The birthday of the prophet Muhammad, which fell on 26 February this year, is celebrated by Muslim communities throughout Indonesia with religious services and other special events. In Java, the event has taken on a unique form in the Sekaten Festival. The week-long cultural festivals are hosted in some of the island's major cities – Cirebon, Surakarta, Semarang and Yogyakarta, its most famous location.
Though it originally has Islamic roots, the Sekaten Festival has come to symbolise multiculturalism and pluralism in Java. During the Sekaten Festival, and particularly during the final event, everybody – regardless of their religion and belief – gathers at the city plaza to participate in the festivities that reflect the region's tradition and history.
The Sekaten Festival started in 15th century Java. The king – Sultan Hamengkubuwana I – hosted the festivities and invited the mostly Hindu local population to embrace Islam. Today, the Sekaten Festival has shifted from these evangelical roots to become a festival celebrating the diverse beliefs and ethnicities of the people of Java.
In Yogyakarta, the only Sultanate still existing in Java, the festival centres around a gamelan, a set of traditional Javanese musical instruments featuring metallophones, xylophones, drums, gongs, flutes and strings, which is played in the yard of the city's Great Mosque. Two sets of ancient, sacred gamelan are played continuously night and day for the full week of the festival. The Sekaten ensemble's style is loud and majestic, as it was traditionally used to attract people to the mosque. The ensemble is said to have been created by Sunan Kalijaga, one of the nine Muslim saints in 16th century Indonesia who were crucial in spreading Islam. Today, Muslims make up 60 to 65 per cent of the population in Java.
Popular with visitors to Indonesia, today the gamelan is used almost exclusively at puppet shows, traditional dance and marriage ceremonies. At the Sekaten Festival, however, it still serves its original function of gathering people together.
The festival lasts for an entire week and culminates with a cultural rite performed by the Sultan of Yogyakarta – who still holds local authority in the province – to thank God for the blessings bestowed upon the community over the previous year. It begins with a parade of the palace guard, each unit in full uniform. Behind them stand two gunungan, pyramid-shaped offerings of fruits and vegetables symbolising the male and the female, and the health and wealth of the kingdom and its people.
These offerings go back hundreds of years in Indonesia, predating the development of a Muslim identity in the country. Today, they are a reminder of the way ancient symbols can be part of religious festivals. Additionally, the route of the parade symbolises the life and duty of the King: as a son to the queen mother, political and administrative leader, and human being – a common Muslim – worshipping God.
When the gunungan reaches the yard at the Great Mosque, the crowd gathering there is free to take food from the pyramid. People compete good-naturedly for food from the pyramids as local custom says it will bring prosperity.
This festival is a beautiful acknowledgment of the birthday of the founder of Islam, as well as the diversity of the country – blending Islam with Javanese culture in a unique way. Although it is only held in Java, the Sekaten Festival could serve as an example throughout Indonesia, and even beyond. It demonstrates that being Muslim – with all its rituals and teachings – does not mean destroying local traditions and cultures. In fact, as the example of Sekaten shows, the blending of religion and culture can help both flourish.
* Agung Yudhawiranata is member of the Common Ground News Service's editorial board and coordinator of projects for Muslim-Western understanding in Indonesia. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).