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By Alex Brown



1.0  History


Indonesia is an archipelago consisting of more than 13,500 islands. The population in the 1990s is over 185 million people. But over 100 million people live on the island of Java alone. It is a diverse country with over 300 socio-linguistic groups each with its own distinct language. The basic national policy stresses on `Unity in Diversity'.


Indonesia lies astride the trading routes between China, India and the Middle East. She is also the source of a large amount of spices. There are basically two types of states in Indonesia :


a)      coastal states which were established as trading posts located at secure river mouths 

b)      inland states which were centres for agricultural products.


Early kingdoms were predominantly Hindu/Buddhist states established by Indian traders who intermarried local women. With them came their religion, philosophies, and rituals.


Two great monuments testify to the wealth of  these states

a) Borobudur

b) Prambanan.


These were both built around the 10th century. There are however, many smaller temples and shrines (called candis) all over Java, one of the areas being the Dieng Plateau.


The slow conversion of Indonesia into Islam began in 13th century with the conversion of the ruler of Aceh (N.Sumatra). When the Dutch arrived in the 17th century, all of Indonesia was Muslim except Bali which remained Hindu. The practice of Islam in Indonesia however remains broad.


1.1    Colonisation.


The first colonialists Indonesia (and Asia) were the Portuguese. But the Dutch finally took political control of Indonesia from 1619 until Indonesian independence in 1945. They did this by division and aggression, but local customs and pride remained. Islamic activities were severely crushed when they became political thus preventing the development of a modernised Islamic elite. Western education was offered only to pre-colonial Indonesian elites.


The Dutch economic impact on Indonesia was enormous. External trade with the rest of the world became exclusive to European companies, regional trade to migrant Chinese thus creating racial tension. Chinese immigration from Southern China was encouraged, thus the great number of Hokkiens and Teochews in this region. By the 20th century, they were dominant in local trade and urban commerce.


Education was all in Dutch for the elites, the native Indonesians were neglected. By 1920, Indonesia had the lowest literacy rate amongst European colonies in Asia. In 1920, a young engineering student called Sukarno started spreading the idea of independence in both large cities and small towns. By 1928, more western-educated elites began initiating the idea of an independent Islamic Indonesia. There were many Islamic issues  to be solved.


1.2  Japanese Occupation.


In March 1942, the Japanese occupied Indonesia with little resistance from the Dutch. The Indonesians saw the Japanese as the Light of Asia. But the Japanese alienated themselves from the main population by treating the Indonesians as their inferiors. But there were advantages e.g. Dutch administration and language was removed and prohibited respectively. This elevated some Indonesians to positions they could never previously hold. Bahasa Indonesia was promoted by the Japanese in return for  political support.


1.3   After the Japanese surrender


Indonesia very quickly declared itself independent on 17 August 1945 with Sukarno as their president. Regrettably, this was rejected by the Dutch who eventually reoccupied Indonesia in 1946.


After Independence. The next four years saw extensive guerrilla warfare and in December 1949, Dutch colonial rule ended. The periods of strife with the Japanese and Dutch drained much of Indonesia's economy. Expectation of independence was high on the new government. Unemployment was extensive.


Under such circumstances, there was much political strife among 4 political parties each one with their own political ideologies e.g. multi-party system, democracy, religious and communist. Of the 4, democracy was strongly supported by the military which was instrumental in their fight for independence. And the general population supported the military as the `protectors' of the land.


Revolution. Politically instability set in during 1965 culminating in an unsuccessful  coup on 30 September. A strategic army reserve under General Suharto put down the coup. The communist party was blamed for the coup and within six months, about 400,000 people were killed.  The military-dominated government was now under General Suharto.


Independent Indonesia began as a liberal democracy. President Suharto believed in democracy with leadership. Today, Indonesia is termed a Guided Democracy.




The classical Indianised art of Java is possibly the greatest art produced by any of the peoples of South East Asia, surpassing even that of the Khmers. Together with indigenous elaborate but highly organised schematic patterns and design, the basic framework of Indonesian style establishes itself.


3.0    THE DYNASTIES (in brief)


In the 6th & 7th century the Indianised kingdom of Shrivijaya in Sumatra exerted very strong artistic influence in the region. The effortless absorption of Indian culture then was due to trade and the fact that Indian administrative systems, script, laws, science were attractive to the various chieftains. From their kratons, powerful dynasties were built as a result of Indian cultural assimilation. The ultimate expression of any dynasty must undoubtedly be its architecture and art.


Between 778 and 864 AD, a powerful Buddhist kingdom arose in central Java. This was the Shaliendra dynasty.  Their influence extended from Peninsula Malaya to Cambodia until around the second half of the 9th century thus ending the Central Javanese period of art.


