Published Article: The Ritual of Mitoni

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Moesson Magazine | November 2020

For many Javanese, moving on from one stage of life cycle to another one requires a ritual ceremony. It happens from the time they are still in the wombs to the day they depart from this world. By using symbols, all the ceremonies aim for a better next cycle.

On Saturday, around eight in the morning, my friend Mochamad Adhi Kurniawan welcomed me at the front yard of his house. His wife, Arnindia Putri, was in their bedroom, preparing herself for Mitoni, a traditional Javanese ritual to celebrate the seventh month of the first pregnancy.

“We are going to have the ceremony right here,” said Adhi while showing me around the front yard which was covered with a large white rectangular canopy, and decorated with various kinds of flowers, which are necessary in a Javanese ritual as the floral scents would attract good spirits to come down from heaven to bless the ceremony. I was intrigued to find what made this couple decide to hold this ritual, despite many Indonesian young people’s lack of interest in traditional ceremony.

“My wife and I are fond of Javanese culture. We want to introduce this almost extinct, ancient ritual to our friends, and share our happiness with people we are close to,” answered Adhi.

Nearly all Javanese rituals, including Mitoni, are deeply rooted in in a period when Hindu was the predominant religion in the island. Back in the 12th century, long before the coming of Islam, when the Javanese Kingdom of Kediri was ruled by King Jayabaya, there was a woman named Niken Satingkeb who married a royal retainer, Sadiyo. Of the nine babies she gave birth to, no one reached the age of one. Wondering what might be wrong with them, they sought help and advice everywhere but nothing came with a result. The best answer they thought they could get would be from the king, who was known as a wise oracle.

Showing his compassion, King Jayabaya gave them his insight. In order to conceive a healthy baby, the woman had to purify her soul by showering her head to toes with a holy water taken with a coconut shell, while chanting a prayer to God. After that, the husband had to encircle her body with a clean cloth and leave a gap between the cloth and her womb. Through that gap, the husband had to drop two green coconuts symbolizing the baby; each was drawn with a deity figure, a god for a handsome baby boy and a goddess for a pretty baby girl. The last thing they had to do was to circle the woman’s waist with a sugarcane leaf and then cut it with a keris.

Shortly after having done all the rituals advised by the king, the couple was blessed with the coming of a baby. The Javanese passed down this ritual to the following generations and named it Tingkeban, after the woman. Today, it is also popular as Mitoni, after the word pitu, the Javanese for seven, referring to the seventh month of pregnancy when this ritual is held.

At around ten o’ clock, a group of women wearing Muslim attires came to the house with the Quran in their hands. They were going to recite some verses of the holy book and say prayers for the baby in the womb and the mother. They sat on the floor in the living room with Arnindia amongst them. This is how things actually work in Java where the practice of ancient belief often partners with the teaching of Islam, the today’s predominant religion in the island.

A change occurred after the recitation with what Arnindia was wearing, from a Muslim outfit fully covered her body to a traditional Javanese one, a batik cloth, off shoulder, with a beautiful flower garland around her upper body. She was ready for the ritual of Mitoni, hosted by a woman acting as a master of ceremony.

Before it started, Arnindia, the mother-to-be, asked for blessings from the elders by kneeling down in front of her parents, in-laws, grandparents, and last, her husband. Then, she sat on a chair, next to a brass pot filled with water. Her mother came to her with a tray full with colorful petals of rose, jasmine, cananga, and magnolia, followed by Adhi’s mother walking behind her. Together, the two mothers put all those petals into the water in the pot.

The ritual began with Siraman, where the elders took turns to shower Arnindia with the water, only this time they didn’t use a coconut shell. Each shower came with a prayer, hoping to cleanse and purify the soul of the mother-to-be and her baby in the womb.

