Nasi Tumpeng – Its Meaning and Function

By on 2 February 2012

“This is an extract paper from my Design History & Theory assignment during my study in COFA, University of New South Wales


      1. SYMBOL
      1. SELAMETAN
      2. MOUNTAIN
      3. RICE
      1. OPEN MINDED



The purpose of this paper is to focus on the morphology of a traditional Indonesian feast used in many communal rituals, Nasi Tumpeng (conical yellow rice). Although there has been many articles written on selametan ritual, little can be found on Nasi Tumpeng. The notion of selametan expresses the notion of thanksgiving, blessing and grace. It is held to celebrate rites of passage and promote a sense of community. This paper argues that even though Nasi tumpeng is only a component from selametan ritual, it is arguably provides more context in a wider areas than selametan ritual.

The first part of the paper unpacks and explores the traditional Nasi Tumpeng. It provides a deeper insight into the core concept of Nasi Tumpeng as a ritual feast in terms of its aesthetic, value, function and meaning. Nasi Tumpeng has more meaning than simply a meal or a recipe. Instead it is an account of a traditional ritual feasts that reflects Javanese culture and way of life. The second part, will discuss the significance value and changes of Nasi Tumpeng in contemporary context. Through this analysis, a greater depth of understanding on Indonesian food culture will be achieved.




Symbol is a complex and ambiguous term. It works the opposite of sign – where it is more universal and not related to culture. Symbol is an arbitrary specific sign. It can only be understood in a context where it is interpreted by that culture per se[1]. Rodney Needham defines symbol as something which explains or acting as a referent in different culture[2]. Symbol is created from the mutual agreement in associating certain facts or ideas[3]. According to Cassier, symbol is a part of human’s semiotic (homo symbolicus), and we use it for communication[4].  In relate to its function , Rodney Needam[5] mentioned that social symbols are not merely to mark or enhance the importance of what is symbolized, but also to evoke and sustain an emotional commitment to what is declared to be important in the social group. In Nasi Tumpeng case, it is the sustaining of Javanese way of life.


Within groups, rituals and ceremonies are nearly always marked by the use of food. For all groups, foods are served to convey social information as a marker consistently on every occasion of any significance.  Food is commonly used as a symbol for communication as eating is the most basic activity for all social codes to continue its physical existence[6].

Humans need to sleep, eat, pass out and have sex for the physical continuance existence. Sleep is the daily life activity that humans could not possibly control. Where as food is a tangible thing. It can be controlled and chosen for everyday desire.  To some, the choice or variety of food is a dispensable act to counter the boredom of taste in everyday life meal.

Food serves equally as a form of communication tool within a particular group and as a marker of the boundary between various sorts of groups[7]. Food’s most significant social function is to serve as an indicator of various sorts of social identity, from region to ethnicity, from class to age or gender. Being concrete, foods serve to objectify relationships between individuals and groups. Therefore social relationships are developed and maintained by the use of food symbolism[8] .


Understanding Javanese symbolism is like watching wayang play (shadow puppet). To the Javanese, watching wayang is more than entertainment that involves the 5 senses. It is the art of picking up hidden symbols from the wayang story.[9] Like the phrase extracted from a famous Javanese folksong:

If you want to penetrate reality, be involve in symbolism[10]

Reflecting at the meaning of symbol itself is not enough, to understand a symbol one has to experience it. This concept is called ‘rasa’[11]. The Javanese concept of rasa is: to feel and experience the truth with common sense and intuitive inner feeling in order to achieve wisdom. It is where the real world becomes inconsequential and symbolism became real[12]. Javanese symbolisms create a new reality where the objective of the real world and our senses perception becomes illusionary. They are ambiguous and distinct personalized. Daily personal experience makes a person understand and appreciate the true meaning of Javanese symbolism. Experience of each individual is different from one another. (e.g. how can we measure happiness/sadness?) It is from this concept that Javanese symbolism is very hard to be articulated.


Nasi Tumpeng is not a recipe, but instead a symbolic account of a traditional ritual feasts, selametan. The notion of selametan expresses the notion of thanksgiving, blessing and grace. It is held to celebrate rites of passage and promote a sense of community.

Many Indonesians believe that life is determined by external forces; a person can not surpass the conditions that life has set. Most Western cultures believe that man’s challenge is to conquer and control nature. A westerner may believe that a good grain harvest is the result of climatic conditions, fertilizer and pesticides. A Javanese farmer may just as surely believe that the harvest is a result of following the properties and ceremonies to maintain harmony with nature. The difference in opinion as to whether man is the master of nature is subject to nature carries over into the workplace. In Indonesia, there is a strong belief in Karma, fate, and the natural order of the universe which resulted to particular business problems. Where as for Westerner, trying to determine and understand a situation required rational and logical thinking.


There is a common view in most of anthropologists studying Java that selametan lies in the heart of Javanese religion[13]. As Geertz put it, the centre of the whole Javanese religious system lies a simple formal, undramatic, almost furtive little ritual: selametan[14] .

Such rituals are held at one’s important landmark or occasion. It varies from the rite for the living, to birthday and funeral. Each ritual has a different rule which depends on its occasion (i.e. location, attendee, dress code and type of Nasi Tumpeng). For an example in funeral selametan Tumpeng Pungkur is used(Refer to APPENDIX 1). Whereas in marriage, selametan Tumpeng Robyong is used (Refer to APPENDIX 2).  and in pregnancy selametan Tumpeng Nujuh Bulan is used(Refer to APPENDIX 3).  The differences between these tumpengs are the shape and decorative components which symbolises different meanings according to its occasion.

In Tumpeng Pungkur (for funeral), the conical shape of the tumpeng is being cut into half. This symbolises the separation of the dead and the alive.  In Tumpeng Robyong (for marriage), the Tumpeng is surrounded by the garden of vegetables (i.e. cucumber, long bean, red onion, cabbage, carrot which means the blossom of relationship.  Tumpeng Nujuh Bulan (for pregnancy women during the 7 months) uses 7 conical shapes of tumpengs. They symbolise the first seven critical stages of pregnancy and being adapted with a Hindu epic.