The Saivate (*) Mataram empire came on the scene around 900 AD and lasted till about 1222 AD. During this period, little art of consequence was made in Eastern Java or Bali.


(*)  The term Saivate refers to a Hindu-related sect called Saiva-Siddhanta.


After the Mataram empire, and in 1293, the Eastern Javanese period of art was inaugurated by the dynasty of Siva-Buddhist Singhasari. In 1293 AD, the dynasty of Majapahit succeeded until the end of the 14th century.


Islam arrived in the 15th century, thus ending the epoch of great Indianised monuments.




Three main periods of Indonesian art are recognised. They are :


1.  The Central Javanese Period ( app. 8th - late 9th century)


During this period, many monuments devoted to Sivaism and Buddhism were built in central Java viz. Dieng Plateau, Gedong Sanga and Kedu plains. The sculptures were of very high  quality. Influence of Indian style sculpture was recognised in varying degrees but most sculptors preferred narrative low relief work to free-standing ones. Most carvings of this period were picturesque. Scenes from the Ramayana and compositions inspired by plant forms were popular.


 2.  The Eastern Javanese Period (10th - 15th century)


During 930 AD, the political capital in Java shifted to the East. The importance of Buddhism declined. The  works during this period varied from exuberant to lifeless grandeur.

In decoration, the makara disappeared, the Kala's head was altered. Narratives were carved in low-relief. Most statuary works apart from those near Borobudur lacked grace and naturalism. Some images were highly ornamented and macabre, probably influenced by Tantric worship known to have existed in Sumatra. Only the art of Bali with Brahmanic traditions, maintained its vigour and originality.


3.   The Islamic Period (after 15th century)


This period preserved the kernel of earlier traditions but decorations were totally transformed. Living creatures were excluded in line with Islamic thinking. Geometric motifs became popular with mosque decorations.




Most historic buildings found in Java are constructed of stone while those in Sumatra and Bali are of bricks without mortar bonding.


Candis are square sanctuaries erected on a large terraced platform. They have many variations. Some have chapels on all four sides, some are grouped around a large main sanctuary including stupas.


One of the largest candis in Indonesia is the Prambanan (Hindu) near Jogjakarta.

The most famous and largest stupa in the world is Borobudur (Buddhist) also near Jogjakarta which was built around the 8th or 9th century.




This is actually a group of monuments consisting of 3 monuments viz. Borobudur itself, Chandi Mendut & Chandi Pawon (Chandi means temple).


Located in Central Java, the word `Borobudur' could have meant `Temple on the Hill' in modified Sanscrit. An inscription found in 842 A. D could also mean `Accumulation of Virtue in the Ten Stages of the Bodhisattvas'. This clearly demonstrates its Mahayanan persuasion. Based on archaeological evidence, it started as a Hindu temple which was transformed into a Buddhist place of worship.


There are four stages to its building starting in about 750 A. D by a powerful ruler of the Saliendra Dynasty. This is perhaps one of the most spectacular works of mankind whose construction was terminated with the collapse of the Mataram empire around 919 AD It was rediscovered by a Javanese nobleman almost 1000 years later.


The building stages were  as follows:


Stage 1:   Started between 775 - 80 AD between the rivers Progo and Elo to recall the Ganges and Jumna. Two galleries were completed.


Stage 2:    Dated around 790 AD. Third & fourth galleries were added, stairways were changed and doorways redesigned. A wide foot was added to prevent the foundation giving way under the weight of the structure. These covered the reliefs which were already underway. A circular structure began on the top platform after which work stopped for no apparent reason. This was removed in 81o AD after which 3 circular terraces, the pierced stupas, and the central stupa were built. Niches for Buddha statues were added to the first gallery.


Stages 3 & 4:   Dated at about 820 and 840 AD. This stage involved no major changes but only minor modifications and improvements on the existing structure. Spaces between niches were blocked and new reliefs added.


Physically, the temple is one of the largest temple structures outside India. Architecturally and symbolically, it is related to other Buddhist temples in Cambodia and India. Certain aspects of the construction still remain a mystery but modern restoration programmes using advanced measuring and x-ray instruments will no doubt one day reveal many unknown secrets of this monument. Consuming almost 55,000 m3 of quarry stone and utilising the skills of thousands of people to build, the origin of the stones have never been found. Even the dates on commencement and termination vary as much as 200 years.


Chandi Borobudur as it is popularly called amongst the Javanese, consist of 9 superimposed terraces, symbolic of the 9 levels of Mount Meru. These terraces are all different from each other because they belong to 3 spiritual phases symbolising the levels of existence. Buddhism arranges the temporal existence and the spiritual conception in 3 spheres viz.


