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  • Nabil Alghifari

Perception of Time and The Artistic Expression of the Ancient Javanese Through Sengkalan Memet

Image credits: Sengkalan in Tugu Pusaka Selogiri by Muhammad Faiz, 2023. (

Time is considered a sacred entity for the Javanese, and they use symbols of time to mark sacred or important events in their lives. The Javanese are known for their mindfulness of life; symbols of time are used to be more mindful and to remind them of their life, nature, and to the god they belong to (sangkan paraning dumadi lan mulih marang aran nira). The Javanese think that every change of time, especially at the turn of the Javanese year when entering the month of Suro, is their door to facing uncertainty, so the Javanese are prohibited from doing useless things and are advised to do more self-introspection. Every time at the turn of the year, Javanese people are advised to carry out "laku prihatin" through meditation, night walking, walking around the fort, fasting, and others (Widarmanto, 2021). These things are based on the concepts of macrocosmos and microcosmos, which the Javanese call jagad gedhe and jagad alit.

The Javanese consider that time is sacred and it is described through a chronogram as a symbol of an era. Javanese people usually use chronograms when building a sacred building or writing inscriptions to mark the time. Chronograms are usually written in the form of a sentence, a word, or a sign that is used to show or indicate a year or an era. Chronograms as a form of time writing can be found nearly around the world, including in the Nusantara archipelago. The Javanese made and developed their own chronogram system that was influenced by Hindi, named sengkalan. Sengkalan comes from Sanskrit, namely Çaka (year in Hinduism) and kala (time). Usually, Chronogram in general terms is in the form of writing, but sengkalan is formed in writing and images.

Sengkalan is divided into two types based on the circulation of the moon and the sun, candrasengkala calculates the circulation of the moon to determine the year, and suryasengkala calculates the circulation of the sun to determine the year (Listya and Pratama, 2019). Sengkalan also has three forms, Sengkalan Lamba which appeared in the form of writing, Sengkalan Sastra, which is usually used in carvings, and Sengkalan Memet, which appeared in the form of an image. There are eight guidelines that form the basis for making a sengkalan, namely; Gurudasanama, Gurusastra, Guruwanda, Guruwarga, Gurukarya, Gurusarana, Gurudarwa, and Gurujarwa (Bratakesawa and Hadisoeprapta, 1980).

The oldest usage of sengkalan is a Sengkalan Lamba was recorded in the Canggal Inscription. A sentence in the inscription said: "Çruti-indriya-rasa = 654 Çaka= 732 A.D." It is used by looking for a word related to the context of each number depicted based on the guidelines. For example, Çruti means to listen, depicting the number 4, indriya means senses, depicting the number 5, and rasa means feeling, depicting the number 6. The Canggal inscription used Sanskrit and Pallawa script, it was found broken into two parts, on Mount Wukir, Central Java and Canggal Village that located on the slopes of Mount Wukir (Museum Nasional Indonesia, 2019). The sentence "Çruti-indriya-rasa" is in stanza 1 of the Canggal Inscription which tells about the making of a lingga by king Sanjaya on a mountain, possibly, what is meant is the lingga in Gunung Wukir temple.

Sengkalan Memet is a visual chronogram, and it is more complicated than Sengkalan Lamba, the words that depict numbers should be arranged as a poetic sentence before it’s converted into an image. Sengkalan Memet was recorded in many classic Hindu temples and inscriptions in Java and Bali. In temples on the island of Java, sengkalan memet can be found in several temples, for example, sengkalan depicting a giant eating a snake's tail, gapura bhuta anahut buntut (Translation: "a giant eating tail") depicting the year 1359 Çaka in Sukuh temple, Karanganyar, and sengkalan depicting a dragon with a crown eating the sun, naga raja anahut surya (Translation: "the dragon king eating the sun") describes the year 1328 Çaka in Sawentar Temple, Kediri. One of the sengkalans in Bali is now stored in Pura Penataran Blusung, Tampaksiring. It depicts a moon, an eye, an ear, and an elephant, depicting the year 1228 Çaka. The sengkalan in Pura Penataran Blusung is unique, each image only represents one number, is depicted linearly, and is read from the left. Different from Javanese sengkalan, where one picture directly represents the writing of the year, depicted circularly, and read backwards from the right.

Since a long time ago, the Javanese people have also been known to have very interesting arts, which we can see in every building and their heritage objects, even in buildings that still exist today, for example, the Yogyakarta Keraton (Palace), which still uses the sengkalan system to mark the first usage of the Keraton as an ornament. sengkalan is considered a symbol and marker of an important event, and then the sengkalan sentence is formed into an image which makes it known as a Sengkalan Memet. Thus, apart from being a marker of an important event for the Javanese, sengkalan is also an expression of their art in applying their spirituality related to time awareness.

The above article was written by a guest contributor.

About the Contributor

Nabil Alghifari recently graduated from Udayana University, majoring in archaeology.

During his pastime in Jakarta post-graduation, he started wandering around the city, learning more about the culture and history of his birthplace as a Betawi.

Nabil also enjoys reading Indonesian and European literature, having read some that are related to local history and culture.

You can find him on social media at @effervescccent on Instagram!

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