The unique sonic and visual character of each palace gamelan is acknowledged by it being given a personal name preceded by the honorific “kangjeng kyahi” (from “ingkang panjenengan kyahi,” “the venerable one,” hereafter abbreviated K.K.). The name of a palace gamelan is written in Javanese script on the back side of the set’s gong agengs.

The names of palace gamelan sets incorporate Javanese and Old Javanese (Kawi) words. Our translations of palace gamelan names cannot possibly capture the often obscure, oblique, and invariably multiple connotations these names may evoke in the minds of individual Javanese. Most of the names will not make sense in their English translations, but this in large part is due to the strong possibility that they, in their original Javanese form, are thought of more in terms of how they sound rather than what they mean literally. It is significant to point out that many of the palace gamelan names include words that are in common with those found in the names and titles of members of the aristocracy. Thus, aristocratic names and gamelan names both draw heavily on words from the literary language of Java’s past, Kawi. Such vocabulary carries with it an aura of antiquity and an association with nobility. Javanese aristocratic names are not meant to be translated literally nor are they intended to reflect the personality of the individual given the name; they are social markers intended to sound aristocratic and to immediately make clear to all Javanese that the carriers of such names are of high status. There is very likely a parallel to be found with the names of the gamelans--sets with archaic, aristocratic sounding names are identified with the social elite.

Many of the words that appear in the names of the palace gamelans--madu (honey), harja (comfortable, prosperous), negara (kingdom), kusuma (flower, beautiful, aristocracy), puspa (flower), nadi (river)--are also common components in the names given to the progeny of the Sultans of Yogyakarta. The court-conferred names of the wives of Sultans have an almost entirely separate vocabulary of components some of which are also found in the names of palace gamelanssih (in love), sari (essence, beauty, flower), murti (body, entity), and mulya (noble). Daughters of Sultans generally married the high-ranking men in the palace bureaucracy called bupati. These men, many themselves descendents of royalty (often one generation removed from a Sultan, i.e., children of princes and princesses), carried rank titles such as tumenggung, riya and panji preceding their palace given names. A few gamelan sets that are or have been in the possession of the palace are named with these terms of rank.

Three archaic gamelans attributed to the reign of the First Sultan (1755-1792) include the Kawi word 'guntur' meaning, variably, 'to fall' (as leaves do from trees, or soldiers do in battle) or 'thunder.' Although neither definition works well with all of the other components to which it is attached in the names of the three sets to produce comprehensible translations--laut (sea), madu (honey), and sari (essence, beauty, flower)--it is perhaps again the archaic sound of the word and its association with a powerful natural phenomenon (thunder) or with bravery (falling in battle) that made it an appropriate choice for the names of ceremonial gamelans some two-hundred-fifty years ago. Further references to symbols of power and warfare are brought together in the names of other gamelans also dating from the reign of the First Sultan: naga (snake, dragon, elephant) and laga (war, battle) for the gamelan sekati K.K. Nagawilaga; maésa (water buffalo) and ganggang (separated combatants) for the gamelan kodhok ngorèk K.K. Maésaganggang; surak (a cry or shout of encouragement, or perhaps a battle cry) for the gamelan sléndro K.K. Surak, which was supposedly taken into battle by the First Sultan. Collectively, the names of the gamelan sets associated with the First Sultan suggest an emphasis on a martial lifestyle, and indeed the First Sultan is characterized as having been a great warrior. Even the one set from his reign that has no martial references in its name--the gamelan pélog K.K. Kancilbelik; kancil (mouse deer), belik (pond or pool)--actually is associated with his military exploits, but this connection will be explored later.

The names bestowed upon palace gamelans draw upon a circumscribed vocabulary of archaic words that resonate certain cultural ideals valued by members of the Yogyanese aristocracy: refinement, beauty, power (especially military prowess), potency, sensuality, prosperity. These gamelan names partake fully in a complex network of social and symbolic associations that are an integral facet of Javanese court life.