1.       The lowest called kamadhatu represents the transitoriness of life.


2.       The second called rupadhatu represents an existence that has renounced all human  Desires but still takes on earthly forms.


3.      The third and highest called arupadhatu represents nirvana, the perfect spiritual state.


All the terraces are extensively detailed with bas-reliefs depicting the life of the Buddha. The illustrative style and technique present could have been inspired by wooden architecture that existed at that time. Chinese techniques were also present.


5.2    The Architecture of Borobudur


In the construction of a monument as massive as Borobudur, a firm commitment to Buddhism was necessary. Thus, a population that is predominantly Buddhist must perhaps be essential. Secondly, there must be a large enough Buddhist community in one area to provide the labour necessary for such a building.


The base of the monument which is controversial, is described as the first sphere of Buddhism consisting of a huge protecting wall of about 12,000 sq. m. which covers most of the reliefs. This being the first sphere of Buddhism, it depicted pictures of love, hatred, punishment, etc. There are two theories that have developed about this wall.


1.      That the monument threatened to collapse due to site inadequacy. The filled up earth was not strong enough to                    support the weight thereby threatening to `slide out' of its pyramidal  form.


2.      That because Borobudur was constructed only for a chosen group of monks and not the  Religious society in                       general, the scenes depicting earthly desires had to be hidden from the eyes of the clerics. This cover measuring 6m           thick x 3m high represented `cakrawala' or `the iron wall' which was needed to separate the monument from the rest           of the world.

         The rest of the monument consists of landings and galleries making up the different  spiritual spheres of Buddhism.


5.3    Architectural Critique of Borobudur


The main form lacks consistency because the circular terraces are stark compared to the quadrangular galleries. It would appear that each stage of construction was conceived with a different symbolism. Physically today, it appears as a large square plinth which is used as a processional path upon which 5 gradually diminishing terraces grow from it. On the sixth terrace stands the 3 circular diminishing terraces crowned by a large circular stupa. The staircases which run up along the 4 sides are all equal; not one taking precedence as the `main entrance' because there are no internal cell-shrines, Borobudur is a Buddhist stupa in the Indian sense.




Architectural decorations are  very important aspects of Indonesia architecture. All embellishments on Indian inspired buildings have very deep meanings. There are four categories of decorations found in such buildings:


1.       Low-relief narratives depicting the life of the Buddha or legends of Gods.

2.       Large figures of deities (Boddhisattvas, guardians).

3.       Foliage and vases.

4.       Motifs e.g. Kalas and Makaras.   




The favourite means of sculptural expression are low relief narrative scenes. Most Indonesian sculptures were carved on steles or as solid masses (sitting, lying, etc0 rather than standing without re-enforcement.




Bronzes - These were in the form of ritual objects e.g. bells, lamps, etc. Under larger objects e.g. gongs, only fragments were found.  These were mainly of 8th - 9th century Indo-Chinese origin.


Ceramics - Many Terracotta objects were modelled with great sensitivity. However, a great deal of pottery from Sukhothai was imported into Indonesia during the 14th and 15th century.




Although  the cultural history of Indonesian is greatly influenced by India and other lands, the society in general have never been passive receptors of foreign culture. In outer Indonesia for example (amongst inland and mountain dwellers), many ancient beliefs shape the various artistic expressions of art and crafts.


Coastal (and therefore court) and Islamic crafts include preference for delicate gold jewellery, batiks and shiny silks while `outer Indonesian' crafts exhibit splendid examples of dyed cotton textiles (ikat), barkcloth, ivory and shell ornaments, and bold metal jewellery.


One common factor prevails in both categories - they both share a common heritage of thought with regards to interpreting the nature of the world. Cosmology plays an important part in artistic expressions. In cosmology, there is contrast between good & evil, high & low spirit, sun & moon, air & water, male & female, light and darkness.


Birds inhabit the upper world of intellect and spirit. Reptiles reflect the lower world of fertility (reproduction, etc), instinctive energy and supernatural forces that can either be creative or demonic. All animals have got symbolic significance. Ancestral figures and ships evoke the powers of spirits. Some creatures of fantasy when combined confer protection and good fortune e.g. a bird (intellect) + a reptile (energy) + buffalo (warm-blooded beast).


Thus when a piece of art combines male & female symbol, it represents universal orderliness rather than sentiment. Women are regarded just as importantly as men. Weaving becomes a social expression (finding a husband) carrying the same value as head-hunting amongst men. In some respects it resembles Chinese Ying & Yang. Gender plays an important role in the production of art and crafts.


Thus materials that are hard or hot are considered as male and can only be made by men and these include metal and wood. Soft materials like textiles and unfired pottery are the domains of women. In animism, there is no distinction between what is real and what is abstract. Thus everything interacts and pulses with the potentiality of life.


