In the week leading up to Feb. 15, the northern square of the Kasunanan Court of Surakarta in front of the Grand Mosque turned into a fair animated by hundreds of vendors selling various kinds of earthenware, traditional toys and snacks, as well as offering rides on adrenaline-pumping machines.
Each year, Solo, also known as Surakarta, marks the birthday of the Great Prophet Muhammad, Grebeg Maulud, with this traditional Sekaten fair, which also takes place inYogyakarta Kasultanan Court.
Dating back to the era of Demak, the first Islamic kingdom in Java after the fall of the Hindu Majapahit kingdom (1478), the tradition was originally a means to propagate Islam used by Raden Patah, the first king of Demak, along with Walisanga or Java’s first nine proselytizers of Islam, notably Sunan Kalijaga.
Old tales: Some people believe that chewing salted eggs on the birthday of the Great Prophet Muhammad will clean their souls.
According to Kasunanan Court Museum and tourism chief Kanjeng Gusti Pangeran Haryo Puger, the word sekaten is derived from syahadatain or creed, which has to be stated when one embraces Islam.
“Besides, it is also connected with the name of gamelan instruments made by Sunan Kalijaga, Kyai Sekati. During his time this gamelan was played to gather people to follow Islamic courses and recite verses,” said Puger.
In the Surakarta Court, the set of Kyai Sekati comprises Kyai Guntur Madu and Kyai Guntur Sari, each with only three kinds of percussion instruments. Through a ritual called Miyos Gongso, both sets were played on February 8 to mark the start of Sekaten.
Kyai Guntur Madu was placed on the northern stage and Kyai Guntur sari on the southern platform.
Thousands of people filled the mosque yard to hear the sounds of the rare gamelan played for the first time this year.
Locals observed another unique tradition just before the gamelan was played. Some vendors in the mosque yard offered salted eggs and kinang, a pack of betel leaves, gambier, tobacco and lime, for chewing as soon as the gamelan was first sounded.
Some people believe salted eggs symbolize the rebirth of clean souls while chewing kinang to the sound of gamelan will preserve their youth. They are considered dishonest if their lips and teeth don’t turn red after chewing the eggs.
The gamelan is played around the clock for a week except during the call for prayer. The melodies brought by the court’s sacred heirloom are believed to create a magical atmosphere, signifying praise for Allah and the Great Prophet.
Surakarta Court official Kanjeng Pangeran Winarno said the gamelan melodies sounded in this event conveyed two main truths: syahadat taukhid or faith in Allah through Rembu sounded by Kyai Guntur Madu, and syahadat rasul or faith in the Prophet through Rangkung sounded by Kyai Guntur Sari.
“So the gamelan is played not only for entertainment [purposes] but also for guidance,” said Winarno.
Sekaten, Winarno explained, constitutes a reflection of the Javanese saying, mikul dhuwur mendhem jero (imitating the good deeds of ancestors and making allowances for their shortcomings), highlighting the high esteem the court holds for Walisanga.
This fair wound up with Grebeg Maulud on Feb. 15, which was originally a form of alms from Surakarta King Paku Buwono XIII to his people — two cone-shaped mounds of traditional foods and agricultural produce paraded from the court to the mosque for prayers.
As soon as the two piles leave the mosque, they are up for grabs. Thousands of residents and visitors crowding the mosque seize whatever they can as the mounds are believed to carry the court’s blessings. Thus ends the public festival.
— Photos by Ganug Nugroho Adi