We were excited that our stay in Yogyakarta coincided with Sekaten, a week-long festival in Yogyakarta commemorating the birth of the Prophet Muhammed. Sekaten, a ritual dating back to the 15th century, begins under a pavilion in the Kraton, the Sultan’s Palace, where two gamelan orchestras perform. Preceding the opening gongs and chimes, the abdi dalam, palace courtiers, perform blessings for Jogja residents and villagers who have come here from surrounding communities to ask for prosperity and good fortune in the coming year. These people, such as the two ladies below, present small donations wrapped in leaves to the holy men who pass it over the fire and offer it in front of the gamelan.
The abdi dalam sit in their white shirts and batik hats around the gamelan.
A male relative of the Sultan enters the area and begins throwing rupiah coins to the crowd. People scramble to catch them and some hold upturned umbrellas to better their chances as these coins are thought to bring good luck.
The gamelan continues and two small kids, feeling the intricate rhythms, move their bodies in an improvisational dance. We meet a Frenchman doing research on Javanese rituals such as this and join him on a mat in the courtyard of the Masjid Agung (grand mosque) for nasi gurih, a special festival food of rice cooked in coconut milk and served with nuts, beans, tempeh, and other accompaniments. With our new friend, we venture over to the carnival (replete with Ferris wheel and lots of fried food hawkers), and wait with a crowd of people, including this father and son, at the gate of the palace.
The palace gates open and lines of abdi dalam in batik sarongs march out to the sounds of flutes and drums playing a whimsical marching tune. A trumpet bellows something between a call to arms and the start of a horse race.
The abdi dalam, many of them elderly, march past in different styles of uniform: red pointy hats with gold trim, poufy white feathers sticking out of black hats and accented by rainbow sashes. Another dons a black top hat. A row of younger abdi dalam solemnly carry bronze oil lamps. Even the very youngest of the abdi dalam, at only three years old and marching with his grandfather, carries himself with an air of grace.
And then come the gamelan. This whole procession is to accompany the gamelan as it is carried from the sultan’s palace into pavilions in the courtyard of the Masjid Agung—near where we had just eaten dinner. Men shoulder large bamboo poles onto which the gamelan chimes, gongs, and drums are strapped and hanging.
The gamelan are well-protected: abdi dalam wielding lances flank the procession of gamelan, and finely ornamented umbrellas hover overtop them.
Through the carnival and into the Sultan Agung, the procession lands at two white pavilions where the gamelan are deposited and the teal-shirted gamelan players take their seats. Once the large gongs receive their last adjustments, the two gamelan, now separated by over 100 meters, strike up again.
Here the gamelan are played for seven days and seven nights leading up to the final Garebeg Sekaten ritual in which rice mountains make the same journey.