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Indonesia History

Indonesian Textiles


For a very long time, Indonesia was considered the birthplace of humanity. This is because fossils of our early ancestors were first found on the island of Java. A skullcap, a femur (thigh bone), and a molar (tooth), discovered in 1887 by a young Dutch doctor named Eugene Dubois, came to be called the Java man. Java man was excavated near the village of Trinil along a bend in the Solo river in Java. Dubois named his discovery 'Pithecanthropus erectus' which means 'upright ape man.'It is believed that modern humans evolved from a group of hominids called 'Homo' which is Latin for 'human'. 'Homo' in turn probably evolved in Africa from its more ape-like predecessor called 'Australopithecus' around 2.5 million years ago. 'Homo' differed from 'Australopithecus' because it had a larger brain which made it capable of traveling across continents and exploring new lands. The Java man discovered in Indonesia, is believed to belong to one species of Homo known as 'Homo erectus'.The teeth and jaws of 'Homo erectus' are smaller than those of 'Australopithecus'. They did not need the powerful jaws which their ancestors used for grinding coarse vegetation and nuts. 'Homo erectus' is thought to have been an omnivore. If you look at the skull of 'Homo erectus' you will see that the rear of the skull housing the part of the brain associated with sight, is larger. Therefore erectus's vision must have been quite sharp. However the forehead is small suggesting that erectus was probably not capable of complex thought, reasoning, or imagining unlike modern humans. An adult 'Homo erectus' had a front brain the size of a one-year old modern human!From the neck down 'Homo erectus' resembles 'Homo sapiens' who are believed to be the ancestors of modern day humans. The rib cage was almost identical but narrower hips gave erectus greater speed in hunting. However, its speech was limited. Another characteristic of 'Homo erectus' is that this species was developing superior tools with which to kill animals. It invented the hand ax which could crush, cut, or batter, depending on how it was held.Other regions in Indonesia where erectus fossils have been discovered are:1. The Sangiran basin, near Surakarta.2. The town of Mojokerto, not far from the site where the Java man was discovered.The Java man belonging to the species 'Homo erectus' is believed to be a link between 'Australopithecus' which existed 3 million years ago, and 'Homo sapiens' existing 100,000 years ago to the present.


Indonesia consists of thousands of islands stretching from the Asian mainland into the Pacific Ocean. We can divide Indonesia into eight regions: Java, Bali, Sumatra, Nusa Tenggara, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Maluku, and Irian Jaya. Each region possesses a distinct history and culture.

The original inhabitants of Indonesia were animists. An animist is a person who believes that every object has a soul or life force. People from India and Burma began to migrate to Indonesia two thousand years ago. They were followed by people from China and Indochina. The Indonesian archipelago had abundant natural resources which made it attractive to foreign traders. Spices like cloves, nutmeg and mace which were very rare at the time also brought traders to the archipelago.

Hindu influence in Indonesia

Statues and inscriptions found across Indonesia show the influence of Hinduism and Buddhism on Indonesian culture over 1500 years ago. By the 7th Century, the Sumatran Hindu-Buddhist Kingdom of Srivijaya had become very powerful because it controlled the straits of Malacca between Sumatra and the Malay peninsula. The straits of Malacca is a strip of water through which all ships had to pass in order to go to China. It was therefore crucial for trade. On the island of Java, the Buddhist Shailendra dynasty and the Hindu Mataram dynasty were in power between the 8th and the 10th Centuries. These dynasties built the magnificient temples of Borobudur and Prambanan. The last important Hindu kingdom was the Majapahit Kingdom. Founded in East Java in 1293, its power was largely due to one of its early prime ministers, Gajah Mada.

Islam in Indonesia

Islam arrived in Indonesia by way of the trade route to China and the east. It first established itself in north Sumatra. The people of Indonesia at the time were Hindus or Buddhists with underlying animist beliefs. As with Hinduism and Buddhism, they incorporated aspects of Islam into their lives. As a result, Indonesian Islam today is very different from the more orthodox Islam found in parts of the Middle East.



Indonesia's Colonial History

Europeans were attracted to Indonesia by the valuable spices grown there. The first Europeans to visit Indonesia were the Portugese. About 400 years ago, the first Dutch traders arrived in Java. The Dutch government created a trading company called the VOC (the United East India Company) to unite and strengthen merchants in their competition with the Spanish and the Portuguese. After gaining control of shipping in the area, the Dutch destroyed clove and nutmeg plantations to restrict production and raise world prices of these valuable spices. This control was crucial to the formation of the Dutch East Indies, as the new colony came to be called.

