Six female dancers slowly moved their body towards their male counterparts and wrapped scarves around their neck as the couples danced in front of an altar at the Tunggal Jati Temple, the main religious center for the Tengger community of East Java.
The dance, accompanied by the sound of the traditional drums, signified the start of an ancient two-day ritual called Unan-Unan late last month, practiced once every five years to cleanse their village Ngadisari in the district of Probolinggo, East Java from evil spirits.
“This is our tradition, which we don’t dare change or alter,” Supoyo, a Tengger community elder, said.
The dancers also sang tandak songs, which were homages to past and wishes for the future called. Tandak songs and dances are only performed at special ceremonies at the temple filled with offerings for the gods and spirits.
“The village cleansing rituals always involve tandak. Aside from performing tandak here [at the temple] we also do tandak at the water sources which provide us life,” Supoyo said.
The dancers were paraded to all eight water sources flowing through Ngadisari village accompanied by a gamelan music ensemble who played their traditional kettle gongs, xylophones and drums from the back of a pick-up truck. The rest of the village followed the procession in black outfits and batik head dress while carrying offerings.
Dwi Cahyono, an archeologist from Malang State University, said the ritual has to do with the five-year cycle of lunar leap days. The word “unan-unan,” he said, comes from the ancient Javanese word “una,” which means to complete. “So Unan-Unan is a festival to celebrate the 360th day in a lunar leap year,” he said. Other years in the Tenggerese calendar only have 359 days.
The Tengger community are not allowed to hold their own parties or ceremonies for the whole of leap year, including weddings and funeral ceremonies.
All 510 families in the community raised money to buy a sacrificial buffalo. The animal was sacrificed on the morning before the festival. The meat is then distributed to the entire community except for the head, four hoofs and hide which are offerings to the gods.
“The head can be made into a stew but only after the entire Unan-Unan procession is completed,” said Bowo, a local resident.
The community also collected money to pay the dancers. “I usually get on average Rp 750,000 [$65] a night. But [for unan-unan] I can get Rp 1 million a night and that’s excluding tips,” said Yayuk Ambarwai one of the dancers who has been performing dances for the community for the last 16 years.
Unan-unan lasts for two days and Sri Amah, another dancer, said dancers can pocket at least Rp 2.5 million each.
The Tengger community is considered as custodian of Mount Bromo, East Java’s most sacred volcano. Every year they perform the Kasada ritual where people throw offerings to the volcano’s crater to appease the mountain’s spirits.
Another important ritual is the Karo thanksgiving ceremony, practiced on the second month of Tenggerese Lunar calender.
“These rituals are meant to give thanks for the fertility and life to the mountain has provided as well as to appease the spirits of the active volcano,” archeologist Dwi said.
The Tengger community maintains a simple lifestyle as peasants and speaks an ancient form of Javanese language, seldom spoken by other communities in Java.
But as more and more people are drawn to visit Mount Bromo, the Tengger traditions are waning.
“There has never been any in-depth research but there are changes in the Tengger community’s profession. Many people in Ngadasari have given up farming and their Tengger identity to become tour guides or rent their houses to tourists,” said Novita Kusumawardana of the Bromo, Tengger and Semeru National Park. JG