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Kasada Festival, Gunung Bromo; And What about Indonesia’s “Culture of Disaster”?

The blog includes a short video and a longer textual explanation of the Kasada festival at Gunung Bromo (Mt. Bromo) in East Java, Indonesia. Besides from being a beautiful and entertaining ritual, the legend and practice of Kasada also describe an interesting relationship between the local people and the volcanic environment. The thoughts and information in this post come from my readings of Bromo, the Tengger people, and my recent trip to partake in the August 2011 Kasada festival.

Ash eruption footage courtesy of Kyoshi Nishi, JICA Silver Expert (publicly available from the Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network 29:07, 07/2004)

{click the ‘YouTube’ icon on the video screen to watch full size in YouTube}

1.  Introduction

The Kasada festival (pronounced and sometimes spelled: Kasodo) is a ceremonial ritual at Gunung Bromo—an active volcano in East Java, Indonesia. The ritual’s finale consists of throwing food sacrifices into the crater in hopes of ensuring future eruptions. The festival is a part of the Tengger culture, a small ethnic stronghold of Java’s last Hindu kingdom. The modern day rite mimics the ancestral legend of the Tenggerese people in which Roro Anteng and Joko Seger’s last child was taken by the volcano as a sacrifice in exchange for the people’s prosperity.

In addition to being a beautiful continuation of minority Hindu culture in Java, the legend and celebration of Kasada is also an interesting tale about creation and man’s relationship with the volcanic environment. The ritual is a unique experience to witness, and the meaning of the festival grows richer when you consider the geologic, historic, and cultural context in which it takes place. The rest of this entry will focus on each of these three points and how they come together.

2.  Geologic Evolution of Bromo

There are six centers of resurgent activity within the Tengger Caldera. Bromo and Batok are the most prominent. The yellow arrows show the direction of collapsed material in relation to the ridge of the Tengger Caldera. This ridge is the remaining flanks of the ancestral volcano.

Bromo resides in the Tengger Caldera, which is so named after the resident ethnicity. The Tengger Caldera is a collapse feature from a much older, much larger volcano. This ancestral volcano is thought have been larger than any other edifice we see on the island of Java today. Since this volcano’s collapse ~50,000 years ago, smaller scales of magmatic activity have persisted to produce six new eruption sites including Bromo. (The second youngest site is Batok, the perfect conical feature immediately adjacent to Bromo in the Tengger Caldera). Out of these smaller volcanoes, Bromo is the only active vent today, and it’s the only vent that has produced eruptions in recorded human history. Geologic evidence tells us that the cone’s first eruption was as recent as five hundred years ago, and the earliest eruption verified by man was in 1804. The fact that Bromo is the only vent to be active in recorded human history and is such a young volcano (specifically the age of five hundred years) will be of particular interest when we consider the legend of Kasada later in this post.

The Tengger Caldera is a collapse feature of a much older, much larger volcano. Bromo is the only active cone in the Caldera. It is also the only vent to be active in verified human history.

It’s also important to note that Bromo’s eruptions are recurrent and relatively frequent. Since the twentieth century, Bromo has erupted at relatively constant intervals of every five to ten years (though not constant enough to allow for purely statistical forecasts of future eruptions—this is nearly impossible in the field of volcanology). The eruptions typically produce large ash plumes and ejected rocks that fall within the caldera. The caldera is filled with this material and is thus named the “Sand Sea Caldera.” Hazards to human communities are not typically associated with Bromo’s eruptions because everybody lives a considerable distance away from the volcano on the ridges of the caldera walls. The deaths of two tourists in 2004 (a clip of this eruption, taken by a Japanese scientist, is included and cited in the video attached with this blog), however, is a reminder that projectiles and toxic gasses are still produced during Bromo’s eruptive phases and can be hazardous if people ignore warning signs and venture too close to the active vent.

3.  History of the Tengger region

Today, approximately 85% of Indonesia is Muslim, but Java has previously been the home of regional Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms. Java was once the center of the powerful Hindu Majapahit Kingdom, which reigned over many islands of South East Asia between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. The rise and dominance of the kingdom is not important for Kasada, but its demise it. Internal conflict and warfare weakened the Majapahit Kingdom in its later years until it was eventually overtaken by the cultural and economic influx of Muslim traders in the fourteenth century. Some communities were able to preserve their cultural and religious identity by moving to more remote areas such as highlands and outer islands. The Tengger region and the island of Bali are two examples of places where the traditions of the Majapahit Kingdom are still preserved in Indonesia today. A Hindu temple has been built in modern times at the base of Bromo in order to remember the Majapahit Kingdom and facilitate the Kasada festival.

