also to the Hindu goddesses Durga ( =
Ra Nini) and Dewi Sri. On no account is the probability of Ra Nini-Ratu
Lara Kidul's near relationship in native Javanese mythological thinking with
the rice-goddess Dewi Sri to be discarded (Pigeaud 1962 : 211). He agrees
with Schrieke, who suggested that Lara Kidul under Hinduistic influences
became connected with or displaced by Durga and Dewi Sri, as was the case in
Bali (Schrieke 1925).
While the identification with Durga probably is related to Lara Kidul's
appearance as goddess of smallpox and death, the relationship which Schrieke
established with Dewi Sri is mainly based on the fact that, in Bali, Durga is
often confused or substituted for Dewi Sri (see e.g. Grader 1949). Schrieke
also mentions that among the Tenggerese of East Java, the beneficial side of
Ratu Kidul comes to the fore. Here she more clearly resembles Dewi Sri,
because she is held responsible for the success of the harvest and the wellbeing of the community.
The above-mentioned arguments for the relationship between Lara Kidul
and an ancient Austronesian chthonian power may seem to have little substant
ialityand be rather speculative, but there is still more information available
to support the hypothesis. Before doing so, it is useful to point out a number
of rather striking resemblances between Lara Kidul and other Javanese and
Sundanese ancestral figures, some of whom may clearly be considered chtho
First of all, the use of the word Nyai, 'old or elderly woman', should be

mentioned as an alternative form of address for Lara Kidul. This form of
address may be placed on the same footing with those of other mythical figu
res, such as Ni Po, Nini Towong, Nyi Rara Suci, Ra Nini and Nyi Pohatji.
Taken by itself, the observation is of little importance. It is rather odd, howev
er,to note that such a large number of these mythical grannies are suffering
from skin disease : Nyai Lara Kidul suffers from smallpox or leprosy, Ni Po
from an unspecified 'horrible' skin disease, Nini Towong from itch. Of the
last three mentioned in the row above, there is no explicit mentioning of a
disease, but what is mentioned is either their unhealthy complexion or the
skin. For instance, Nyi Rara Suci, 'the Lady of the Moon', is sometimes called
Sang Palangka, 'the Spotted One'. Ra Nini (= Durga), after her release from
a curse for infidelity, is restored to her former beauty. Nyi Pohatji is repea
tedly associated with the skin. These superficial resemblances become more
profound in the light of the fact that the above-mentioned female persons in
one way or another are related with fecundity, reproduction, well-being or
prosperity in short, with things that are characteristics of chthonian creatur
In order to render the affinity to these chthonian creatures more plausi
we will investigate to what extent Lara Kidul corresponds with the items
which Hidding, on the basis of a study about Nyi Pohatji, marked as chtho
nian(Hidding 1929). This will not be done directly, however, but only after
having made a comparison between Lara Kidul and the mythical figure of
Nini Towong. The comparison with Nini Towong seems warranted, because
her likeness to Nyi Pohatji has already been repeatedly pointed out. Yet, in
our opinion, the affinity has not been sufficiently brought to light and a numb
erof things have remained unrevealed. By inserting the comparison with
Lara Kidul, we hope to be able to magnify the mutual resemblances and diffe
rences among the three. Concluding the article will be a general discussion, in
which we will speculate about the background and development of the Lara
Kidul cult, and about the relationship of the Javanese goddess of the sea with
the rice-goddess Dewi Sri.
Lara Kidul as a chthonian deity
To facilitate the comparison with Nini Towong, more should first be told
about this mythical figure. Nini Towong is the name of a doll in a well-known
Javanese children's game. Actually, this designation is rather misleading.
Perhaps it would be more appropriate to speak of an ancient Javanese folkritual which has been degraded to a children's game.
According to Hazeu, Nini Towong originally was a Malayo-Polynesian

tutelar deity, whose identity became more vague under the influence of Hin
(Hazeu 1901). Rassers, on the basis of a detailed literature research,
even dared to conclude that Nini Towong was no less than the female ancestor
of the Javanese (Rassers 1925). It would go beyond the scope of the present
article to repeat the arguments of both scholars. As an affirmation of the
sacred character of the Nini Towong performance, we will only refer here to a
recent article which contains a valuable eye-witness report of the appearance
of Nini Towong in a healing ritual (Kant Achilles 1980).