In 1830, the Dutch began to force Javanese peasants to produce particular crops suitable for the European markets, including coffee, indigo and sugar cane. A portion of the peasants' land and labor was placed at the governments disposal instead of land rent. In many cases the land required from peasants was as much as a third or even half of their total land. Thus the Cultivation System, as it came to be called, was enormously profitable for the Dutch.

After 1848 the Dutch parliament attempted to reduce the burdens of the Cultivation System on the Javanese. By 1870, the government passed a law requiring that the cultivation of sugar cane be gradually withdrawn from the Cultivation System. At the turn of the century the Dutch parliament began to focus on educating the people of the Dutch East Indies. These policies produced a class of Indonesian elite which became increasingly resentful of European rule. In fact, the first Indonesian Nationalist movements of the this century originated directly or indirectly from these educational policies.

Nationalist Movements in Indonesia

The first truly mass movement in Indonesia was the 'Sarekat Islam' or Islamic Association. It attempted to unite villagers with the educated Indonesian elite. The PNI or the 'Partai Nasional Indonesia' was established in 1927 with the objective of achieving Indonesian independence. This party was led by Sukarno who was to become the first president of independent Indonesia.

During World War II, the Japanese invaded and occupied Indonesia. They were prepared to work with Sukarno and Hatta, the best known Indonesian nationalists, giving them permission to address gatherings of Indonesians. They also sponsored mass organizations based on Islam and anti-Western sentiments. In 1945 the Japanese set up a committee of Indonesian Nationalists, which outlined the geographic boundaries of a future independent Indonesia. It also laid the foundation of the philosophical basis which would underlie the social structure of the new state. This was embodied by the 'Pancasila' or 'Five Principles' defined by Suharto. These included:

1. Faith in God 2. Humanity 3. Nationalism 4. Representative Government 5. Social Justice The surrender of the Japanese in 1945 paved the way for Indonesian independence.



When the Japanese left Indonesia after the Second World War, supporters of the Indonesian independence movement filled the vacuum, and on August 31 established an Indonesian government with Sukarno as president and Hatta as vice-president. The efforts of the Dutch to return to their former colony were thwarted by international pressure. For over fifteen years, Indonesia remained politically unstable. The population was growing rapidly, and the economy had been devastated by the war.

President Sukarno ruled Indonesia for two decades. In 1960, he dismantled the elected parliament and appointed the new legislature. This new body could only enact laws with which the president agreed. Sukarno also adopted a policy of confrontation with Malaysia, the United States, and the West. During the Sukarno era, the Indonesian Army and the PKI (the communist party) were the two most powerful organizations in the country. In 1965, Sukarno supported a proposal to arm the communists. In the turmoil that followed, six of the Indonesian Army's top generals were murdered. General Suharto, who was not targeted, mobilized his units to restore order in Jakarta. The impression among Indonesians at the time was that the generals had been murdered by PKI supporters.

In the aftermath of the violence, thousands of Communists were slaughtered across Indonesia. General Suharto took control of the armed forces and began to weaken the authority of President Sukarno. A turning point in Indonesian history was reached when Sukarno officially allowed Suharto to act independently of Sukarno. Suharto proceeded to officially ban the PKI. He placed pro-Sukarno officers under arrest and seized control of Indonesia's communications infrastructure. In March 1968, Suharto was formally 'elected' president. He has ruled Indonesia since then. Today, Indonesia is politically stable. Political opposition is firmly suppressed.





Borobodur is one of Indonesia's most majestic and famous monuments. This great Buddhist relic was built by the Sailendra dynasty between 750 and 850 AD, and ranks with Cambodia's Angkor Wat in importance to world culture and history. Buddhism was established by an Indian prince, Siddhartha Gautama. He renounced worldly possessions and was able to reach enlightenment (understanding the true meaning of life) through meditation. When he died, he attained Nirvana, a state of freedom from reincarnation and worldly suffering.