The Hindu epic is the reconciliation of the universe after being destroyed by Shiva, the Hindu God of Destroyer. Every component of the story becomes the ingredients for Tumpeng Nujuh Bulan. The selected ingredients being used are essentially the ingredients that are good for pregnant women and eventually be used to bless the safety process during the pregnancy.

In this particular epic, God of Shiva stirred 7 oceans which surround Mount Meru. Mount Meru or Mount Sumeru is a sacred mountain in Hindu and Buddhist mythology which is considered to be the centre of the universe. It is believed to be the abode of Brahman and other deities of all religions. The name Mount Semeru[15] portrays the immensity and sacredness of the mountain. The condition surrounding the mountain became disorder. This is represented by the random disseminate of the dishes surrounding the rice tumpeng. These dishes are placed randomly to represent the uncertainty in one’s life but with hard work and perseverance everything is hoped to go smoothly. Meanwhile on top of the mountain the sizzling fire is represented by red chilli. Red chilli is a symbol hoping that our pray is successfully heard by God.

Kalakutha poison[16] is represented by red onion – a remedy ingredients used in many Asian dishes. Amertha water[17] is symbolises with terasi – condiment made from pounded and fermented shrimp or fish. Terasi are used a lot in Indonesian and Malay food for good digestion.  After this process, Amertha water fills the vase from its base. This is represented by cooked egg that is still inside its shell which symbolises the birth of life[18].


Since the 9 – 15th century, Javanese kingdom has been influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism[19]. They relied on agriculture for the kingdom’s survival. Almost all of them are located near to a river, valley or volcanic mountains[20]. One of the reasons is the soils in these areas are very fertile. Most of the populace are farmers that live, work and cultivate in the rice field.  This became a surplus and trading expanded towards the neighbourhood country as far as Vietnam and Papua Island.

Hinduism came to Java through Brahman, as a result of triumphant trading with Northern India[21]. The religion was welcomed warmly by the Javanese kings. Eventually the new culture was adapted into the Javanese royal family and bred into the culture of the native people. For instance, the notion of king as the reincarnated god was influenced by Hinduism.

Another Hindu concept is the believed of mountain as a holy sacred place. In Hinduism, mountains are the portals where earth meets the heaven. These mountains are mostly mentioned as gods’ kingdoms or the centres of supernatural powers. In Hindu term, conical shape also refers to Brahma (the creator), Visnu (the protector) and Shiva (the destroyer). (Refer to APPENDIX 4).  This concept has been adapted and developed well since the period of Javanese pre historic animism. Moreover, the idea was fitted favourably by the fact that Java is located at the epicentre and surrounded by many mountains. Geographically, this concept developed Java as a very holy place.


In Indonesia, as well as in Asia, rice is the main crop or basic cultivated food; therefore Nasi Tumpeng is being stressed in the aesthetic form. While meat acts as a complimentary ingredient. Plants and meats are both representatives of the realms of plants and animals – these are the other two living things on earth. The conical shape of Nasi Tumpeng and the base resemble a mountain and its fertilized area. The rice and the dishes are resting on briars in a basket which symbolises the counter-act from mounds of misfortune[22]. Every single ingredients dishes and ingredients used has different meanings.

In Asian cultures, rice is strongly associated with women and fertility. They believe in a female rice deity[23]. Even today, many still make offerings and practice rituals to honour her. Religious ceremonies have been conducted mainly for assurance of rice; praying for the land’s fertility and good harvest.

In some rituals, a symbolic body of the Rice Mother is made out of straw and serves as the marker which is then tied to a straw latticework and attached to a vertical bamboo stick so that the marker can stand upright in a special corner of the rice field. Offerings of Nasi Tumpeng, betel nut, white homespun cotton cloth, jewellery are placed next to the marker by a priest. This practice has so far been maintained by the Kejawen practitioner[24] in keeping their indigenous religious belief system and rituals despite the fact that they are a minority ethnic group, living on a majority-Muslim island.



The purpose selametan is to achieve the state of slamet. Selametan comes from the adjective word ‘slamet’; a direct translation for ‘safe’. Koentjaraningrat once described ‘slamet[25] as the state in which events run their fixed course smoothly and nothing untoward will happen free from hindrances of both a practical and spiritual kind.

To achieved the state of ‘slamet’, a cosmological balanced must be achieved. One of the ways is by offering. Offering acts to create a balanced between these forces. Offering is the most important means of maintaining good relationship with the invisible power, who guard the inhabitant. Offering also acts a gift to express one’s gratitude’s to one’s ancestors, deity and demon spirit. It is about hospitality – welcoming and honouring ancestors and gods.

The best ingredients from earth are selected and transformed into recreation as beautiful as possible. The foods are well prepared to delight not only the taste, but smell and sight. The decorated foods and decorations go beyond aesthetic value to please the eye. It is a symbolic process to show a gratitude to God for what he has given to us: food, peace, knowledge and our existence. It is hoped that when they are presented to God, He will gladly happy to receive it.

The extent of intricacy of offering depends on the cultural background. Most of the people in Balinese are good in art and craft. Thus Balinese emphasize the aesthetic beauty on the ritual offerings as to compare to the Javanese[26]. Where as Javanese’s offerings emphasize on the meaning and symbols. Javanese as mentioned by Beatty are philosopher, they would not adapt to any culture unless they really understand the meaning and reasons behind it.


Offerings help the prayers to acknowledge their realms, how, where, and with whom do they lived. The use of natural products is an acknowledgement about what makes life possible in the form of offerings.

