At Ambarukmo Plaza, not far from the only Starbucks in Yogyakarta, is an outdoor terrace with a stage. It was here I witnessed my first Javanese ritual of exorcism. The ritual, Ruwatan, is an annual ceremony for those seeking to purge themselves of bad luck and spirits.
The ritual lasted eight hours and was facilitated by a gamelan orchestra and a seventh generation Wayang puppeteer. Puppets of varying size and construction—two dimensional and decorated with gold trimmings—lined the rear of the stage. Throughout the duration of the performance the gamelan performers projected noise from their resounding gongs toward the puppeteer, who had been trained since youth to serve as both storyteller and shaman, and most importantly to communicate between his gods and his audience.
The puppeteer’s storytelling was slow—sleep inducing at times—but I couldn’t help admiring his ability to alter his voice for the ogre who kidnapped the Javanese princess, the hero, and the stout comedian with the bulbous face.
I attended the ritual alone. Towards the end of the production I was invited to sit beside a middle-aged man with a mustache. The bald man to my left informed me that that the mustachioed man beside me was the Sultan’s brother. The Sultan’s brother insisted that I enjoy some tea and snacks. So with royalty I sipped caffeine, munched on fried bananas, and watched as one by one, the puppeteer on stage chopped snippets of hair off the afflicted with a jeweled sword.
At the side of the stage, half a dozen chickens rustled in their cages. Later I was told the animals were taken to the sea, where they were placed on the shore in a crippled state. When the spirit of the sea hungered for them, the offerings were plucked up and swallowed by the tide.
Above is the picture of a student gamelan troupe at an open studio in Yogyakarta. While gamelan is often associated with Wayang (shadow puppet) theatre, it also stands alone as contemporary art form.