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The Story of Nyai Lara Kidul Queen of the Southern Ocean

Come Dewi Srengenge! A kingdom awaits you.
You will regain your beauty and live forever!

A voice from the watery deep beckoned the princess to become Queen of the Indian Ocean. Nyai Lara Kidul’s maiden name was Dewi Srengenge or Sun Maiden. Throughout the land her loveliness was unsurpassed. The king of Banyumas, in Central Java, came to hear of Dewi Srengenge’s great beauty. He fell in love with her and made her his favorite wife. This made one of his other wives, Dewi Kundati, mad with jealousy. Secretly, Dewi Kundati employed the services of an old wizard who used his magical powers to turn Dewi Srengenge into an ugly and frightening creature.

Dewi Srengenge, as you can imagine, became terribly distressed at her horrible transformation and fled from the palace, far from the prying eyes of people. One day as she was walking aimlessly she met a kind-hearted man who listened to her tale and took pity on her. The old man reported the story to the king who immediately sentenced Dewi Kundati and the wizard to death. However, no one could restore Dewi Srengenge to her former beauty.

In her sadness she wandered from village to village until she finally reached the southern coast of West Java. At the beach near Samudra, she heard a voice calling, "Come Dewi Srengenge! A kingdom awaits you. You will regain your beauty and live forever. Come!" Lured by the voice, Dewi Srengenge hesitantly entered the sea and from that moment became known as Nyai Lara Kidul, Queen of the Southern Ocean.

It happened that Lara Kidul possessed a beloved sister who had been searching for her a long time. In due course her search led her to the exact same place where Lara Kidul entered the sea. Grieving over the loss of her beloved sister, she stood at the water’s edge sobbing. Suddenly, she heard a voice, "You need a fish’s tail . . . if you wish to join your sister." Lo and behold, when she stepped into the ocean, Nyai Lara Kidul’s sister was transformed into a mermaid. She swam off quickly into the ocean to join her long lost sister.

Many years later, Senopati, King of the Mataram Empire, went to a beach to meditate. Nyai Lara Kidul closely observed the lone figure of the king on the shoreline and made herself known to him. It was love at first sight and Senopati determined to make her his wife. In time, the king had his way and they were married. On their wedding day, however, the Queen of the Southern Ocean made a solemn vow to Senopati that if he, or any of his descendants, were ever in need she would come to their aid.

Thus was established the tie between Queen Lara Kidul and the great royal family of Mataram. The deep spiritual significance of the union of Queen Lara Kidul and the king of Mataram can be witnessed during the Labuhan ceremony, still celebrated annually at the water’s edge. The ceremony, which takes place after the birthday of the Sultan of Yogyakarta, is in honor of Queen Lara Kidul, and seeks her continued blessing on the Sultan, his court, and his people. Offerings are brought from the Sultan’s palace to Parangsumo, on the southern coast facing the Indian Ocean. The offerings include money, petals and female garments such as a shawl and a length of batik. There are also offerings of the Sultan’s hair and fingernail clippings.

The offerings are first brought to the village of Kretek on the western bank of the River Opak in the early morning. They are then carried across the river and down to the village of Parangtritis, at the water’s edge. This is where the sixteenth century ruler was said to have first met Nyai Lara Kidul. The offerings are placed on a bamboo raft and cast out to sea by the kraton officers. An enthusiastic crowd watches as the raft is tossed about by the waves, throwing offerings into the sea. When the offerings are eventually washed back to shore, spectators scramble to collect them, believing they contain supernatural powers. The Sultan’s hair and fingernail clippings, however, are buried in the sand, in a special walled-in area on the beach. These too are eventually dug up by the spectators and are kept as sacred souvenirs.

Today, the legend of Queen Lara Kidul is still very much part of the local tradition and beliefs. When a swimmer is swept away by the treacherous waves along the Samudra beach, near the resort at Labuhan Ratu, in West Java, local folklore says that Queen Lara Kidul has taken another to join her entourage in the watery deep. During violent thunderstorms the villagers of nearby Sukabumi lock their doors and fasten their windows because they fear Nyai Lara Kidul’s fearsome display of temper. On special festivities, Queen Lara Kidul is again venerated in a palace dance named Bedaya Ketawang.

This legend explains the relationship of the Queen of the Southern Ocean to the royal family of Yogyakarta and Surakarta (Solo), and perhaps it also helps to explain the origin of the legend concerning the mermaid called ‘air matang duyung’. . . which means longing tears.