Gunung Kemukus in the Sragen Regency of Central Java, Indonesia, is a hill known to locals by the colorful name of Sex Mountain - a moniker that comes from it being the site of an ancient ritual involving extramarital sex between strangers. But after attracting unwanted attention from international media, a sex trade scandal, and some scolding from the local governor, the coitus has come to a screeching halt.
The ritual, which takes place every 35 days, involves pilgrims cleansing themselves in a nearby spring before having sex seven consecutive times in the hopes of conjuring wealth, good fortune, and a better life. The practice stems from an old story about a prince who was discovered having an affair with his stepmother; the couple was supposedly chased down and finally killed while they were in the middle of an ill-advised fugitive sex act, then buried on the mountain. Since then it's believed whoever can finish their lovemaking is afforded a life of abundance, and people have been traveling here to have sacred sex since the 16th century.
Traditionally pilgrims did their business in the open, but the area is currently furnished with shabby huts, vendors selling food and aphrodisiacs, and brothels. The site has always attracted sex workers, but this year's crackdown on Surabaya's Dolly neighbourhood - known for decades as the region's largest red-light district - has led to more prostitutes than ever making the mountain home.
This all seem at odds with Indonesia's modern Islamic core, and it hasn't escaped the Western media's attention.
"It's such a paradox, and it's hard to make sense out of," Patrick Abboud from Australia's Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) said in an interview about his recent documentary on the mountain. "It's a strange snapshot of an Islamic ritual which really asks how it's possible to exist, given they are devout Muslims."
This unwanted attention led the Governor of Central Java, Ganjar Pranowo, to ban the ancient ritual last month. In a statement to Indonesian media, Pranowo said, "The outside world knows about this. Isn't it a shame?"
Governor Pranowo is not alone in wanting to end the tradition. The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the country's primary Muslim clerical body, also believes the practice is immoral. PakCholil Nafis, secretary of the Commission for Assessment and Research at MUI, expressed his fear that the rite would lead people down a sinful path. "The government needs to protect its people," he said. "I hope the government shuts this place down."
Others say that the tradition is not just a veiled excuse to screw around - it's part of a culture that is vanishing from Indonesia.
"The ritual of having sex for the promise of good fortune in Java is more complex than being a practice that operates on a contradictory belief to Islam," Professor Pak Wawan Gunawan, a lecturer at Indonesia's National Islamic University and coordinator of Indonesia's Interfaith Network, told VICE.
The Sex Mountain ritual is part of a religious system that combined the country's many religions into a unified whole that included a belief that spiritual forces existed in everything, from the natural world and architecture to the Goddess of the Southern Ocean. "We had a symmetry between Sufism and Islam, and the Majapahit Empire's Buddhist and Hindu influences," said Gunawan. "That symmetry was the religion of Java, our people, our land."
It was only in the early 19th century that the sex ritual began to attract criticism, as Indonesia's population grew and changed and Islam became progressively more dominant in the country.
"Islamic revivalism, combined with a re-creation of a more respectable tradition, has meant that many aspects of the complex history of Islam in Indonesia have been erased," said Professor Adrian Vickers, who researches the cultural history of Southeast Asia at the University of Sydney.
But not every official in modern-day Java wants to take the sex out of Sex Mountain. Many who live in the area are not offended by the ancient practice as much as the modern ramifications of it. Sragen Regent Agus Fatchur Rahman, for instance, has said he does not want to close the site, just stop the sex trade there.
"The bigger problem is that the Governor of Surabaya banned Dolly from operating," said Gunawan. "Prostitutes have flocked to Gunung Kemukus so they can continue their work - the real issue in Sragen Regency has nothing to do with religion," said Gunawan. "The real issue is social."
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