Cap Go Meh – a celebration of hope, joy and pluralism in the Old Town area of Jakarta

4th Military Command of Central Java performs dragon dance.

IO – In Glodok, the Chinese quarters of the Old Town area of Jakarta, Cap Goh Meh has been celebrated for centuries. The only interlude was during the Suharto era but in 2002 President Abdurrachman Wahid, popularly known as Gus Dur allowed Indonesian Chinese to revive their old customs and traditions and one of the most important of these is the celebration of Cap Goh Meh.

Cap means ten and Goh means five for the festival is celebrated 15 days after the Chinese New Year. In China 15 days after the New Year the weather was warm enough to begin preparations for the spring planting and the festival was once held to ensure a good planting and later a good harvest. In the Kota Tua or Old Town it is today a festival to ensure everything good.

Mr Lie Tong a longtime resident of the area explained, “In the old days there were bazars and all sorts of dances and music for days in advance. The gambang kromo with the Betawi barongsai lion dance, the cokek mask dance, the tanjidor oom-pah-pah band all used to help celebrate Cap Goh Meh and everyone took part. Anies Baswedan the Governor of Jakarta sat in my house once – did you know that he used to live in this part of town? – and he said, ‘This is a most tolerant area with all sorts of ethnic groups and religions and they always celebrated together.’ In the old days there were Arabs, Chinese, Javanese, Dutch – all sorts of people living here.” To a certain extant it is still like that.

This year the relatively new Chinese temple, Fat Cu Kong rather than then its two older neighbours, 17th century Jin de Yuan and 18th century Toa Se Bio temples, organized the festivities. The climax of Cap Goh Meh is a one and a half hour procession of palanquins – called joli– carrying gods from various temples interspersed with lion and dragon dances and other music and entertainment. The other temples had sent their palanquins and gods the day before to Fat Cu Kong temple and the next day the procession started from there. “The event used to be called Gotong Toa Pe Kong”, commented Mr Lie Tong. “It means ‘Carrying the Honourable Ancestral Uncles.’ Now the procession is referred to as karib.

When asked why it was Fat Cu Kong and not one of its older neighbours that organized the Cap Goh Meh celebrations, Pak Toto one of the members of Fat Cu Kong’s board of directors explained, “We are very active in attending events organized by other temples all over Indonesia so we know many more of the temple boards and it is easier for us to invite them for Cap Goh Meh.”

This does not mean that the other temples were not busy with their own events. Aling a young lady living in the area was busy buying 10 tiny pipits (a lark like passerine bird found in rice fields) from a bird seller in front of the Jin de Yuan temple. “I shall bring them to Toa Se Bio (bio means temple) there three of their gods, Kwan Khong, Macho and Kwan Im will for a few hours during Cap Goh Meh be open to entering a petitioner’s heart and fulfilling their prayer request.”

“What will you ask for?”

“My parents are ill and all I want is that they get well.” She sighed eyeing a wooden crate with tortoises in it, “It’s also possible to release tortoises or eels or fish but then one has to find clear, running water for them and that is more difficult than releasing birds into the air.”

All day last Saturday Fat Cu Kong temple received palanquins and gods from temples not only in Jakarta but from as far away as Tangerang, Bekasi, Tegal, Semarang, Cirebon, Lampung and Bali. In all there were 80 palanquins bringing over 100 gods.

The Cetya Tirta Harum in Den Pasar, Bali brought a statue of Shiva and their own joli accompanied by Balinese in traditional costume with the men in the elegant male head dress. Their leader, Ibu Joro Candra said that in the cetya or temple in Bali there are statues of Shiva, Buddha, Kwan Im, Kuan Khong, Ida Resi Pendita,  Tuti Pakung, the Earth God and Bunda Kanjeng Ratu, also known as Nyai Loro Kidul or the Goddess of the South Sea who is married to every Sultan of Jogjakarta. When asked how so many different deities could coexist in one place of worship she replied, “I am a healer and when a Balinese comes for healing he can pray to Shiva, a Buddhist can pray to Buddha, a Javanese of the old religion may send prayers to Nyai Loro Kidul. All are welcome.”

Fat Cu Kong is a tri dharma temple which means that it is of the Tao, Confusion and Buddhist faith. Inside the temple are the Chinese gods but in front of the temple stands a Buddha with four faces and at the feet of the Buddha is a black Ganesha statue. There were further traces of Indian influence in the men from several different temples marching in the parade with small skewers piercing their mouths from cheek to cheek somewhat reminiscent of the Thaipusam festival of the Indians of Malaysia. “They are called Tangsin and they go into trance,” elaborated Mr Lie Tong. The most eye catching of these was a man dressed in white with a top knot of hair looking like an Indian sadhu with a skewer through his cheeks.