Because of the elaborate descriptions available of the Nini Towong per
it will suffice to call to mind the most relevant information. Firstly,
something should be said about the construction of the doll. It is made of the
following objects : an old water-scoop for the head, an old fishnet or a ricepounder for the body, bundles of rice-stalks or brooms for the arms. To give
to the head a human-life appearance, some chalk, rice-powder and charcoal is
used. The doll is dressed and decorated as a bride.
When the doll has been completed, an old woman escorted by a few girls
brings it to a spirit-inhabited spot after sunset. Such a place may be an old
well, a shady spot under the trees, a graveyard, and the like. During the trip
the girls sing all kinds of songs, like 'let's throw away the child', 'we have
come to deliver an itchy child to the tutelar spirit'. Once at the sacred spot,
some incense is burned and an offering made. The local spirit is invoked to
assist in the happening; his or her blessing is required, lest the widadarior hea
venly nymph enter the doll. Then the doll is left behind and the people return
At night, under full moon, the doll is fetched. It is now referred to as a
bride and is asked to join the girls in their game. Soon the grand climax of the
performance is reached. Slowly, under the rhythmic singing of the girls, the
doll comes to life and finally starts shaking and moving. While being in an
animated state, Nini Towong is ridiculed, but often she is asked all kinds of
questions, because Nini Towong is said to know more than ordinary human
beings. From some reports it may be concluded that the performance can also
have a more serious nature, depending upon the purpose, e.g., to bring rain
after a long period of drought, to secure protection against mishap, to ensure
recovery from illness.
At midnight the performance comes to an end. The old woman in charge
asks the people to go home. What happens to the doll may differ depending
on the locality. Sometimes the doll is thrown away or destroyed, sometimes it
is brought back to the sacred spot to enable the widadari to return to her own

What, then, are the resemblances with Lara Kidul? We have already ment
ioned the skin disease, but there is something more. It is clearly said that Nini
Towong suffers from the itch. In the article by Kant Achilles mentioned
above, however, lara kuning or jaundice is mentioned. Although the diffe
rence seems important enough, in both cases there is a question of a disease
which manifests itself on the skin. The designation confirms the supposition
that lara in the name Lara Kidul has to be related to disease. The suggestion
that Lara is derived from rara, maiden, does not necessarily have to exclude
the connection with disease. We know one Balinese story in which a girl Roro
(= rara) is suffering from skin disease. Furthermore, it may be recalled that
playing upon words and the use of ambigious designations is rather popular
among the Javanese.
Another resemblance is the association with water. Where Lara Kidul is
concerned, the association is evident; but in the case of Nini Towong, it may
be inferred from the objects that are used in the construction of the doll : a
water-scoop and the fishnet. Then there is the well as one of the suitable
sacred spots. In addition to this, we may mention the connection of widadari
with water, which helps to explain the rain-producing influence of the Nini
Towong performance.
Water is not important in itself, but is related to fertility and food. It is
most probably not a mere coincidence that a rice-pounder and rice-stalks are
used for the construction, nor that the ceremony takes place at full moon. The
connection with food is also apparent from Nini Towong having the status of
tutelar deity of the house and kitchen. As for Lara Kidul, we already mentio
the veneration by gatherers of birds' nests and fishermen, and her connect
with the harvest in the beliefs of the Tenggerese.
Another point of resemblance of both figures is their vacillating charact
On the one hand Lara Kidul is associated with demons and death, but on
the other with protection and prosperity. Such a vacillating character of Nini
Towong is less clearly visible, but not absent. We may point at the nightly
hour of the staging of the ceremony, the necessary cooperation of a spirit, and
the well and graveyard, which are both associated with the underworld.
More pronounced is their possession of esoteric knowledge. The oracular
services of Nini Towong correspond with the clairvoyance and the political
talents of Lara Kidul.
