Tengger of Bromo: East Java

Gunung Bromo is without a doubt the most popular spot in East Java for travellers and explorers. A spectacular sunrise at dawn affords surreal views across the caldera and nearby plain, and, to the mountains beyond including Gunung Semeru.

The best time to visit this place is during the dry season of April-November. During this time the sunrise is at its most perfect, unclouded. Mountain people know as the Tengger live in roughly 40 villages in the area at different elevations and if you can, immerse yourself in their fascinating culture.

Legend has it that the Tengger ethnic group in the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru area of East Java is descended from the ancient Majapahit royal family as Adji Kurniawan explains.

The Tengger of Bromo: Magic, mystique and modernism

The name “Tengger” itself is said to be an acronymic derivation of two legendary figures from the region, Rara Anteng and Jaka Seger.

As it has been long told, during a time of chaos for the Majapahit kingdom, Princess Rara Anteng took refuge in the area around Mount Bromo. While she was being evacuated, Rara Anteng met Jaka Seger, the son of a priest from the kingdom of Kediri, which was also in great turmoil. Their meeting was the beginning of a love story, and the area was later christened after their combined names.

Another version about the origin of the name “Tengger” refers to ancient Javanese, in which tengger means “standing firm”. A phrase also exists in Javanese philosophy that says, tenggering budhi luhur, or “standing firmly upon noble character”.

A Tengger inscription believed to date from 851 in the ancient Javanese Caka calendar (929 A.D.) indicates that hulun, or devotees of Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa (God Almighty), men of sublime character, once lived in the Tengger mountain range.

Another inscription that dates back to 1405 A.D. in Wonokiti village, Pananjakan, mentions Walandit, a hamlet inhabited by hulun who were exempted from tax for their spiritual holiness.

Hindu and Islamic influences

The ancestral religion of Tengger people is hard to ascertain though historically this community is closer to Hinduism. There was controversy over, for instance, the locals’ opening mantra hong, which is closer to Buddhism, and their worship practice under a tree they consider sacred or even at home, instead of in a pura (shrine) used by Balinese Hindus.

On the other hand, Mt. Bromo was named after a Hindu god, Brahma, and the Tengger also celebrates the Galungan new year. A sacred jug for the initiation of shamans, estimated to have been produced in 1243 A.D. with Hindu zodiacal ornaments, was also discovered in the area.

In 1973, the East Java Parisada (Hindu supreme council) determined that the local community embraced Buddhism. However, that same year Tengger elders met in Ngadisari and finally declared Hindu Dharma as their people’s official faith.

They built village shrines with Balinese influences, as shown by statues covered with black-and-white checkered cloths, yellow umbrellas and woven coconut-leaf decorations during big events.
Religious life in Tengger is not entirely the same as that in Bali, though. The Kesada, Unan-unan and Karo customs are even seen by locals as being more important than Galungan. Moreover, not all Tengger people are Hindus.

Islam entered northern Tengger before 1973, but this has in no way reduced their tolerance, as reflected in their motto, geblag lor geblag kidul: “north and south are apart so there is no need to fuss”.

Interestingly, Hindu Tengger recognize no caste system. They do not practice ngaben funerals either, like the Hindu Dharma followers do in Bali. In Tengger, funerary rituals are more affected by Java’s traditional Islam, with prayers and offerings made after seven days, 40 days and 1,000 days. Their graves are also in the Islamic style, without excessive adornments.

Other Islamic influences can be seen in their names, such as Usman, Imam and Amin, while their ritualistic slaughtering of animals also follows the Islamic custom of reading bismillah (in the name of God) beforehand.

Fireplaces & antennas

Although they may claim to be members of the indigenous Tengger community, ironically, these people find it hard to flaunt their original customs and typical cultural features. The sarongs they wear serve merely as a means of protection from the elements rather than as traditional dress.

“Our sarongs come from Bali or Nusa Tenggara. We don’t like products from Java,” said Sunyoto, a Tengger man who runs a food stall in Cemorolawang.

Their dwellings are like most houses in the country, excepting the presence of a fireplace to heat their rooms against the chill of a montane evening. The local community also accepts modernization. Parabolic antennas and electronic appliances are no strangers to Tengger households.

Living in villages connected by small pathways, the Tengger people have very close family ties. A village is usually inhabited by members of the same familial lineage. A principal village called krajan is located in the middle, and each family generally owns one to two hectares of land where they grow cabbage, green onions and sweet potatoes using simple methods.

