For the people of Surakarta and its surrounding Central Java towns like Karanganyar, Sragen, Boyolali, Klaten, Sukoharjo and Wonogiri, the appearance of albino buffalos called Kyai Slamet is synonymous with the ritual to mark the eve of 1 Sura, the new year in the Javanese calendar.
The herd of white buffalos, considered sacred by some in the local community, emerged from the palace of Kasunanan Surakarta on Nov. 26, the eve of 1 Sura, to spearhead a procession of palace heirlooms.
Thousands of people had crowded around the Surakarta court and lined the routes where the eagerly awaited traditional parade would pass by at midnight.
As annually practiced, the crowds, with their firm belief in the sacredness of the Kyai Slamet, did things that might appear odd. The onlookers pressed forward and struggled to get near the buffalos to touch their bodies for blessings. Furthermore, even the animals’ dung, believed to bestow security and good fortune, was seized as soon as it was dropped. This tradition is called ngalap berkah or hunting for blessings.
The palace buffalos are descended from the favorite albinos of King Paku Buwono II (1711-1749), when the court was still located in Kartasura, around 15 kilometers from the present palace. According to Surakarta Palace chief librarian Gusti Pangeran Haryo Puger, for the Kasunanan Surakarta court the heirlooms and buffalos symbolize security and prosperity. In the early period of the Mataram kingdom, all the heirlooms and buffalos were referred to as Kyai Slamet and only paraded in times of emergency such as plague and natural disaster.
Puger said that the palace had never stated that the tlethong, or excrement of the white buffalos, could offer blessings. “If the dung is seen as fertilizing paddy fields as manure, it’s reasonable,” he added. Yet local people believe that the Kyai Slamet aren’t ordinary buffalos. “We try to understand this as the community creating a medium to make a request as the buffalos’ character indicates represents fertility and prosperity,” explained Puger.
The Kasunanan Surakarta palace at present has 13 Kyai Slamet buffalos each of which reportedly has individual traits. They frequently roam over far-off places for a long time to graze without being followed by court servants. The buffalos sometimes reach as far as Cilacap, over 100 kilometers from Surakarta, even Madiun, East Java, but strangely, as the eve of 1 Sura approaches, the herd returns to the palace to join the ritual procession, after which the animals go back to the square shed in the southern end of Kasunanan Surakarta.
Surakarta Palace’s deputy head of internal affairs Kanjeng Pangeran Winarno Kusumo said King Paku Buwono II’s buffalos were originally a gift from the regent of Ponorogo. As the king’s pets, the animals were entrusted with the task of guarding the court heirlooms, Kyai Slamet. Their position as heirloom guards earned them the same name. To date, the descendants of Kyai Slamethave always guarded the heirlooms on the eve of the new year.
“So Kyai Slamet is actually the name of the palace heirlooms guarded by the buffalos,” added Winarno. Apart from mystical beliefs, for the Javanese community as a whole being mainly farmers, buffalos have long represented strength and soil cultivation. They have also symbolized fertility and prosperity since time immemorial.
The eve of 1 Sura was also celebrated by the Mangkunegaran Palace in Surakarta. In this court, the evening saw a palace-heirloom washing and procession ritual. Kanjeng Gusti Pangeran Adipati Arya (KGPAA) Mangkunegara IX headed the heirloom parade from the rear of the court to the terrace of the court hall for washing with petal water.
When the washing session was finished, thousands of residents who had gathered near the hall for hours promptly got into a scramble for the remainder of the heirloom bathwater and petals or udhik-udhik that were scattered around. Many of them were trampled on in the struggle for the water believed to bear magical powers that would bless, save and protect those who drank it or used to it to wash their faces.
The people braving the stampede were not only local residents but also from the nearby areas of Sragen, Karanganyar, Sukoharjo, Wonogiri, Klaten and Boyolali, some 25 kilometers to 50 kilometers away. They had mostly arrived at the palace by noon.
Sumarmi, 60, a farm worker from Sragen, was among the thousands tussling for the bathwater, “I’m going to use this water to heal my crippled child,” she said. In her view, going to Mangkunegaran Palace
on the eve of 1 Sura was like a subject calling on his or her king. “In this special evening, the Javanese should go to the court to get blessings,” she added.
Thereafter the court-heirloom procession was seen off by Mangkunegara IX. It paraded around the Mangkunegaran Palace under the leadership of his oldest son with Sukmawati Soekarnoputri, Kanjeng Pangeran Haryo Paundra Karna. All palace officials, relatives, soldiers and servants marched behind.
When the parade was over, a group of people in traditional Javanese dress conducted a ritual of silence, going around the heirlooms without speaking in the hall of the court.
Meanwhile, residents of Samas Beach, Sanden, Bantul regency, Yogyakarta welcomed the arrival of 1 Sura with a ritual, Mahesa Larung (throwing of offerings into the sea). Clad in Javanese costume, they marched in a parade with the various foods and items required.
As one of the typical features of Yogyakarta’s southern coast community is the legend of Nyi Roro Kidul (Queen of the Southern Sea), the Mahesa Larung procession also carried a symbol of the ocean ruler in the form of a beautiful woman in sea-green attire. This figure was paraded to the beach, escorted by soldiers and residents in traditional dress complete with offerings.
There were small mountains of agricultural produce, snacks, boiled chickens, various flowers, bananas, rice cones and rice bran cones. “The crops manifest our gratefulness for good fortune over the year and the diverse foods are meant to ward off evil and solicit blessings on entering the new year,” said Karyono, a religious leader in the coastal region.
Prayers and evil-banishing rituals were also conducted in various other places. At the Yogyakarta Monument intersection, over 500 people followed a silent ritual organized by a social institution, Paguyuban Honggo Dento. Carrying offerings, the residents marched along the road without a word.
In the Mataram royal cemetery of Imogiri, Bantul, thousands of people offered prayers on Saturday evening, followed by a parade round the burial complex in complete silence followed by a vigil until dawn.