Finally, the numerous references to marriage must be mentioned. Lara
Kidul is an ever-rejuvenating bride, who enters into marriage with successive
Javanese rulers. During the harvest festivals of the birds' nests gatherers, a
wayang performance is held for which the lakon Panji Asmarabangun is pre-

ferred, because marriage is its central theme. Although it is not clear with
whom Nini Towong marries (according to Rassers with the gandik, sl doll
which is said to represent the other moiety), her clothes and the forms of
address clearly show that she is a bride. In passing, it may be noted that the
yellow coulour of her skin (lara kuning) may also be explained by the custo
mary practice of greasing the body with yellow powder on ceremonial occa
The identification of both as a bride probably explains the resemblances
of other parts of their respective ceremonies. We may point at the animation
of the doll by the widadari Nini Towong and the trance-like possession of the
old woman, who acts as a medium for Lara Kidul during the harvest festival
of the birds' nests gatherers. In both cases, the possession is regarded as a sign
of their presence at the ceremony. We may also make reference to the singing
and dancing of the girls at the Nini Towong ceremony and the performance of
female dancers during the harvest festivals in honour of Lara Kidul (Pigeaud
1938). Sometimes it even looks as if Nini Towong and Lara Kidul themselves
take part in the dancing. For Nini Towong was invited to join the girls in their
play, while it is said of Lara Kidul that she takes part in some dances, like the
Bedojo Ketawang (Hadiwidjojo 1972).
After having discussed the resemblances of both figures, one important
difference should not go unnoticed. It is their difference in status. In view of
the qualities imputed and her alliance with Javanese dynasties, Lara Kidul is
evidently superior to Nini Towong (who nowadays is even equated with a
child's figure). Although it may certainly be assumed that Nini Towong occu
pied a more prominent position in the past, there is, in our opinion, insuffi
evidence for the contention that she was the female ancestor of the Java
nese. Not only does it remain inexplicable why her degradation would have
been stronger than that of Lara Kidul, in comparison with the latter her qualit
ieson the whole are more limited and less pronounced.
Before analysing the information on Lara Kidul by means of the items
which Hidding singled out as chthonian, some preliminary remarks are in
order. It should be observed that the concept of chthonian power concerns a
complex coherence of symbolic associations, which are only analytically sepa
rable (4). From the discussion it will become apparent that multiple connect
may be drawn between each of the various characteristics. Because of
this and the foregoing comparison of Lara Kidul with Nini Towong, some
overlap is unavoidable. We will try to obviate this as much as possible by
inserting relevant information from outside Java. By referring to correspon
beliefs and practices we are sometimes able to suggest connections which

would otherwise remain unnoticed.
Connection with water and the underworld
There is no doubt about the close connection of Lara Kidul with water.
This is evident from the place where Senapati first met her : on the beach of
the southern coast near the river Opak. Not far from there is the underwater
palace of Lara Kidul. When she was with the Sultan of Yogyakarta, she stayed
in a special room in the tower of the Water Castle. It is said that the Water
Castle is connected with the sea by a subterranean tunnel. That the abode of
Lara Kidul should be regarded as the underworld is apparent from the pre
sence of various demonic creatures, over whom Lara Kidul sways the scepter.
Furthermore, it is the place where the victims of smallpox are put to work.
In the Sundanese rice-myth it is told that Nyi Pohatji is born from an egg
of Antaboga, the Snake of the Underworld, who has his abode at the bottom
of the sea. Additionally, there is the belief of the Sundanese that Nyi Pohatji
often lingers about wells, ponds and rivers.
The sea is also mentioned in the prayer to Putri Hitam ('the Black Princ
ess'), which is chanted by the Malay during the planting of the rice : o,
Princess Dang Hitam, that dwellest-as-a-recluse in the sea... (Skeat & BLagden 1906 : 706). The black coulour of the princess also suggests a connection
between the sea and the underworld.
