Our white tiger spirit

This is a story of how the sanggar became home to a white tiger spirit

In the first month that we took residence at the sanggar and began renovations, the sanggar was broken into four times.

The thief was bold: the first time, he (sightings suggest so) entered the room where we were sleeping and stole a mobile phone and cash. Lis awoke, saw a creeping figure and shouted but the thief leaped through an open window, bounded across five sleeping workmen and fled into the night. The second time, he stole a phone from one of the sleeping workmen. The third time, the thief was seen by one of the workmen as he walked along the top of a wall; he fled when the workman cried out. The fourth time, he was seen standing on a roof, masked and brandishing a coil of rope and a samurai sword but again fled when he was seen and the alarm sounded.

This was all too much for one of the workmen, our friend Mang Edi, who disappeared for a day to return with a polite, younger gentleman wearing a leather jacket cut in suit style, quite marvelous light-brown leather shoes and a ‘songkok’ (also ‘peci’ or ‘kopiah’), which, according to Wikipedia, ‘is a cap widely worn in Indonesia,  Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, the southern Philippines and southern Thailand, most commonly among Muslim males. It has the shape of a truncated cone, usually made of black or embroidered felt, cotton or velvet. It is also often worn by males at formal occasions, such as weddings and funerals, or festive occasions, such as the Idul Fitri and Idul Adha holidays. In Indonesia, the peci is also associated with the nationalist movement.’

Mang Edi escorted the gentleman to the terrace where I was sitting and introduced us then disappeared into the kitchen, leaving me alone with the visitor with no knowledge of who he was or why he had come. We smiled, chitchatted and drank the coffee that Mang Edi had made in the kitchen, delivered and then returned to the kitchen were he engaged in some intense, sotto voce conversation with Mbak Amie. It was in Indonesian because neither understood each other’s native language: Sundanese (Mang Edi) and Javanese (Mbak Amie). Nevertheless, I couldn’t understand a word.

While the muffled commotion was underway in the kitchen, in answer to my offering of the several questions that constitute formal expressions of friendliness between newly acquainted people, the ustad told me calmly and quietly that he had come down from the mountain with Mang Edi. God is good, there had been no rain. The traffic in Bogor was its usual terrible self but they had made good time: only an hour and a half.

It wasn’t polite to ask why he was here and we were almost done with the usual set of questions and answers when Mang Edi returned and indicated that the gentleman should follow him. They made their way into the kitchen together. After a couple of minutes, Mang Edi returned, imbued with feverish excitement.

‘Who is this gentleman?’ I enquired.

‘An ustad,’ he replied.

The term ustad, again according to Wikipedia, ‘precedes the name and was historically usually used for well-regarded teachers and artists. It could also be translated into meaning “master” or “maestro”, hence, apprentices refer to their teachers as ustad for a lifetime to show their appreciation of teaching them the art. Aside from the honorific, the word is generally used by its literal meaning to refer to any teacher, master or expert in Urdu, Bengali and Punjabi. In Persian and in the Arabic-speaking world, it also refers to a university professor. The title is also used for qualified Islamic scholars in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore. It is a direct equivalent of terms such as Shaykh in the Arab world and Mawlānā in the Indian Subcontinent. In the Maldives, the title is used by people who are licensed to practice law in the Maldives.’

Even without referring to the august Wikipedia, I knew by Mang Edi’s air of feverish excitement (more than his usual level of feverish excitement) and the way he had been treating him that this young gentleman was someone special.

‘What’s he doing?’ I asked.

‘A white tiger spirit,’ replied Mang Edi.


‘He’s calling a white tiger spirit to guard the sanggar,’ explained Mang Edi.

‘Oh, I see. That’s good,’ I replied, instantly wondering what kinds of responsibilities the new addition to the sanggar might entail.