Despite their tolerance and openness, the Tengger tend to keep outsiders off their land and out of their territory. This is a tradition that stems from the strong bonds among local residents, and because the Tengger live on ancestral lands handed down through generations.

“Even if visitors bid high prices for our land, we will strive to give it to indigenous Tengger people,” said Sutanto, who lives near Cemorolawang.

It is the preservation of their ancestral inheritance that makes most Tengger youths reluctant to pursue higher education.
Imam, who owns a horse to transport visitors to the mountain, said it was enough to finish secondary school — his parents own a jeep and his brother a motorbike, while he could afford to purchase a Rp 2 million horse.

“I just carry on the family’s farm. Further study is unnecessary, as we don’t use machines,” he added.


With their settlements built in clusters, Tengger villagers rely on farming as their livelihood, growing crops such as carrots, green onions, corn and potatoes grown on the slopes of Mt. Bromo, creating a panoramic view of waving green carpets.

They also use manure for crop cultivation, because the organic fertilizer is cheap and is environmentally friendly.

Tengger shaman chief Mujono said ash and other materials from Bromo’s emissions earlier this year caused no damage to local crops, although the volcanology agency estimated the height of the ash column at three kilometers.

The previous eruption did more harm, when the volcano’s sulfuric discharge covered farmland.

The Tengger community can serve as a model for population control. Apart from the government’s successful family planning program, Tengger families generally do not have more than two children, because small families make dividing their inheritance easier.

“More children causes more trouble,” said a community head.

The shaman, or dukun, chief is the leader of the Tengger, and typically have 36 witch doctors under their management. Shaman chiefs are chosen through village consultations and a series of tests that cover the candidate’s magical powers, mastery of mantra and knowledge of local legends.

The shaman chief is also appointed by the government to provide assistance in preserving the local national park. The role of dukun thus covers both community and public duties.


One of the most well-preserved Tengger traditions is the annual celebration of Kesada, or Kesodo, which takes place in the 12th month. The mass commemoration is held in villages around Mt. Bromo and on the summit’s edge overlooking its crater.

After observing prayers on a sandy plain surrounding the mountain, the ceremony climaxes with making sacrificial offerings to Mt. Bromo: Fruits and other foodstuffs, animals and even money are thrown into the crater to ensure the safety of future Tengger generations.

Today, Kesada also sees the initiation of new shamans as well as the installation of government officials and other distinguished people chosen by the Tengger community as their revered elders.

In addition to Kesada, the Tengger also observe Karo, an annual ritual held during the second month at home or collectively at the village head’s home, and Unan-unan, a mass cleaning ceremony held by every village for the Tengger’s welfare.

Tourism icon

Touring East Java would not be complete without visiting Mt. Bromo, where visitors can witness the life and culture of the Tengger people and the region’s natural beauty. This provincial tourism icon is also frequented by foreign visitors.

The magnificence of Mt. Bromo was described by Javanese writer Empu Prapanca centuries ago in Verse 34 of his famous book Negarakertagama, which was written in the month of Badrapada 1281 Caka — or August-September 1359 A.D.

The account tells of the sadness King Hayam Wuruk feels upon leaving the fascinating mountain, which he had visited on his way to the eastern state of Lumajang.

Trek notes

The number of tourists to Mt. Bromo has been increasing, with 500-1,000 people visiting the mountain weekly. Some 50-60 percent of visitors to East Java stop by this destination. Mt. Bromo is easily accessible through Ngadisari, a tourist village at the foot of the volcano.

Several hotels, including Hotel Bromo Permai I, are available for visitors at Cemorolawang, a hamlet that can be reached from Probolinggo by bus for Rp 5,000 or by chartered car for Rp 60,000. Probolinggo is 99 km from Surabaya, and is accessible by bus or private car.

To reach Cemorolawang from Surabaya by private car, it is not necessary to go via Probolinggo bus terminal. Head for Tongas, about 12 km from Surabaya, then to Sukapura and to Ngadisari, finally reaching Cemorolawang.

Mt. Bromo can be scaled by trekking up from Cemorolawang to the crater through the sand plains, or “desert”. Visitors can also hire horses or jeeps, particularly at weekends and on Mondays. Jeeps cost Rp 125,000 from Cemorolawang to Mt. Pananjakan; a day trip traversing Cemorolawang-Pananjakan-Ranu Pane and back again costs Rp 250,000.

Adji Kurniawan, Contributor, Mt. Bromo