This may be compared with the information about 'the Black Lady', of
the Chams, who represents Kali, the demonic manifestation of the wife of
Shiva. According to Aymonier, it was the beneficial side of the vacillating
goddess who was identified with the Hindu goddess Parvati which was
dominant : mais elle est surtout la desse des rizires, de la fertilit, de
l'abondance, la desse de l'agriculture (Aymonier 1891 : 38). Under her ind
name, Po Nagar, she was accorded the position of the Lady of the
Kingdom (Encyclopaedia 1908). It is interesting to note that the templecomplex of Po Nagar was overlooking the sea. In Hidding's interpretation
it concerns both the sea and the underworld, for it is from both places, where
life on earth, the chthonian life, comes forth, while at the same time being the
place of death (Hidding 1929 : 32, my translation).
Power over life and death
That Lara Kidul is immortal, having power over life and death, is shown
by her appearance as an ever-rejuvenating virgin who marries succesive Java
nese rulers. The continuing rejuvenation is also evident from the words of the
present Sultan of Yogyakarta : he says that during the waxing of the moon

Lara Kidul resembled a young maiden, who grew old with the waning of the
moon. This information might explain the contention that rara, in the rather
paradoxical designation Nyai rara, means maiden.
In our opinion, the immortality of Lara Kidul should be regarded as the
death and rebirth of a fertility goddess. It is comparable to the fate of the ricegoddesses Nyi Pohatji, Tisnawati and Dewi Sri, whose death is the condition
for the origin of rice and various other crops and for new life.
Richness and abundancy, especially of the harvest
There are many references in the Babad Tanah Jawi to the richness of
Lara Kidul : she lives in a palace of gold and silver, the courtyard is full of
pebbles of rubies, etc...
As far as her status as fertility goddess is concerned, we have already
mentioned the gathering of the birds' nests and the fishery along the southern
coast. The connection with fertility is also shown by her linkage with the
moon. It is odd, however, that Lara Kidul, with the exception of the Tenggerese in East Java, is usually not associated with agriculture and rice. We will
return to this problem presently.
Vacillating character
The final feature of chthonian creatures, according to Hidding, is their
vacillating character : their tendency towards good and evil. These tendencies
are also visible in Lara Kidul. Her beneficial side is shown in her veneration as
fertility goddess and her position as a consort and protector of Javanese
rulers. On the other hand, she is associated with disease, death, the under
world, and demonic creatures. Mataram's history demonstrates that she could
also withhold her support of Javanese rulers and finally even desert them.
Lara Kidul as a serpent deity
Although on the basis of the above-mentioned items we may already con
clude that Lara Kidul originally was a chthonian deity, there is still one thing
which deserves our attention. It concerns the observation by Pleyte and Hid
ding of the association in native thought of snakes and food - particularly
rice. Apparently this association is so fundamental as to give rise to the belief
that Nyi Pohatji and Dewi Sri, as the goddesses of rice, could themselves rein
into a snake. Hidding even dares to conclude that the snake is regar
dedas the origin of rice, asserting that this conception is far more general and
closer to Indonesian thought. In this connection, he suggests the former exis
tence of an indigenous snake-cult (Hidding 1929 : 28).

What interest us at the present we hope to discuss the indigenous
beliefs about the origin of rice on another occasion - is the connection of
snakes with fertility goddesses. In order to prove that Lara Kidul is a fertility
goddess (who in the past was also connected or at least more strongly than
is the case now - with agriculture), we will also have to demonstrate her con
with snakes.
Although the latter connection, to our knowledge, is not explicitly ment
anywhere, there are a reasonable number of indications. We have in
mind the curious passage in the Babad Tanah Jawi, which mentions a meeting
of Senapati with a fish-like creature referred to as olor. This incidence took
place in the River Opak and immediately precedes the meeting with Lara
Kidul. Actually, it was not the first time that Senapati had met the fish; it is
said that he once saved the olor's life when it was caught by local fishermen.
