Dina Gets Married! A Javanese Wedding Story

A lot can change in a week. Two Sundays ago, I was celebrating my birthday with Dodi, Suci, Dina, and my new PCV site mate, Tagay. The very next day I was packing my bags for evacuation. Today I’m back in Maryland, with my service cut short at only 18 months instead of 27. Most PCVs spend their last several months at site saying goodbye and wrapping up their work. We had 24 hours notice. If there’s a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) in your life, reach out but don’t ask what they’ll do next. Things suck right now.

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I’m glad that before we had to leave, I could attend Dina’s wedding. Dina is a babe, and she had FIVE wedding gowns that she wore during several ceremonies across two days. She has been a good friend since last August, around the time that she got engaged. While I watched her and her husband walk through detailed Javanese wedding traditions, our friends Dodi and Suci explained each part of the process so that I had some clue of what was going on.

Dina’s marriage was arranged, which is common in East Java, although many people date during college and get family approval of their boyfriend/girlfriend themselves. Courtship is a whole other topic, though. There’s a lot of pressure to get married. Sometimes it seems like it’s less about who you marry and more about when. Older people often asked me “When do you want to get married?” with no interest in who the person would be. (The particulars of who could always be figured out later, often by a third party.) Dina got to know her fiancé through family friends, and they met for about three months before getting engaged.

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In early March, I got to see Madiun’s wedding industry at work. An enormous tent framed the front and side yard of Dina’s parents’ home. One stage for musicians and a second for the ceremony involved roses, jasmine, carved teak benches, and red carpet. Banana trees were chopped down, brought under the tent, and tied to the posts to appear like they’re growing out of the concrete. Guests were welcome to take bananas home with them, which indicate that they’ll get married soon, too. (Just like the bouquet toss in western traditions.) A green coconut is also hung under the tent, which represents virginity. (Virginity is like, really important here.)

The morning of the wedding, an entire team of makeup artists prepare the welcoming committee. Close family and friends wear matching kebaya (lace top with a sarong) and shake hands with guests as they arrive.

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And then there was Dina’s makeup. Dina is Muslim, but she does not wear jilbab or headscarf. (Although many Muslim women wear jilbab in Madiun, it’s a personal choice.) Dina chose to dress in kebaya with gelungan, a traditional Javanese hair piece that adds a huge bun to the back of the head. (You might remember the look from when I saw sinden performers at the wayang show in Ponorogo.) Then the artist attached no fewer than three layers of false eyelashes, painted a hairline on the bride’s face, and layered the hair with stitched-together jasmine flowers. The jasmine is incredibly ornate and only able to be used once, while the flowers are fresh. They say if you eat jasmine flowers, you’ll get married soon. (We didn’t eat them.)

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To top it off, she wore a headpiece called cunduk mentul. It has seven golden springy pieces jutting out of it vertically, because seven is a lucky number and symbolizes good fortune. (Also, because it looks really elegant, and Dina is a queen. When you get the chance to wear cunduk mentul, you say yes.)

The first part of the ceremony was the legal part. Dodi, Suci and I were there about 4 hours before guests arrived to watch Dina sign some papers. (Do we get a BFF award?) A religious leader called akad nikah or ijab presided over the short 15-minute ceremony. He asked Dina and her fiancé if they were widows or virgins (as if those are the only two ways to be), which is one way of asking “Have you been married before?” But we won’t get into lexicon. Then Dina and her husband each received a buku nikah, which looks like a passport but is actually a marriage booklet. The book serves as a marriage certificate and family legitimization. Women don’t change their last names as is the tradition in the US, but they have the booklet to link them to their new family. Many hotels require buku nikah for guests to share rooms as a way to monitor premarital sex. (Just giving you the facts.)

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Then, to close out the legal session, the groom gives the bride mas kawin. This is a bride price. But just like US wedding traditions (the dad handing off the bride, the white gown), old traditions are reshaped in modern times. Dina’s a Javanese language teacher. She’s 28 and has been earning her own salary for years. A bride price? Like what was that supposed to mean anymore? Sometimes the mas kawin is a large sum displayed in a frame. But Dina is the most laid-back. She took the cash and told us she’d take us shopping.

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Posing with the marriage booklets

The guests began to arrive while Dina changed out of her kebaya and into a black and gold velvet gown. About 600 people could fit under the tent for the ceremony, which lasted about 2 hours. The first part of the ceremony was temu manten. This is where the bride’s parents walk the bride out of the house together and escort her to the stage. Her parents received kembang mayang, which are gifts made from palm leaves. The manggala (groomsmen) and domas (bridesmaids) would later deliver the kembang mayang to the pekiwan (the nearby house where the groom was getting ready—another outfit change!) Later, they would bring the kembang mayang back to Dina’s house, and the manggala would barter with the domas.

