The ancient Javanese tale of ruler of the sea, Nyai Roro Kidul, is a legend of spiritual romance, political intrigues and secrets, set around the background of the mystical Indonesian Southern sea.
Queen Roro, is probably the most popular mythical figure in Java, if not Indonesia. Over ages, her reign formed a blurry line between myth and reality, inspiring both local folklore and academic researchers.
Despite thorough studies, eye-witness accounts and numerous tales about Nyai Roro Kidul, her persona remains mysterious. Her duality seems scary and venerating, just as much is seductive and attractive about this mythical goddess. She locally is credited not only for her supernatural powers, but also held responsible for the rise and fall of empires.
The fragments of Nyai Roro Kidul’s existence dominate the lives of Indonesians in more ways than often is realized.
‘Nyai’ is a Javanese honorific for an elderly woman. However, Nyai Roro Kidul is never associated with the stereotypical image of an old lady.
Mostly, she is depicted as a beautiful young princess, often similar to the image of a mermaid.
Nyai Roro Kidul is believed to rule an underwater empire located off the southern coast of Java, in the Indian Ocean. Legend has it that she keeps a company of handsome young fishermen, whom she lured into the sea with her supernatural powers and physical beauty, much like the Sirene’s in Homers’ Oddysee.
Nyai Roro Kidul is known by various names throughout Java. Nyi Blorong, is often regarded as the goddess herself in mermaid form, acting as the commander of the Southern Sea. Gusti Kanjeng Ratu Kidul and Kanjeng Ratu Ayu Kencono Sari, all decorated with honorifics and adulation names, also refer to the same goddess.
The tale of Nyai Roro Kidul is associated with ancient folklore, but the earliest account appears in the 16th century Javanese chronicle Babad Tanah Jawi. The record tells of her encounter with Panembahan Senopati, who later became the founder and ruler of the great Mataram Kingdom – courtesy of the goddess’s blessings and providence.
In return for her favour, Nyai Roro Kidul asked to marry not only the prince himself but all of his successors. When the Mataram Kingdom later divided into the Surakarta and Yogyakarta Sultanate, Nyai Roro Kidul’s place as a spiritual consort for the kings of both sultanates has remained the same for centuries after.
Being the spiritual first lady, Nyai is still expected to grace her presence on special occasions, facilitated by real artifacts and rituals of worship. The Sultanate keeps a royal chariot for Nyai Roro Kidul, kept in museums when not in use.
It’s known that the rulers of Java still actively seek counsel from Nyai Roro Kidul through asceticism and pilgrimage. However, her spousal role began to decrease in narratives of recent years. A representative for the Surakarta Sultanate reveals that starting from Sultan Pakubuwono X (1866-1939), the Sultans were no longer regarded as husbands by the Queen, but rather beloved sons. However, often in important court ceremonies, a special seat next to the Sultan is still purposely left empty and reserved for the Queen of the Southern Sea.
All the southern coasts of Java are generally considered territory of the Queen. Bountiful harvests, violent waves or even tsunamis, all are in her power to impart. Different sections of the 800km long coastline have various rituals and ceremonies, attempting to please Nyai Roro Kidul.
Pelabuhan Ratu, ‘the Queen’s Port’, a coastal town in West Java has special reverence with the mythical figure. The local fishermen observe an annual holiday for Nyai Roro Kidul every April 6, where they throw offerings to the sea to please the goddess and pray for protection and better yields.
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