A Javanese Feast For The Senses
For fifteen years in a row, an extraordinary cultural festival has been taking place in the Menoreh highlands of Central Java, home to five volcanoes. Paying homage to the volcanoes as their source of living and protector, local villagers present their best to nature through offerings, performances and more.
I was one of the lucky few to hear about Lima Gunung Festival (Five Mountains Festival) in mid-July and immediately made plans to go, even though I really had no idea what I was in for. I jumped on a plane to the nearest airport, in this case, Yogyakarta and headed north by car in the direction of Magelang and into Kejawen, Java’s cultural heartland, where I ended up in a small village called Krogowanan. How intriguing, you might be thinking?
What unfolded before me was a plethora of colour, dance, traditional music, trance ceremonies and mystical devotion. The theme for this year’s Five Mountains Festival was Pala Kependhem, which translates to local wisdom and spiritual value.
I had the pleasure of meeting the chairman of the organising committee, Pak Sujono, a farmer from the local village, who explained the story behind the festival.
“Around 15 years ago a number of people, mostly farmers from five different villages, got together with a desire to keep our culture alive and ensure that the younger generation grow up with an understanding and respect for their Javanese culture and history. We had an idea, but we wanted it to be more than that. We did not approach the Government, as we wanted to keep this very local, and instead, engaged with villagers. This festival is not about money, but being proud of our culture and welcoming visitors from around Indonesia and overseas,” he said.
In the spirit of Monggo Pinarak Mas, which translates into ‘you are very welcome here’, and as a testament to Javanese hospitality, for five days local communities open up their homes to visitors, taking great pride in providing free food and lodging.
Because the festival is about bringing together people from all walks of life, it’s open to participation of those from other regions or countries. This year, guest performers include artists from Sumatra and Bali.
“We hope that in future years performers from other countries will come and join us and express their culture so we can learn from each other. We treat our guests with true Javanese hospitality,” said Sujono.
Krogowanan Village is located in an area of exceptional natural beauty with five volcanoes surrounding the area—Gunung Andong, Menoreh, Merbabu, Sumbing and the most active volcano in the world, Gunung Merapi. These volcanoes rise dramatically to soaring heights of 3,000 metres from the valley floor and are the real essence of Java.
For those living in the periphery, there’s a mystical, spiritual connection between them and the volcanoes. However, this is not to say that tragedy had never come near. In 2010, Mount Merapi erupted, affecting much of the landscape. The eruptive episode took the lives of 370 people and forced 350,000 others to evacuate.
As the festival rolled on, visitors got to embrace not only breathtaking views of nature, but also a variety of art performances, from dance to music, as well as film screenings and photography competition. To top it off, there was even a ballet performance, which highlighted the cultural diversity and variety on offer.
For me personally, the highlight of the festival was in the traditional dancing. Throughout the afternoon, a steady stream of performers entered the dance area, and performances went well into the evening. The dancers were all from local villages. Many of them were amateurs who had gone through months of training. This annual event could perhaps be the only stage they would ever perform on, making it such a big deal for them.
Another highlight came at sunset. At the surprising sound of cantering bare feet, I looked out at a group of around fifteen men, who had come out on rattan horses, faces brightly painted and dressed in gears made from woven bamboo and local fabric. Against the sounds of the traditional angklung music and drums, some the men went into a trance. I froze to capture the moment.
Before my very eyes, these men, whose bodies were infiltrated by spirits, gained extraordinary power that protected them from harm. Accordingly, they started eating hot coals from the fire and endured violent whippings. I saw two grown men jumping up and down on the extended leg of one of the men, in an attempt to release a spirit, which has entered his body. In normal circumstances, this man’s leg would have broken in seconds with such force. Java is, of course, famous for mysticism and black magic but to see it with one’s own eyes is extraordinary, quite spooky and fascinating at the same time.
This performance called Kuda Lumping is designed to provide spiritual power, and it is believed to have hailed from the days of Dutch rule. The men who control the whips are shamans and are responsible for making sure things do not get out of hand. The whips are for controlling the spirits, in case they run wild. Comforting thought!
I am constantly surprised and fascinated by the cultural diversity in Indonesia, and the Five Mountains Festival is yet another case of stumbling upon a festival deep in history and tradition. In this case, all thanks to village farmers who have a deep love for their culture and environment and work hard to preserve it in the hearts and minds of the younger generation.
David Metcalf runs cultural photography tours in Indonesia and beyond. His photo gallery, Taksu Photo Gallery in Ubud, Bali is a showcase of beautiful photographic work from Indonesia.