The Sekaten Festival of Indonesia: Spreading Islam

The Sekaten Celebration in Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Map of Indonesia

Figure 1:Indonesia is a country of many islands.  source:



The Sekaten Festival is an Islamic celebration that takes place each year in Indonesia during the week of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The Sekaten draws many visitors to the host city of Yogyakarta and comprises a large portion of the city’s economy. The festival is a time in which the social stratification of the country is put aside and non-Muslims are taught about Islam and converted at the end of the celebration.


Indonesia pictures  

Figure 2: The tropical environment of Indonesia is evident.                                       source:

Figure 3: A farmer with the islands' most abundant crop, rice.  source:


The Sekaten festival is an Islamic celebration that takes place every year in the city of Yogyakarta, Indonesia. The festival is also known as Garebeg Maulud, and is in honor of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The Sekaten not only celebrates Muhammad’s birthday, but most importantly, it breaks down the social stratification of Indonesia and brings non-Muslims into the religion by fostering a sense of equality and understanding. The Sekaten converts the people of Indonesia to Islam while significantly impacting the social structure, politics, and economics of the country. The entire week-long celebration is designed and centered on attracting non-Muslims to the celebration by including such events as prayer, music, and a spectacular parade. The final goal of the Sekaten is the conversion of non-Muslims to Islam. The Sekaten is held every year in the Javanese month of Maulud.


Context of Indonesia

To fully understand the Sekaten you must first understand Indonesia and its people. Indonesia is located in southeastern Asia between the Indian and Pacific Ocean. It is made up of over 17,000 islands and is directly on the equator. The terrain is mostly coastal lowlands but the largest islands do have mountains on their interiors (Central Intelligence Agency 2004). As you would expect from a country located on the equator, Indonesia’s climate is tropical and it is fairly hot year round. It has a wet season from October to April and a dry season from May to September. The wet season is hot and humid while the dry season is hot and dry (Central Intelligence Agency 2004).

Indonesia’s earliest inhabitants are believed to be from India or Burma well before the time of Christ (Library of Congress 2004). The natives grew rice, spices, tobacco, coconuts, and sugarcane as well as other crops. The major crop has always been rice. Another major source of food was fish. Several kingdoms ruled Indonesia including the Buddhist kingdom of Sri Vijaya from the 7th to the 13th century and the Hindu kingdom of Majapahit, which ruled from the late 13th to around the 16th century (Library of Congress 2004). By the end of the 16th century Islam was the dominant religion of Indonesia and today almost 90% of the population is Muslim. In the 18th century the Dutch East India Company took control of much of Indonesia, and by the early 20th century the Dutch controlled all of Indonesia. On August 17, 1945 Indonesia became independent from the Netherlands and remains so today (Rieffel 2004: 99).


Origins of the Sekaten Festival

Sekaten comes from the word syahadatain, which is an Islamic profession of faith that says there is no other God other than Allah and that Muhammad is His Last Messenger (Wahyuni 2004: 1). At the end of the festival, those who wish to convert to Islam are led in the saying of the syahadatain (Wahyuni 2004: 1). The Sekaten Festival dates back to 1477 when it was created by the Demak Kingdom to celebrate Muhammad’s birthday and to spread Islam (Wahyuni 2004: 1). The Demak Kingdom has since split into two kingdoms, the Surakarta and Yogyakarta (Wahyuni 2004: 1). The Festival is still held in both cities but I am focusing on Yogyakarta.



The Sekaten Festival begins at midnight on the 5th day of the Javanese month Maulud (Indonesia Embassy 2004). The abdi dalem, or royal servants, start the ceremony by bringing two sets of Gamelan to the Grand Mosque (Indonesian Embassy 2004). The Gamelan are orchestra instruments that are popular in Indonesia (see figure 4). The gamelan orchestra typically consists of sets of bronze gongs, drums, flutes, string instruments that are both plucked and bowed, and metallophones (Northern Illinois University 2004). The Indonesians believe that by listening to the Gamelan, they will be blessed with a good life and youthfulness (Northern Illinois University 2004). The Sekaten Festival uses the Kyai Nogowilogo and the Kyai Gunturmadu, which are two sets of Gamelan, exclusively (Northern University 2004). Therefore, the two sets are only played during the Sekaten. The Gamelan are played continuously for six days until midnight of the 11th day of Maulud, when they are brought back to the palace (Northern Illinois University 2004). The Gamelan are extremely important in the overall function of the festival, as their music attracts many non-Muslims to the mosque.

