A grebeg (or garebeg) is a public religious observance sponsored by the Kraton in which the Sultan gives to his subjects food in the form of rice mountains (gunungan) that are ceremoniously carried from the palace to the Mesjid Ageng (the Great Mosque) for distribution. As the chief upholder of Islam (the state religion on Java since the 16th century) in his kingdom, it is the responsibility of the sultan to perpetuate these important Muslim observances. The palace mounts three such observances each lunar year to mark major Muslim holy days: Grebeg Mulud; Grebeg Puasa/Sawal/Bakda; and Grebeg Besar. During my visit to Yogyakarta in 2016, a Grebeg Mulud took place on the 12th of Mulud, 1950 AJ/December 12, 2016 CE.
At the heart of a grebeg ceremony is a procession that originates in the palace proper, moves to the north through the Sitihinggil, and terminates in the courtyard of the Mesjid Ageng. The purpose of this possession is to deliver several large food offerings in the form of gunungan (rice mountains), which are understood as gifts from the Sultan, to the Mesjid Ageng where they are distributed to the general public.
Although the grand gesture of a grebeg emphasizes in no uncertain terms relationships between the Sultan, his subjects (what I am calling here “Javanese traditionalists”), and Islam, one need not look too far below the surface of these spectacles to find Hindu-Javanese and indigenous Javanese sensibilities at work. One can, at a very general level of abstraction, see a grebeg as a slametan, a Javanese communal feast that Geertz (1960, p. 11) argues is at the core of the autochthonous Javanese religious system. As in a grebeg, a rice mountain (gunungan) offering functions as the symbolic focal point of a slametan. Pigeaud (1960-63 v.4: 267) speculates that grebeg evolved from major court-sponsored festivals of the late Hindu-Javanese period. So, while for the past few centuries the timing of grebeg have been pinned to Muslim observances and these ceremonies terminate at the Mesjid Ageng, a careful reading of all the details of these observances reveals that they are rooted in Javanese beliefs and practices that predate the arrival of Islam in Java.
Exactly how gamelans are woven into the realization of a grebeg has changed over time. In 2016, the two oldest archaic palace gamelans, the gamelan monggang K.K. Gunturlaut and the gamelan kodhok ngorèk K.K. Maésaganggang, were sounded at Sitihinggil during Grebeg Mulud. For more than an hour prior to the arrival of the gunungan to Sitihinggil these two gamelans were sounded in alternation for about ten-minute periods. As the six gunungan passed by them on their way to the Alun-Alun Lor, both gamelans were sounded simultaneously. This was the extent to which palace gamelans were incorporated into this iteration of Grebeg Mulud, and it was consistent with what I experienced for the Grebeg Mulud in 2007, during which the footage seen in the Grebeg Mulud film found on this website was taken. However, in the Grebeg Mulud I witnessed in 1982 there were no gamelans sounded as part of the event. I was told at the time that this was normal practice, the result of Sultan Hamengkubuwana IX’s initiative in the 1940s to simplify court rituals he had inherited from his father, the Eighth Sultan. Prior to 1940, gamelans, including K.K. Gunturlaut and K.K. Maésaganggang, seem to have always been integrated into the grebeg celebrations, with some gamelans actually carried and sounded during them.
Grebeg are, plain and simple, theatre-state spectacle. In the past (before 1940), they involved layer-upon-layer of display of powerful people (the Sultan, the Dutch colonial Governor, high-ranking court and mosque officials), objects (state pusaka and other emblems of state), and sounds (emanating from the corps of palace troops and from palace gamelans) orchestrated to focus attention upon the grand “slametan” gesture, the gifting by the Sultan to his subjects of ceremonial food offerings in the form of gunungan. Several of these layers of display were deleted from the grebeg tradition by the Ninth Sultan (r. 1940-1989) but a few of these have been reinstated during the reign of the Tenth Sultan (r. 1989-present), including the sounding of the archaic gamelans monggang and kodhok ngorèk. Precisely how these gamelans are integrated now into the spectacle has been somewhat modified from earlier times (they used to be sounded by direct command from the Sultan, who no longer participates in the grebeg, and as a result they are sounded from a different location at the Sitihinggil than they were before), but their impact on the overall ceremonial gesture is of a corresponding order. So distinctive are the sounds of these two archaic gamelans, both from one another and from all other types of gamelans, and so direct is their association with kingship and the Sultan, that having their “voices” present in the semiotic mix of visual and sonic signs of the grebeg ceremony contributes significantly to the efficaciousness of these events.
[For a gallery of images taken over a century ago during a Grebeg Mulud celebration in Yogyakarta, see the Appendix “An Early 20th Century Grebeg Mulud–A Gallery of Stereoview Images.”]