I didn’t have a lot of information at hand about white tiger spirits but I was sure they would be good to have on one’s side. Later, I found that Robert Wessing in his article, Symbolic Animals in the Land between the Waters (Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 65, 2006: 205–239), noted that ‘tigers are symbolic of rulers and occasionally ruling families claim descent from one. Graves of deceased rulers, nobles, but also those of religious figures, may be guarded by white tigers, reminding us of the albino buffalo that helped found states. In Java, nobles occasionally bore macan (tiger) as part of their titles (van der Kroef 1954, 858). The primary relationship between Javanese rulers and tigers, however, seems to have been one of domination, reflecting the necessity that the rulers encompass the natural forces in their realms (Wessing 1990, 251). There are no reports of Javanese rulers incarnating as tigers after a normal death. Those who died in battle or under abnormal circumstances, however, are said to do so and function as guardians of their realms. The ruler of Pajajaran of West Java is said to continue to do so today (Wessing 1986, 30). As such they take on the role of symbolic ancestors who continue to watch over the welfare of their putative descendants.’

Pajajaran was a Sundanese Hindu kingdom located in the western portion of the island of Java from 669 to around 1579, covering the area of present-day Banten, Jakarta, West Java, and the western part of Central Java. The seat of the kingdom was roughly in present-day Bogor.

I returned to my coffee as sounds of praying and requests for tea and other offerings wafted through the kitchen from the adjacent mushollah or prayer room.

After about half an hour, the ustad emerged, took his place at the coffee table and lit a cigarette.

‘All done?’ I enquired.

‘All done,’ he confirmed.

‘A white tiger spirit?’ I put to him.


‘Thank you, that’s very kind of you. Ah, where is it?’

‘Here. In the sanggar.’

‘Ah yes, of course. Ha. So, um, what happens with the spirit? What does it do?’

‘If a thief touches the earth here, he will immediately see the white tiger and it will bite him. The thief won’t be able to move and you will be able to capture him,’ he succinctly explained.

I expressed my enthusiasm for this process and then asked, ‘So, will you place some signs of some sort outside, like on the four corners of the place, so that thieves will be warned not to enter?’

‘No need,’ he replied.

‘Right. Fair enough. And, um, does the spirit need some daily offerings or a shrine or similar?’

‘No need.’

This was a zero-maintenance spirit, which did disappoint me a little because I had hoped that a white tiger shrine with daily offerings would be something of a talking point.

Mang Edi, who’d been in the kitchen, presumably tidying up after the ceremony, bustled out again and waved his hands at me, indicating to join him in the kitchen, which I did, excusing myself a moment from my venerable guest.

‘Forty-four,’ exclaimed Mang Edi beside the sink where he’d ushered me, supposedly well enough away from the ustad to be out of earshot.

‘Forty-four what?’


I was perplexed. What had forty-four orphans to do with proceedings?

‘Times eleven thousand,’ added Mang Edi.

‘Eleven thousand what?’ The numbers were escalating dramatically.


‘Ah, I see.’ I didn’t.

‘For lunch,’ continued Mang Edi.


‘He’s going to buy them lunch.’

‘That’s nice, I’m sure they’ll enjoy that,’ I replied, still perplexed.

‘Forty-four times eleven thousand. For lunch. For the orphans,’ he emphasized with increasing exasperation.

Mang Edi, I could tell, was clearly of the opinion he was dealing with an idiot. I was inclined to agree.

Finally, he had to state the obvious: ‘Give him forty-four times eleven thousand rupiah. For the orphans’ lunch.’

‘Oh, right, okay, that would be four hundred and forty thousand.’ I knew mathematics wasn’t Mang Edi’s strong point from previous attempted transactions. ‘I’ll get it now.’

Which I did.

‘An envelope!’ exclaimed Mang Edi.

Cash transactions in Indonesia are not polite unless the cash is in an envelope, preferably white. I found one, inserted the cash, sealed it and handed it to Mang Edi.

‘No, no, you give it to him! For the orphans! For lunch,’ he shouted, sotto voce.

‘Okay, okay, onto it!’

Returning to the ustad, who was sitting quietly smoking and staring gently into space, I thanked him profusely and handed him the envelope for the orphans’ lunch, which he quietly and calmly tucked away inside his jacket, stood, shook hands and headed off.

Since then, no thief has entered the sanggar.


Robert Finlayson






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