            The final day of the Sekaten Festival is the birthday of Muhammad and it takes place on the 12th of Maulud (Soedarsono 2004: 4). It is by far the most colorful and eventful day of the festival. The day begins early in the morning with a parade of the palace guards throughout Yogyakarta (University of New Orleans 1997). The palace guards are dressed in bright and lavish uniforms (Indonesian Embassy 2004). Following the parade, large rice cones with vegetables attached to them, called Gunungans, are taken from the palace to the Grand Mosque to be blessed (Indonesian Embassy 2004). The Gunungans are then distributed to the thousands of cheering people who have lined the streets. The crowd makes it their goal to obtain a piece of the Gunungans because they are believed to be sacred objects with spiritual power (Indonesian Embassy 2004). This final day is called Gerebeg Maulud, as Gerebeg is defined as the noise produced by the cheering people and Maulud is the month in which it takes place (Indonesian Embassy 2004). The distribution of the Gunungans marks the end of the Sekaten Festival. 



javanese.jpg (31453 bytes) Figure 4: A Gamelan orchestra of Indonesia.  Source: Dr. Han Kuo-Huang,




Prognosis for the Sekaten Festival

Although the Sekaten Festival was founded on religious principles, its quick growth in the past half-century can be attributed to the economic benefits it produces for its host city Yogykarta. Multiple changes have been made in the last decade to further allow the festival to produce greater economic benefits to the area. For example, the Sekaten Night Market is usually a month long market in Yogyakarta in which local farmers sell their crops directly prior to the actual Sekaten Festival. This year however, the market was extended an additional week to accommodate the larger number of visitors expected (Wahyuni 2004: 1). The Sekaten is now advertised by Indonesian tourism companies. And since the Sekaten converts people to Islam, the festival has grown in popularity for many years now. The festival should only become larger each year as it brings tourists and non-Muslims as well as major economic benefits to Yogyakarta.



The Sekaten Festival is a celebration of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad as well as, most importantly, a way for Muslims to show outsiders the greatness of the religion and to convert outsiders to their religion. The festival is anticipated year-round by locals and non-locals alike and is a major portion of Yogyakarta’s economy. It is a social leveling celebration that includes much prayer, art, and music. From the Gamelan performances to the parade of the palace guards, the Sekaten attracts all people together to celebrate and spread Islam.


Internet References Cited

  • “Indonesia: Country Studies.” Federal Research Division. 2004. Library of Congress. 11 Oct. 2004.  This site was made by the Library of Congress for the purpose of research by the public.

  • “Indonesia.” The World Factbook. 2004. Central Intelligence Agency. 15 Sep. 2004. This site gives general information (political, economical, geographical, etc.) about countries.
  • '“Indonesian Gamelan” Center for Southeast Asian Studies. 2004. Northern Illinois University. 13 Oct. 2004. This site was made by Northern Illinois University for public research on Southeast Asian culture.
  • “Indonesia’s National Holidays” Permias Nola. 1997. University of New Orleans. 13 Oct. 2004. This site was made by the University of New Orleans and was designed as an educational resource.
  • “Java: Yogyakarta” Yogyakarta Special Province. 2004. Indonesian Embassy to the Royal Kingdom of Netherlands. 13 Oct. 2004.                             This site was made by the Indonesian Embassy to the Royal Kingdom of Netherlands.


Peer-Reviewed References Cited

  • Dorson, Richard M.

    1982   Material Components in Celebration. In Celebration: Studies in Festivity And Ritual. Victor Tuner, ed, pp. 33 – 57. Smithsonian Press, Washington.

  • Gennup, Arnold van

    1960  The Rites of Passage. 1909. Reprint Edition. London: Routledge and    Kegan Paul.

  • Soedarsono, Dr. R.M.

    2004   Ritual Performing Arts in the Court of Yogyakarta Past and Present     Faculty of Cultural Services. Gadjah Mada University. 12 Oct 2004.

  • Rieffel, Lex

    2004  Indonesia’s Quiet Revolution in Foreign Affairs. pp. 98-111. Foreign    Affairs, New York.

  • Turner, Victor, and Edith Turner

    1982  Religious Celebrations. In Celebration: Studies in Festivity and Ritual. Victor Tuner, ed, pp. 201-219. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington.

  • Wahyuni, Sri.

    2004     A Short History of the ‘Sekaten’ Festival in The Jakarta 18      Oct. 2004.


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