Although it proved to be impossible to definitely establish the identity by
means of the dictionaries available, it is not improbable that an ulam olor
designates an eel, or by extension, a sea serpent (5). The suggestion might seem
far-fetched, but it perfectly tallies with the popular belief which holds that
saving the life of a snake will bring the benefactor material riches. Further
more,there is often mention of a (grand) father of the snake, which lives on
an island off the coast or at the bottom of the sea (Pleyte 1914, Hooykaas
1956). The parallel is also remarkable between the putting on of golden clo
thes of the olor, and the iron hilt as a royal dress for the snake in the wellknown legend of Kasango (Pleyte 1919). Finally, we have to mention the pro
of a relationship between Lara Kidul and Nyai Blorong, a fabulous
woman with a snake-like underpart, who, like Lara Kidul, lives in a splendid
underwater palace off the southern coast of Java (Drewes 1929).
Nothing can be inferred from the Babad Tanah Jawi about the physi
appearance of Lara Kidul, except for the information that Senapati
tempered his erotic feelings by the thought that she was not of his
kind. This statement does of course allow several interpretations, but it cer
does not exclude the probability that Lara Kidul has a snake-like appea
rance. That such is actually the case has to be demonstrated with evidence
from other sources. Fortunately, three such examples were put at our dispos
The first concerns the parallel between Lara Kidul and a princess, who is
sung about in a Sundanese song, LayarPutri (6). In this song a boat is mentio
in which the princess is heading for the South. Significant is the infor
that the bow of the boat has the shape of a snake (naga pertala) and
that the wood carving contains motifs of scales. Probably the designation

naga pertala is derived from the Sanskrit patala, the infernal regions inhabited
by Nagas (Dowson 1914 : 213). The connection with the underworld is also
suggested by the colours of the boat, i.e. black-grey and gold. Zoetmulders'
dictionary (1982) mentions a goddess Dewi Patala, who seems to be no less
than Dewi Pertiwi, thereby illustrating the close connection of snakes/the
underworld and agricultural fertility.
The second example stems from discussions with Javanese informants,
who confirmed that Lara Kidul was referred to as Naga, a holy or mystical
snake (7).
Finally, we want to mention the striking fact that in various advertise
of a recent Indonesian film about Nyai Blorong, it is stated that Nyai
Blorong who is pictured as a snake-like creature - is the daughter of Lara
All this evokes the question of whether the resemblances are just coinci
dental, or that the author(s) of the Babad Tanah Jam made a deliberate use of
motifs from existing folktales and legends. The latter is not to be excluded,
particularly when one calls to mind Berg's thesis about chronicles as being the
products of literary magic (Berg 1938). We can only speculate about the rea
sons why the author of the Babad Tanah Jam remains so vague about the
identity of Lara Kidul. Perhaps he was not able to do otherwise than to implic
itlycall to mind a previous snake-cult because of the Islamic teachings then
prevailing. The fact that the position of Islam had to be reckoned with is
demonstrated by the admonitory words which the author attributes to the
Muslim saint Sunan Kalijaga - when Senapati returns from his stay with
Lara Kidul, walking over the surface of the sea.
A weak element in this argument is the fact that we are in the dark about
the snake-cult, which was to have existed in the past. We only know that a
matrimonial alliance of the ruler with a serpent deity was not an unknown ins
in Southeast Asia (8). If we are correct about Lara Kidul being a
Nagini or serpent deity, the Javanese goddess could be viewed in a wider pers
both in a geographic and a religious-historical sense.
In the present state of research it is still an unresolved debate whether the
snake-worship is fully derived from examples from India, or whether there
were corresponding indigenous elements assimilated with Hinduistic ideas (9).
We do know that the snake-cult became an integrated element of Sivaism,
which was dominant in Southeast Asia. This is probably related to the fact
that Siva, also by his affinity to the Vedic god Rudra, was closely connected
with the worship of the demonic powers of the underworld, which include the
Naga (Bosch 1924 : 261, Briggs 1951 : 25).

The worship of Siva as the god of change and reproduction probably
explains the association of earlier fertility goddesses with the 'mother goddess
like Uma, Durga and Parvati. Stutley has pointed out that the association
and identification od indigenous fertility goddesses with Parvati occurred
repeatedly, and that each goddess was regarded as a sakti of Siva, i.e. a con
sort representing an aspect of Siva's energy (Stutley 1977 : 81, 222).
It seems probable that such a development happened to Lara Kidul.
