A massive man-made structure surrounded by green pastures emerged from afar, in the eastern part of Semarang near the city’s suburban region with a volcano lurking from behind. Four pointy small minarets stood on an elevated platform, flanking a white dome over the terracotta-colored roof tiles below. Together they formed a pyramidal structure, designed to impress and built to last. At the far end of the grounds stood a lone tower much bigger and bulkier than the four, 99 meters high symbolizing the 99 good names of Allah.
The Grand Mosque of Central Java might seem rather out of place as the main mosque for the provincial capital due to its location, 6 km away from the city center. But one needs to look beyond the surface to learn its history and understand the reason behind this strange choice of location.
Once a waqf asset – donated asset held by a charitable trust – of Semarang’s older Kauman Mosque, the land on which the Grand Mosque now stands was deemed unproductive by the managing organization. Later on through an agreement it was sold to a private investor who gave a land in Demak, some 30 km east of Semarang, as a compensation. Following public outcries, countless efforts were done to overturn the deal. However it took many years before the land was successfully reinstated to the city’s ownership, though the indemnity given to the private investor was not openly disclosed.
As a token of gratitude, a grand mosque was planned to be built on a small fraction of the land, and in 2006 after four years of construction the mosque was finally inaugurated. Javanese architectural elements were apparent on the roof shape and the various patterns used to decorate corners of the mosque; while Arab influence was evident in the abundance of calligraphy, the use of dome on top of the main praying hall, also the four giant mechanical umbrellas. The latter were inspired by the giant umbrellas at the Prophet’s Mosque (Masjid al-Nabawi) in Medina, Saudi Arabia.
That morning, however, the mosque was not my main focus. I was rather on a mission to know Semarang’s prominent places of worships better, apart from the elegant Blenduk Church in the old town district which I had visited several times.
Less than 20 km south of the Grand Mosque lied a magnificent pagoda sitting next to a vihara (Buddhist temple) in Watugong on a hill in Upper Semarang, a telltale of the city’s thriving Chinese community. Despite the bustle from a road renovation work outside, the temple compound itself was shrouded in a peaceful ambiance where a gilded Buddha statue rested under a big Bodhi tree, perched on one side of the walkway between the pagoda and the vihara. The statue itself looked more Southeast Asian than East Asian, curiously.
“Are you coming alone?” an old man suddenly appeared from inside the pagoda and posed the question to me.
“Why don’t you come with your girlfriend?” he continued after noticing that I came alone. “Many young couples come here to have romance. Is that allowed in mosques?”
His tone clearly indicated a sense of frustration for the indifference of many young couples doing improper things in the supposedly sacred place. Minutes later, after showing sympathy and explaining him about my stand point, he started to soften his voice and tell me the history of the pagoda.
Commissioned by one of the city’s richest men, the pagoda was also inaugurated in 2006 and up to this day it still holds the record as the tallest pagoda in Indonesia at 45 meters. Seven storeys high, the pagoda was embellished with Chinese ornaments including the statues of Kwan Im/Guanyin, the boddhisatva of compassion venerated mostly by East Asian Buddhists. Most of the statues, stone carvings and decorative lamps were imported from China to ensure the authenticity of the Chinese elements, the old man explained.
“He was so rich that he wanted to present a pagoda for the city. He trusted me with the money for the construction,” he recounted.
What a seemingly cordial conversation turned a little bizarre when he started telling me stories about his unmarried children, his disgust on the liberal way of life he saw in New York City upon his visit, and his questions about my own life. Thinking a way to end the conversation politely, I fixed my eyes to a series of beautifully carved ancient Chinese characters surrounding the base of the pagoda, then made an excuse to take some photographs of them.
“You have the eyes for details,” he commented when he saw me squatting in front of the stone carvings. “You must be someone who is very careful in choosing a wife.”
Baffled by his statement all I could do was to smirk. Fortunately he then went back to the pagoda and left me alone, briefly occupied with the intricate details of the Buddhist structure until the sun rose even higher.
Just before I left the parking lot, I saw the old man again and waved at him to bid farewell. On my way home it was not his statements that bothered my mind, but his frustration towards people’s indifference and lack of sensitivity. Too often we take things for granted, especially when we are not a part of a minority group. But history proves that all over the world such mundane and seemingly insignificant situation could create frictions in society, and far more serious incidents if not dealt with properly.
In general Semarang has a relatively healthy level of religious tolerance among its diverse demographic, despite the incidents the old man told me earlier. Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Confucianists and Javanists – those who adhere to a traditional belief rooting to animism – thrive in this city and finding people with different religions in one big family is not a rarity. Nevertheless in a world like this where religious conflicts occur in daily basis around the globe let us remind ourselves the importance of tolerance to create harmony, which in turn brings peace, stability, and eventually prosperity. Hopefully.