This story was narrated to the author by Rosa Budiman, an Indonesian-Australian.
My grandma lived in a coastal town, Cirebon, right on the edge of Java and Sunda – we’re Sundanese – and used to tell me you’re not supposed to wear green near any coastal line in Indonesia. Nyi Loro Kidul, Queen of the Southern Sea, might see you. She’ll take you under water and kill you for daring to wear her colour.
Stories of Nyi Loro Kidul go back to the beginning of Indonesia. There are many different versions of this story: here is the version my grandma told me.
Way back in the Pajajaran Empire, there lived a princess who was loved by all the people. She was intelligent, politically savvy, gorgeous and kind – the type of princess who even the birds loved to hear sing.
Her mother had died and her father remarried, but his new wife had a son, and she hated the Princess. The King preferred the new wife’s son as heir to the throne, but knew that his subjects loved his daughter. So, to avoid having his subjects think the worst of him – to avoid them knowing he’d sooner abandon his daughter than declare her his heir over the son – he devised a plan.
He found a witch and had her put a spell his daughter the Princess to turn her skin green; to make it so her skin shed and became full of oozing sores. When the deed was done the King, pretending regret and sorrow, told his daughter that that he had to send her from the Kingdom. “For the good of the Kingdom,” he said, “I have to keep your illness away from our people; I have to let you go.”
So the Princess left. She went into the forest and because more and more miserable as her skin and her body disintegrated further. She wished for death but it did not come.
Eventually, the witch who had cursed her at the King’s command took pity on her. She found the Princess languishing in the forest and told her that she couldn’t reverse the curse. “But if you go into the sea,” she said, “you may be relieved of this torment.”
The Princess left the forest and came to a cliff that overlooked the ocean. “I need something to change,” she thought, and threw herself into the water.
The ocean’s spirit were moved by her anger and her misery and her desire for change, and welcomed her into their depths. As she sank deeper into the water, her skin flaked off and became green scales. She found she could control the water and change shapes. Suddenly she no longer felt constrained by what her body had done to her, or, what had been done to her body. Over time she became known as Nyi Loro Kidul, the Queen of the Sea.
Later, when Nyi Loro Kidul had become powerful and feared, armed with the magic of the ocean, she comes across a dashing man meditating on the coastal shore. She struck up a conversation with him – he was the son of the King in that part of the world, the Mataram Kingdom [in Java], and they talked for a while. She asked him how he would choose to rule a kingdom and finally asked him to help her invade her father’s kingdom so that she could take her place as the rightful heir. The Prince agreed.
And so her father’s kingdom was overtaken and Nyi Loro Kidul became the spiritual consort of the Mataram Empire. To this day, she resides in the Indian Ocean at the bottom of the sea, and people perform rituals and send out peaceful offerings to the water in her honour.
Additional note: There’s always been a fear of the water in Indonesia because of all the tsunamis and death, and there’s a sort of relationship between fear and wonder when it comes to the sea.
I don’t know if this is 100% correct, but I know that the Nyi Loro Kidul legend goes back way before any aspect of Islam came to Indonesia. The story I’ve told above is a more modern take on her, and definitely post-Islam. The pre-Islamic version, I think, is essentially that she’s always existed and we know very little else about what they thought she came from or anything; she’s just always been all powerful, all existing.
Nyi Loro Kidul is the main figure that I was told about as a child, her being the one who is both the Queen and the old powerful ocean spirit. But a lot of people say that originally there were two different figures. One, the all-powerful queen of the ocean (I don’t know her name. I think it starts with ratu, which means queen) and the other, the Nyi Loro Kidul figure who is a soldier or guardian that the all-powerful queen of the ocean has taken under her wing.
Cover image by Gunawan Kartapranata (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons