In the hills of Sumedang, West Java, every time a horse dances, a boy becomes a man.
I was in Sukagalih Village, a small community about 56 kilometers outside the city of Bandung, one night before six-year-old Dani Ramdan Sentosa made the transition from boyhood to manhood himself. The entire village was already in his mother Elawati's front yard preparing for a lavish party celebrating Dani's circumcision with food, music, and a parade of dancing horses.
A boy's circumcision is a special moment throughout Muslim communities in Indonesia, but it's extra special in Sumedang, where the tradition of kuda renggong—or dancing horses—reigns supreme. Local tradition requires a boy's circumcision, typically done between the ages of 5 and 12, to culminate in a massive party led by a band of garishly costumed horses that dance, bob, and weave to the music.
It's something that carries deep meaning to women like Elawati. But it also carries a pretty hefty price tag. The entire party can cost as much as Rp 20 million ($1,451 USD). That kind of money could be used to get her child into a state university, or save up for a trip to Mecca. But Elawati told me she didn't have much choice in the matter—her son, who she calls Dede, has been asking for a kuda renggong since he was old enough to talk.
“Dede would say every time there’s a kuda renggong, ‘Mama, I want to get circumcised, but only if I get the horse,'” she said. “I was sad but also proud. I don’t mean to boast, but throwing a circumcision ceremony with will bring me peace as a parent. It means I’m successful as a parent.”
Elawati was clearly a popular figure in her village, a woman who was able to pool all her neighbors to help out with the celebration. She was eager to invite me into her home, explaining the details of tomorrow's festival in a mix of Indonesian and Sundanese—the local language of West Java (a language I, thankfully, also speak as a daughter of Bandung myself).
She had saved for this moment for two years, squirreling away as much of her husband's salary as a construction worker as she could each month. She supplemented this savings with her own side business selling homemade karedok—a peanut sauce salad popular throughout West Java. And even then, Elawati still had to borrow some money from her family and friends to make her son's dream of a dancing horse circumcision party a reality.
"Honestly, we’re not all that well off," she told me. "My son wants this so bad, but our jobs don’t cover it. We had to borrow money. If we waited until we have enough savings, Dani would already be too old to be circumcised.”
The concept of pamali played a big part in why Elawati was so adamant that her son had to be circumcised with a kuda renggong party. Pamali is a Sundanese term for promises that cannot be broken. If she was unable to keep her word to her son and provide him with the party he wanted, it could bring about bad fortune for her family in the future.
It was far too important a moment in her young son's life to chance doing it wrong.
"After circumcision, a little boy can read the Quran," Elawati told me. "He can go to the mosque with his brothers. Every Friday, he wants to tag along to the mosque. But some say that, if I’m not mistaken, uncircumcised Muslims aren’t allowed to enter the mosque.”
But the cost of ceremonies like kuda renggong also raise uncomfortable questions about their impact on society. Local traditions still hold powerful sway over people's lives in some corners of Indonesia, but they also can act as a kind of tax, a barrier that can keep people trapped in their economic circumstances.
We've investigated the economics of traditional beliefs before, then focusing on the incredibly high cost of funerals in South Sulawesi's Toraja community. There, a single buffalo can cost as much as a brand new car, and the biggest funerals sacrifice dozens of these animals in a massive festival that predates Christianity's arrival in Sulawesi.
In both Toraja's funerals and Sumedang's circumcisions, families are spending money that could be used for their children's education, or to invest in a new business, to keep tradition alive. But there's a magnetism to these kinds of traditions that keeps people locked in place. When something is so intrinsically tied to your identity and your position within society, it's hard to stop, regardless the cost.
"Rituals like this can seem overwhelming to some people, but it's difficult for people to escape them because none of these events happen in a vacuum," explained Heddy Shri Ahimsa-Putra, an cultural anthropologist from Gadjah Mada University. "It's part of a bigger picture in society. You're not the only one investing in this ritual—others do it too, with their donations."
When it was time for Dani's circumcision, his entire extended family pitched in to cover the costs. And, later, when Dani is grown and his relatives' own children need to be circumcised, Dani will have to pitch in himself to repay his debt. And to break out of this cycle, to decline to pitch in for a traditional festival, could threaten someone's position within their community, Heddy explained.
"If someone wants to break away from that ritual, they have to leave the village," he said. "They have to cut ties with everybody and everything from the village. That’s the only way.”
The next morning I watched as Dani, adorned in an elaborate gold and red costume, his face coated in a layer of makeup, met his kuda renggong for the first time. The horse's name was Walet and it was a stunning black creature decked out in the regalia of royalty. Dani was shy when he saw the horse, acting awkward and holding back a smile. It's hard for a child so young to be at the center of so much attention, but, thankfully for him, he wasn't alone.
Four other children, between 2 and 12, were on their own horses in the parade. All the horses were males, a necessity according to Encling, a 86-year-old man who has been training kuda renggong since he was a young man.
"Renggong needs male horse,” he said. “If we use female horses, they get too turned on when they see the male horses next to them in the parade.”
A musician blew a trumpet and the horses began to dance, bobbing their heads and shuffling their feet to the music. The crowd worked itself into a frenzy. People started to throw wads of cash in the air while someone else collapsed, allegedly after being "possessed," by a spirit.
The festival would last until deep into the night, ending with Dani's circumcision. I found myself sitting outside a clinic an hour outside of town with Elawati while Dani waiting inside to be circumcised. There were at least 100 other boys waiting that night. Each of them would enter the clinic a child and exit a man.
Elawati was nervous during the wait and filling the time with nervous chatter about her son. She exploded into cheers when she saw her husband carrying Dani out of the clinic, remarking about how good of a boy her son was. Most of the kids exited the clinic in tears, each of them a bit traumatized by seeing a doctor snip their foreskins off. But Dani was almost stoic in his resolve, taking the entire event in stride.
"Alhamdulillah, he's healthy and alive," Elawati said. "My champ!"