Description:There are four square terraces above the base of the monument, creating four galleries. Each successive gallery is set further back from the edge of the previous one. These galleries are about three miles long and are richly decorated with carved stone reliefs (sculptures which project from the stone surface) which depict the life of Buddha. There are also scenes from 9th Century Javanese life. There are more than 500 niches containing small statues of seated Buddhas. The reliefs at the base of the monument are thought to represent the everyday world. Above the galleries there are three circular terraces, symbolizing the heavens. On these terraces, you can see 72 bell-shaped stupas inside which sit statues of the Buddhas. In Buddhism, a stupa is a sacred funerary symbol for the Buddha. It is believed that if you can reach in and touch the image of the Buddha, it brings you good luck. Right on top of the monument is an enormous central stupa representing nirvana.

What is the significance of Borobodur? Borobodur symbolizes a map of the Buddhist universe, which consists of three worlds:1. 'Kamadhatu' or the phase of materialism and desire.2. 'Rupadhatu' or the phase of form.3. 'Arupadhatu' or the phase that is beyond form.'Kamadhatu', the lowest tiers of the monument, is the phase of desires and worldly temptations. This phase is the lowest of human existence and is depicted by images showing poverty, war, hatred and love. 'Rupadhatu' is the world of form. This is the second level. At this level all worldly temptations have been removed. The four galleries above the base of Borobodur show this phase. 'Arupadhatu' is the third and final phase. This is the highest level of human existence. You can come across Arupadhatu at the three circular terraces above the galleries at Borobodur. The Buddhists believe that at this level, eternal redemption or nirvana is attained. In a sense, as the visitor to Borobodur climbs the terraces, he or she also climbs to greater spirituality. 

What happened to Borobodur after it was built? Borobodur was abandoned soon after its completion. It lay buried under volcanic ash and rainforest growth for centuries until it was rediscovered in 1814. A Dutchman named Van Erp undertook the restoration of Borobodur in the early part of the 20th Century. Over the years, earthquakes and water had seriously affected the soft stone of the monument and parts of Borobodur started rapidly sinking into the ground. So, with aid from the United Nations, a restoration program was completed between 1973 and 1983. Refer to a picture of Borobodur to see the layout of the terraces.


Prambanan is the largest Hindu temple complex on Java. Hinduism focuses on the worship of three major gods who are responsible for creation (Brahma), preservation (Vishnu) and destruction (Shiva) in the universe. Prambanan was built in the 10th Century AD and interest in the temple complex waned soon after completion. This may have been due to the fact that the center of Hindu-Javanese power shifted to East Java. In the centuries that followed, earthquakes and eruptions of the Merapi volcano caused the collapse of the temples. Treasure hunters ravaged the site for booty. It was only in 1937 that intensive restoration work was started on the temples.

Description:The Prambanan complex consists of three main temples dedicated to these three Hindu gods: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Of these, the Shiva temple is by far the largest and the most lavishly carved. The gallery surrounding the famous Shiva temple is decorated with the famous 'Prambanan motif'. This motif consists of small lions in niches flanked by the tree of life. Also depicted are 'Kinnaras' which are beings that are half-human, and half-bird. The other side of the gallery has scenes from the Ramayana. These depict the abduction of Sita, (Rama's wife) and show how she was rescued by the monkey god Hanuman and his general Sugriwa. The tale continues in the Brahma temple from the point where the monkey army builds a bridge to the island of Lanka to rescue Sita. The inner sanctum of the Shiva temple contains a four-armed statue of Shiva (the 'destroyer' in Hindu mythology). There are also statues of Agastya (an incarnation of Shiva as the divine teacher), Ganesa (Shiva's son with the head of an elephant, symbolizing wisdom), and an image of Durga (Shiva's consort) killing the demon bull. Durga is sometimes called 'Loro Jonggrang' or the 'slender virgin'. According to legend, she was turned to stone by a giant, when she refused to marry him. The Brahma and Vishnu temples are smaller than the Shiva temple and are found on either side of the Shiva temple. The Brahma temple is to the south. It houses a four-headed statue of Brahma (the god of creation). The Vishnu temple is to the North. It tells the story of Lord Krishna (one of the heroes of the epic 'Mahabharata'). There is a four-armed statue of Lord Vishnu (the 'preserver') inside the temple.Three smaller shrines face the Shiva temple. One of these contains a powerful sculpture of Nandi (the bull), the vehicle of Shiva. The two other shrines to the north and south of Nandi may have originally been meant to house Brahma's vehicle-the swan, and Vishnu's vehicle-the garuda.In addition to the main temples, the outer compound of Prambanan contains the remains of 224 minor temples.