Most of the elements used are the structural representative of how the universe works. For example: the use of chicken represents the land, and fish represents the sea. Within individual dishes, there is a hidden message. For instance, the number of numerous fish bone in milkfish symbolises the number of luck. Catfish which live in a low riverbed symbolises humbleness. It is also a reminder that if we want to have a good career prospect, one has to start from scratch. Salted fish, a type of fish that live together, symbolises the need to help each other. Kangkung, a kind of amphibious vegetable, symbolises that as human we have to be flexible.  Long beans, by it nature grow long, symbolises longevity and patient. Bean sprout, due to its unique process, it is used as a symbol of creativity. As a whole when these dishes are served together, they became a story with messages and advices.

Colour, being the most important element in aesthetic after shape, is used a representative medium. In Javanese each day is represented by different colours, called the Primbon (Refer to APPENDIX 5).  Most Javanese people uses Primbon to set up a new house, preparing a new life, marriage and other daily livings; a similar concept to the Chinese FengShui. For instance, when the day is yellow in colour, it represents gold, prosperity and wealth; it is a good day for opening a new business. Colour also acts as awareness to human character. For an example red represents anger, green represents jealousy, yellow represents greed.



In selametan ritual, after the food has been prayed or purified with prayer. The communal must eat the food[27]. The whole idea is to tell them (i.e. ancestors, god, and deities) that they are sharing the same world (and food) and become a part of cosmological order. Communal meal creates a state of rukun (social harmony); which is the prerequisite for effectively evoking the blessing of gods, spirits and ancestors. Through this, it is believed that well-being and equilibrium can be maintained in the cosmology life. As mentioned by the study by Noesjirwan (1978), Indonesians are committed to being friendly and open. Bonds between friends and family are deeply rooted.  This is particularly demonstrated by the success of the selametan ritual.

Selametan promotes a state of rukun among the participants[28] . Rukun means social harmony. The making of such harmony, is the prime social value in village life. In everyday affairs it is achieved by the mutual adjustment of differing interests among villagers through a process called musywarah (tolerance)[29].

In the selametan, rukun is enhanced by several means. Firstly, it is by being taking part of the ritual itself.  Participation implies to sharing of joys or sorrow of the occasion. Participants are required to contribute to the costs and labour of the occasion (e.g. preparing dishes).They are not chosen on the basis of group identity, personal preference, or like minded-ness; they are either neighbours or kin as the occasion demands.

Elaborately, Asian’s notion of food communal varies from preparing it with one another, sharing on one table and eating peacefully together. One of the radical example is Gerebeg. (Refer to APPENDIX 6) It is one of the major events in city of Yogyakarta, Indonesia. This event is being held every Satu Sura[30]. The Yogyakarta king will hold a ritual with his high priest in his palace. Nasi Tumpeng as big as human sized, is prayed one night before the New Year’s Eve.  Depending on the occasion, sometimes there will be as many as five Nasi Tumpengs prepared. All these will be offered to God and ancestor. This Tumpeng consists of food-like vegetables, peanuts, red peppers, eggs, and several delicacies from sticky rice. It is mountain shaped and symbolizes the prosperity and wealth. The next day after the Tumpeng had been created; it would go in a procession and being escorted by the high-ranking court servants. The 2 hours procession would start from the palace parameter to the heart of the city.  Upon reaching the heart of the city, the people who have been tailing the Tumpeng will chase after it. They will take a bit of the tumpeng and bring it home for themselves and their loved ones.  This ritual is held to symbolizes the king’s (being the messenger from God) sympathy, care and concern towards his people.


Another way of achieving the state of rukun is by the success of the selametan itself. It is a process of temporary synthesis of disparate elements and ideologies. Selametan compromise disparate meanings and in itself subject to its intrepretator[31]. Between orthodox Muslim and Kejawen practitioner the priority of symbols and ritual acts are different. For an example, to a pious Muslim a pray is more important but to Kejawen practitioner, a ritual talk on ethics and moral is more important and being emphazized.

People of different orientation gathered together because they find a common ground. They discovered both what unites them and what can be focus for the divergent interest (i.e. social compromise). This is done by means of multi-vocality symbols[32]. This structure is made to reduce friction between the different followers. Different variety of ideologies can be accomodified in a form of ritual; pantheist and monotheist can gather and pray together; acting the same way even though owning different mindset/ideology.  The resulting syntheses are a temporary accommodation in which participants are not required to abandon their position and think alike. Nobody subscribes to the whole packages of ideas associated with the selametan; and nobody rejects outright a rival interpretation. Moreover underneath the differences there are commonalties – a sense of common humanity, a need, for rukun (social harmony), a desire to share in the occasion. The need for rukun motivates participation in the selametan and the syncretism of the selametan transforms ideological differences into rukun[33](social harmony).

In selametan case, the difference in ideology and symbolic expression, acts as denominator rather than as indexes of difference. The more ambiguous and polysemic the more resonant and focal the symbols, and the greater its integrative power. Ambiguity as Empson has shown can function with some precision when employed as a stylistic device. The symbolic range of the selametan, far from being unlimited is specified by traditional imperative techniques and by reference to restricted sets of ideas.



Javanese are open minded and dynamic people. This can be seen from the Javanese culture itself. Inescapably If Javanese culture is being compared with other Asian culture there bound to be a lot of similarity. (e.g. the yellow rice in  Nasi Tumpeng is similar to Indian Briani yellow rice)Indonesia has been dealing with trades as long as 3th century[34]. The culture has been enriched and modified since then. Ideas and cultures often exchanged – keeping the old elements but changing the motivation[35].

One example, after the Hindu Kingdom was over taken by the Muslim kingdom, poets and scholars did not simply adapted Sufism blindly. Islam became Islam Kejawen. It was the effort to keep the glory of the Hindu Kingdom[36]. Islam only believes in one God but Islam Kejawen is a blend between both animism and monotheism. Javanese strongly believe on the same God although they acknowledge on different religion.  As a result the basic concept of Hinduism did not extinct but existed together with Islam.  The old culture was enriched and developed to create a new Javanese indigenous characteristic. It can be said from this phenomenon, Javanese symbols are full with sub-layers meaning and paradoxes[37].


