Sunday, August 11, 2013

Ramadan in Indonesia and Celebrating the Breaking of the Fast in the Largest Muslim Country in the World

"It is usually the fathers and the sons whom you will see hugging each other and crying. It is very touching, Paul," my host Ericka explained to me as we joined the large throng of faithful Muslims all handsomely dressed in traditional Javanese clothing out in the streets that morning.

"They fight and quarrel with each other all year, but today, they come together and ask for forgiveness."

We had just heard a very special morning mass celebrated on this very special day here in the small town of Bondowoso in East Java, Indonesia. The crescent new moon had been spotted last night marking the end of puasa or month-long fasting. Ramadan was officially over and this day, Muslims around the world would celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the festival of the breaking of the fast.

Idul Fitri (End of Ramadan) in Bondowoso, Indonesia
A Muslim girl in Bondowoso in East Java joins the large throng of people to hear mass in the morning of Eid al-Fitr, the festival of the breaking of the fast.

The holiest month

Ramadan is an important month in the Muslim calendar. For 30 days during daylight hours, Muslims refrain from consuming food and drink and abstain from vices such as cigarettes and worldly urges such as sex. They believe this form of cleanse frees them from harmful physical impurities, thereby empowering their spirit, their faith, and enhancing their strength. After 30 days of Ramadan, basically one lunar cycle, they observe a celebration with family, friends, and the whole community lasting many days. Here in Indonesia, the celebration is known locally as Idul Fitri or Lebaran.

I had planned to travel throughout Java Island, west to east, for around three weeks not realizing that I would be traveling during this special month.

"Sahur!" a fellow bus passenger enthusiastically said to me as he closed his fingers together gesturing them to his mouth. It was around four in the morning, still dark, and as I woke myself up, I realized the bus had stopped by a roadside warung, a food stall. We had all been confined in the bus since early evening the previous day driving from Bandung in West Java to Yogyakarta in Central Java. I would later learn that my fellow passenger then was inviting me to join him for the pre-dawn meal, or sahur, the only meal Muslims would have until sunset later in the day.

Mesjid Istiqlal, Jakarta, Indonesia
The majestic Mesjid Istiqlal sees a constant stream of people during the month of Ramadan. Located in the center of the Indonesian capital Jakarta, the mosque is the largest in all of Southeast Asia.

Travel during Ramadan

Contrary to what guidebooks or common sense had me believe, traveling in the largest Muslim country in the world during the month of Ramadan was not as difficult. Except during the few days before and after Lebaran, it was business as usual for most offices, banks, and public transport here in the predominantly Muslim island of Java. Most street-side warungs, however, were closed. To get food during the day, I resorted to stalls and restaurants inside malls and shopping centers. Their windows were draped with curtains as a form of courtesy to those fasting.

In the evening, things livened up. Streets, even in medium-sized towns such as Malang in East Java, became congested. Cars and motorbikes would park at the side of the main roads in front of food stalls and snack shacks. Right there and then, people who were eager to break their fast ordered up Indonesian food staples such as sate (meat on skewers drenched in peanut sauce), tahu goreng (deep-fried tofu), or nasi padang (rice eaten with various meats, curries, and vegetables). Supermarkets and shopping malls, lots of them holding Lebaran promos and discounts, became especially busy, too. Christmas, after all, was not the only highly commercialized religious event in the world.

Ramadan Night in Malang, East Java, Indonesia
Even in medium-sized towns such as Malang in East Java, things get busy in the evenings as people move about everywhere eager to break their fast.

Sate Ayam, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Not the best looking thing sure, but sate ayam, or chicken skewers in peanut sauce, is easily the most well-known Indonesian food export. They are usually eaten with lontong, or rice wrapped in banana leaves then steamed.

Lebaran Promos and Discounts, Malang, Indonesia
Supermarkets and shopping malls held Lebaran promos and discounts especially during the nights leading up to the big day. My personal loot: sneakers for 5 USD and a pair of jeans for 7 USD.

All Ramadan activities culminated on takbiran, the night before Lebaran. Mosques and the smaller mushollas all around the country loudly sounded chants of Allahu Akbar (meaning, God is the greatest). In Bondowoso, practically everyone in town was out in the streets the night of takbiran. They sat on small chairs or on carpets beside street-side warungs having a cup of tea or coffee, watching street dance performances, and setting off fireworks in every open space they saw, which largely meant the areas within and around the alun-alun, or town square in the city center.

Idul Fitri (End of Ramadan) in Bondowoso, Indonesia
Oil lamps, candles, and torches are lit up on takbiran, the night before Lebaran.