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These are the kembang mayang.

Finally, the groom made his entrance between his two parents. (This is the reverse of a US wedding, where everyone stares at the bride.) He wore sarong and blangkon, a Javanese men’s hat. In the back of his sarong, he tucked a knife protected in a wooden case. It’s called keris, and it’s a wavy-shaped dagger. For a wedding ceremony, the keris is decorated with woven jasmine, just like the bride’s hair. In this case, jasmine is supposed to soften the look of the weapon, while also symbolizing a controlled temper. The keris is not exclusive to Java; it’s a part of Balinese and Malay traditions, too. The groom walked down the aisle with family and friends in tow, until they all reached the bride.

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The groom and his family make their entrance. The father of the groom (and many other men involved in the ceremony) wear beskap, a black jacket that is shorter in the back.
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This is the keris up close, worn by another person. It’s part of traditional Javanese dress, not only for weddings.

Next up: the egg ceremony. Ok, the entire ceremony is really called wiji dadi. But I’d been calling it The Egg Thing for the past 18 months, as I had attended countless wedding parties but hadn’t gotten to witness the full ceremony until now. Part of wiji dadi is ngidak tigan, where the groom steps on a raw egg and the bride cleans his foot. My first understanding of this was a misunderstanding. I mean, it basically represents a bride submitting to servitude. But this also has to do with fertility (eggs, duh), as two people join in marriage and hope for an heir. Nowadays the egg is sealed in a plastic bag when he steps on it, so there’s not actually any mess to clean up. Read into this metaphor as much as you like.

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So Dina washed his foot with rose water, and they moved onto the next step: Sinduran. Their parents wrap sindur fabric around the newlyweds and walk them into the house and then onto the stage. The red and and white represent father and mother, and the action indicates that both sets of parents accept the bride and groom as their own child.

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Once the couple and their parents arrive on the stage, they take their seats. It’s like a symbolic joining of families. The bride and groom thank both sets of parents and receive a blessing called sungkeman. Then several short traditions follow.

I’m trying to explain a few of these traditions, and I apologize if they’re out of order. Javanese ceremonies are so detailed that a professional ceremony instructor must lead the bride and groom through each step. (There’s no rehearsal the day before.)

The bride and groom toss suruh, a betel nut that’s wrapped in banana leaf. Betel nut is what people used as a natural toothpaste before we squeezed minty green paste out of a tube. Tossing the suruh symbolizes good luck by warding off bad energy.

In a gift-giving act called kacar kucur, the groom gave the bride rice. Rice is a symbol of income. In an act that’s called dulangan, the bride and groom shared a plate of rice. (Income for everyone!)

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Look at the cute egg people!!!! Egg love at first sight.

Then the bride and groom left the stage. (Cue next outfit change!) In the meantime, the bride’s parents took part in bubakan, a religious ceremony for when your first child gets married. Part of bubakan involves a wooden contraption loaded with pots and pans, which is called pikulan. Dina’s brother carried the pikulan outside, and a swarm of women rushed up to “steal” the items.

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Then the guests stormed the banquet tables for bakso (meatballs in broth) and sate kambing (goat satay). The tent doors opened for the rest of the crowd, and hundreds of guests made their way through the line to shake hands with the bride and groom on stage, eat a plate of food, and dash. (Guests can come and go all day long. Dina estimates about 1000—one thousand!!—people came by.)

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Was this all a lot? Please. This was only Saturday at Dina’s house. The following Thursday, there would be a second series of ceremonies and celebrations at her husband’s home, complete with reog dancers. But that was a work day for Dodi, Suci and me. (Back when I was a volunteer, and had a job….). Following the wedding, Dina and her husband would have to decide where to live—in Dina’s parents’ house, or his parents’ house—while they adjust to married life. Ch ch ch changes for everyone!

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As I was leaving school on my last day in Madiun, one of the vice principals, an ibu nearing retirement, blessed me with two wishes: First, that I get married fast, and second, that I have success. Other teachers exclaimed that I must come back to visit with my husband, and send them wedding pictures in the near future. Alright, bu.

In East Java, marriage is the norm, and virginity is the expectation. Marriage signifies adulthood and the joining of families, and a wedding can incorporate various cultural and religious traditions depending on the couple’s beliefs. People will spend years asking about when you’re getting married. They they’ll spend the first few years of your marriage harassing you about having children, and then when that happens, bugging you about when your children are getting married. Maintaining the status quo is a game, and the social stakes are high. But then, any culture comes with its societal pressures. And I think many couples around the world are talked into formal and extravagant weddings by their extended families, while they might prefer something smaller and quieter. This is tradition. And tradition passes on a million intricate ceremonies from one generation to the next.

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Terima kasih to Dina, Dodi and Suci for your expert fact checking and long-distance friendship. I couldn’t have written this without you!

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