Following the shower, Adhi, the father-to-be, encircled Arnindia’s body with a clean white cloth symbolizing purity, and spared a gap between the cloth and her womb, just like what Sadiyo did to Satingkeb nine centuries earlier. Through that gap, he dropped an egg as a symbol of hope that the baby would be delivered easily so as not to hurt the mother. After that, he cut the white thread and a young coconut leaf put around Arnindia’s waist, with scissors instead of a keris, to depict the cutting of the umbilical cord and the removal of any obstacles that might come during the labor.

I wondered why there were many symbols used in every Javanese ritual. My friend Rachma Safitri, a native of Yogyakarta, and an observer of Javanese culture, once said: “Traditionally, the Javanese are not type to speak candidly. We use sanepan, a metaphor or symbol in expressing our thoughts so people can easily get the message.”

“I know sometimes it sounds unpractical and can cause misunderstandings, but the idea is to make us more sensitive and thoughtful in communicating what we have in mind with people,” she continued.

In this ritual of Mitoni, the symbols and philosophies found were actually a series of prayers and hopes for the mother-to-be and the baby in the womb. Like in the following procession of Brojolan where two green coconuts, each symbolized a baby, was painted with a deity figure from Hindu mythology, Dewi Kumoratih for a beautiful baby girl, and Kamajaya for a handsome baby boy.

The coconuts would later be dropped at the same time through a gap between Arnindia’s womb and the white cloth circling her body. Right before they touched the floor, the two would-be grandmothers caught them with their hands. Each of them held one coconut like a baby in her arm while singing a lullaby. For someone like me who is not accustomed to communicating with symbols, this part was kind of amusing.

The ritual became more festive in the procession of Patutan when the host brought out seven batik clothes with different motives. Each represented different meaning that would hopefully be the character of the baby. Sidomukti for authoritative, Sidoluhur for noble, Truntum for being possitive, Parangkusuma for never-give-up attitude, Semen Rama for compassionate, Udan Riris for joyful and well accepted, and Cakar Ayam for self-determination.

Each batik cloth would be paired with a kabaya, traditional dress for women, which also came in seven different colors. They were put one by one at a time on the mother-to-be by the host. Like a trial, every time a batik cloth was paired with a kabaya, the master of ceremony would ask the guests: “are these matching?”

As it had been set up, the guests would excitedly shout: “No!”

Seven batik clothes, seven kabayas, and seven times they said no. At the end, Adhi, the father-to-be, picked up a batik cloth with a motive of Lasem, paired with a colorful kabaya, and put those together on Arnindia. Giving their approval, all the guests, full of laughter, shouted at the same time: “Yes, they are matching!” The moral of this procession was the baby in the womb would only like the father to pick up the kabaya and the batik cloth for the mother.

What came after that was fascinating. Long before the invention of ultrasonography, the Javanese had already found a way to figure the gender of the baby while it was still in the womb. The father-to-be, blindfolded, randomly picked up one of the two green coconuts symbolizing the baby. As he happened to pick up the one painted with a picture of Kamajaya, it was going to be a baby boy then. Of course it couldn’t be scientifically proofed, but everyone was excited to find it out. And that was the last part of the ritual of Mitoni.

And like always, there is no Javanese ceremony without a feast. Together with all the guests, I lined up with kreweng, a currency made of clay, in my hand. We traded it with Rujak, a traditional fruit salad, and Dawet, a traditional beverage, from Arnindia and Adhi. And of course, there was intention behind this procession of collecting money. It was a hope that the child would be financially stable.

Having seen many symbols in that ritual, all came with good hopes for the baby in the womb, I became curious if what they wished would come true. As the saying goes, only time will tell. Few months following the ritual, Arnindia gave birth to a healthy baby boy, just like what everyone had expected when Adhi picked up the green coconut painted with a picture of Kamajaya. They named him Rajendra Gathan Kurniawan.

“Thanks to everyone’s prayers,” said Adhi answering my curiousity. He smiled and continued: “It wasn’t the symbols in the ceremony that made it happen. They just represent what we wish to happen. It is the universe that conspires to make our wishes come into reality.”

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