Dayak communities living in Jakarta also sent palanquins and dressed in full Dayak regalia they were the most conspicuous and attractive of the participants with hornbill heads and birds’ skulls, pale yellow coconut blossoms, trailing beautiful spotted argus pheasant feathers. They were the centre of attention and marked their arrival with traditional Dayak yells and screams. People were pushing to have their photos taken with them. The Dayak palanquin from West Kalimantan carried ancestral figures, another carried the figure of a dog, a sacred Dayak image reflected in the sky dogs of the Chinese temples –  and of course, it is the year of the dog. There were even some Papuans with beautiful bird-of-paradise feathers on their heads. It was truly a unity in diversity celebration.

The Procession was led by the Baladika dance group of Diponegoro 4th Military Command of West Java’s. In camouflage uniforms they performed the naga doreng dragon and lion dance. Chief corporal Edi with a fierce, battle hardened, sun burnt visage, sun glasses and brown beret led the group. When asked why their division had chosen to do the dragon and lion dance he replied fiercely, “To be close to the people! Our division is based in Semarang and this is a very popular dance there!”

“But your division holds the military command for West Java, why not a gamelan?”

Chief corporal Edy scowled even more fiercely, “We have a gamelan and a rebana as well… Madam, it is the task of the military to uphold and promote unity in diversity for all ethnic and cultural groups of the Archipelago!!” And so, they led and opened the parade with Chinese lions and a green jungle camouflage colored dragon – and perhaps it all does make sense as the military has always been a bastion of diversity, recruiting members from all over Indonesia and posting them everywhere.

Second, in the parade, were the ondel-ondel, two large male and female puppets with people inside them, dancing along the road. They wore Betawi costumes with their silver tinsel hair and they are the icons of Jakarta. The dance and music group, Sanggar Betawi Al Fathir dressed in red velvet picis (nationalist Indonesian hat) and red silk Malay costumes brought the ondel-ondel while playing Rayuan Pulau Kelapa (a nationalist song about the charms of the coconut and jasmine isles also kown as Indonesia) with gambang kromo instruments.

Third in place were the palanquins of the Fat Cu Kong Temple. Fat Cu Kong as the host temple had six palanquins bearing six gods. The first was of course, Fat Cu Kong, the temple’s name sake and patron, a hero who slayed the great snake that absorbed the energy of the sun and moon and who later became a god to whom one can turn for difficult problems and illness. The others were the Earth God, the God Against the Black Arts, Kwan Im the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion, Kuan Kong the God of War who protects and defends the oppressed and Macho, Goddess of the Sea.

Many temples brought not only their own palanquins and gods but also their own dances and music. For the Chinese temples these were lion and dragon dances with drums, gongs and cymbals. One joli perhaps in remembrance that Cap Goh Meh was originally a festival for the spring planting was covered in artificial pink cherry blossoms. Usually, the jolis carry one god but this one had three gods sitting peacefully next to each other. The music also included traditional bamboo angklung music.

It was a community event with the women determined not to be left behind. The Athadasi group had a lovely young girl gallantly beating the big drum with the young men around her pushing the vehicle carrying her and the drum.

The karib passes her house every year but Ibu Lydia who lives on Jalan Kemenangan III told me that sometimes she goes elsewhere such as Jalan Gajah Mada to watch the parade. “It makes a change,” she said happily. Meanwhile, people in the crowd pushed red angpao envelops filled with money, onto the palanquins for added blessings and at times some of the attendants would throw blossoms from the bunga rampai or holy flowers i.e. roses petals, jasmine and chempaka magnolia flowers that had been used for the prayers on the palanquins after the gods arrived at Fat Cu Kong temple. The flowers are said to bring blessings too.

Mr Lie Tong explained that for the Chinese New Year the traditional dish has always been stewed milk fish from the swamps and fish ponds along the coast to the north. “But the fish ponds and swamps have now become reclaimed land and developed.” Nevertheless, the market stalls near the temples were filled with enormous milk fish.

Meanwhile, there was also free food provided by Ci Embot and Ci Wawa, two Chinese Peranakan ladies in their sixties with a small street stall beside the Balndongan canal facing the bridge under a shady tree. Every year they provide free food for people participating in the temple festivities. “For Cap Goh Meh we cook the traditional lontong Cap Goh Meh dish (squash in a coconut stew with sticky rice and turmeric chicken, prawn crackers and dried salted fish crackers) and we have been doing this since 1954. Before that our mother cooked it and before that our grandmother – and she was Hollands spreken (what they meant was that she was Dutch).”

“When they are gone there is no one left who will cook it anymore here,” added a lady sadly as she dug into her plate of lontong.

“Why do you prepare free food for so many people?” I asked Ci Embot.

“Because it makes me happy when I can give so many people food. For Chinese New Year I prepare milk fish, hong pork and fried chicken – those are the New Year foods of us people!”

“And who are you people?” I enquire.

Without the slightest hesitation and with a broad smile across her face she responded with pride, “We are the Chinese Betawi people!”

The poles of the toy sellers hung with toy dragons which he shook so that a hundred tiny, colourful dragons were dancing in time to the music. The colours of the day were red and gold. There were dragons galore, flowers, music and dancing.  God was presented there in all forms imaginable. Those who love the customs and traditions, the arts and the cultures of Indonesia will always want and support its unity in diversity.

(Tamalia Alisjahbana)