The ritual of Saparan literally means a ritual held in Sapar—a month within Javanese calendar system—or Safar as it called in Islamic Hijriyah year. The month of Sapar is the second month between the Sura (Muharram) and Mulud (Rabi’ul-Awwal).
In ancient Javanese belief, Sapar has been considered the month of bad luck for there used to be many perils and accidents happening during the month. This belief led the Javanese to avoid holding marriages or making long trips, especially on the last Wednesday—the one day assumed as the most unlucky day within the whole month of bad luck.
Until present, Javanese societies in many regions, including those living in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, still hold the Saparan ritual regularly as a prayer for blessing so that they might be saved from any perils and dangers. The ritual of Saparan would commonly include various offerings, from farm crops to lemper and apem (Javanese traditional foods), and even it would include a couple of “brides”. Some regions would also hold a parade of the Sultan’s army band. Nowadays, the ritual of Saparan has developed into something more than just a tolak bala (prayer for safety from all perils), but it has integrated itself to the history and local legends of each region.
Slaughtering the “Bekakak”
The ritual of Saparan celebrated in Pondok Wonolelo, Widodomartani, Ngemplak, Sleman, included the unique procession of the gunungan (mountain-shaped structure) of apem, which then were shared to all participants attending the ritual. The historical background of the tradition leaped backward to the Javanese year 1511 or 1590 AD, when Ki Ageng Wonolelo brought the apem cakes as the presents after completing his pilgrimage. According to the local historical record, Ki Ageng Wonolelo was a descendant of Prabu (His Holiness) Brawijaya of the Majapahit kingdom.
Unlike the one held in Wonolelo, the ritual of Saparan Bekakak held in Ambarketawang, Gamping, Sleman, had a historical background originated from the Keraton (Palace) of Ngayogyakarta Hadiningrat (the official name of the Yogyakarta palace). The history told that the building of Keraton Yogyakarta had just been worked about, and that Sultan Hamengku Buwono (HB) I had to move into a temporary living at Ambarketawang, together with all of his fellow servants. A servant named Kiai Wirasuta and his wife had chosen rather to stay in a cave at the Gunung Gamping. When Gunung Gamping fell down, the Wirasuta family died with their bodies left unfound, leading the surrounding people to believe that their spirit must have stayed still in Gunung Gamping.
Every year during the Saparan ritual, a couple of “brides”, known as bekakak, were slaughtered at the ruins. The bekakak were made of sticky rice molded into bride-like shape filled in with liquefied brown sugar pretending to be the “blood”. Sultan HB I himself commanded his people to do so in recalling Ki Wirasuta’s loyalty. The history was then mixed with a legend developing afterwards. Gunung Gamping had once been a limestone mining spot (gamping is the Javanese word for limestone), which had caused many cases of mortality. The bekakak slaughtered were expected to be an offering in substitution to the miners’ lives. The ritual lasts until today although the limestone mining had ended long ago.
Where Two Rivers Meet
Another ritual related to Sultan HB I was the ritual of Saparan Rebo Pungkasan in Wonokromo, Pleret, Bantul. Its historical background has been told in a number of versions. A version said that the ritual was celebrated on Rebo Pungkasan (Javanese: the last Wednesday) in the month of Sapar to commemorate the day Sultan HB I met Kiai Welit, or Kiai Muhammad Fakih, or Kiai Faqih Usman. Kiai Welit was a local Islamic cleric honored for his help in curing the people from a plague attacking Wonokromo. He was amazingly popular that the Al Huda mosque he led had always been occupied by the crowd of pasar tiban (traditional market occurring unexpectedly); the market had been a distraction to those willing to offer prayers in the mosque or looking for the cleric to seek for cures. To solve it, Kiai Welit offered prayers allowing him to create a pond at the tempuran (Javanese: meeting point) of the Opak and the Gajahwong rivers. This way, people of Wonokromo would no longer have to look for him in-person, but they would only need to take showers in the tempuran.
Another version mentioned a similar story about the plague befallen on Wonokromo. The difference lied on how Kiai Welit had cured the people suffering from the plague, which had been by plunging a wifiq (paper contained scripts of prayers) into plain water, and asking those people to drink or use it for bathing. As people looking for him in search for a cure continued to increase in number, Kiai Welit then plunged the wifiq into the tempuran of the Opak and Gajahwong that runs through Wonokromo. People of Wonokromo believed that the event had occurred on the last Wednesday of the Sapar in 1837, which has been celebrated until today by holding the ritual of Saparan Rebo Pungkasan.
Apart from the varied historical background, the ritual of Saparan Rebo Pungkasan in Wonokromo also had diversified versions of when it had first been initiated. Some might have mentioned that it had started in 1784. Others would have mentioned the 1600s, though some might tell that the event it commemorated had just occurred in 1837. What is clear was that the plague befallen on the people of Wonokromo should have dealt with the belief of Sapar as the month of bad luck. Despite the historical background, people of Wonokromo affirmed that the lemper procession involved during the ritual had been a newly-added tradition created to distinguish the ritual held in Wonokromo from other similar ones held in other places.
Communal Dining & Marching Band
The ritual of Saparan Rebo Pungkasan held in Bendung Kayangan, Pendoworejo, Girimulyo, Kulon Progo, had a different historical background. The ritual has been performed in remembrance of Mbah Bei Kayangan, a Majapahit fellow. Stories told that Mbah Bei Kayangan had made a journey with his two fellows, Kiai Diro and Kiai Somahita. Upon reaching the place known as today’s Bendung Kayangan, they established a settlement and started farming. To anticipate the dry seasons, they made a water reservoir by damming up the tempuran of the Ngiwa and Nggunturan river—nowadays, known as Bendung Kayangan itself. Traditionally, the ritual would only involve the procession of bathing the jaran kepang (Javanese: toy horse made of plaited bamboo sheets) and the kembul sewu sedulur (Javanese: eat together with lots of people) feast.
People living in Samirono, Catur Tunggal, Depok, Sleman, Di Samirono, Catur Tunggal, Depok, Sleman, hold a cultural procession feast every Sapar. Unlike similar feasts, the Saparan feast in Samirono has been a relatively new custom (first initiated in the 2000s). It has been aimed not as a prayer for blessing, but rather as an attempt of preserving local culture combined with modern arts such as children marching band and contemporary Javanese tradition presented in devil-like costumes. As though, the convoy round the neighborhood would eventually offer an atmosphere similar to a prayer for blessing to keep off perils from the village of Samirono.
As time goes, the myth of Sapar being the month of bad luck slowly fades away. Public figures of each village had stated that the physical local legends and histories have now becoming more outstanding rather than the spiritual mythology. Only few would still recognize that the ritual of Sapar had been a tolak bala—the spirit that, throughout time, has been the main reason of holding the feast during Sapar.
Text and photographs by Budi N.D. Dharmawan © 2010 | English translation by Widiana Martiningsih