Jepara torch war tradition maintained by local residents
The torch war is an annual thanksgiving tradition that has been performed in the coastal Tegalsambi subdistrict in Jepara, Central Java, since the 16th century, and is still going strong.
On Monday evening, thousands of locals flocked to a section of the subdistrict main road along the beach, where this year’s torch war was held.
“We hold it as an expression of gratitude to God for our abundant harvest,” subdistrict head Sunarno said in his remarks at the opening of the festival. He also prayed that residents of Tegalsambi would be prosperous and free from misfortune.
As indicated by the name, the main feature of the tradition is the war of torches involving 30 specially selected, fit, young men. They fight by beating their opponents with 4-meter-long burning torches, each made of two sticks of coconut wood fastened together with dried banana and coconut leaves.
The fighters are required to use up all the 250 torches prepared by the organizers until none are left. They are free to choose their opponents, while spectators yell support from the sidelines.
Fired up: Sparks fly as two men fight in a ceremonial torch battle in Tegalsambi village, Jepara, Central Java. The tradition is annually held as a token of thanksgiving for thriving crops and livestock. JP/Bambang Muryanto“The rule is as long as a player holds a burning torch, he is open to attack,” a local youth leader, Damar Budi Utomo, said, adding that only men from Tegalsambi were allowed to join the torch war.
“When an outsider joins, the burns he sustains are difficult to heal,” he said.
On Monday the war started at 8:30 p.m. local time and lasted for about an hour. Some of the fighters suffered from burns, mostly to their arms, necks and eyelashes. One of these was Yanto Petruk, who suffered from a serious burn on his right arm.
Together with the others, he gathered at the subdistrict head’s house to be treated using a special lotion called lodoh water, made from a mixture of coconut oil, dried roses and jasmine. The fighters rubbed the lotion on each others’ burns. “With this, the burns heal in just two days,” Yanto said.
Ali Ahmadi of the organizing committee said a series of rituals such as visiting ancestors’ graveyards, mass prayers in the mosque and an all-night shadow puppet performance, were held before each fight.
During the ritual a young buffalo, which has never been used as a draft animal or mated, is slaughtered, and the meat is enjoyed by the whole village.
“During the torch war festival people prepare special traditional snacks called kintelan, made of grated coconut, sticky rice and palm sugar,” said Ali.
The ritual, according to Damar, was inspired by a tale relating to a shepherd guarding his flock.
“The moral of the story is that a leader has to take a good care of his people. If he is negligent, then the people will suffer,” he said.