The Jakarta Post
When Cabinet Secretary Pramono Anung visited Lirboyo pesantren (Islamic boarding school) in Kediri, East Java, last week, he joked about advising President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo not to come to the city for the planned groundbreaking of the Kediri airport scheduled for April.
“Frankly I personally suggested that the President not come to Kediri because I still remember, believe it or not, after Gus Dur came back from visiting Lirboyo, political chaos erupted in Jakarta," Pramono said, referring to the political turmoil that resulted in then-president Abdurrahman Wahid’s impeachment and ouster in 2003.
"But it's okay for the Vice President [to visit Kediri]," Pramono added.
The statement raised some eyebrows, causing Pramono to clarify that it was just a joke in response to an earlier speech by pesantren leader Abdullah Kafabihi Mahrus, in which Abdullah mentioned a myth that presidents, vice presidents, and other high-ranking state officials will face misfortune if they visit Kediri.
Pramono, a Kediri native, would most likely have been aware of the myth about Kediri's “curse” on rulers who visit the city.
Indonesia’s first president and founding father Sukarno visited Kediri several times during his presidency, and was forced to hand over power to then Army general Soeharto in 1965. Former president BJ Habibie faced a vote of no confidence from the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) a few months after a visit to the city
While Gus Dur, as Pramono mentioned, was impeached three days after attending an event at the Lirboyo pesantren in Kediri. Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) chairwoman Megawati, meanwhile, did not visit Kediri during her presidential term.
Believers see Kediri's “supernatural power” as being rooted in the power of King Jayabaya, who ruled the Hindu kingdom of Kediri in the 12th century and unified the then-divided realm and brought justice and prosperity to its people.
Jayabaya is also credited with writing a number of prophecies, including one about the emergence of a messianic ruler called “Ratu Adil” in Java after a long period of being ruled by corrupt and evil leaders.
Jayabaya’s immense power, the myth goes, thus overrides the power of rulers who dare to visit his capital city.
Historian Agus Sunyoto, a native of Surabaya, East Java, believes the “curse” is not related to Jayabaya but rather to Kartikea Singha, a king of the South Kalingga kingdom, which is believed to have existed in the sixth century, with its capital city located in Keling district, some 35 kilometers east of Kediri.
Kartikea, Agus said, was the first ruler of Java to write a criminal law code, called the Kalingga Dharmasastra, which was emulated by later Javanese kingdoms such as Singhasari and Majapahit.
"One day he swore that rulers of Java who did not use their power to bring justice and prosperity for the people would be cursed," Agus a lecturer at the Nahdlatul Ulama University in Jakarta told The Jakarta Post.
Agus said that the practice of law enforcement in Kalingga was reported by a Chinese Tang Dynasty envoy who visited Kalingga during the reign of Queen Shima, Kartikea's wife from North Kalingga in modern Jepara. The Chinese envoy witnessed the crown prince's leg being cut off as a punishment for breaking the law.
He said there were only two Indonesian presidents of Indonesia who had managed to avoid King Kartikea’s curse: Soeharto and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Soeharto visited Kediri in the 1980s but, in fact, managed to hold on to the presidency for almost two more decades.
"Soeharto visited Kediri with Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX [of Yogyakarta]. He acted as an ordinary person while the sultan, the ruler, was Hamengkubuwono. Then as we can see the sultan died not long after the visit," Agus said.
Meanwhile, Yudhoyono visited Kediri twice as president in 2007 and 2014 to visit residents who were affected by the Mount Kelud eruptions.
Agus explained that Yudhoyono’s lineage descends from the Kalingga kingdom and he was thus better able to neutralize the curse.
"Seeing people who were suffering from a disaster, the Kelud eruption, protected him from the curse," he added.
So should Jokowi, who has yet to visit Kediri since he first won the presidency in 2014, brave the “curse” to attend the groundbreaking of the city’s new airport in April?
"If Pak Jokowi thinks he has upheld the law and the people’s interests then he shouldn't be afraid of the curse," Agus, who also heads the Nadhlatul Ulama’s arts and culture board, said.