Javanese as mention by Mulder, they do not believe in pure chances. Everything is related to each other. The ideas of coordination, revealing form (symbol and sign) and the absence of pure chance appear in all Javanese lifestyle[38]. In symbol’s interpretation, there is a strong abstract, physical: linguistic and form relation. Through this symbol, kebeneran (coincidence) knowledge is transmitted from a non-physical reflection[39]. It is an expression that goes from linguistic, colour and symbol.

The use of egg in Nasi Tumpeng is associated with infinity and wisdom. Telur (egg) has the same spelling as telu(three). IN this case, three means prepare, do and perfect.  Tumpeng is associated with the word ‘tumpang’ which literary means to stay temporary. This word is very appropriate to reflect the Javanese way of life. They believe that our life is like staying in a boat going to another destination (i.e. there’s another life after our death). Therefore what we do in this life, will affect our future life (karma) and we need to be contented and be thankful for what God has given to us.


Whilst average Javanese are having a simple and modest living, most of the indigenous Javanese cultures are actually originated from them but not the upper class. Economical factor actually pushed majority Javanese to be an adaptable society. It is not everyday that average Javanese society could have the luxury to eat meat and rice. Lower grade rice, cassava or tapioca becomes the substitute. Unlike now, the prices of meats and rice are cheap due to the mass production stringed of high technology process to breed the poultry. When one has a sheep or cow, the Javanese would rather breed and sell it. They will spend the money that they get for other necessities (i.e. education, to buy clothes, build house).Thus this is the reason that Selametan is only held during festival occasions.

An anthropology studied conducted by Tjetjep has recorded about a poor village in central Java that was holding a Tingkeban selametan[40].Tingkeban selametan required the organizer to provide chicken meat to all the attendee. Due to economic factor, the symbolic use of chicken was adapted amusingly. Instead of serving the chicken meats for all the attendee, the organizer organized a contest of seizing over a tennis ball. The winner from this competition will receive a chick as a prize.  Through this indigenous symbol adaptation, the poverty tension that they experienced can be minimized through games and activities that allow them to stress off from their poverty situation. This symbolic adaptation is what Levi strauss called as the significance of transforming natural object into a cultural one. The contest is being input with meaning and is transformed from a normal contest into a cultural indigenous contest.

Similarly, most of the local foods come from the ‘survival food’. The substitution way of survival food becomes indigenous food. For an example ‘tempe’ and ‘rice cracker’ are Indonesian’s favourite foods which are made from leftover rice and soya bean.



Javanisation has a long history. Javanese kingdom has been ruling almost all part of Indonesian island and as far as Vietnam since the 7th Century. Civil war and Dutch 350 years of colonization[41] made Javanese kingdom losing its territory. Until the end of War World II, together with other colonized country, Indonesia declared its independence. Every colonized country was struggling to secure their independence through Nationalism[42].Nationalism represented the main site of anti-colonial resistance. The new nations that eventually emerged from nationalist struggle and the elite negotiated transfer of power turned the ‘state’ into the embodiment of the Nationalist movement despite the fact that the new nation state was erected directly on the foundations of colonial power[43]. Pancasila ideology was used as a Nationalism medium by Sukarno, the first Indonesian president[44].

Pancasila is a set of principles designed to allow cultural diversity but promote national unity[45]. The five principles of Pancasila include Belief in God, National Unity, Humanitarianism, People’s Sovereignty, Social Justice and Prosperity.(Refer to APPENDIX 7) During this era, there was a big argument over the use of Pancasila. It was a struggle against the Nationalist[46] opposing the orthodox Muslims who want to declare Indonesia as a Muslim country. The idea of Muslim state was strongly opposed since Indonesia doesn’t consist 100% Muslims. Even if majority are Muslims, most of them are not purely Muslims. Pancasila ideology was used to stresses the usefulness to avoid both Javanese and Islamic dominance and the need to be a more diverse and yet inclusive Indonesian society. Sukarno presented it in terms of a traditional Indonesian society in which the nation parallels an idealized village in which society is egalitarian, the economy is organized on the basis of mutual self-help (gotong royong), and decision making is by consensus (musyawarah-mufakat). In Sukarno’s version of the Pancasila, political and social dissidence constituted deviant behaviour.

After the Cold war, Sukarno’s power was overthrown by Suharto. Under Suharto National Liberation, Nationalism turned to authoritarianism Nationalism. The New Order regime[47] transferred Pancasila from a doctrine aimed at the inclusion of diverse ideological ethnic and religious groups in the national collective into a weapon to be used against a dissenter of all kinds. Suharto modified the old Pancasila view. Suharto was bolstered by the use of a powerful shifting synthesis of national symbols and the ideas drawn from Javanese history which often stressed the ostensibly organic character of Indonesia nation. It was to the extent that one of the criticisms of his version of the Pancasila was that he tried to Javanize it by asserting that the fundamental building block of the Pancasila was the ‘ilmu kasunyatan’ (highest wisdom) that comes from the practices of Kejawen. Pancasila became a propaganda tool – by harsh way (use of army) or the lenient way (Pancasila became a compulsory subject in subject curriculum).

One typical example of the act of Javanisation is the museum Purna Bahkti Pertiwi. (Refer to APPENDIX 8) Suharto made an exaggerated and expensive tumpeng shaped museum. Inside the museum, thousands of his antiques collection ranging from 7th century Javanese dagger to a 15th century priceless Chinese jade are being displayed. In the Javanese belief, to collect these antiques is believed to accumulate sakti (cosmic power). In Javanese mystical belief, if a ruler want to secure his power, he has to as to obtain these objects.

Not only had the contents of the museum served to accumulate sakti but also the form of the building itself. Tumpeng is the main dish during selametan ritual; requesting for bless. The use of tumpeng shape also applies to secure the well-being of the ruler and the whole country. The more controversial part, this museum is located at the Taman Mini Indonesia Indah(TMII) in Jakarta. This place has been critised and discarded by many scholars as a political post-colonial state propaganda tool[48].

Another apparent way to Javanize Indonesia was through electing Javanese as high government and army officials. The act of Javanisation is also supported by the government transmigration scheme – migrating Javanese to other part of Java. Slowly Javanese constitute by far the largest ethnic group, and cultivate a high awareness of culture of their civilisation.

The notion of Javanese rukun and helping each other (gotong royong) was also used by Megawati, Indonesia’s fourth President. She named her cabinet ‘gotong royong’ (helping each other). The term Tumpeng has also been used as a expression.

…because, when that happen, it can be said that our elite politic still have the ‘kenduri mentality’ which regard power as a kind of ‘Tumpeng’ which have to be shared among supporter…

(­etak/0108/08/opini/agen28.htm, Yusuf Hasyim – Megawati menjadi Presiden Aug 9 2001, 3:48 am)

As a result Javanese culture has influenced other ethnic. This cultural richness carries within itself certain dangers; internal ethnic conflicts are common and the dominance of Java has until now endangered the national unity of Indonesia.


Due to Javanisation, slowly the practice of Selametan and the use of Nasi Tumpeng became popular among Indonesians. It become as what is known ‘syarat’ (pre-requirement) in any ritual. All religion started to use Nasi Tumpeng for their religious ceremony or events. Practically in any event or ritual Nasi Tumpeng is used. The original meaning and value slowly be forgotten by the mass that ironical still use them but don not have much ideas about the meaning and values.

Originally the purpose of selametan was merely used for offerings and respecting God, whereas in today capitalism world the ritual is now being conducted for a personal request such as for business purposes, career or even to bless a new house or car[49]. Under the traditional Kejawen teaching, burning incense was a medium to god/spirit. After Kejawen was influenced by Islam teaching, burning incense is now used to embrace the smell and to be able to concentrate fully during prayers[50]. Food such as Nasi Tumpeng was once acted as a symbolic offering, now only become a complement/supplement to the ritual. Nasi Tumpeng from the same basket was supposed to be shared among each other. Due to practical reason, the practice is no longer carried out. Lunch boxes containing yellow rice and dishes are already prepared for the attendee. Nasi Tumpeng can also be purchased easily through catering. This method was carried out to replace the hustle and bustle of taking and making Nasi tumpeng. Unfortunately, the initial intention of ‘interacting with other people’ is merely forgotten.

Nasi Tumpeng case is a global phenomenon. Capitalism, Westernisation and Modernization have ruined world indigenous culture. In order to maintain these cultures, great financial and emotional support is required. A wayang pupetter (shadow puppeteer) earned very little money he they cannot even support himself, needless to say their family. Lack of pride and little pay forced the young generations to take on other job.

After the 1998 economy crisis, the value of local products and local currency was declining. A campaign by Indonesian government was held to support ‘Rupiah’ (Indonesian currency) and ‘Local Product’. Protections towards local products are still considered ineffective. It is often that products get imitated by certain group for economical benefit. As a result, there is a lack of confidence and pride from those local product manufacturer as well as local customers; making local products infamous.

Unlike their indigenous culture such as music, dance and poetry which they cherished; foods rarely have never seemed to develop into a real gourmet culture. Many Indonesian do not take a pride on their food. One of the many reasons is, most of these foods came originally comes from peasant and not a court cuisine.  A clear example is ‘tempe’. It is sad that this indigenous local food was patented overseas by a profitable company.

Rijstaffel a Dutch term for rice table that was copied to impress their guests by showing off the variety of foods available in Indonesia, thus an assortment of dishes is offered at the table.  The Indonesian rice table is famous for its abundance of delicious side dishes spread out across the table along with rice. The Indonesian version only serves 5 to 20 dishes whereas the rijstaffel could potentially serve up to 100 different dishes on the table.  Nasi Ambeng[51] which originated from Java, Indonesia, was being popularized by the Johor kingdom.

Although there are some effort by the community council in the 1970’s to preserve Nasi Tumpeng, this had created a backfire effect instead. Community council organized Nasi Tumpeng competitions in order to preserve this indigenous culture. Ironically the judging criteria are based on aesthetic value – since the judges themselves do not understand the symbolic notion of Nasi Tumpeng. Participants were adding a lot of decorations into Nasi Tumpeng (Refer to APPENDIX 9). As a result the significant value of Nasi Tumpeng is lost.


The notion of Nasi Tumpeng has been taken by the Indonesian professor (Minister of Health) in the 1960s to promote the basic human health nutrients. Nasi Tumpeng was used as to promote healthy nutrients, mainly because of the physical look with food pyramid.

The Indonesian Food guide called “Empat Sehat, Lima Sempurna” meaning “Four is healthy and five is excellent” was created by Poerwo Soedarmo, the father of nutrition in Indonesia in the1950s.  At that time, the guide had four food groups that were illustrated in a large circle. Categorized groups within this circle were staple foods, vegetables, fruit, and meat/fish. The food group milk was later added to the middle of the food guide circle so that the daily dietary pattern would be “excellent” rather than just “healthy”. (Refer to Figure 1)

Slowly the food guide was changed to a pyramid shape rather than a circular shape. This shape is more familiar with Indonesian who has already known Nasi Tumpeng. In 1992, the Indonesian Food Pyramid comprised 3 stages. Staple foods such as rice, tapioca, corn, yam and bread were placed at the lowest level, followed with vegetables and fruits in the middle, and meat and fish at the top[52]. In 1994, another stage was added to become the highest level. This stage consists of dairy products, coconut milk, fats and oils.  With this new stage added to the food pyramid, confusion occurred among the Indonesians (Refer to Figure 2).

