Chapter 3. Mythology and Cosmology of Cirebonese Traditions

Table of Contents

Creation and Origin of The Universe
Creation of mankind
Origin of Javanese Inhabitants and Religion


My son, Harlan, once decided to go to Jakarta via Puncak (Bogor). Because it was on an important business trip I told him to go on Wednesday Pahing. For certain reasons he firmly insisted on going the day before and I could do nothing but let him go and told him to be extra careful. Upon his leaving I tried not to think about him but I could not stop. Three days later I got a telegram from his office in Tangerang suggesting that I should see my son. Without knowing what had happened I set off immediately to Tangerang and found him lying in hospital after a not-so-serious injury in a bus crash …[1]

One feature of Cirebon is its richness in myths and legends. Seldom is the name of a single place, locality or object such as a site, river, mountain and lake free from mythical or legendary tales. Each name bears its own folk-story of origin. It is a common knowledge that the name “Cirebon”, meaning the water of tiny shrimps, is derived primarily from Ci or Cai meaning ‘water’ and rebon meaning ‘tiny shrimps’ and is associated with the development of the fishing industry pioneered by its first Kuwu, Ki Cakrabumi. Similar to this are the names of Kuningan, Indramayu and Majalengka, the other three regencies in the residency of Cirebon. They are also associated with mythical derivation and origin.

The name Kuningan, for example, refers to the legend of Pangeran Kuningan and Aria Kemuning. According to the local legend, Pangeran Kuningan was the son  of ‘Putri Cina’ (Chinese Princess), daughter of a Chinese emperor.[2] When still in China she became pregnant not because of being impregnated by a man, but because of a brass bowl (bokor kuningan) attached to her belly to deceive Sunan Gunung Jati when he was invited to China. To judge Sunan Gunung Jati's sainthood the emperor summoned his daughter, and asked the Sunan to guess how advanced the putri's pregnancy was. Sunan Gunung Jati said that she was several months pregnant. Startled by this false statement the emperor became angry, accusing Sunan Gunung Jati as being a fraud rather than a saint, and instantly drove him out of his palace. When the putri went back to her room and took off her clothes to detach the brass bowl, she was frightened when she observed she was indeed pregnant. She cried from fear and called together her parents and other family members. Seeing his daughter's condition and deeply embarrassed by what had happened, the emperor was bewildered and, he decided to send his daughter to Java with a convoy of ships conveying a message acknowledging Sunan Gunung Jati's sainthood and with the request to take the putri as his wife. When the consort arrived at Cirebon, Sunan Gunung Jati was in Luragung, 20 kilometres east of the town of Kuningan, preaching the Islamic faith. Soon afterwards the putri bore a male child. Sunan Gunung Jati asked the local Ki Gedeng to care for the baby as a foster son. Meanwhile, about the same time the Ki Gedeng's wife also bore a male baby. Thus, Ki Gedeng had two newly born male children, one, his own and the other, a foster son, which gave the impression that they were twins. With Sunan Gunung Jati's permission Putri Cina's baby was named Pangeran Kuningan (the prince of brass) while his own son was named Aria Kemuning (from kuning, meaning ‘yellow’). Later, when they had  grown up, Pangeran Kuningan became Adipati Kuningan, ruler of Kuningan, whereas Aria Kemuning became his assistant.[3]

According to another tale, the name Indramayu is associated with the legend of Indang Darma Ayu and prince Wiralodra. Majalengka, whose name is derived from the expression maja-e (wis) langka (‘the maja fruits have already disappeared’), is associated with the story of Aria Salingsingan, a local legendary figure. All myths and the figures in them are rooted in the process of Islamization and are directly or indirectly associated with Sunan Gunung Jati and his disciples. Even places like ‘Pesalaran’ and ‘Weru’, the district where I stayed, have their own distinct folk-tales. Pesalaran, which is now the centre of the small town of Plered, seven kilometres west of Cirebon, occupies only a small area in Kecamatan Weru. The name Pesalaran is associated with the word nyalar (‘to ask’); while the name Weru comes from weru(h) meaning ‘to know’. Both names are combined as in the expression, weru sawise nyalar (to know after having asked). The folk-tale tells of a small group of people, envoys of Talaga on behalf of the Galuh-Pajajaran Hindu Kingdom, who were sent to Cirebon to ask ‘Kanjeng Sinuhun’ to submit and render tribute to Galuh.[4] Half way to Cirebon they became confused and found themselves going around and around at one site for several days. After being frustrated in finding the right way, they saw a wood cutter with whom they started to ask a series of questions (nyalar). When the envoys asked the wood cutter, he did not give conclusive answers and referred them to another person who might be able to give further information. This person did the same thing; giving only an inconclusive answer and referring them to another one and so on. At last however, after a series of exhausting efforts they found someone, a wise man, who gave them advice and taught them wisdom as  well as giving them the information about Cirebon and the right way to proceed. The man was Kanjeng Sinuhun himself from whom they finally embraced Islam and became his disciples. They did not go back to Talaga but stayed there. Since then, the site where they asked their questions is called Pesalaran meaning ‘the place of nyalar’ (asking), while the surrounding area where they finally gained knowledge is called Weru (knowing); the leader of the group then became Ki Gede Weru.[5]