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Indonesian Culture

A house in Kalimantan

Architecture: A house in Kalimantan

Most traditional houses in Indonesia use wood as the basic material. In some places, the houses may be on stilts and the space beneath the floor may be used as a shelter for domestic animals. In some houses you may find objects which are believed to have magical power. For example, weapons and textiles stored in a particular place in the house such as near the roof. This is to protect the inhabitants of the house. Different tribes in Indonesia live in different types of houses. In Jakarta, there is a vast park known as 'Taman Mini Indonesia' which means 'Small Garden of Indonesia'. Here you can see full size replicas of houses built by the many cultural groups found throughout the islands. The Toraja people of Sulawesi build houses with a roof that resembles a boat. The roof signifies their ancestors' sea voyage to the island long, long ago. The houses of some Irianese are found in trees sometimes as high as 150 feet above the ground! The Minangkabau people of Sumatra shape their roofs like the horns of a buffalo. Do you know why? The buffalo is revered throughout Indonesia. The Dayaks who inhabit the tropical rainforests of Kalimantan prefer to live together in longhouses. A longhouse consists of one long room built on wooden piles to provide protection against wild animals. In some cases, wooden statues are placed outside the house to ward off evil spirits. Traditional Balinese houses are surrounded by high walls designed to offer privacy to the family from the outside world. Each house also has a temple in one corner and separate buildings for cooking, sleeping, and washing. 

Indonesian Currency

We can learn a lot about a country by looking at its money. In Indonesia, people use Rupiah to buy things. For example, two thousand Rupiah will buy you a bowl of noodle soup. Different Rupiah notes are different colors in Indonesia. Each note represents a different island in Indonesia.

The 100 Rupiah Note 

Look at the 100 Rupiah note. It is red in color. The pictures on this note tell us about the island of Java. On one side of the note is a sailboat, known as a Pinisi, used in Java. Because Indonesia consists of many islands, boats are often the only means people have of traveling from one place to another. In the upper right corner of the 100 Rupiah note is the national emblem of Indonesia --- the eagle, Garuda. In very small words below the eagle are the words "Bhinneka Tunggal Ika," which means "unity in diversity." Both these facts should remind you of America. The national bird of the USA is the golden eagle, and the motto that you will find on pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters is "E Pluribus Unum," which also means "out of many, one is created." So you see, this is just one example of similarities between Indonesia and America.On the other side of the 100 Rupiah note is the picture of a volcano called Krakatau, on an island near Java. This volcano erupted with a loud bang many years ago. The noise of the eruption was heard thousands of miles away. The eruption was so powerful that most of the island on which the mountain stood sank afterwards, leaving only the low hills you see in the picture. Because of the force of the eruption, huge waves were formed which were seen as far away as Arabia!

The 500 Rupiah Note

Now look at the 500 Rupiah note. It is green in color. The pictures on this note tell us about the island of Kalimantan. On one side is the orang utan, the friendly ape of Indonesia. The orang utan lives in the rain forests of Kalimantan and Sumatra. Sadly, as the forests get cut down, fewer and fewer orang utans can live freely in the jungle. Also notice the Garuda in the upper right corner of this note. On the other side of the 500 Rupiah note is a traditional house from East Kalimantan. If you look closely at the house, you will see that it is on stilts. Houses in Kalimantan are built on stilts to prevent wild animals and flood waters from getting in. Also notice the beautiful carvings on the walls of the house and on the roof as well.

The 1000 Rupiah Note 

The 1000 Rupiah note is blue in color, and tells us about the island of Sumatra. On one side is a picture of Lake Toba, one of Indonesia's best known vacation spots. Lake Toba is actually the crater of a volcano which filled with water many years ago. Because it is high, the climate around Lake Toba is much cooler than most of the rest of Indonesia, which is hot. On the other side of the 1000 Rupiah note is a stone-jumping scene from a village on the island of Nias. In some villages on Nias, young men jump over stacks of stones which are often six feet high. In the old days, this used to be their way of training for war, and pointed sticks were often put on top of the stones to encourage the men to jump high. Can you find Nias on the map?

There are many other interesting coins and banknotes in use in Indonesia.



