A crash course in Javanese culture – ten years on

I don’t think I’ll ever forget my first trip to Indonesia. From the chaos I witnessed outside my car window on the way from the airport, to the culture I had no idea about – it was an experience I will never forget.

There are many striking things about Indonesia. The sounds, the sights, the smells – good and bad. It’s an ever-changing, and intriguing place. The majority of my time in Indonesia has been spent on the island of Java. The majority of that time the university city of Yogyakarta. Don’t ask me about the best villa in Bali, or tips for exploring that Island- I have no idea – the majority of my time in Bali has been spent in hotels near the airport waiting for my next flight to Yogya.

Yogya is a fascinating City – town with more universities than the entire tertiary system of Australia. It stakes its claims as cultural capital of Java and in many ways Indonesia; claims the best batik; the birth of the nation; the original capital city; longest running sultanate in the archipelago; the best dancers. All of these claims can be disputed – either by the neighbouring City and fierce rival Surakarta, or by other cities or even Islands within the archipelago, or Malaysia – let’s not go there.

My first visit to Java was over 10 years ago. I was going head first into a Javanese wedding ceremony – intricate detail, importance, ceremonial splendour.

It was our wedding I was going to. We were married in Australia in the March- and were now going  to have the chance to have a traditional Javanese ceremony. My mother-in-law had always wanted one of her children to have a traditional Javanese ceremony; and I was determined not to say no so this kind of experience.

After arriving in Yogya, I had one afternoon to acclimatise and familiarise myself with the place, the language, and the culture before the wedding ceremony. It was rapid cultural immersion.

We arrived at my mother in-law’s only to be whisked away for what I was told would be a few photos. We were some traditional clothing and headed into down-town Yoyga to withstand several hours of staged photography. By the fourth hour we were to head to the kraton or Palace some more photos. I was cooked – physically and mentally. Hot. Sick of posing. Overwhelmed with the entire experience.

I was ready to go home, so pulled rank on more photos.

That night the men and women from the kampung or village gathered in separate houses for a bit of a get together. It was kind of a Javanese bucks party. Apart from everything that makes a bucks party a bucks party, segregation of genders.

The local Imam came and read a few words from the Quran and gave us his blessing. In our kampung there’s a mix of Muslims and Catholics, there’s no segregation of religion, the Imam was a friendly guy who did a good job and everyone seems pretty pleased with his input.

Well least I think. I couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying, but it all felt pretty positive.

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Not in anyway overwhelmed

The next morning saw an early start for Jas. It’s good to see across cultures that women are still expected to do the bulk of the dressing up and beatification. Jasmine had the most incredibly elaborate arrangement of fresh flowers I had ever seen, tarring of her hair to create Widow Peaks, which all included an intricate Gold Leaf outline.

I on the other hand was only being wrapped in several metres of sarong material and having elven ears pinned to my head.

I had been given the option of wearing the full traditional Javanese outfit – with an unusual hat with fake ponytail- or a Dutch variation which was basically a sarong with a blazer.

I was only going to do this once so I went the whole hog.

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What had I got myself in to

Huge sarong in place. Bare chest. Kris. Flat top hat. Eye make-up. Pointy ears. Fake ponytail. I was in this big time. I was wishing I had a few more weeks to prepare my upper body to be exposed to several hundred people, but my pecs were as good as they were gonna get with the shorter notice so I just went with it.

One could have excused me of laughing at myself, dressed in this way – but to everyone else involved in dressing me, this outfit and every symbol it represented carrying huge gravity and respect.

The Javanese lady (a Pemaes) that walked me through my enrobement did so with an almost holy reverence – including the form of Javanese language she used to explain things to me, the most formal version of the language. Unfortunately, this formal version of the language is not used that often – so even those translating for me had moments of confusion.

There was great Reverence and seriousness of everyone around which really set the tone. I did my best to embody the respect and regality my clothing represented.

This was not big kids fancy dress, this was respecting centuries of tradition and culture.

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Act casual

Once we were dressed, we headed out through the kampung, to our waiting car. Jas looked incredible. The detail in her hair, and her outfit was amazing. She moved so gracefully and looked every part of the Javanese princess. I did my best to look strong and regal. It was not easy, but I tried my hardest.