Fireworks, Takbiran, Bondowoso, Indonesia
Fireworks are set off everywhere and every now and then, I jumped startled with what only felt like, and what locals amusingly called, minibombs. No fancy lights, just one big boom.

Idul Fitri (End of Ramadan) in Bondowoso, Indonesia
Entertainment on the night of takbiran is provided by street dancers here in the alun-alun, or town square, of Bondowoso, East Java.

Lebaran morning mass

The following morning, the morning of the big day of Lebaran, Ericka, as with the rest of people of Bondowoso, attended mass at the central mosque located right by the alun-alun. This tiny town in East Java only had a small central mosque. Those who could not fit inside spilled out on the streets where they laid small carpets to pray on. Facing the mosque, the men were lined up on the left side while the women congregated on the right side. Even during the last few minutes before mass started, there were still quite a few people rushing to find a spot to lay down their prayer carpets.

Everyone donned their best traditional Javanese clothing for this special day. Men wore a baju koko, or a long-sleeved shirt with accents of intricate embroidery, a sarong wrapped around their lower half, and a songkok, the traditional cap for Muslim men in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, the women wore a kebaya, a blouse-skirt combination usually made with batik, which is a cloth printed with ornate Javanese patterns of flowers, leaves, and even stories from Javanese folklore. As headdress, most women wore a hijab, the veil worn by Muslim women around the world.

Idul Fitri (End of Ramadan) in Bondowoso, Indonesia
Families walk to the central mosque in Bondowoso's town center to hear the Lebaran morning mass.

Idul Fitri (End of Ramadan) in Bondowoso, Indonesia
Bondowoso in East Java only has a small central mosque and those who cannot fit inside spill out on the streets where they laid small carpets to pray on.

Idul Fitri (End of Ramadan) in Bondowoso, Indonesia
Women fill the streets on the left side of the mosque as they bow in prayer during the Lebaran morning mass.

Idul Fitri (End of Ramadan) in Bondowoso, Indonesia
Equally numerous are the men seated on the right side of the mosque.

Idul Fitri (End of Ramadan) in Bondowoso, Indonesia
A young girl in kebaya and hijab stands out among the area for men for the Lebaran morning mass.

Forgiveness and feast

When the mass was over, people walked back to their neighborhoods. Throughout the day, families would visit relatives, neighbors, and loved ones including their beloved departed in cemeteries, making amends and asking for forgiveness. "Mohon maaf lahir dan batin (Please forgive me physically and emotionally)," you would normally say to each person you met. More often, a handshake, a hug, or a kiss would suffice. Right after a handshake, if you opted for one, you would motion your palm towards your heart to receive the blessing.

Ericka showed me back to the narrow lane near her house where people in her neighborhood congregated every year after the Lebaran morning mass. Many years ago, an elder member of the community started a great tradition here. Everyone would queue as everyone else went down the line to greet each other on this special day. The tradition continued this year. After the greetings, the elected community leader, whose house was just down the lane, would invite everyone in his front yard to have a humble meal of lontong and beef stew.

Idul Fitri (End of Ramadan) in Bondowoso, Indonesia
In my host Ericka's neighborhood, everyone queues as everyone else went down the line to greet each other on this special day.

Idul Fitri (End of Ramadan) in Bondowoso, Indonesia
After the greetings, it has also become tradition for the elected community leader to invite everyone in for a humble meal of lontong and beef stew.

Idul Fitri (End of Ramadan) in Bondowoso, Indonesia
One delicious bowl of lontong (or steamed rice) and a very rich beef stew

Idul Fitri (End of Ramadan) in Bondowoso, Indonesia
Ketupat is a rice dumpling cooked inside woven palm leaves. It is the iconic symbol of Lebaran in Southeast Asia.

Back in her family's house, Ericka served me more food, those that were typically eaten during Lebaran. There were bite-sized pastries with peanut and fruit fillings, bakso (meatball soup), opor ayam (chicken in yellow curry), and of course, the iconic symbol of Lebaran in all of Southeast Asia, ketupat (a rice dumpling cooked inside woven palm leaves). Ericka explained that every home a Muslim family visited today would serve these delicious staples, so that by the end of the day, everyone would have had their fill. After having had so much food that morning alone, I already had mine.

The shuttle bus to my next destination, Bali, was picking me up that afternoon. When I left, I bid my host Ericka one Selamat Idul Fitri (or Happy Idul Fitri) and thanked her with all my heart, in whichever manner I thought that was done. As the bus rolled out of Bondowoso, I cannot help but feel overwhelming gratitude having had the opportunity to not only witness such a joyous and meaningful celebration but also be openly and warmly welcomed into it.

Have you had the chance to experience Eid al-Fitr, Idul Fitri, or Lebaran? In which country did you experience it? What were the traditions and customs observed?

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