In Indonesia, rice is not just the staple diet. It is also the source of income for a large proportion of the population, and the basis of many cultures. Once a year in the small sub-district of Cigugur, West Java, the local people invite their ‘neighbours’ from all over West Java to join them in giving thanks to the earth and to God for the life sustaining grain.
The sub-district only has a population of about 1200 but it is quite well known in Indonesia due to its plural religious nature. Not only do Muslims, Christians, Hindus and animists all live together there, they often exist within the one family.
Children are brought up both to respect God and/or the spirit world, and to value other people’s beliefs. The Serentaun festival is an embodiment of this philosophy, where people from different places with varied religious beliefs peacefully celebrate all that life has to offer.
Serentaun is a term based on two Sundanese words: seren, to surrender, and taun, year. Broadly speaking the Serentaun ceremony is a ceremony to give thanks for the previous year’s harvest and to ask for God’s blessing and protection to ensure a good harvest in the coming year. The festival is also an opportunity for reflection and making resolutions for self-improvement.
Harvest festivals are held in many places in Indonesia, but the Cigugur festival is noteworthy in that the community invites people from all over West Java to participate. For example, the Kanakes (popularly known as Baduy) people send representatives to recite poetry and bring offerings. This tradition of neighbourliness is now as easy as a phone call away, but in the past Cigugur would need to send emissaries weeks before the festival to invite the guests.
The Serentaun festival involves three days and nights of ceremonies, dancing and prayer. It is usually held in late February or early March, depending on when the rice is ready to harvest.
When the rice is brought in, the first ceremony or ngajayak is held. After this, the events are dominated by Sundanese cultural activities with mystical overtones such as the gending karesimen dance. This dance is performed to please the ancestors. It beêins with one of the elders dancing alone but then inviting others to join in until there is a large group of dancers. Other activities are the pantun Kanakes (poetry readings to praise God), and ngareremokuan, or blessing the rice.
The most important ceremony, and the peak of the festival, is the hulling of the rice. Women lead the activity as they are considered to be the source of fertility. The men soon join in until hundreds of people are all beating the rice in a united rhythmú After the ceremony, offerings are made and the rice and other local produce, such as meat and tubers, are shared amongst the participants. This is an important way for the rich to distribute some of their wealth to poorer members of the community.
The Serentaun festival is not only about seeking the blessing of a good harvest in the following year. The festival also helps to strengthen friendship and communication both within the community and with people from neighbouring districts. It is also a shining example of religious pluralism, alongside unity in caring for and respecting nature.
Refi Mascot (email@example.com) is a freelance photographer from Jakarta who specialises in anthropological studies.