This confusion was associated to the Indonesian tradition of eating Nasi Tumpeng. Nasi Tumpeng is served at every party or ceremony where the host or owner of the house serves the tip of the cone to his/her loved ones. The recipients are considered honored.  If the Nasi Tumpeng concept was applied to the food pyramid, products high in saturated fat, trans-fat and cholesterol would become considered “honored”.  In 1996, to avoid this confusion, the National Health Department added serving sizes on each stage[53](Refer to Figure 3).

Despite numerous revisions of the food guide and the food pyramid, there are ongoing challenges for health professionals to educate Indonesians across the country. Ruslan Adji (1988) reported that “Empat Sehat, Lima Sempurna” may be well recognized by Indonesians, but some foods such as milk and vitamin supplements may not be accessible. Also, poverty and lack of community participation contributes to greater obstacles in Indonesian health promotion.




For the past 500 years Asia has fallen into the hand of European Imperialism. One of the successful Asian countries that have successfully challenges the Western world is Japan. The intention motive why Japan succeeded is inevitably complex. One of the often overlooked factors is the physiological mindset. In 1905 when Japan defeated Russia, a white power, it unintentionally provided a tremendous psychological boost to anti-colonialism.  If not the vast majority, then at least the emerging educated elites of non European countries. For the first time, conceive of the possibility that colonial subjugation was not necessarily a permanent condition, a state of nature. It gave a psychological boost and all around the world (Africa, Asia and Pacific).[54]

The success of Japan’s framework is nicely written by Kenji Ekuan who wrote the book entitled ‘The Aesthetic of Japanese Framework’. The book shows that the Japanese lunchbox is both object and metaphor. He sees lunchbox as nothing less than a key to an understanding of Japanese civilization, the spirit of form, and the aesthetic ideal in which the many are reduced to one.

The concept of unpacking Nasi Tumpeng is similar to Japanese lunch box. It reveals in general about the current situation and characteristic of Indonesia. It is the time where the country is predominantly controls and works by the Javanese ideology in the country’s political and economical system. Nasi Tumpeng like has been described has achieved the notion of rukun by compromising to differences through symbolism.

Nasi Tumpeng is an intangible cultural heritage that is the essential source of an identity deeply rooted of Indonesia’s social aesthetic values. Unfortunately, its manifestations are in danger and disappearing. The main reason is the use of Nasi Tumpeng practice is rapidly being replaced by a standardised international culture, fostered not only by socio- economic ‘modernisation’ but also by the tremendous progress of information. The intangible nature of this heritage also makes it vulnerable. Even more effective would be to ensure that the bearers of the heritage continue to acquire further knowledge and skills and transmit them to the next generations. With that aim in mind, heritage must be identified and given official recognition.

One apparent thing that can be learned from Nasi Tumpeng; although there has been a simplification of communal celebrations in the various cultures of Indonesia, is the belief in and respect for the power of nature still strongly remains.


Anas Saidi (ed.), 2004, Menekuk Agama, Membangun Tahta – Kebijakan Agama Orde Baru (Trans: Bending Religion, Building Throne – Religious Policy in New Order) Depok: Desantara

Anasom (ed.), 2004, Merumuskan Kembali Interlasi Islam-Jawa (Trans: Re-formulating the Interrelation of Islam- Java), Semarang: Gama Media

Andrew Beatty, 1999, Varieties of Javanese Religion: An Anthropological Account, Cambridge, New York, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press

Berkoff, Nancy, 2003, Indonesian Cuisine, Vegetarian Journal, July Issue

Clara Brakel, Journal: Asian Folklore Studies. Volume: 56. Issue: 2, Article Title: Sandhang-Pangan for the Goddess: Offerings to Sang Hyan Bathari Durga and Nyai Lara Kidul.

Clifford Geertz, 1960, The Religion of Java, Free Press

Cohen Anthony, 1985, The Symbolic Construction of Community, Chichester, London, New York : E. Horwood Tavistock Publications

Empson, 1955, William. Seven Types of Ambiguity, New York: Meridian  <>.

Eric Crystal, 2004, The Art of Rice: Symbol and Meaning in Southeast Asian Village Tradition

Ernst Cassirer, 1962, An Essay on Man : An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture Yale University Press; Reprint edition

Firth, R. 1973. Journal: Food Symbolism in a Pre-industrial Society. Article Title: Symbols: Public and Private, pp. 243261. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y.

Gunarto, 2005, Korupsi di Masyrakat Asia (Trans: Corruption in Asia Community), Newspaper:

Suara Merdeka p9 18, Semarang: Suara Merdeka

Hildred Geertz, 1961, The Javanese Family –  A study of Kinship and Socialization, Free Press

Inger Sigrun Brodey, 1999, Journal: Mosaic Volume: 32. Issue: 2, Article Title: Not What We Read but How: Where T.S. Eliot Meets Clifford Geertz,. University of Manitoba, Mosaic, Pp. 75  <>

James Dananjaja, 1984, Folklor Indonesia – Ilmu, Gossip, Dongeng,dan lain lain (Trans: Indonesian Folklore – Science, Gosip, Myth and others), Jakarta: Grafitipers

John Monaghan & Peter Just, 2000, Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction, New York: Oxford University Press

Juju Juyenty (ed.), 2005, Indonesia: The Island of Spices, Toronto University

Koentjaraningrat, 1989, Javanese Culture, Singapore: Oxford University Press

————,1999, 18th edition, Manusia dan Kebudayaan di Indonesia (Trans: People and Culture in Indonesia), Jakarta: Penerbit Djambatan

Keith Loveard, 1999, Suharto – Indonesia Last Suharto, Singapore: HorizonsBooks

Kishore Mahbubani, 2004, 3rd edition, Can Asians Think?, Singapore: Times Edition

Leo Suryadinata (ed.), 2000, Nationalism and Globalization – East and West, Singapore:

Institute of Southeast Asian Studies

Levi-Strauss G, 1963, Structural Anthropology (Vol. 1, G. Jacobson & B. G. Schoepf, Trans.).

