Indonesians celebrate the day before a wedding a little differently than do most Americans. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to witness a Siraman ceremony, the traditional Javanese event that precedes a wedding.
Siraman represents a physical and spiritual cleansing. It is not tied to any one religious tradition but instead to Javanese culture. First, water from seven springs (initially separated into seven glass containers) is poured into a large basin and mixed with flowers. A portion of this water is then poured out and set aside for the groom’s portion of the ceremony. Then, the bride emerges, dressed in a matching yellow kebaya and sarong with an elaborate shawl of woven palm fronds. She kneels on the ground before her parents and each person—daughter, mother, and father—makes a tear-inducing speech. She moves forward, still kneeling, to receive blessings from her parents, then rises to move to a seat in the center of a stage laden with flowers for the bathing.
Next, the bride’s parents come forward. They ladle water from the basin over their daughter and the mother lathers her arms and legs with a powdered soap. This is a literal bath as much as it is a spiritual, metaphorical one—there is no way the bride leaves dry. After the parents finish, other women who are important in the bride’s life add their ladles of water with varying levels of intensity. At the Siraman I witnessed, one woman was especially thorough; at one point, she spoke to the audience: “If I empty the water, we will fill it again!”
After each woman has taken her turn, the bride’s parents return to the stage. They take a small pair of scissors and cut a portion of the bride’s hair, which is then kept in a jar. Her hair will be planted together with her future husband’s, to symbolize how their family will grow together. Finally, the parents hold up another clay jar, pronounce the bride prepared for her marriage, and smash the jar on the floor. The bride, tearful and sopping wet, receives a robe and is carried out of the room by her father.
After the bride has completed her duties, the groom enters and repeats the ceremony, except that this time it’s the men in his life who bathe him. Although it may be joked about, no one carries him out of the room.
Finally, to close the ceremony—in true Indonesian fashion—there is a large and elaborate feast. The Siraman dinner, in this case a buffet, is supplemented by an interesting performance by the bride’s parents. At the Siraman I witnessed, the mother and father of the bride put on a show as es dawet sellers and had each guest “pay” for the dawet with a clay coin that was passed out earlier in the ceremony. Es dawet is a peculiar Indonesian treat, popular with street sellers and at important events, such as Idul Adha. It consists of a coconut milk base with liquefied palm sugar and green rice-flour jellies. After enjoying lunch and paying their respects to the proud parents, guests are free to leave or stay and chat.
Before attending the ceremony, I had explained the concept of a bachelorette/bachelor party to my friend. Interestingly, Siraman and bachelorette parties seem to have something in common—both strive to make the engaged couple ready for marriage. The most extreme bachelor and bachelorette parties attempt to do this by giving the bride and groom one last night of irresponsibility before they’re “shackled” into monogamy—getting all the wildness out before settling down. Siraman ceremonies strive to do this in a different way: by purifying instead of purging. Both, however, pay respect to relationships with relatives and friends of the same sex and recognize the significance of entering into marriage. Ultimately, observing the Siraman ceremony reminded me of something I’ve noticed when attending many Indonesian events: Indonesians and Americans often have similar goals in mind, just with very different execution.
The author consulted the following source for this post:
“Javanese Ceremonies – Siraman Wedding Ritual.” Javanese Ceremonies – Siraman Wedding Ritual. N.p., June 2008. Web. 25 Nov. 2013. < http://users.skynet.be/sky86158/E_siraman.htm>.
About the author: Gillian Irwin is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Yogyakarta, Yogyakarta Special Region. She graduated from Muhlenberg College in 2013 with a degree in Music and English.