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Abstract

On Java (Indonesia), sacred places (tempat keramat) are powerful and contested sites. Historically they have served as important pilgrimage sites and more recently have also become major tourist attractions. In this paper, I will explore three ways of ‘past presencing’ - the nationalist, the Islamic and the traditional - and how groups representing each of these challenge one another at different sites. Today, sacred places in Indonesia are caught between the political ambitions of some who wish to create national cultural heritage, the aspirations of religious revivalists who want to cleanse the sites of what they consider superstition, and the desires of others to perform local traditions of ancestor veneration. The sites are therefore subject to claims by politicians, tourists and pilgrims as well as by ancestor spirits. The main ethnographic material in this paper deals with a pilgrimage to Mount Sunda, a pilgrimage site at which people meet with ancestors to ask for help to improve their living conditions. The concluding discussion focuses on how the transformation of sacred places into either Islamic or national heritage sites deprives pilgrims of this opportunity to establish direct communication with ancestors. I argue that in order to avoid the public gaze that dominates Islamic and cultural heritage sites, where mundane political and religious powers have control, local pilgrims create a shared ‘living room’ with the ancestors. This keeps them beyond the reach of power holders and keeps the authority of the ancestors intact.

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