Upon arriving to the hall we were separated once again. Jas had her mother as support and translator. I had to elders from the kampung. They knew no English. I knew know Indonesian or Javanese. They were meant to explain the ceremony and the process to me before we hit it head first. We gave it a go for a few minutes before resigning ourselves to just winging it.

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Who me?

We headed back in to the hall and to the waiting throng of around 400 people. Our first task was to throw betel leaves at each other. One with the right, one with the left, one more with the right. This got lost in translation, so I stuffed the order up a little. There was howls of laughter and cheering, before the betel leaves were returned to me for another go. I quickly asked what this all symbolised, and were met with vacant stares. The Pemaes (the lady running the show) had moved on to the next thing, and no-one had a quick answer.

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Me and my homies throwing betel leaves at demons

This happened several times during the ceremony, or afterwards. No-one seemed to have a straight answer. It wasn’t until we moved to Yogyakarta for six months that we learnt about the symbols – and why no-one could tell us.

These elaborate, traditional ceremonies are expensive, and nowadays not fully embraced by the Muslim side of things who want traditional Islamic ceremonies. People were favouring different ceremonies, either from cost or religion. Roll in to the detail that most of the explanations are in the most formal version of Javanese that no-one really speaks (sort of like Old English or even Latin).

Years later, we learnt that the throwing of the betel leaves is to show everyone that we are real people. Not ghosts or spirits. The betel leaves had the power to chase away evil spirits, so if they hit us, we were flesh; not demonic impostors.

Next job for the bewildered bule was to crack an egg with my foot. I’m not huge on textures, so was a little apprehensive, but got it done. My egg smashing prowess was observed by the crowd and appreciated before it was time for Jas to wash my feet. These two acts were symbols of our readiness to become parents. Not too difficult to work out.

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Foot washing post egg; pre-pedicure

The Pemaes then escorted us to the ritual chair – where it was my solemn duty to provide Jasmine with a selection of goods to signify the handing over of all of my wealth to her. Given her earlier foot-washing, it was the least I could do.

We the sat in front of our guests on a stage adorned with incredible fresh floral arrangements and proceeded with the ceremony. I had to make three balls of rice, very particularly, under strict instructions from the Pemaes. Jas then had to eat first. Then I. Then we drank sweet tea. Everyone was happy.

We then received a blessing from our parents. Well, Jasmine’s mum and step-dad. I had to leave my Kris with the Pemaes while we headed over, which seemed very reasonable.

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Simple subservience


After kneeling subserviently before them, we were then allowed back to our seats to watch Traditional Javanese dancing and an extended gamelan performances, before withstand  enjoying the efforts of a local rock cover band.

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Observing the dancing

While we sat and sweated, our guests feasted on an amazing spread of food. We were regal and gracious (and a little drippy from the heat) as we allowed EVERYONE to eat while we watched. My despair at the end of the ceremony to find all the food gone was immense.

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Guests enjoying the food I did not get to

To close our ceremony, all 400 guests came briefly to the stage; one by one and shook our hands, kissed us, passed on messages of congratulations, etc. Everyone had been having such a great time that there was a lot of positivity and love.

My elf ears had really started to pinch by then and my hat was too tight, so I was having trouble faking my smiles with my throbbing head and my little shoes were pinching my toes; by I shook every hand and got over myself. Jas had a couple of kilos of flowers pinned in to her scalp so I wasn’t suffering alone (or even suffering comparatively).

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We had to focus on our serious faces for the traditional photos

We eventually headed home to wash in the cold bucket of water that serves as our shower and attempt to scrub the tar out of Jasmine’s hair. Pak Wid/Oom/Jasmine’s stepdad had arranged a night in the best local hotel for us, so we were quiet happy to make use of the hot water to wash up.

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You guys are great!

It was a whirlwind experience – my first trip to Yogya was only seven days long and included the photo shoot, the amazing wedding ceremony, a trip to Borodur temple, Prambanan temple, the Merapi volcano and the fish restaurant.

It sparked something inside of me, the understanding that if was to understand my wife, her mother and her family better – I was going to have to learn more about Java, Javanese culture and some language.

It was a life-changing experience, and ten years on, I’m glad I did it. It was the start of a journey, the start of a range of awesome new experiences.

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