New York: Basic Books <>

Mark Beeson (ed.), 2004, Contemporary Southeast Asia – Regional Dynamics, National Differences, New York: Palgrave Macmillian

Niels Mulder, 1997, Inside Indonesian Society: Cultural Change in Java, Amsterdam: The Pepin Press

———–,1998, Mysticism in Java – Ideology in Indonesia, Amsterdam: The Pepin Press

Noesjirwan, J. (1978). A Rule-Based Analysis of Cultural Differences in Social Behaviour: Indonesian and Australia. International Journal of Psychology. 13(4), 305-316.

Pam Allen, 2001, What gifts did Aussie prime ministers bestow on President Suharto? <>

Powers W. K., & Powers M. M. N, 1984, Journal: Metaphysical aspects of an Oglala food system. In M. Douglas (ed.), Article: Food in the social order: Studies of food and festivities in three American communities <>

Rio Helmi and Leonard Lueras, 1992, Offerings – The ritual Art of Bali, Singapore: Select Books

Ruslan Adji, 1988, Nutrition education and behaviour change project, Indonesian nutrition improvement programme <>

Semijadti Purwadaria (ed.), 2002, Aneka Kreasi Nasi Tumpeng (Trans: Variety Creation of Nasi Tumpeng), Jakarta: Gramedia Pustaka Utama

Sihotang, S. (2002). Empat Sehat Lima Sempurna Telah Disempurnakan. (Trans: ‘Four Healthy,Five Perfect’ has been Perfected <>

Sri Owen, 1995, Indonesian Regional Cooking, New York: St Martin’s Press

Suryo S.Negoro, 2001, Kejawen – Javanese Traditional Spiritual Teaching, Surabaya: CV. BuanaRaya

———–, 2001, Kejawen – Membangun Hidup Mapan Lahir dan Batin (Trans: Kejawen– Developing an Appropriate External and Inner Self), Surabaya: CV. Buana Raya

Sufi.S.Y, 1998, Trampil Membuat Aneka Kreasi Tumpeng (Trans: Creative in Making Variety of Tumpeng), Jakarta: Gramedia Pustaka Utama

Suwarna Pringgawidagda, 2003, Upacara Tikeban (Trans:Tikeban Ceremony), Yogyakarta: AdiCita

Tjetjep Rohendi Rohidi, 2000, Ekspresi Seni Orang Miskin (Trans: The Expression Art of Poor Community), Bandung: Nuansa

Udo Becker, 1992, The Continuum Encyclopaedia of Symbolism, New York: Continuum

Vedi R. Hadiz and Daniel Dhakidae (ed.), 2005, Social Science and Power in Indonesia, Singapore: Equinox Publishing

Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz, 1993, Semiotics and Communication: Signs, Codes, Cultures, Hillsdale, NJ:Lawrence Erlbaum Associates



[1]Agar, M Ethnography and Cognition. Minneapolis, Minnsota: Burgers Publishing 1974, Umberto Eco 1978, A Theory Semiotics, Bloomington: Indiana University Press Back To Top

[2]Leach Edmund 1976, Culture and communication, Cambridge: Cambridge: Uni press Back To Top

[3]Turner Victor 1966, pg 19 The forest of symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca and London: Cornell Uni Press Back To Top

[4]Ernst Cassirer, 1962, An Essay on Man : An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture,Yale University Press; Reprint edition pp. 48 Back To Top

[5]Rodney Needam, Symbolic Classification Santa Monica, California, Goodyear Publishing company inc. 1979. pp. 5 Back To Top

[6]Firth, R. 1973. Journal: Food Symbolism in a Pre-industrial Society. Article Title: Symbols: Public and Private, pp. 243261. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y. p.p 260 Back To Top

[7]ibid: p.p 273 Back To Top

[8]ibid: p.p 275 Back To Top

[9]Op cit: Anasom (ed.), 2004, Merumuskan Kembali Interlasi Islam-Jawa (Trans: Re-formulating the Interrelation of Islam- Java), Semarang: Gama Media, p.p 91 Back To Top

[10]Op cit: Beatty Andrew, Journal: Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 2.2 (1996): 271, Article Title: Adam and Eve and Vishnu: Syncretism in the Javanese Slametan. (Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 1996. p.p. 271-288) <> Back To Top

[11]Although this concept sounds identical to tabula rasa, to a certain extent the concept of rasa is different. To find out more a bout the concept of rasa refer to: Niels Mulder, Mysticism in Java – Ideology in Indonesia (Amsterdam: The Pepin Press, 1998) p.p 42 Back To Top

[12]ibid: p.p 53 Back To Top

[13]see: Beatty Andrew, Adam and Eve, p.p. 222 Back To Top

[14]Although Nasi Tumpeng is only an account from selametan ritual, Nasi Tumpeng symbolises more than Javanese religious system.  It symbolises Javanese culture Back To Top

[15]The Javanese adapted the notion of holiness and named the highest mountain in Java Mount Semeru. Back To Top

[16]Kalakutha poison is produced at the churning of the ocean swallowed by Shiva which causing the blueness of his neck. It symbolises untruth or illusion. Back To Top

[17]Amerta water is the water that is drank by Gods for eternity. In Nasi Tumpeng context, Amerta water symbolises sperm and human eggs Back To Top

[18]Rumah Dokumentasi Budaya – Sajen Tumpeng Robyong ( Back To Top

[19]Op cit: Koentjaraningrat, 1999, 18th edition, Manusia dan Kebudayaan di Indonesia (Trans: People and Culture in Indonesia), Jakarta: Penerbit Djambatan p.p 23 Back To Top