Dances are a regular feature of almost every temple festival on the island of Bali. Three main dances which are performed there are:1. Kechak2. Barong3. Legong


Kechak is an extremely popular and well-known Balinese dance. This dance is performed by a large group of men who sit in a circle and chant. They produce the chak-a-chak sound after which the dance is named. The Kechak dance does not have a Gamelan accompaniment. The sound produced by the male dancers creates the background for the dance. The Kechak dance tells the story of Prince Rama and his quest to rescue his wife Sita from the clutches of the demon-king Ravana. The chanting men in the Kechak dance represent the monkey army which accompanied Rama to Lanka. 


The Barong dance represents the eternal struggle between good and evil. The Barong personifies all that is good. Evil is personified in the shape of Rangda, an evil witch. The Barong is supposed to protect the village from the evil witch Rangda. The two duel, and eventually Rangda is defeated. This represents the triumph of good over evil. The battle is the most important feature of the Barong dance.


The Legong dance represents all that is beautiful and feminine. It is reputed to be the most graceful and captivating of all Balinese dances. Legong is usually performed by young girls, 8-9 years of age. It is accompanied by a Gamelan orchestra.


Wayang Orang is a drama where real people dance the part of the wayang characters. They imitate the gestures of the puppets. The name 'Orang' means person or people. Wayang Topeng is a form of dance drama which uses masks. The features of the mask are long symbolizing refinement.


Holidays and Festivals

As a result of such a diversity of people in Indonesia, there are many local holidays and festivals. Indonesians celebrate both Hindu and Muslim festivals. In addition to Muslim holidays there are also some national holidays celebrated by everyone. Independence day is one such holiday.


Independence day celebrates the fact that on 17 August 1945, Sukarno, Indonesia's first president, proclaimed Indonesian independence in Jakarta. This day is celebrated by parades, a flag-raising ceremony, and reading the original version of the declaration of independence. In Padang on the island of Sumatra, a colorful boat race is held to celebrate the day. Another national holiday is New Year's day, which Indonesia celebrates much the same as anywhere else in the world.


1. Ramadan: This is a traditional Muslim festival. During the month of Ramadan Muslims fast during the day from sunrise to sunset. They have to get up to eat early in the morning, before the sun rises and their fast begins.

2. Idul Fitri: This festival marks the end of Ramadan and is celebrated with a great deal of noise and rejoicing as it brings a month of fasting to a close. There is a two-day holiday for Idul Fitri.3. Bersih Desa: Bersih Desa literally means "Clean Village". This festival expresses gratitude to the rice goddess, Dewi Sri. It takes place at the time of the rice harvest. People clean their houses and gardens. Village roads and paths are repaired for this festival.4. Tabut: Tabut is an Islamic festival held to honor the memory of Hassan and Hussain, the grandchildren of Mohammed, who is the founder of Islam. People make colorful images of 'bouraqs' ( a mythical horse-like creature with wings) and paint them red, blue, green and yellow. Amidst music and dance they are then carried to the sea where they are immersed in the water. This is a very popular festival in the town of Pariaman just north of Padang, and people from all over Indonesia come to take part in it.5. Galungan Festival: This festival is held in Bali. On this day the people of Bali invite their gods and goddesses to come down to earth and join in the festivities. This festival goes on for 10 days. At some Balinese festivals the images of the Gods as well as the thrones they sit on are carried down to the sea where they are given a ceremonial bath.


Language and Literature

LANGUAGE The national language of Indonesia is Bahasa Indonesia. 'Bahasa' means language. Bahasa Indonesia contains many words, taken from other languages such as Portugese, Sanskrit, Arabic, and Dutch. It is the only language spoken everywhere in Indonesia. It is written in the Roman script, so if you can read English, you can also read Bahasa Indonesia. See if you can read this:

Saya tinggal di Ithaca.

It means "I live in Ithaca."In addition to Bahasa Indonesia, more than three hundred regional languages are spoken in Indonesia.

LITERATURE Just as the Greeks had their epics, the 'Illiad' and the 'Odyssey', Indonesians have their own epics. These are the 'Ramayana' and the 'Mahabharata'. These epics were actually brought to Indonesia from India a long time ago. A number of stories were added to them after they came to Indonesia. These epics are performed in a variety of ways (Shadow puppets, dancing, and music.) - see section on culture. Another well-known ancient piece is the 'Babad Tanah Djawi' which is the story of the land of Java. More recent literature includes work by Mochtar Lubis and Pramodya Ananta Toer. 

