This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.
The forest in Alas Purwo was so dense that the high midday sun couldn't reach the ground. I was in Banyuwangi, East Java, trekking into what has been described as Indonesia's most-haunted forest—a place locals believe is full of spirits, demons, and ghosts—to meet the lelono, or hermits, who use the forest to meditate and communicate with the spirits of the presidents and sultans who have already passed on to the other side.
The sounds of the modern world vanish when you walk this deep into a protected forest. I was only two kilometers [1.2 miles] off the trailhead, but the sounds of nature were everywhere. I was heading to the Gua Istana, or Royal Cave, a location where the lelono go to meditate. It took me about 30 minutes to find the cave and there, sitting cross-legged right at the mouth of the cave, was Hardi, a lelono who told me he has been meditating out here for the past three months.
The cave has been used by spiritualists like Hardi since the precolonial Majapahit era, but it's a more-recent rumor—that Indonesia's founding father Sukarno used to meditate in the cave—that is driving its popularity today.
There's no real evidence that Sukarno ever visited the cave—let alone meditated in it—but the story has circulated amongst local communities in East Java for so long that, today, it's taken as fact. When you walk into the cave, a photograph of Sukarno dressed in his white uniform greets you from one of the walls.
There's also a belief that Alas Purwo, the forest, is a "layover," spot for the souls of old Javanese kings. I knew this before I trekked out to the cave, which is why I wasn't totally shocked when Hardi told me that he was just hanging out with Sukarno, a man who died 48 years ago, and his Vice President, Mohammad Hatta, who is also dead.
"I saw the spirit of Sukarno and Hatta in white uniforms when meditating inside the cave," Hardi told me.
Hardi, 56, was dressed like a mystic, wearing the telltale string of large wooden beads around his neck. He told me that he was pulled to the forest after hearing a "mysterious call," something he believes was a spirit or his inner voice, in his head. He left his home in Tulungagung, a district some 350 kilometers [217 miles] inland, with empty pockets and nothing byt the clothes on his back.
"I hitchhiked here," Hardi told me. "I was lucky someone was kind enough to give me a ride."
He offered to show me around the cave where he was meditating. I turned the flashlight on my phone and walked into the dark opening.
"I wanted to achieve a sense of inner peace here," he told me.
He asked me if I wanted to try to meditate with him. I asked him if it only worked for followers of kejawen, a mystical strain of Islam indigenous to Jawa.
"Any religion is fine, as long as your intentions are good," Hardi replied.
I'll be honest here—I tried. But meditation isn't for me. I lasted 15 minutes before the smell of bat shit started to make me feel like I was going to puke, and then I broke through the silence and asked Hardi if I could keep interviewing him outside the cave.
It was fine, Hardi said. After all, it wasn't like he meditated all day, every day. Lelono, like Hardi, breaks to interact with visitors and go about their daily chores like washing clothes or searching for food. Hardi told me that he usually eats the fruits that fall from the trees, but sometimes his diet is supplemented with some water and food donated by tourists he shows around the cave.
"People gave me bread, water, and snacks,” Hardi said.
But there's more to Alas Purwo than spirits and meditation. It's also a massive wildlife sanctuary. It covers a wide swath of East Java that some believe could be hiding species of animals long thought extinct—like the Javan Tiger.
Spend enough time in Alas Purwo and you're bound to come across all kinds of wildlife. Jafar, another lelono, told me that he's seen wild boars, monkeys, and monitor lizards on a near daily basis since entering the forest. But, so far, he's had no issues with his feral neighbors.
"The animals never bothered me," Jafar told me. "Snakes and tigers, as far as I know, never comes in to the cave. It's probably because pilgrims are often there, so the snakes and tigers are too afraid."
The lelono also take special care to abide by the unwritten rules of the forest. They believe that no one is allowed to hunt the animals or plant anything inside Alas Purwo. They also have to control their behavior—negative thoughts, swearing, and theft are all forbidden, according to the legend of the forest.
Those who fail to follow the rules will suffer some kind of terrible disaster. I heard about a legend where one man was sucked deep into a dark part of the forest for breaking the rules. Another man went crazy for three days after leaving the forest. And these aren't ghost stories told to children either. The belief that something older and more powerful than man lives in the forest is so strong that even park rangers warned me to take special care when I was in the forest.
"Don't do anything stupid in Alas Purwo," warned Suwandi, one of the park rangers. "You won't get away with it."
These kinds of beliefs do more than keep local residents up at night. They also protect the forest from encroachment by illegal loggers or agri-business companies, explained Sri Margana, a historian at Gadjah Mada University.
"These local beliefs are a more effective way to conserve the forest, than just posting warning signs," she told me. "This mitigates negative impacts on the environment."
The forest holds such a power over people that it's been able to remain relatively untouched, despite the fact that it's on the densely populated island of Java. Sri Margana believes that there may be ancient relics buried beneath the forest floor, as well as the remains of recent tragedies like the anti-communist purges or the witch hunts that gripped East Java in the late 90s.
As Hardi and I stood outside the cave, a new man, one I hadn't seen before, approached us. He said his name was Din and that he had been out here meditating in the heart of the forest for the last 71 days. He came here to find some peace after his life took a dark turn, he said.
“I was burned out," Din told me. "My marriage was a disaster. I wanted to get some peace here."
He prefers to meditate at the Padepokan Cave, which is another ten-minute walk from the cave we were standing at. Din told me that he is a Muslim, and he still prays five times a day. But, aside from that, the rest of his day is devoted to surviving in the remote forest and meditating. He bathes in a nearby river and washes his clothes in it. When he's bored, he busies himself with sweeping the dead leaves away from the mouth of his cave.
Din told me that he's still unsure when he will finally leave the forest. He was holding out hope for a better life outside of the cave, but he doesn't know when, and if, that time will come. I asked him what he was going to do until then.
"I'll just follow my heart," he said. "I surrendered myself to it."
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