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The Role and Meanings of Banana Plants in Javanese Culture

Learning about my own culture had been motivating me to conduct a continuous private investigation that led to academic research on it since several years ago. As a Javanese, I grew up with rituals surrounding birth, life milestones, and death. To investigate further, I initiated a field research in June – July 2015 about the role and meanings of banana plants in Javanese culture because of its wide usage in Javanese daily life and traditional customs. Java Island, as a home to 57 per cent of the Indonesian population, dominates Indonesia politically, economically, and culturally. Javanese people are generally described as community of Javanese descendants who understand and regularly speak Javanese language. Even in modern days, Javanese people still lives up to traditional knowledge despite wherever they reside nowadays, including the involvement of banana plants in every rituals or daily necessities. My field research focuses on the roles and utilization of banana plants in Javanese traditional culture and life-event ceremonies such as the traditional bathing ritual called “siraman” in weddings, and baby shower ritual called “mitoni”, etc.

My research interests concerning with Javanese cultural heritage has guided me to understand more deeply about the close bond between people and their environment, mainly in utilizing local plants in every aspects of their life events and traditional knowledge. This field research in 10 June – 11 July is intended to take the lead as an initial study in understanding the values of banana plants in Javanese culture. Indonesia with its diverse cultural resources and sustainable materials also tend to hold a significant role in revitalising and preserving the traditional crafts, which also motivates me to study about how to utilize local plants, particularly banana plants, with its cultural values in modern life.

In Javanese traditional culture concerning with life events from birth to death, local plants such as banana and coconut always exist in various ways and meanings, whether functional, philosophical, religious, or social. So far, there is still lack resources or documents about the topic, particularly about banana plants since it is only commonly known in the sphere of intangible culture and traditional knowledge, i.e. being used in Javanese culinary traditions and certain customs in traditional rituals, not as a means for permanent structure such as bamboo and wood for housing or transportation. Thus, this topic is a good start to understand the passed on traditional knowledge concerning with banana plants in Javanese people’s socio-cultural events.

The first purpose of this research is to investigate the close bond between Javanese people with banana plants throughout their life events, by focusing on its philosophical value alongside with functional and socio-cultural values. Banana plants have abundant availability in Java, thus they are being utilized in many ways from cultural events to traditional crafts

The second purpose of this study is to understand and reveal the meaning of banana plants in Javanese traditional knowledge, either in culinary culture, plant-based medicines, traditional rituals in Javanese women’s pregnancy, birth, childhood, coming-of-age, etc. In order to obtain data on this scarcely documented issue, several significant informants for this research are the “pemaes” or the wedding shaman, the “pranatacara” or the master of ceremony in Javanese rituals, and also elderly Javanese people. In the field research, I interviewed a “pemaes” who understands the Javanese rituals concerning with wedding, pregnancy and post-pregnancy events. She suggested me to conduct an in-depth interview with the “pranatacara” in my next field research. According to her, the “pranatacara” has wider knowledge and wisdom about the meaning of every customs, provisions and requirements for various Javanese traditional rituals. 

The third purpose of this study is to develop and generate ideas in utilizing banana plants with its values in modern life, either in design and craft, or culinary culture. Thus, I also interviewed a manager of a modern restaurant managed by Yogyakarta municipality, which offers traditional Javanese recipes derived from “Serat Centhini”; one of Indonesia’s oldest surviving manuscripts consists of 12 volumes, dating back to 1814. According to the restaurant’s employee, the demands for traditional Javanese foods are high even in this modern day. Banana is one of the main ingredients for Javanese traditional recipes, and they also use banana leaves to serve foods appropriately.

From this initial investigation, I found a lot of potentials of banana plants that can be utilized with collaborative cooperation between educators, students, craftsmen, and public. By understanding the values of banana plants in cultural events and utilize them as renewable materials with traditional values, I’m hoping to bring the essence of traditional culture in modern era.  (M.D.P.)

Image 1. (Thumbnail) Banana plants of variety “King Banana” in traditional Javanese wedding ceremony (Source: the writer’s pre-wedding ritual called “siraman”, February 2015)

Image 2. Interview with a “pemaes” or wedding shaman specialized in traditional Javanese wedding ceremony (18 June 2015) 

Image 3. Interview with an employer in “Warung Dhahar Pulosegaran”, Tembi Village, Yogyakarta, Indonesia (15 June 2015)

Image 4. Javanese traditional foods made of banana, served on banana leaf in “Warung Dhahar Pulosegaran”, Tembi Village, Yogyakarta, Indonesia (15 June 2015)