Mahabharata: 'Mahabharata' is an epic that describes the great war fought in northern India around the 13th or the 14th century BC. It tells the story of the clashes between the Kurawa and their cousins the five Pandawa brothers and the division of the kingdom into two in an attempt to end the rivalry between the cousins. Many heroes from both sides are killed in battle but in the end the Pandavas gain victory over the Kauravas. 

Ramayana: The 'Ramayana' is the story of Prince Rama of Ayodhya. In this story, Rama, his wife Sita, and his brother Laksmana are banished to the forest for 13 years because of scheming in the palace. Sita is abducted by a demon king in the forest. Rama begins searching for his wife. He is joined by the monkey god Hanuman as well as the monkey king Sugriwa. After a long war with the demon king Rawana, Sita is rescued.



 In their studies of Java, historians and have long emphasized the centrality of the traditional arts. This is because, up until the middle of the 20th century, traditional arts in Java were not fine arts, in the sense that they were refined away from or became abstractions of the central events of Javanese society and the attitudes of Javanese common people. In the royal courts of 19th century Java a certain kind of refinement of traditional cultural practices took place, but even this refinement was a central part of general (popular) Javanese religious beliefs and other ideas of social organization. The Javanese spiritual and cultural rulers had the responsibility to collect, preserve, and develop the rich cultural heritage of their people. Even up to the middle of the 20th century, most of the princes of Java were either practitioners or cognoscenti of the the arts in their times. Moreover, a constant interplay between courts and villages, in the forms of royal marriages with villagers or royal pilgrimages through the realm, made possible a continual infusion of village culture into court culture. Indeed, the richness of cultural activities in a court center was seen as a sign of the vitality of the ruler. For example, though there were individual palace instruments or whole musical ensembles (gamelan) and musical compositions developed in the court, only a few of these were closely guarded possessions of the court. And even those few had great social significance, because possession of them was generally regarded a sign of the real power of the ruler. (When, at the end of the l8th century, the realm of central Java was split between two sections of the royal family, a central aspect of the treaty was the disposition of the relatively small treasure of musical instruments [particularly gongs], musical compositions, and even musicians affiliated with the court.)

Throughout history, almost all Javanese instrument makers (calledpande gamelan in Javanese) and musicians have been "common folk" who lived, worked, and had their shops in Javanese villages and towns. Up untilrecent times, pande gamelan were usually also important spiritual leaders in their communities and thought to have great powers by Javanese in general. Consideration of the history of carving and painting, especially in regard to their use in musical instruments is important as well, because in the construction and decoration of instruments we have a clear index of the social class of the individuals for whom the instruments were made and the history of the development of the gamelan ensembles in which the instruments played. Because most historically important gamelan in present-day Java are clearly compilations of several different groups of instruments or individual instruments, we can gain a sense of the dynamics of social relations in the Javanese past through a consideration of the historical development of these ensembles.

In the course of the wide-ranging study of Javanese music Jaap Kunst made in the 1920s and 1930s, Jaap Kunst, the first musicologist to make a thorough study of music in Java, compiled a list of gamelan throughout the island of Java. Even though his figures were incomplete, due to lack of time and the inaccessibility of some regions of the island, Kunst still found almost 7,500 gamelan in the region of central Java alone. In those times, most gamelan had places for about 15 performers, and many were used by several different groups of performers from each village and town. This meant that there were probably as many as 150,000 gamelan performers in central Java then. Since the population of central Java was about 15 million at the time of Kunst's research (1930 government census data), we can reasonably propose that one in 100 Javanese were at least part-time musicians. Of course, many more knew a lot about the music that was performed, because gamelan music was a central part of all village celebrations and ceremonies and was at the center of the most important vehicle for indigenous Javanese education, the immense wayang group of puppet plays and dance-operas.

Elementary Theory of Javanese Gamelan 

Musical ensembles composed predominantly of hanging gongs, gong-chimes, or drums are found throughout Southeast Asia. Gamelan ageng (big gamelan), which developed over the past 200 years in the courts of central Java, Indonesia, represent high points in the coalescence and refinement of such ensembles. Though gamelan are probably best known for their metal percussion instruments, the strong vocal tradition of central Java has been important in the development of most gamelan music. In soft-playing pieces of the large gamelan, the vocal and vocal-oriented instrumental parts are more evident than in the strong-playing pieces, that once served to honor arriving guests, accompany processions, or signal the occurrence of court events, inside and outside the palaces.

