Malang. Rice cakes wrapped in palm leaves, or ketupat, is a usually a treat reserved for the Islamic holiday of Idul Fitri, but for Hindus in Malang, East Java, ketupat serves as a customary dish in celebrating Nyepi, the day of silence.
Ketupat and lepet, a similar type of rice cake, but mixed with coconut gratings and other ingredients and packed into an elongated shape rather than the boxy bulk of the ketupat, symbolizes the phallus and the womb — the two primary elements of conception.
Last week, 33 educational institutions and temples in Malang participated in a ceremony on Balekambang Beach to celebrate one of the biggest holidays in the local Hindu calendar.
The ceremony, called Jala Nidhi Puja, is held before Nyepi and it beautifully displays the diversity of Indonesia. In Sanskrit, “jala ” means sea, “nidhi ” means sanctity and “puja ” means ceremony.
Dance of virgins
For years, thousands of Hindus in Malang have been meeting at Balekambang Beach in their worship dress. The women typically wear a kebaya and batik sarong with white head scarves. Others put on traditional Malang dresses.
On this particular Friday, nine teenage girls in colorful kebayas moved to the rhythm of the Javanese gamelan, dancing in a circle around a dancer in the instantly recognizable black and white Balinese sarong. The dance, called Nata Muda Karana , is considered as a sacred gesture to the gods, and may only be performed by virgins.
“Before we dance, we have to fast and follow a vegetarian diet for three days,” said Risa Sinta Dewi, one of the dancers. “We practice the dance for about three months.”
Risa goes to Tri Murti, a junior high school in Pakisaji, Malang, where the dance has been taught from generation to generation. According to Tri Murti’s dance teacher, Sri Wahyuni, the dance is usually performed in the middle of the first ceremony.
“This dance was created in 1973, combining elements of Bali with gending Java” — a type of gamelan music — “and the Vedas,” the oldest scripture of Hinduism, Sri Wahyuni says. “I am the second generation to pass it on to my students.”
A different offering
Apart from the use of ketupat and the Javanese gamelan, Hindus in Malang also decorate their offerings differently from their better-known counterparts in Bali.
Every offering contains five mandatory elements: leaves, flowers, fruits, water and incense.
Suharsono, the chairman of the Indonesian Hindu Association (PDHI) in Malang, said that they customized their offerings according to the things that flourished in their hometown, but staples like yellow rice, bananas and yellow palm fronds were a common element.
Another way their offerings differ from those in Bali is that the bananas aren’t sliced thin, but rather offered up whole.
“We can’t decorate our offerings as beautifully as Balinese offerings,” Suharsono said, “but its religious function is the same.”
These offerings are served in a purification ceremony called Utuhnya . Each participating institution arranges its own offering and puts them in a palanquin, which they set loose at sea after the communal prayer.
The Majapahit touch
Ismoyo Temple, which stands majestically in the center of the Ismoyo Island, has for years been witness to the Jala Nidhi Puja procession, and last Friday it did so again.
The roof of the temple, which was built in 1985, resembles a set of tapered stairs, in the style reminiscent of a typical Majapahit building. Even so, other ornaments that are carved on the temple reflect architectural and cultural influences from Bali.
“The building combines elements of Bali and Java, but the worship function is the same as in Balinese Hinduism,” Suharsono said.
Acculturation between Hindu and Javanese traditions has occurred since the time of the Majapahit, running from flourished from 1293 to around 1500 CE, when Hindu spread rapidly along with the might of the Majapahit.
Following the collapse of Majapahit kingdom in the 16th century, Hinduism spread to various places and blended with the local culture.
Dwi Cahyono, an archaeologist at the University of Malang, said there were various relics that reflected the cultural mix: layered roofs that first appeared during the Majapahit era are now commonly seen in mosques, such as the Mosque of Demak.
Taur Agung Kesanga , the second ceremony before Nyepi, took place at Karang Tengah in Malang’s Glangang Pakisaji subdistrict last Sunday, a day before Nyepi.
Some 1,500 villagers, 850 of them Hindus, built their own ogoh-ogoh , or papier-mache monster statues, to represent evil spirits.
It is customary to burn all ogoh-ogoh before Hindus start fasting during Nyepi, as a symbol of cleansing and starting the new year afresh.
“By burning down ogoh-ogoh, we invoke to the gods or negative elements in the universe not to bother us during Nyepi,” said Sucipto, head of Karang Tengah village.
After Taur Agung Kesanga, residents immediately went home. Nyepi started at the stroke of midnight on Sunday, and ran until Monday afternoon — again, differing from the Balinese observation of the holiday, which runs from 6 a.m. on the day of Nyepi to 6 a.m the next day.
But like their Balinese counterparts, Hindus in Malang are not allowed to engage in any worldly activities during this time and are encouraged to meditate.
The roads along Karang Tengah look darker than usual. Adults usually stay indoors all day, while teens meditate in temples. Only mosques and churches keep the lights on.
“Our Muslim neighbors also turn off the lights and do not hang out in the road, out of respect for Nyepi,” Sucipto.
The series of observations concluded on Tuesday with a ceremony to rekindle a fire and spirit called Ngembak Geni .
For this ceremony, worshipers usually head to the temples of Badut, Kidal and Singosari.
On Tuesday morning, people came from far and wide carrying trays of crops and food as a form of homage to their ancestors and a symbol of hope for abundant blessings in 1939 Saka year.
The Javanese influence is also strong here, and Ngembak Geni has adopted a lot of the traditions from the Idul Fitri celebration.
For one, those celebrating it go around to the homes of their relatives and neighbors to seek forgiveness.
“The kids will also get sangu ” — pocket money — “from relatives and neighbors, just like during Idul Fitri,” Suharsono said.
And so, for another year, the Hindus of Malang marked Nyepi in their own unique way — one rich in tradition and proud of its pluralist roots.