The Historical Significance of Transgender Women in Ancient Javanese Society

Since the 9th century AD, particularly in the Nusantara region, especially Java, a unique entity known as transgender women, or transpuan, has been constructed by society. This designation has found its place in official state documents, making them part of the group known as mangilala drawya haji. Within the bureaucratic structure of ancient Javanese kingdoms, mangilala drawya haji played a crucial role, consistently mentioned in various inscriptions. Boechari, in his book “Tracing Ancient History through Inscriptions” (2012), delves into the etymological roots of mangilala drawya haji. According to him, the name originates from Old Javanese, meaning “dependent on the king’s income.” In essence, those belonging to mangilala drawya haji never owned their own farmland; their livelihoods depended entirely on the salary provided by the king. In short, this name is synonymous with abdi dalem, as later known in Javanese courts.

Boechari’s study lists 212 individuals belonging to mangilala drawya haji from various professional groups, based on a single inscription, Prasasti Cane, issued by King Airlangga in the 11th century. This list does not include professions mentioned in other inscriptions. Boechari highlights the remarkable detail and diversity of the professions categorized as mangilala drawya haji, ranging from religious leaders to village irrigation officials and even brothel controllers (germo). Among these individuals, one of the mangilala drawya haji is the kdi, known today as transpuan.

The earliest written source mentioning transpuan and their position dates back to 873 AD in Prasasti Waharu I, issued by Śrī Maharaja Rakai Kayuwangi. The mention of kdi as part of royal employees persisted through the reigns of ancient Javanese kings, continuing into the Majapahit era in the 13th century. Data on the role and status of transpuan in ancient Javanese society extends beyond inscriptions, with literary works from the same period providing similar information. In contemporary literature, kdi is categorized as wikara, a term with diverse interpretations among philologists.

Wikara, as defined by P.J. Zoetmulder in the “Dictionary of Old Javanese” (1985), signifies “a change in form from something good to something worse.” Darmosoetopo associates wikara with imperfections, though these imperfections are not equivalent to the modern concept of disability. In the context of ancient Java, imperfections relate to the concept of duality, a form of “imperfection” coexisting with perfection. Thus, wikara can also be interpreted as “liyan” (others). What makes a kdi unique is that they are one of the mangilala drawya haji supported by the king’s funding from taxation, a right exclusively held by the king.

In a joint study with Dian Sulistyowati, the existence of transpuan in the ranks of state officials during the ancient Javanese era is associated with the concept of dewaraja embraced by the society of that time. In Hindu-Buddhist times, the king was considered the embodiment of a deity in the world. The tradition of proclaiming the king as the representation of a god in Nusantara can be traced back to cases like King Purnawarman of the Tarumanagara Kingdom. Purnawarman claimed to be the incarnation of the deity Vishnu, a revered god in Hinduism.

The tradition of kings claiming divine embodiment in Nusantara, according to Agus Aris Munandar in “Mitra Satata: Studies in Ancient Southeast Asia” (2014), not only drew influence from Hindu and Buddhist religions from India but also originated from the indigenous belief that humans would become deities (hyang) after death and reside in high places. This tradition continued into the Islamic era, undergoing modifications and adopting some established concepts from Islamic teachings.

In Javanese culture, the dewaraja concept was realized through symbols, as seen in the present-day Keratons of Yogyakarta and Surakarta. When ascending to the throne, the king is accompanied to the throne by individuals considered “liyan” or imperfect. These individuals, known as abdi dalem palawija, are seen as imperfect, and their presence alongside the king completes the perfection of the king as the embodiment of a deity in the world. The position of kdi seems to occupy a similar role within abdi dalem palawija. The kdi, in this context, holds socio-magical power that enhances the king’s authority. This dynamic establishes a sort of social contract: the king provides economic benefits to the transpuan, while the transpuan offers their gender expression to be showcased in the public realm.

The historical presence of transpuan, particularly as part of the mangilala drawya haji in ancient Javanese society, sheds light on the intricate dynamics of the socio-cultural and religious beliefs of the time. Their role within the dewaraja framework and the acceptance of imperfections as complementary to perfection highlight the nuanced understanding of gender and societal roles in ancient Java. The recognition of transpuan as part of state officials emphasizes their integral place in the historical tapestry of the Nusantara region.