A fair — that is part of the festival commemorating the birth of the Prophet Muhammad known as pasar sekaten, or alternatively grebeg maulud or grebeg sekaten — is held annually by the Yogyakarta and Surakarta palaces.
This January, the northern square of the Surakarta Palace — where the fair is held every year — was lined with hundreds of vendors selling a variety of items along the four sides of the quadrangle across from the Grand Mosque.
The culinary stalls east of the square offered various traditional dishes and snacks. Then in the evening the pasar sekaten came to life with diverse, time-honored attractions and recreation like tong setan (a barrel in which a motorcyclist races against its wall), a merry-go-round and a Ferris wheel.
Traditional toys are another feature of the fair.
Otok-otok boats are among the popular toys that appear every year. The zinc boats have two small pipes on either side with cooking oil as fuel in the rear, and are propelled by lighting a wick, thereby causing the toy to produce a sound like “otok-otok” as it moves around — hence the name.
The boats, on show at the square’s entrance gates, are a favorite of visitors.
“Buyers are not only children but also adults who give the toys to their kids or use them to satisfy their nostalgia,” said one boat seller, Tarmin.
During the 1970s and 1980s, toy boats were the most sought after toy at the fairs and were at their peak of popularity. That heyday has seemingly come to an end. According to Tarmin, who has attended the fair at the Surakarta Palace for decades, the pasar sekaten remains celebratory, but the public’s interest in traditional toys has waned.
“We’re now in modern times and there are also modern toys for sale at the pasar sekaten. It’s normal for present-day children to be more attracted by modern gadgets,” said the 34-year-old trader from Wonogiri, Central Java.
Nonetheless, Tarmin said he had sold between 10 and 15 otok-otok every day for Rp 7,000 (72 US cents) to 10,000, depending on the size.
Tarmin’s boats must compete with sophisticated machines and modern toys like Transformers, robots and Barbie dolls. “Every year new models can be found at this fair so my boats are always facing new competitors,” he said, laughing.
Gasingan or bamboo spinning tops also used to be quite popular. By drawing a string from the upper stick of a bamboo cylinder, the toy will spin and generate a sound from a small hole in the tube. Sold for between Rp 7,000 to 10,000, depending on the size, sellers now find it hard to lure buyers.
The tops of the toys are made of spotted bamboo, which has very thin hollow stems. “This type of bamboo only comes from Muntilan and Magelang [in Central Java],” said gasingan vendor Saiman.
Five years ago, Saiman, 53, brought 1,500 spinning tops to the fair and sold out before the multi-day event was over. In the last four years, however, he has brought about 500 gasingan and each year he has leftovers.
“After the festival, I still had to hawk the toys around the villages and only then could I return to Magelang,” he said.
Young children favor the different-colored clay frogs. The lower part of the earthen toy is fitted with a vibrating reed and connected to the upper body with cement sack paper. The sound of a frog is produced by pressing the lower part.
Most children prefer the toy frogs due to their small size and portability. They make the frog sound en masse, thus, enlivening the fair.
“I’ve been selling the toys for 30 years now. The price is only Rp 1,000. It’s never been high,” said Sukesi, 65, a resident of Baluwarti, Solo.
Like the toy boats and bamboo tops, the clay frogs seem to be losing favor. Vendors complained about their declining sales in the face of numerous modern toys at relatively low prices. “Times have changed,” said Sukesi with a tone of resignation.
Cardboard wayang (shadow puppets), jaran kepang (woven bamboo horses) with whips, and wooden toy cars, can also be found at the fair, mostly displayed at the entrance gates as far as the yard of the Grand Mosque, in spite of the decreasing number of buyers.
Toy seller Surono, 64, said his merchandise was no longer selling as it had in past years. In one day he may have no buyers at all. “From the opening to the closing of the pasar sekaten, few people have bought the toys now piling up,” he noted.
Yet Surono continues to be a faithful participant at the fair. “I’ve been selling the toys for decades and my business will continue. Fortune comes from above. With or without the fair, today’s kids will be more attracted by modern playthings,” said the grandfather of five nonchalantly.
The tradition of celebrating the Prophet’s birth has been observed since the first Islamic kingdom in Java in Demak. The festivity at that time served as a means to propagate Islam by the king of Demak, Raden Patah. Later, the tradition was continued by succeeding sultanates from Pajang in what is now Yogyakarta and Mataram in what is now Surakarta.
The traditional toys may now be outdated, but these toys have existed for centuries and their presence through different periods has become legendary. Behind the dynamics of pasar sekaten, the toys are striving to survive amid the influx of modern gadgets.
“If all the traditional toys at the pasar sekaten can no longer be found and are replaced by those made in China, what would become of the festival?” asked Surono, a wooden toy car trader from Cawas in Klaten, Central Java.
— Photos by Ganug Nugroho Adi