The “Slametan”: Javanese Communal Feast

At the center of the whole Javanese religious system lies a simple, formal, undramatic, almost furtive, little ritual: the slametan (also sometimes called a kenduren). The slametan is the Javanese version of what is perhaps the world’s most common religious ritual, the communal feast and as almost everywhere, it symbolizes the mystic and social unity of those participating in it. Friends, neighbors, fellow workers, relative local spirits, dead ancestors and near-forgotten god pledged to mutual support and cooperation.

A slametan can be given in response to almost any occurrence one wishes to celebrate, ameliorate or sanctify. Birth, marriage, sorcery, death, house moving, bad dreams, harvest, name-changing, opening a factory, illness, supplication of the village guardian spirit, circumcision, and starting of a political meeting may all occasion a slametan. For each the emphasis is slightly different. One part of another of the total ritual is intensified and elaborated; structure of the ritual remains the same. There is always the special food (differing according to the intent of the slametan) : there is always incense, the Islamic chant and the extra-formal high-Javanese speech of the host (its content, too, naturally, varying with the occasion) and there is always the polite embarrassed, muted manner which suggest that, despite the brevity and lack of drama the ritual displays, something important is going on.

The Slametan pattern

Most slametans are held in the evening, just after the sun has gone down and the evening preyer – for those who perform in – is done. If the occasion is, say, a name-changing, a harvest, or a circumcision, the host will have employed a religious specialist to determine and auspicious day according to a numerological interpretation of the Javanese caledrical system; if it is a death or a birth, the event itself determines the timing. The day is spent in preparing the food. The woman do this: for a small feast only those of the household itself, for a large one a wider range of kin ties may be drawn upon. The ceremony itself is all male. The women remain mburi (behind in the kitchen) but they inevitably peek through the bamboo walls at the men, who, squatted on floor mats ngarepan (in front-i.e_ in the main living room) perform the actual ritual, eating the food the women have prepared.

The men invited are all close neighbors, since to a slametan one invites all those who live in the immediate area around one’s own house. The basis of within a short distance from one’s house in any direction must be invited and selection is entirely territorial: relative or not, friend or not, anyone who lives must come. They are called together by a messenger of the host (most often one of his children) only five or ten minutes before the slametan is to begin and they must drop everything and come immediately. Despite this apparently haphazard procedure, almost everyone turns up, because during the period just after sunset almost everyone is at home, people are usually aware – although no one may have actually said anything about it – that a slametan is about to be given a good while before it actually occurs and so expect the messenger, and the Javanese has a kind of punctuate sense of time which makes it easy for him to shift sharply from one kind of activity to another with very little transition.

Upon arrival each guest takes a place on the floor mats, squatting in the formal Javanese sitting posture called sila (with legs folded inward and crossed in front of the body and with the trunk ramrod stiff). The room slowly fills with the odor f the burning incense, and there is little subdued small talk as people drift in and seat themselves (there is no special order) in a large circle around the food, which has already been placed in the center. When all have arrived and the circle is complete, the ceremony begins.

The host open the ceremony with a speech in very formal high-Javanese. First, he expresses his profound gratitude for his neighbors’ attendance. He regards them, he says, as witnesses to the purity and the nature of his intentions and to the fast that the is holding the required rite in order to realize there excellent intentions, and he hopes they will share in any benefit the ceremony brings, second, he states these intentions: he presents the specific reason for the slametan. Next, he gives the general reason for the rite. This is always the same to secure for himself, his family, and his guest, that peculiarly negative state of bodily and mental equanimity the Javanese call smalet from which the ritual takes its name. to this end he petitions the spirit of the village, young and old, male and female. Lastly he begs pardon for any errors he may have made in his speech or anything he may have said which disturbed anyone and for the inadequacy of the food he is serving. Through the whole speech he speaks in an even, rhythmic, mechanical cadence and at each pause speech the audience responds with a solemn “inggih” – it means yes in English.

The meaning of the slametan

Why do Javanese hold slametans? When I asked this questins of an old bricklayer, he gave two reasons: “when you give a slametan, nobody feels any different from anyone else and so they don’t want to split up. Also a slametan protects you against the spirit, so they will not upset you.” this tendency to the state the implications of social behavior in psychological terms, according to its ultimate effect on the individual’s emotional equilibrium and to state to those implications negatively is characteristic. At a slametan everyone is treated the same. The result is that no one feels different from anyone else and so no one has a wish to split off from the other person. Also after you have given a slametan the local spirits will not bother you, will not make you feel ill, unhappy, confused. The goals are negative and psychological –absence of aggressive feeling toward others, absence of emotional disturbance. The wished – for state is slamet which the Javanese defines with the phrase “ga ono opo-opo” – “there isn’t anything” or more aptly “nothing is going to happen (to anyone).”

But since something might happen and almost inevitably does, the abangan, aware of this, personifies the possibility of unseen bad fortune in terms of spirit belief and attempts to deal with the spirits by means of the slametan. The reason for this, no doubt, is that there are more of them in java – all around the house (especially the toilet) at every unusual point in the landscape, around the cemeteries, at old Hindu ruins: and the woods are full of them. Thus the incense and the aroma of the food at the slametan are considered as food for the spirits in order to pacify them so they will not disturb the living. As a Javanese put it: “At slametan all kinds of invisible beings come and sit with us and they also eat the food. That’s why the food and not the prayer is the heart of the slametan. The spirits eats the aroma of the food. It’s like this banana. They smell it but it doesn’t disappear. That’s why the food is left for us after the spirit has already eaten it.”


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