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The Traditional Ceremony of Water Buffalo Impersonation in Banyuwangi, Indonesia

Water buffaloes are one of the most popular animals in Indonesia. They play a crucial role in the agricultural life. Water buffaloes have been traditionally known as work companions for the farmer in the rice field. In the Kraja, hamlet of Alasmalang village, Singojuruh district, city of Banyuwangi in East Java province, water buffaloes are the icons of traditional ceremony that have attracted many visitors.

cultural photography; event

EOS 5D Mark II; EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM; 200mm; f/2.8; 1/320 sec; ISO-800

human photography

PowerShot G1 X Mark II; 18mm; f/10; 1/500 sec; ISO-1250

According to Javanese calendar, during the month of Suro, the community will celebrate a traditional ceremony of Water Buffalo Impersonation, or “Kebo-keboan” in Javanese. They will paint their face and body in black, wearing a wooden cowbell called “kelunthungkayu” on their necks with bell bracelets wrapped on their hands and feet to resemble the cattle. Each impersonator will carry out this ritual by undertaking the role of water buffaloes. It includes plowing the soil, planting the seeds, and watering the crop. The neighborhood works collectively to transform the village into a rice field, decorated with banana trees, grassland, and other plants that replicate an actual field. Along the festival route, the streets will be covered with plants and grass that were prepared by the participants. A giant water pump is installed in the corner of the crossroad to swamp the area. That crossroad becomes the meeting point of the water buffalo impersonators who would march toward the four wind direction.

human photography

EOS 5D Mark II; EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM; 200mm; f/2.8; 1/5000 sec; ISO-1250

This Water Buffalo Impersonation ceremony runs one week prior from when people gathered to pray at a grave of Madam Karti, the ancestor who started this tradition 300 years ago. Water Buffalo Impersonation ceremony is a cultural thanksgiving festival to celebrate the successful harvest. It is also a moment to call upon God to bless the fields with fertility and ability to produce good quality crops in the following years.

According to the committee of the event, Mr. Indra Gunawan, Water Buffalo Impersonation ceremony was established to combat the plaque that struck Alasmalang village. Madam Karti had received a message from the ancestors to hold a collective cleaning movement and had a vision of a farmer incarnated into a water buffalo, an animal who held an important position in their agriculture life.

cultural photography

EOS 5D Mark II; EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM; 105mm; f/2.8; 1/2500 sec; ISO-1250

The ceremony starts with the preparation of 12 “tumpeng” or yellow rice and chicken set, completed with 5 portion of “jenangSengkolo”, a traditional sweet rice porridge, and 7 portion of “jenangsuro”, a chicken porridge. The number of portion carries its own meaning. Twelve “tumpeng” represent 12 months in a year, 7 portions of “jenangsuro” serve as 7 days in one week, and 5 portions of “jenangSengkolo” show the number of days in Javanese calendar. All these depict the philosophy of time dimension in a human’s life cycle.

human photography

EOS 5D Mark II; EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM; 135mm; f/2.8; 1/5000 sec; ISO-500

The yellow rice set or “tumpeng” is blessed by the elders and placed at the meeting point to feed the participants of the “IderBumi” festival. This is a festival where the water buffalo impersonators march toward the four wind directions. The buffalo impersonators and the “master” or the farmers will parade along with traditional music and dance. The Goddess of Sri will also join the parade. The participants recreate the rice farming activity such as soil plowing, watering, and seeding.  Villagers believe that some of the buffalo impersonators were possessed by the spirit because they unconsciously wallowed, rolled in the mud, and occasionally bumped into the audience. The plowing equipment such as a robe that control the movement, wrapped on each of the “buffaloes” and they imitated the buffalo farming activities. The closing act shows participants racing to collect the seeds that were sowed by the Goddess of Sri. They believe that those seeds would bring abundant harvest.

human photography

EOS 5D Mark II; EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM; 70mm; f/2.8; 1/8000 sec; ISO-500

As stated by the regent of Banyuwangi, Abdullah Azwar during his speech at the opening ceremony, this unique and festive tradition must be conserved and practised throughout all generations and should not be forgotten as the time goes by. He hoped that this festival would be the Banyuwangi’s tourist attraction and boost the economy of the community in the region and surrounding area. 

human photography

EOS 5D Mark II; EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM; 200mm; f/2.8; 1/6400 sec; ISO-500

Here are the tips to shoot the Water Buffalo Impersonation ceremony in Banyuwangi:

1. Do come early to capture the enthusiasm of the participants when they are occupied with the ceremony preparation.

2. Use two cameras with telephoto and wide-angle lens. It will help to cater the dynamic scenes of this festival without wasting time to change the lens.

3. Be careful and keep your camera and equipment away from the dirt. The location can get muddy and packed with people.

4. Have a conversation with the committee and community so you know the rundown of the event and will not miss any important moment.

5. Be flexible and smart in angling yourself to get the best shooting position without interrupting the ceremony.

Find out more about why you may need to bring a lens hood to attend this event:

3 Reasons Why You Should Start Using a Lens Hood


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Misbachul Munir

Misbachul Munir

Misbachul Munir is a professional photographer from Indonesia. He has been in this industry for over 20 years and has traveled around the globe on assignments for a number of successful companies. He also works as a travel writer in some magazines. His photos have won several awards and he also joined the panel in many prestigious photo contests. He is well-experienced in shooting a various genre in photography. However, his passion is Black and White, Human Interest and Landscape Photography.

www.instagram.com/munirkwnol