The poetic texts for the vocal parts in gamelan pieces come from a variety of sources. Some, as in Kinanti Sandung, are from long narrative poems that tell the stories of mythical heros and heroines from the Javanese past. Others, as in Wilujeng, are riddles. In the riddles, the first two lines of each stanza describe people, animals, things, or situations that suggest synonyms. Those synonyms are either rhymed or stated in one of the last two lines of the stanza, integrated into a moralism or aphorism. For example, the first line of the text for Wilujeng suggests the common name of the Javanese prince Panji Priyambada, and the word priya appears in the third line of the stanza. The second line suggests the name of the gurameh, a large carp that is found in the Oya River; this name further suggests the Javanese word gerameh, which means "to chatter."


Text of the first stanzaSynonymTranslationparabe sang marabangunPriyambadaThe honorable King Hasmarabangun,sepat domba kali Oyagurameha large sepat fish in the Oya River


aja dolan lan wong priya Don't play around with mengerameh nora prasaja chattering without thinking.

The instruments of a large gamelan divide into several functional groups: metallophones play a one-octave condensation of the skeletal melody (balungan: which can be up to three octaves), gongs of various sizes punctuate that melody at important structural points, other instruments, such as a two-stringed spike fiddle (rebab) and a pentatonic xylophone (gambang), play elaborating melodies of various complexities that wind around the skeletal melody, and drums set and maintain the rhythm and tempo.

The measure (ketheg: lit. "heartbeat") is usually four pulses long. Almost all gamelan melodic phrases are in units of four measures (called a gatra), and most gamelan pieces have as a part of their name a designation of a multiple of this four-measure unit. For example, the ladrang in the name ladrang Wilujeng means that there are 32 measures in each section of the piece marked by the sound of the large gong. This unit is called one gongan. The kenong, a set of large horizontally placed kettle-gongs, subdivides one gongan into units of 8 measures (each one called a kenongan). Other instruments punctuate at other important places. Elaborating metallophones (gender), plucked string instruments (celempung and ziter), ring flute (suling), male chorus (gerong), female singer (psindhen), gambang, and rebab play various styles of patterns (cengkok) with variations (wiletan) that are appropriate to one- and two-gatra sections of the melody. Elaborating gong-chimes (bonang) play in one of three techniques (mipil, gembyangan, and imbal-sekaran), depending on the tempo level and function of the piece.

In a large central Javanese gamelan, there are usually two tunings (laras) available, slendro and pelog. The intervals between the pitches of the fixed-pitch metal keys are not best measured according to principles of equal temperament. In fact, although general parameters for intervallic relationships exist, the theory of pitch organization in gamelan pieces leaves room for variation in horizontal pitch relationships. Moreover, modal practice (pathet) requires variation of interval size in the pentatonic tunings performed by the singers and the player of the rebab. Thus the tuning of the fixed-pitch instruments is a compromise of the various modal tunings executed by these performers. This compromise has been executed differently in each of the thousands of gamelan sets in Java. Although the instruments in one gamelan are usually in tune with one another, the tuning of that gamelan is slightly different from the tuning of every other gamelan which exists. Most Javanese-style gamelan in America were made in Indonesia and brought here after 1960. Cornell University's gamelan instruments were made in central Java in the late 1950s or early 1960s, and served as one of the ensembles in the Indonesian exhibit at the New York World's Fair in 1964


Javanese culture is a synthesis of Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic influences. The Wayang or 'shadow puppet theater' which is found all over the island of Java, has been instrumental in preserving this heritage. The most popular Wayang form is 'Wayang kulit'.