There is at least one author who related the alliance of Senapati and Lara
Kidul to pre-Islamic ideas of the divine king and his sakti (Hostetler 1982).
Unfortunately he did not, in our opinion, offer enough convincing evidence.
Still, we will mention two of his comparisons here because of their usefulness
in leading to the remainder of our discussion.
The first comparison concerns the goddess Durga In her rulership over
legions of demons, Ratu Kidul is parallel to Batari Durga, the cursed consort
of Siva. However, Ratu Kidul is as beautiful as the legendary widadari (the
nymphs of heaven), while Batari Durga is perceived as a frightening demon
ess. It seems to us that the comparison would have gained in strength if the
author had paid more attention to the legends about the skin disease of Lara
Kidul. It now remains unnoticed that Lara Kidul, like Durga, had onced been
cursed with a repellent appearance. Besides, the beauty and the implied nondemonic character of the widadari also calls for serious criticism. As was
shown earlier, the peculiar feature of the Indonesian widadari is their close
connection with water and the underworld (Hazeu 1901).
To render the association of Lara Kidul with Durga more plausible, it
might have been possible to refer to the yogi-like meditation of Senapati. The
consequent natural upheaval, the boiling of the sea water, and the interven
of a sexually attractive goddess to control the yogfs fiery power - these
are all images reminiscent of Sivaism (O'Flaherty 1971). There is still other
information in the Babad Tanah Jawi to suggest that Senapati and his descen
dantstacitly connived with pre-Islamic ideas and practices (see e.g., Schrieke
1924, 1955).
The second comparison, in which the meeting of Senapati and Lara Kidul
is related to that of the god Vishnu and the goddess Dewi Sri, seems less cor
rect to us. Dewi Sri, in our opinion, may better be regarded as a dissociation
of Lara Kidul, brought about by the influence of Hinduism. Initially, we
assume, Dewi Sri as the Hindu goddess of prosperity was associated with the
benevolent side of a two-sided Lara Kidul, but subsequently encroached on
the latter's position in becoming the goddess of agriculture (1Q). There are
three arguments in support of this view.

First, the Javanese rice-goddess hardly complies with the vascillating
nature which is characteristic of chthonian deities. Dewi Sri is mainly associa
with positive matters, like the growth of rice, the success of the harvest,
and domestic rules concerning the storage and cooking of rice. Van der Weijden reaches the same conclusion when she observes that Dewi Sri is not nearly
so ambivalent and capricious as compared with the ancient Indonesian Reisseele (1981 : 225). She attributes this fact to an unspecified process of simplifi
Leaving this contention open to question, our hypothesis about the part
ial identification of Dewi Sri with Lara Kidul has the advantage of providing
a plausible explanation for the assimilation by Dewi Sri of certain indigenous
characteristics. These include, among others, the peculiar connection with
wet-rice cultivation, the metamorphosis into a snake, and the death (and
burial!) of the goddess as a condition for the origin of food-crops. It is not
insignificant that in the Javanese and Sundanese myths about the origin of
rice, precisely these traits of Dewi Sri, as opposed to Nyi Pohatji and Tisnawati, have remained somewhat problematic and little elaborated (Hidding
1929 : 87-88, Rikin 1973 : 129, Bosch 1927 : 316-317).
The third argument in favour of the primordial status of Lara Kidul con
cerns the fact that her connection with fertility, though limited, is still
demonstrable. Her veneration as the goddess of the harvest among the isola
tedTenggerese is clear evidence of Lara Kidul's former connection with agri
fertility. This connection may also be inferred from a Central Java
nese legend, in which Tisnawati (the goddess of the dry rice) introduces herself
as the sister of Lara Kidul (Cock Wheatley 1931).