4.  Purpose

Hindu leaders bless food sacrifices with mantras and incense at the temple at the foot of Bromo. This was the last step before offerings were taken to the actual vent at four o'clock in the morning.

The primary purpose of the Kasada festival is to ensure prosperity for the people that live around the Tengger Caldera. Traditionally, prosperity refers to agricultural productivity and being able to provide food. In the earlier section, I mentioned how eruptions from Bromo provide fertile layers of ash that get reworked into the soil and allow for higher crop yields. Today, prosperity is equally dependent on tourism. Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park is Indonesia’s most heavily trafficked—drawing more tourists per year than the dragons of Komodo and the orangutans of Kalimantan. Tourism is starting to surpass agriculture as the main driver of activity in five main villages around the Tengger Caldera. The village that has benefitted the most from tourism (economically) is Ngadisari, which is the main entrance point to the park for visitors as well as the host for the festivities during the Kasada reception.

The fact that prosperity is the main function of Kasada is interesting in itself. Kasada is not unique in that it is a form of volcano-worship, but other similar activities around the globe (the best examples come from Italy and other sites in Indonesia) are typically conducted in order to prevent eruptions. The unusual sense of purpose portended by the Kasada festival is explained by the accompanied legend, which includes aspects and symbolism that force one to wonder about the geologic and historic connections between Bromo and the Tengger people.

5.  Roro Anteng and Joko Seger

The Kasada reception, hosted in the village of Ngadisari, included interpretive dance, the telling of the Kasada legend, and the announcement of annual tourism statistics to Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park.

The legend of Kasada starts with the story of the ancestral Tenggerese, Roro Anteng and Joko Seger. (You can see how the combination of those two names forms the word Tengger.) Roro and Joko lived in the Tengger area but were unable to bear children. One day, they heard a voice that assured them they would have children and live prosperously so long as they agreed to sacrifice their last child. Roro and Joko made the agreement and soon had twenty five children. When it came time to sacrifice the youngest, however, Roro and Joko turned back on their agreement and moved the family in order to escape the expected wrath of the mysterious voice. Their relocation was in vain. On one full moon evening during the month Kasada, a volcano “opened up” and swallowed the youngest child from the group as they played in a field. The family was devastated, but they were soon eased by the sound of another voice. This time, it was the lost child’s voice who said, “Don’t mourn my death. I am happy in my new place. Continue to live prosperously and remember me.”

The sacrifices made on each full moon night of the month Kasada, now, mimic the loss of Roro and Joko’s youngest son as an offering for continued prosperity. What makes the legend really interesting is not just the sacrifice for well-being but the context in which the story is told. The specific context I am talking about are the ways in which the volcano “opens up” and how the age of the Majapahit Kingdom relates to the actual age of Bromo.

6.  Culture of Disaster

People crowd the rim of the Bromo crater to throw sacrifices and get a glimpse of the open vent. In August 2011, the observation deck had been destroyed or covered by ash from the March-Nov 2010 eruption. People are essentially standing on a slope built by the angle of repose from the ash.

In the larger context of Indonesia, academic and investigative authors have written about a ”Culture of Disaster” in Indonesia, which means that natural disasters have been psychologically interpreted as instigators of social and political change. The most popular example is the 1883 eruption of Krakatau between the islands of Java and Sumatra. In his book Krakatoa, Simon Winchester offers the thesis that the devastation and large number of indigenous fatalities caused by this episode sparked revolt against Dutch colonists. Though Indonesia did not gain freedom until 1945, Winchester makes a compelling argument for how the Dutch began to rapidly lose power in the East Indies around the turn of the twentieth century. Other examples in Indonesia are from more modern times and are usually related to the co-mingled with the unpopular ‘transmigrassi’ programs of the Indonesian government following natural disasters. Government evacuations at Merapi—one of the world’s most notorious volcanoes—have often been met with resistance by locals who see destructive behavior not as a hazard but a mere impetus for changes in economic livelihood. The 2004 tsunami in Sumatra also involved discussion of Indonesia’s Culture of Disaster after villagers protested politically in the face of forced migration plans by the government.

