© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Possessed by buffaloes: Kebo-keboan ceremony in Banyuwangi, East Java

3 minutes to read

Indonesia runs on magic. In this country, it is nothing unusual for the relatives to offer a blessing of the deceased ancestors (temporarily in the bodies of kuda lumping dancers) as a present to newlyweds. Islamic morality is put aside when the ghost of a legendary prince promises infallible luck to those who dare sleep with a total stranger on his sacred mountain. Apparently, even the main international airport, Soekarno Hatta in Jakarta, unofficially employs a weather shaman, pawang hujan, to keep monsoon rains off the runway. But one ritual is even more bizarre than most: Kebo-keboan ceremony near Banyuwangi in East Java. Spirit possession may be a pretty common thing around here, but the spirits involved are at least usually human. Not at Kebo-keboan - here, a dozen or so villagers get possessed by the souls of ancient buffaloes.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

The gift of Dewi Sri

As the legend goes, once upon a time, the people of East Java were just discovering agriculture. They had barely mastered plants, but animals were still hunted rather than domesticated. Without beasts of burden, any task used up too much manpower, and many were impossible to complete. In fact, efficient agriculture as such, was among the latter. And then one day, Dewi Sri, the goddess of fertility, appeared before the wannabe farmers, driving a small herd of buffaloes. These became the first cattle to be kept by the villagers. Nowadays, the goddess is worshiped annually on the first two weekends after 1 Suro (the most sacred date in the Javanese calendar), and the buffaloes, immaterial, divine, come along to take over the bodies of men.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

The buffalo men

At present, only two villages celebrate Kebo-keboan: Aliyan and Alasmalang, both in the vicinity of Banyuwangi. The latter has turned the ceremony into a sort of a tourist show, albeit for domestic visitors – few foreigners have heard of this festival. It is slightly more spectacular, with black make-up and fake horns worn by the participant, but visibly make-believe, and no true spirit possession takes place. The other village, Aliyan, is where the real thing happens. Early in the morning, about a dozen villagers get possessed by ghosts of ancient buffaloes. Chewing hay and moving like heavy animals, they slowly make their way to the temporary shrine of Dewi Sri, stopping to wallow in mud and to headbutt each other. This consumes most of the morning, as the entranced men do not miss a single rice field along the road without taking a long splash in the mud, and their followers' attempts to pull them out are helpless against the strength of a buffalo. Eventually, the procession reaches the shrine, and then puja (an offering) to Dewi Sri is conducted by a priest. Finally, a few dukuns (shamans) perform a small magic ritual to exorcise the buffalo men, resulting in a prolonged session of vomiting – with the number of stomachs suddenly reduced from four to one, and the recently possessed villagers can not keep the eaten hay inside.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Practicalities

Banyuwangi is well connected by bus and train to other destinations in Java and beyond. A one-hour ferry ride links it with Bali. The town is the base for climbing Kawah Ijen, a caldera in East Java steadily gaining fame among international travelers, and is therefore very well equipped with accommodation and tourist services. Do not expect much help with Kebo-keboan though – most locals may have heard about this festival, but will not know the details. To see the real ceremony and men that appear truly possessed by buffalo spirits, skip the event in Alasmalang and aim for the one in Aliyan. The rituals take place in Aliyan on the first weekend after 1 Suro, and in Alasmalang on the second weekend, usually falling in October. You will need your own wheels to reach either of the villages in time to see the procession since it normally begins around 07:00 AM and ends by noon. In fact, to avoid a pre-dawn start, you may wish to stay in Rogojampi, a tiny town about an hour’s ride from Banyuwangi and less than 10 km from Aliyan, which has a couple of very basic guesthouses.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin
Banyuwangi, East Java
Banyuwangi, East Java
Banyuwangi, Banyuwangi Sub-District, Banyuwangi Regency, East Java, Indonesia

The author

Mark Levitin

Mark Levitin

I am Mark, a professional travel photographer, a digital nomad. For the last four years, I am based in Indonesia, spending here roughly half a year and travelling around Asia for the other half. Previously, I spent four years in Thailand, exploring it from all perspectives.

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