'Gumbregan' shows the cow is a man's best friend
Bambang M Contributor/Gunungkidul, Yogyakarta
For most people in Gunungkidul, some 40 kilometers southeast of Yogyakarta, cows are as important as their neighbors or friends.
Cows are considered assets that can see them through difficult times, such as a drought or harvest failure.
Cow dung, too, is a good organic fertilizer that does not harden the soil like chemical fertilizers.
So important is the cow to local people that they express their thanks for its health through a ritual. It is an old ritual but still practiced today, particularly in the hamlet of Kuarasan Tengah in Kedungkeris village, Nglipar. The tradition is called gumbregan.
Held once every eight months, the ritual take its name from wuku gumbreg (the 30 seven-day periods that make up the 210-day Javanese calendar). It is usually held in the evening on a Selasa Wage or Kamis Legi day.
Although other villagers in the region no longer perform the ritual, the people of Kuarasan Tengah dare not stop.
"We are afraid of the (spiritual) consequence," said Bikan, whose house recently became the venue for performing the ritual this time around.
Most of the people in Kuarasan Tengah believe that if they miss the ritual, albeit just once, their livestock will suffer the consequences.
"The cows might die of a disease, be badly injured while bathing in the river, or slip on a rock and drown," Bikan explained.
On the agreed day of the ritual, cow owners usually begin to gather at the set venue in the evening at about 6 p.m. They bring with them tumpeng (rice cone with vegetables and side dishes), as well as their cows.
"In the past we used to serve uwi, gembili and other foods too," said Bikan.
Uwi and gembili are two kinds of tubers that are becoming more and more difficult to find at present as less people are cultivating them.
The tumpeng are placed in the middle of the venue where the ritual is to be performed. All farmers who have cows, along with their family members, including the children, are present.
Some housewives, mostly those whose husbands work outside the village, represent their menfolk. Those who do not own a cow are also invited, making the occasion all the merrier.
Sitting cross-legged, they surround the tumpeng placed on a layer of teakwood leaves. The host opens the ritual with a few words and then invites the appointed village elder, Mbah (Grandfather) Suwito Mulyono to come forward and lead the ritual.
In his prayer spoken in "high" Javanese, Suwito says that the tumpeng are presented to Prophet Sulaiman (a prophet in Islam who was believed to have the power to speak with animals), the sacred spirits guarding the village and the plants, and their ancestors as an expression of gratitude for the health of their animals. He then continues the prayer in Arabic and ends it in about 15 minutes.
At this stage, small portions of foods are taken from each of the tumpeng, before they are taken back home by those who assembled them. The tumpeng are then distributed to villagers who could not attend the ritual or could not bring their own tumpeng.
"Years ago, we used to eat together at the ritual site. All were happy because they had the chance to eat rice," Bikan explained.
When he was still a little boy, he said, gaplek or dried cassava was the staple food for people in the region. Rice was a luxury then, but people have since switched to growing rice rather than tubers.
During the ritual, owners also feed their cows rice to symbolize their respect for the animals, including Bikan in this case.
He took a portion of a tumpeng, placed it on a palm leaf, and fed it to one of his calfs.
"Here, you eat this. I wish you good health and fertility -- and that you grow up big and strong," Bikan said in Javanese while gently stroking the calf's head.
He took another portion of rice and gave it to his goats. No animal is actually excluded from the ritual, it is just that most farmers in the area have cows.
Families here usually keep only one or two cows at a time. Mostly they are not willing to take the risk of being unable to feed them during the dry season, if they have more.
Local farmers also consider wuku gumbreg, which lasts for seven days, as the best time to buy livestock. This accounts for why the price of cows and other animals in the region increases significantly around wuku gumbreg.
"People here believe that animals bought during wuku gumbreg will grow up big and healthy," Larmi, a local housewife said.