Like volcano worship, the Culture of Disaster is also not unique to Indonesia. Similar theories have described behavior in the Philippines, and it’s no doubt that the human imagination grasps large natural disasters as being indicative, or at least, metaphorical for something more personal. Myths of a great deluge tell stories of one corrupt society being replaced by another in many religious traditions. The story of Moses and the opening of the Red Sea is another example of a mass social movement in conjunction with a natural phenomenon. What’s curious to me is whether or not Kasada fits into this paradigm of Culture of Disaster. If it does, it would be the earliest example across Indonesia.

7.  Reasonable Conjecture or a Far Fetched Idea?

A staircase ascends the ~90m crater walls to the rim of Bromo. The staircase had been covered and damaged by ash and projectiles from the March-Nov 2010 eruption.

The reason why I think the legend of Kasada can fit into the idea of the Culture of Disaster is two-fold. The first notion is that in the legend, the volcano is “opening up” and swallowing the child. This is a pretty unusual symbol, I think, for the story to include the brand new emergence of this volcano. Notice how the volcano came out of a field—presumably non-existent or noticed before. Volcanoes can form suddenly, and there has been at least one example (GVP summary) in recorded human history of farmers awaking to their fields to find them ruined by a new cinder cone. The plausibility that the Kasada legend recounts the first eruption of Bromo is corroborated by the fact that geologic evidence suggests the volcano’s emergence occurred five hundred years ago, which is also around the time of the Majapahit Kingdom’s final days.

In my imagination, the Kasada legend is a story of a group of Hindus witnessing the emergence of a new volcano amidst the milieu of social and cultural collapse. If you buy into the Culture of Disaster, maybe the remaining Hindus saw this physical phenomenon as a harbinger of hope that their old way of life and dominance could regain power and continue to prosper instead of being relegated to upper highlands and outer islands.

At this point, my theory is not much more than speculation. The emergence of Bromo in the geologic record and the downfall of the Majapahit seem to correlate nicely, but both geologic and historic dating of events are conducted with high degrees of error. It’s also possible that the legend of Kasada greatly pre-dates the demise of the Majapahit Kingdom and thus has no correlation to the society’s downfall. Even then, a nice correlation does not prove causation, but for the time being, the available evidence is enough to keep me curious.

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11 responses

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  2. Bravey

    Hi Jay,

    Nama saya Bravey. Saya bergabung dengan Peace Corps Surabaya pertengahan bulan Agustus yang lalu. Saya ingin berterima kasih atas informasi yang disampaikan di dalam blog ini. Sebagai penduduk asli Indonesia, pengetahuan saya tentang sejarah, tradisi, dan lain-lain masih sangat terbatas. Dengan informasi yang saya dapatkan disini sangat membantu saya untuk explore lebih tentang Indonesia khususnya Bromo dan semua tradisi, ada istiadat di dalamnya. All the best, Bravey

    2011 September 18 at 12.08

  3. isom Nugroho

    Nice Story and video jay

    2011 September 19 at 05.31

  4. Wow, sangat informatif dan menarik. Terima kasih sudah berbagi info di sini.

    2011 September 19 at 08.59

  5. Maryono

    Hi Jay,Saya sangat terkesan atas video ini. Saya adalah salah satu dari orang Indonesia yang sangat menyukai gunung berapi, baik yang ada di Indonesia atau ditempat lain. Sewaktu saya masih sekolah di Senior High School of Tourism (Surabaya), saya sering menjadi Temporary Tour Guide dan sering sekali mengantar turis asing ke gunung Bromo dan sekitarnya. Seandainya saja kita bisa jalan bersama mendaki ke gunung berapi yang lain bersama pasti akan mengesankan. Sukses buat kamu Jay.

    2011 September 20 at 07.04

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  7. accidentaly stumbled upon your blog on searching about festival in Bromo.
    will be there in august, hopefully lucky enough to be part of it :)
    nice writing btw, thanks for sharing!

    2012 July 19 at 06.15

    • Jay Wellik

      I am planning on being back at Bromo for Kasada this year as well. I believe the date is 2012 August 04.

      2012 July 20 at 10.04

      • seriously !
        I’ll be there on aug 3 – 6, so I guess I’ll see you around :)

        2012 July 20 at 13.20

    • Jay Wellik

      Oops, I ended up not making it to Kasada this year. How was it?

      2012 August 7 at 04.29

  8. EL

    Nama saya el. Saya senang bisa mendapat informasi tentang ceremonial tradisi di blog ini. Maksig untuk informasinya.

    2012 August 7 at 04.13

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