Indonesia's Cap Go Meh celebration

Mike755 By Mike755, 26th Jan 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Travel>Asia>Indonesia>Java

Held in Indonesia annually, Cap Go Meh is a Chinese traditional celebration that marks the final part of the Chinese New Year (Imlek) festivities. Cap Go Meh is observed when the first full moon appears 15 days after Imlek. In Indonesia, Chinese New Year is of the country's many national holidays.

Nationwide, spectators and participants alike enjoy this colourful event

Cap Go Meh is celebrated in towns and cities throughout the country and starts off around noon with a parade featuring a variety of Barongsai (lion) and Liong (dragon) performances. The parade also includes an array of traditional Indonesian performances appropriate to the regional culture. Traffic is rerouted for the day and thousands of spectators throng the streets to watch and enjoy the celebration. On occasions scuffles arise between two different Barongsai, especially if a senior Barongsai feels he hasn't been shown proper respect from a junior, which should kneel and bow (kowtow) to the senior. These brief and good-natured scuffles add to the excitement.

The giving of alms

Along the route, the Chinese residents give the Barongsai an envelope containing money. Known as 'ampau', the alms are used for charitable activities conducted by Buddhist temples (bioh), particularly the distribution of rice and other staple foods to the needy. The distribution of rice usually takes place shortly after Cap Go Meh.

A celebration with ancient origins

This annual street festival has its roots in southern China, from where most Chinese Indonesians originated. The term Cap Go Meh comes from the Hokkien dialect and literally means '15 days or nights after the Lunar New Year'. In Chinese culture it is believed that the gods come out of the heavens on the 15th day of the year to grant wishes and spread good fortune among all people. Cap Go Meh was originally celebrated as a tribute to the god Thai-yi, who was considered the supreme god of the sky by the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 221 AD).

Colourful lanterns and fireworks after dusk

There is no set time for the Barongsai and Liong to return to the temple in the evening. And even after the lion and dragon performances are over, the celebration continues well into the night with fireworks and firecrackers, and colourful Chinese lanterns providing illumination. During this one-day celebration the old and the young are "required" to have fun.

Special food and prayers round off the celebration

A special ball-shaped cake called Yuan Xiao is prepared for the celebration. Made from rice flour, Yuan Xiao is an important part in the festival as it symbolises family unity, one of the main themes in celebration of the Lunar New Year. There is also a special dinner with all the family gathered together, followed by an offering of prayers for protection to Buddha, the Bodhisattvas and to the God of Protection for harmony, welfare, success, good fortune and a long life.

Barongsai - the Lion Dance

Barongsai is a traditional dance form from China that over the centuries spread to many South-east Asian countries with Chinese communities. In a lion dance two performers in a lion costume mimic a lion's movements. The colours of the costume and head are often bright and cheerful, but some are dark and mysterious. Many of the lion dance movements can be found in most Chinese martial arts. Some of the very old Barongsai are said to be inhabited by ancestor spirits and are prayed to and taken care of very carefully so as not to offend the spirit.

Performed during the Chinese New Year and other cultural festivals, the lion dance may also be performed on other important occasions such as the opening of a business, a wedding ceremony or to honour special guests.

Driving away evil spirits

Lions are not native to China and it is almost a certainty that the lion dance did not originate in China but may have been introduced into the country by Indian or Persian traders during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). The first live lions in China are believed to have been presented to the Han Court by emissaries from Central Asia and the Parthian Empire. Lions have since been associated with Buddhism ever since that time. An early Chinese text records that a parade for a statue of Buddha of the Changqiu Temple was led by a lion to drive away evil spirits.

Liong - the Dragon Dance

In China, the dragon is held in high esteem for its supernatural power, goodness, fertility, vigilance and grace. Although supposedly fearsome in appearance, the dragon has a benevolent disposition, and for this reason came to symbolise imperial authority.

Like the lion dance, the dragon dance is often part of a festive celebration. The dance is performed by a team of dancers who manipulate a long flexible figure of a dragon using poles positioned at regular intervals along the length of the dragon. The dance team mimics the movements of this water spirit in a fast-moving and fluid manner. The movements in a performance usually represent the dragons demonstrating their power and dignity.

The longer the dragon, the more luck it will bring

From head to tail, the dragon is a long serpent shaped body on poles. It can be as long as 25 to 35 metres, and on some occasions up 70 metres. Dragons are believed to bring good luck, therefore the longer the dragon, the more luck it will bring. The dragon has a colourful body section and an ornamental head and tail. Traditionally, the dragons were quite heavy due to their being constructed from wood, with bamboo hoops on the inside and a heavy fabric covering. Today, in some places aluminium and plastics are quite commonly used in the construction to make the dragon lighter and easier to perform with.


Ampau, Barongsai, Bioh, Cap Go Meh, Dragon, Imlek, Indonesia, Lion, Liong

Meet the author

author avatar Mike755
Moving on. Goodbye!

Share this page

moderator Mark Gordon Brown moderated this page.
If you have any complaints about this content, please let us know


author avatar Mike755
27th Jan 2014 (#)

Thank you Mark Gordon Brown for moderating this article.

Reply to this comment

author avatar Mark Gordon Brown
27th Jan 2014 (#)

I have not heard of the Cap Go Meh Celebration in Indonesia so thank you for sharing this information and wonderful pictures.

Reply to this comment

author avatar Mike755
27th Jan 2014 (#)

My pleasure Mark Gordon Brown. Indonesia has many celebrations, some known worldwide and some only locally. Cap Go Meh is known throughout China and Southeast Asia and in Chinese communities worldwide.

Reply to this comment

author avatar Sivaramakrishnan A
27th Jan 2014 (#)

Well written, in depth, with good images too, thanks Mike. The capital city of Jakarta has more Chinese influence though they are a minority. Chinese are quite superstitious with elaborate rituals for mourning the dead that lasts for days. They believe in honoring the spirit of the departed - siva

Reply to this comment

author avatar Mike755
27th Jan 2014 (#)

Thank you for your nice comments, Siva. You are correct of course in what you say about Chinese influence in Jakarta, particularly with regard to the economy. My children (now adults) grew up as part of a famous barong, liong and martial arts group in our local bioh. My wife, although Sundanese, is also a member of the group. Which illustrates how much the Chinese community has integrated into the indigenous pribumi community, especially during the past two decades. As you say, the Chinese are very superstitious. With the blending of Chinese and pribumi traditions, the cultural transformation is becoming very interesting. Barong and liong are an example. They are no longer just the realm of the Chinese community. Pribumi barong and liong groups have sprung up throughout the country. Likewise, Chinese martial arts groups are taking up the traditional Indonesian martial art, silat.

Reply to this comment

author avatar Sivaramakrishnan A
29th Jan 2014 (#)

Good to read about co-existence and amalgamation of cultures, Mike. I was also amused when I became aware many Muslim women carried Hindu goddesses names like Lakshmi and Saraswati. I like to share my view no single religion, belief, has a monopoly of wisdom. We should try to understand where others come from rather than blindly believe only the ones we are born into. Then our world will transform eventually into a much better place based on understanding and acceptance - genuine unity in diversity, a stepping stone to Age of Enlightenment - siva

Reply to this comment

Add a comment
Can't login?