If our hypothesis about the partial displacement by Dewi Sri is correct,
the future development of Lara Kidul becomes more intelligible. Presumably,
because of the weakening of her connection with fertility, the bond with the
vast majority of the agricultural people became increasingly meaningless and
loose; in the process her identity finally dissolved into a mysterious demonic
power, which was connected with the Southern Ocean. At the same time this
development provided the conditions for her integration into the abstract
schemes of Javanese cosmic dualism, in which Lara Kidul is associated with
the sea, chaos, unlimited space beyond, and the supernatural; and is put in
opposition to the earth and mountains, the established order, the microcosmos, and earthly creatures (see e.g., Pigeaud 1962 : 80, Resink 1982 : 99 note
7). It is only in her relation to the ruler, as a mediator between these different
worlds, that Lara Kidul discloses something of her former position.


I hereby wish to thank the following persons for their willingness to read and comment upon
an earlier draft of this article : Dr. Th. G. Th. Pigeaud, Dr. S.O. Robson, Prof. P.E. de Josselin de Jong, Drs. W. van der Molen, Drs. CD. Grijns and my wife, Anke Niehof. The
author himself must be held responsible for any remaining shortcoming.
2. It seems probable that this holds equally for the inhabitants of the Sundanese southern coast.
It is said that in a hotel called Samudra Beach near the bay of Pelabuhan Ratu (!), a special,
green-coloured room had been reserved for Lara Kidul. Although Lara Kidul originated from
the Sundanese kingdom of Pajajaran, there is only scant information about her veneration
among the Sundanese people (see e.g. Inten Bayan, n.d.).
3 . In this connection it is interesting to note that skin disease is a well-known mythological motif
in the Indonesian Archipelago as well as in neighbouring areas in Southeast Asia (see e.g. de
Josselin de Jong, 1980). This article was originally planned to be a part of a larger joint study
on skin disease as a theme in Southeast Asian myths. However, due to the voluminous cha
racter and the complex interweaving of skin disease with other mythological motifs, the
research is still in progress. Because the study on Lara Kidul could be seen as a self-contained
whole, it was decided to publish it as a separate article.
4. Because the concept of chthonian power was sometimes used rather indiscriminately by Hidding - see e.g. the criticism lanced by Pigeaud (1932) - we will confine our analysis to the
four core elements of the concept (Hidding 1929 : 55).
5. It should be observed that the common word for snake is ula (in Javanese) or ular (in Malay),
while the word uler means caterpillar, maggit, or worm. While from a linguistic point of view
the translation of (ulam) olor as a snake-like fish may not be indisputable, the ethnographic
evidence mentioned favours our argument of linking this ambiguous creature with Lara Kidul
and the Naga concept (see also Przyluski (1925)).
6. This song is a so-called papantunan, a song from the Tembang Sunda, the contents of which
are based on a myth as yet unidentified. Its use was kindly granted to me by Wim van Zanten,
who in the framework of an ethno-musicological study had recorded the song in the Sunda
nesearea of West- Java.
7. I owe this information to my colleague Pram Sutikno, and to Mr. R.M.T.S. Poerbodipoero.
8. As far as Southeast Asia is concerned, we may point out the parallel between the stay of Lara
Kidul at the Water Castle, and the nightly unions of Khmer kings in the Phimeanakas (a
tower-shaped building of the Angkor Thom complex) with a 'serpent goddess' who appeared
under the guise of a beautiful woman (Briggs 1951; Groslier, as set forth in the National Geo
May 1982).
Among the neighbouring Cham there are also indications of the existence of a snake-cult. In
a chronicle about the fertility goddess Po Nagar, the Creator - 'sous la forme d'un Naga' is equated with Po Nagar (Durand 1907). Both among the Khmer and the Cham, a close con
existed between the Naga, fertility, and kings suffering from skin disease, such as the
Leper King and Po Klong Garai.
9. See Briggs 1951 : 21-27 about the possible origin of the Naga legend from India and Central
Asia. The existence of corresponding indigenous notions is discussed, among others, by
Przyluski (1925), Mus (1975), Hooykaas (1957).
10. In a sense the partial identification of the Hindu goddess Sri with a Malayo-Polynesian
chthonian deity, like Lara Kidul, was quite obvious, because Dewi Sri was already connected
with the ocean and the serpent (i.e. born from the foam from the 'Churning of the Ocean',
for which purpose the gods had used the Serpent Vasuki), and with prosperity.

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