Everything looked impeccable and serene as though the devastating pandemic that has haunted the world did not exist at all.
None of the villagers raised a brow even when a group of men, dressed in black and brandishing a metal hammer that suspiciously resembled Thor’s, the God of Thunder, weapon in their hand, scaled the stairs to reach the highest rooftop in the village.
Furthermore, most of them clapped and waited with eager faces as to what would transpire.
There was no trace of fear or sadness on their masked faces nor complacency, just sincerity to survive through the pandemic on their own terms.
The day is supposed to be one of the biggest in the year for people of the five mountains: Mount Merapi, Mount Merbabu, Mount Menoreh, Mount Andhong and Mount Sumbing.
The day marks the culmination of their gratitude for the livelihood provided throughout the year.
Unfortunately, it would also be the first time in 19 years that they celebrated the event in a much more muted fashion, without thousands crowding, hundreds of artists or fanfare spilling out onto the winding streets of the villages.
Several minutes passed by as the men in black checked out their gamelan instruments and when the first gong was hit, followed by the harmonious melody of bonang and saron, the Five Mountain Festival XIX/2020 officially began with the traditional Lengger dance from Krandegan.
Gamelan is a multi-timbre ensemble comprising several gongs, a flat percussion made of metal; bonang, a collection of bronze kettles on strings over a wooden frame; and saron, seven bronze bars placed on top of a resonating frame.
The dancers, in vibrant costumes, one by one or in groups, begin performing on several rooftops modified to serve as temporary stages, with the audiences, with masks covering their faces, standing or seated on their own rooftops, balconies, or terraces, enjoy the performance from a safe distance. Meanwhile, a member of the neighborhood watch patrolled the street to ensure there was not crowding.
According to the festival committee’s chairman, concurrently the leader of the Wargo Budoyo Sumbing Studio and local village official, Juwahir Sarwo Edi Wibowo, this year, they had put health safety above anything else when they decided to go ahead with the festival, which will last until the end of the year.
This annual independent cultural arts festival, akin to several other festivals around the world, could not escape the impact of COVID-19 and was held by applying tight health protocols. They banned crowds, staged performances on rooftops, and limited the opening performance to some local groups, with less than 50 people.
“It feels different, less festive, but I guess more intimate and solemn,” Michael Anggoro, one of the members of the audience, who watched the event virtually, stated. He wants to be present for his school project, but the pandemic stopped him in the last minute.
Luckily for him, a local community, Komunitas Pinggir Kali Magelang, broadcasts the event live via YouTube channel under the name "Njo Thethek Njo”.
“Still, watching a festival virtually offers unique vibes. It is like we are there (joining with the crowd) and become part of them, but at the same time, we are not really there and feel like an outsider watching an intimate moment,” he noted, adding that the favorite part of the festival for him was the artists parade, usually, one of the highlights of the festival but notably absent this year.
Cultural observer, Tanto Mendut, emphasized that the virtual Five Mountains Festival, reaching out to a global audience through cyberspace, was a plus point.
Prayer for Safety
Speaking in connection with the community’s decision to go through with the festival despite the pandemic, K.H. Muhammad Yusuf Chudroli, the spiritual leader of the Five Muntains Community of Magelang Regency, Central Java, stated that the ritual, tradition, or culture events cannot cease to not exist merely owing to the pandemic.
"The (Five Mountain Festival XIX / 2020) is a symbol of happiness. Despite the difficulties due to the pandemic, we still adhere to our culture, rituals, and traditions," he stated while cutting a white rice cone at another Five Mountains Festival event at Mendut Studio, Magelang Regency, two weeks later.
With the coronavirus showing no signs of abating, nine months after the first case was reported in Wuhan City, China, some people are striving to maintain some sense of normalcy in their lives just to stay sane.
There is a sense of victory, as the pandemic that has killed more than 900 thousand people globally has failed to yet dampen their spirits. A festival that isn't canceled may send across a positive message to the public desperate seeking normalcy, if it is held in adherence to stringent health protocols.
The festival themed, “Donga Slamet, Waspadai Virus Dunia” or “Prayer for Safety, Beware of the World Virus” also emphasizes the collective efforts of the community to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Through this theme, apart from holding a festival by implementing health protocols, they also conveyed prayers, hopes, solidarity, and local socio-cultural empathy to all those affected by the pandemic.
Several community leaders invited to give speeches mostly highlighted the importance of preserving culture for rural and mountainous communities without disregarding government-set health protocols.
"The people of five mountains are immensely grateful because until now, they have been spared from COVID-19. However, a precautionary approach will remain decisively. This festival is an expression of our prayer, hoping that the virus can be tamed soon," he noted.
The highlight of the opening ceremony was marked by holding a walking and praying ritual around the village that ended at the graves of the elders of the Krandegan Hamlet, Kiai and Nyai Dipodrono, which is located near the hermitage of Sanggar Wargo Budoyo Sumbing.
The walking ritual was then followed by a recitation of the local spiritual figures or danyang, "Eyang Gadhung Mlati" and "Tledhek Meyek".
A hamlet elder, Waryanto, led the procession along with other community leaders walking behind him holding the Red and White flag, red and white roses, and incense.
At the grave of the hamlet elders, Waryanto chanted a prayer to a synthesis of music of Celempung (Sundanese), Sagiling Bulau (Central Kalimantan), and Seruling (Java).
At the end of the opening ceremony, the Macapat song, Dhandhanggula, was sung by one of the community leaders, Supadi Haryanto, as the reminder of the greatness of God, the creator, to whom humans seek refuge, while the leaders take turns in beating the gong.
The vibrational sound of the gong is a symbol of sending a solemn prayer through the top of the Mountain Sumbing, through the sky, reaching the Divine being. A prayer for a better future free of the virus. A prayer for normalcy to be restored in their daily lives.
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EDITED BY INE