[20]Through Hinduism influence, mountainous areas are believed to be a good place for civilisation. The existence has been proven by archaeology from looking at the old Javanese temple ruin. See: Koentjaraningrat, 1999, Manusia & Kebudayaan p.p 46 Back To Top

[21]Hindu was initially introduced to Javanese royal family. It was then spread through throughout the kingdom. Where as Muslim teaching propagated from the normal people then slowly to the royal family , See: Koentjaraningrat, 1999, Manusia & Kebudayaan p.p 21 Back To Top

[22]see: Beatty Andrew, Adam and Eve Back To Top

[23]In Java and Bali she is called Dewi Sri whereas in Northern Thailand, she is called  Mae Ku’sok which is known as “Rice Mother” or “Rice Maiden” Back To Top

[24]Islam is a monotheist and Kejawen is pantheist. Kejawen is the religion of the traditional Javanese. It is a mix of Hinduism,Budhism, and Jawism (original animism religion) Back To Top

[25]op cit: Koentjaraningrat, Javanese culture, Singapore, oxford university press, 1985 Back To Top

[26]see: Beatty Andrew, Adam and Eve, p.p. 323 Back To Top

[27]Op cit: Rio Helmi and Leonard Lueras, Offerings – The ritual Art of Bali (Singapore, Select Books, 1992) Back To Top

[28]Clifford Geertz, The Religion of Java (Free Press, 1960) p.p 61 Back To Top

[29]see: Niels Mulder, Mysticism in Java,  p.p 85 Back To Top

[30]According to Javanese Calendar, Satu Suro refers to the first day of the Year Back To Top

[31]Intreperator refers to the communer which are the typical pious Muslim and Kejawen practitioner Back To Top

[32]see: Beatty Andrew, Adam and Eve Back To Top

[33]I am describing something more precise and systematic than the diffuse significance of community symbols astutely analysed by Colen.  The selametan recruits overlapping sets of neighbours and is emphatically not about group identity or boundary markers. (Cohen 1985 , 20 –1, 55 Cohen, A.E 1985, The symbolic construction of community) Back To Top

[34]see: Koentjaraningrat, 1999,, Manusia Indonesia p.p 38 Back To Top

[35]see: Anasom (ed.), 2004, Merumuskan p.p 11 Back To Top

[36]ibid p.p 37 Back To Top

[37]Islam believes in the concept of one God whereas Kejawen believes in animism and gods. Back To Top

[38]see: Niels Mulder, Mysticism in Java,  p.p 42 Back To Top

[39]see: Anasom (ed.), 2004, Merumuskan p,p 99 Back To Top

[40]Op cit: Tjetjep Rohendi Rohidi, 2000, Ekspresi Seni Orang Miskin, Bandung: Nuansa p.p 276 Back To Top

[41]Asia was part of wider process of the use of capitalism and industrialization of Western Europe. See: Mark Beeson, 2004, Contemporary Southeast Asia. Back To Top

[42]The ironic that nationalism itself is a western ideology Back To Top

[43]Dirks, 1992, Introduction: colonialism and culture in NB. Dirk (e.d) Colonization and culture (Ann Arbor University of Michigan Press) Back To Top

[44]Pancasila, is a Sanskrit word for The Five Principle. The concept was adapted from a Java-Hindu-Budhist concept. Back To Top

[45]This motto is known as ‘Bhinneka Tunggal Ika’ which is taken from old Javanese language and is often loosely translated as ‘Unity in Diversity’ but literally it means ‘(Although) in pieces, yet One’. This is a quotation from an Old Javanese poem written in Indian metres, the so called kakawin or kawya. This poem in question is kakawin Sutasoma, written by Mpu Prapañca during the reign of the Majapahit empire somewhere in the 14th century.This poem is particular as it propagates the tolerance between Hindus  and Buddhists. Back To Top

[46]Nationalists consist of moderate Muslims(which are often called the abangan), non-Muslim and non-Javanese ethnic Back To Top

[47]The term ‘New Order’ regime refers to Suharto’s 30 years of  authoritarianism regime Back To Top

[48]In order to secure a sort of permanency, a highly visible concrete structured with political intention is build. (Keith Loveard, 1999, Suharto – Indonesia Last Suharto, Singapore: Horizons Books) For an extended discussion of Taman Mini Indonesia Indah and the New Order’s and to recreate an essentialised Javanese court culture in Indonesia see John Pemberton (On the Subject of Java; Ithaca: Cornell University Press, p.p 208, 1994) Back To Top

[49]see: Anasom (ed.), 2004, Merumuskan. p.p.13 Back To Top

[50]It is a sin for a Muslim to pray to other than Allah (i.e. other gods or spirit). Although the practice has been adapted by Muslim influence, Hinduism still retains in the traditional Javanese culture. See: Clifford Geertz, The Religion of Java Back To Top

[51]Nasi Ambeng has a similar function and meaning as Nasi Tumpeng. For Nasi Ambeng is an account of Kenduri ritual, a Muslim communal feast. The difference between Nasi Ambeng and Tumpeng can be seen in its physical form. Nasi Tumpeng, prioritize rice while Nasi Ambeng prioritized the food. This indirectly changes the food symbolic meaning. Back To Top

[52]Sihotang, S. (2002). Empat Sehat Lima Sempurna Telah Disempurnakan. (Trans: ‘Four Healthy,Five Perfect’ has been Perfected) <> Back To Top

[53]Ibid Back To Top

[54]Kishore Mahbubani, 2004, 3rd edition, Can Asians Think?, Singapore: Times Edition, p.p 56 Back To Top

Reader's top 10 incoming search terms:

hiasan tumpeng, gambar nasi tumpeng, nasi tumpeng, gambar tumpeng, model nasi tumpeng, model tumpeng, hiasan nasi kuning, window grills catalogue pdf, windows grill design for home pdf, menghias nasi kuning

About f3nd1

One Comment

  1. Pingback: The Tumpeng’s Philosophy | isalisil's blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>