The word 'Wayang' means 'shadow', and 'kulit' means 'leather'. Wayang kulit is therefore a form of shadow theater using puppets made from leather. The Wayang puppets are usually made of buffalo hide, which is perforated to create shadows. They are manipulated by rods made of buffalo horn or bamboo. Usually, only the arms of the puppet can be moved in relation to the body. Every puppet is characterized by its own voice, its own way of gesturing, and walking. Many of the Wayang puppets are characters from the epics: 'Mahabharata', and 'Ramayana,' though they are not restricted to these. Wayang puppets portray the refined human vs the ogre. It is easy to distinguish the noble or 'halus' characters from the bad ones by looking at the physical features of the puppets. Ogres have big, fat bodies, and wide-open bulbous eyes. They walk in a funny way, and gesticulate in an exaggerated manner. They often display aggressive behavior. By contrast, the noble characters have smaller bodies, narrow 'rice-grain' eyes, and thin, pointed noses. They walk with graceful, controlled movements and tend to look down. They speak in a calm voice. Though smaller than ogres, they are powerful warriors.


Some popular Wayang characters are: Arjuna, Kumbakarna, Hanuman, Gareng, and Sita. Arjuna is an example of a refined and noble character. He has thin, narrow eyes, a pointed nose, and a small slender body. His lowered gaze is a sign of self-control. His voice is low and gentle. His movements are controlled and graceful. He is very polite to the people he respects but, he is extremely powerful and kills his opponents with dance-like movements. He has the characteristic hairstyle of the Pandawa brothers, i.e. very finely curled black hair. In a large set of Wayang puppets, there are about a dozen puppets to represent Arjuna in different moods. Several of these can be used in a single performance. He has many names. Of these, Janaka, Permadi, and Arjuna are the most important.


Kumbakarana is one of the largest ogres. He is physically very different from Arjuna. He has big round eyes and a big fat body. Ogres are essentially uncivilized creatures. They epitomize uncontrolled human desire and passion. Kumbakarna is the brother of Rawana, who carries away Sita(Prince Rama's wife) in the epic 'Ramayana'.


Hanuman is another character from the 'Ramayana'. He is both a wise advisor and a powerful warrior. He is always associated with the "right side".


Gareng appears in every play as one of the clown servants of a noble or 'halus' warrior (such as Arjuna). He is physically deformed in every way. He is Semar's son. Semar is one of the most powerful gods who agreed to live on the earth among people. Clowns offer wise advice to their masters. They also introduce an element of lightheartedness in the story through their silly jokes.


Sita is the wife of Prince Rama. She exemplifies the representation of a woman in Wayang. The variety of female characters in Wayang is more limited than in the case of male characters. Thus Sita is a refined character.In Wayang kulit performances the puppets are manipulated behind a rectangular screen about 1.5 meters high and 3-6 meters long. This is the space in which the puppets come alive. It is made of white cotton. A border 10-15 cm wide made of dark fabric represents the ground and the sky. The screen is set on a wooden frame, raised a little above the ground. The 'dalang' or narrator sits on the ground in front of the screen. A lamp hangs above his head. It is this lamp that produces the shadow of the puppet clearly visible from the other side. Usually the puppets walk on the ground but they can also be made to 'fly'. Flying is represented by moving the puppets above the ground. Generally, puppets enter from either the left or the right side of the screen. It is important to note where a puppet enters or where it is placed on the screen, because it may provide visual clues about the story being narrated.Music is an essential component of the Wayang theater, inseparable from the narrative and visual elements. The 'dalang' has to choose music appropriate to the mood of the particular moment in the story. For example, the music played by the gamelan ensemble may range from soft background pieces meant for the audience, to fast and tense compositions signifying battlescenes. In addition to manipulating the puppets, the 'dalang' gives cues (When to start or end a piece, speed up or slow down etc.) to the gamelan ensemble by striking the wooden box containing the puppets with a mallet.


Wayang Golek Puppets Wayang golek is most popular among the Sundanese of W. Java. This form of Wayang uses three-dimensional wooden puppets. They have completely movable arms and heads. Wayang golek does not use a shadow screen. The stories narrated are from the epics as well as tales of the mythical Javanese king Panji. There are also legends about Amir Hamzah, the uncle of the Prophet.



Wayang klitik is popular in east Java. The puppets used are flat, carved wooden puppets very different from those used for Wayang kulit. The stories are mostly about a young prince and his rise to power in the Majapahit kingdom. Top


Wayang Orang is a drama where real people dance the part of the wayang characters. They imitate the gestures of the puppets. The name 'Orang' means person or people. Wayang Topeng is a form of dance drama which uses masks. The features of the mask are long symbolizing refinement.