Home People & Culture of Indonesia Living on more than 17,000 islands, the Indonesian nation today counts some 200 million population comprising more than 200 ethnic groups. After Independence in 1945 inter-marriages among people of different ethnic groups have welded the population into a more cohesive Indonesian nation.
The majority of the population embraces Islam, while in Bali the Hindu religion is predominant. Whereas in areas like the Minahasa in North Sulawesi, the Toraja highlands in South Sulawesi, in the East Nusatenggara islands and in large parts of Papua, in the Batak highlands as well as on Nias island in North Sumatra, the majority are either Catholics or Protestants. On the whole the Indonesian people are religious in nature.
And, true to the Pancasila, the five principles of nationhood, - namely Belief in the One and Only God, a Just and Civilized Humanity, the Unity of Indonesia, Democracy through unanimous deliberations, and Social Justice for all - Indonesian societies are open and remain tolerant towards one another’s religion, customs and traditions, all the while faithfully adhering to their own. The Indonesian coat of arms moreover bears the motto: Bhinneka Tunggal Ika – Unity in Diversity.
Although today’s youth especially in the large cities is modern and follow international trends, yet when it comes to weddings, couples still adhere to traditions on the side of both the bride’s and bridegroom’s parents. So in a mixed ethnic wedding, the vows and wedding traditions may follow the bride’s family’s, while during the reception elaborate decorations and costumes follow the groom’s ethnic traditions, or vice versa. Weddings and wedding receptions in Indonesia are a great introduction to Indonesia’s many and diverse customs and traditions. Weddings are often also occasions to display one’s social status, wealth and fashion sense. Even in villages, hundreds or even thousands of wedding invitees line up to congratulate the couple and their parents who are seated on stage, and then enjoy the wedding feast and entertainment.
The Arts and Celebrations
The Indonesian archipelago harbours many ancient cultures that are rooted here, while throughout its history through centuries until today the islands have been influenced by Indian, Chinese, Arabic and European cultures, and lately also by the global popular culture, international travel and internet. Foreign cultures and traditions, however, are absorbed and assimilated by the people producing unique “Indonesian” creations found nowhere else in the world.
On 2 October 2009, UNESCO recognized Indonesia’s “Batik” as World Intangible Cultural Heritage, adding to the earlier recognized Indonesia’s “Keris” (the wavy blade dagger), and the “Wayang” shadow puppets. Further being considered as World Heritage is the “Angklung” bamboo musical instrument from West Java, being uniquely “Indonesian”.
Indonesia’s culture is indeed rich in the arts and crafts. In textiles, Sumatra produces some of the best gold and silver-thread woven sarongs, known as songket; South Sulawesi women produce colourful hand-woven silks, while Bali, Flores and Timor produce some of the best textiles from natural fibers using complicated motifs. In wood craft, Bali’s artisans produce beautiful sculptures, as do the Asmat in Papua, both traditional and modern, Central Java’s craftsmen produce finely carved furniture, while Bugis shipbuilders of South Sulawesi continue to build the majestic “phinisi” schooners that ply the Indonesian seas until today.
The large variety of different cultures and traditions throughout the country is also expressed in numerous exciting and interesting events, both religious and popular, that are held throughout the year. (See Calendar of Events).
Among these are the colourful religious Hindu Dharma ceremonies held continuously on Bali, the court processions during Sekaten in Yogyakarta, Java, preceding the birth date of the Prophet Mohammad, as well as the Tabot Festival in Bengkulu, Sumatra, a ceremony commemorating the role of Prophet Muhammad’s grandchildren, Hasan and Husein in spreading the faith. The Buddhist Vaisak Ceremonies are held yearly around Borobudur, as is the Chinese Toa Peh Kong festival in Manado, while the Feasts to the Dead are held in Toraja, both latter on the island of Sulawesi, and the Kasada ceremony is held annually at the end of the year on Mt. Bromo in East Java, the appease the ancestors and the mountain gods.
Then there are the exciting simulated tribal wars in the Wamena valley of Papua, the bull races on the island of Madura held as thanksgiving after the harvest, as well as the “nyale” festival in Lombok, to collect the sea worms that appear here each February only, and many more events on all islands. And to top it off is the event of complete silence called “nyepi” in Bali, the day of meditation for the entire island, when all lights, fires, sounds, including planes and cars are barred for 24 hours! The Balinese have mooted that “nyepi” becomes an international tradition that will greatly reduce pollution and global warming.
Indonesia is also strong in the performing arts. The beautiful Ramayana dance drama is enacted during the dry season at the large open stage at Prambanan near Yogyakarta under a tropical full moon and against the dramatic illuminated background of this 9th.century temple. Indonesia’s dances are colourful, dramatic or entertaining. They vary from the highly synchronized “saman” song and dance from Aceh, to the sedate and sophisticated court dances from Java accompanied by the liquid sounds of the gamelan orchestra, to the war dances of Kalimantan, Papua, and Sulawesi.
Chinese influence can be seen along the entire north coast of Java from the batik patterns of Cirebon and Pekalongan, to the finely carved furniture and doors of Kudus in Central Java, as also in the intricate gold embroidered wedding costumes of West Sumatra.
But Indonesia does not live in the past alone. Today, in music, in metropolitan Jakarta, the Java Jazz Festival is the annual meeting highlight for top international and Indonesian jazz musicians. Indonesia also boasts some of the best rock and pop bands and singers. Bands like Nidji, Ungu, Slang, Peter Pan and singing celebrities like Rossa, Agnes Monica, Kris Dayanti, Pasha, Ari Lasso, and many others, never fail to create a sensation wherever they appear in Indonesia as also in Malaysia and Singapore.