9.1    Textiles


Textiles are not only items of clothing but essential equipment in ritual ceremonies to invoke growth and fertility in agriculture and humans.


Weaving has existed in Indonesia since prehistoric times.  The materials used include cotton, flayed bamboo, wild banana stalk, wild orchid leaf and other fibres. Weaving is usually done on the loom which is made up of several components, the most important being the warp (the `north-south' stretch) and the weft (the `east-west' stretch). Weavers usually work during off-harvest period and being a cottage industry, the women work at home.


The woven textiles are made into a variety of costumes. Every costume is made up of the following components :


kain           : non-tubular cloth wrapped around the waist.

Sarong     : tubular cloth wraparound the breast or waist, depending on where they come from.

selendang: a shawl that matches the kain.

Kebaya     : a light jacket worn as an upper garment worn by women in Java and Bali.


There are basically 3 main types of textile classifications in Indonesia :


1.       Ikat (Tie-dye)


Either the warp or the weft is pre-dyed into a systematic pattern. When they are woven together, a design appears when the warp and weft are interlaced. Most warps are single-coloured with the weft patterned in tie-dye. Only one group of weavers in East Bali produces ikat warp and weft. This is called gerinsing. Ikat is mainly produced by the mountain dwellers  of Indonesia and are considered female in essence. There is great stylisation in its patterns - reptiles, birds, animals and ancestral symbols make up the character of ikat.


2.       Batik (Wax Resist)


This is basically using hot liquid wax on textile before dying to produce patterns on areas that are not exposed to the dye. In other words, the wax is used as a resisting medium. The procedure can go through several rounds of waxing and boiling, rewaxing and redying to get dramatic colour combinations.


Patterns vary according to the areas e.g. Northern Javanese batik consist  of colourful lions and phoenixes which is Chinese influenced. Central Javanese batik uses repeat pattern arranged along the diagonals mainly in browns and blues. The Dutch and Chinese also introduced floral patterns into batik, inspired by the hibiscus. Motifs are largely taken from flowers, twining plants, leaves, buds, birds, butterflies, fish, etc.


3.       Songket


This process involves the weaving of gold or silver thread through cotton or silk fabrics. Kain (cloth) songket is frequently worn during festivals and auspicious occasions. In the Minangkabau region of Sumatra, songket cloth is woven for waistbands, shawls, and the spectacular horned turbans worn by their women.


Various costume songket components vary from region to region, depending on its function and ultimately its styling.


9.2    Ceramics


Pots are not only used to store or cook, they also house spirits of the unborn and the dead. They are also containers for riches in the form of rice and children.


Pottery technology was brought to Indonesia more than 4000 years ago from China. Only women are allowed to make pots , and the skill is handed down only to female descendants.


The kendi is a long spouted water container which is used in many ways, one of which is for rituals. The long spout ensures that there is absolutely no contact with the mouth when drinking. Kendis are also hierachal - tall ones are for fathers, medium for mothers and small for the children.


Terracotta sculptures are constantly being unearthed around bathing pools among  Majapahit ruins. There are female heads, bird and animal-shaped money boxes used previously to collect temple offerings.


The making of pottery uses simple elementary tools and elements of earth, water & fire. Many potters produce their pots under their houses or under shade to maintain moisture. The simplest method of production is by paddling technique. Another method like coiling is popular in Lombok.


9.3    Jewellery & Metalwork


In Hindu cosmology, the triple peaks of Mt. Meru are made of gold, silver and iron. Gold therefore symbolises moral & spiritual status and royalty. Iron symbolises protection from wayward spirits and bad influences for example in the house and in the field. Metals also serve as an analogy to creation e.g. creation of Adam with clay and iron.


Socially, smiths were believed to have spiritual powers and are therefore powerful. The word pandai not only means smith but clever.


9.4    Important articles of Iron 


Kris  Basically, this is a dagger with a wavy blade. Because they are articles of war, a kris must  be properly selected. This is based on numerical calculations to suit the user. The kris has connotations of magic and fantasy - some are known to have the ability to fly through the air. Today, krises become an important part of costume and are no longer used as  weapons.


Parang This instrument is basically a sword which are used for slaughtering and slashing. There Are also the ceremonial parang which is restricted to aristocrat because of the spiritual strength associated with forging in its manufacture.


9.5    Articles of Gold and Silver 


Jewellery - The Indonesians are masters of the art of gold and silver smithing. Used most often with costume, its function is mainly decorative. There are also gold gift boxes lances and krises which are no less articles of beauty. Gold plays an essential role in major lifecycle celebrations. This is also particular true in Asian culture in general. The articles come in the form of hair combs, head-dresses, collars, anklets, earrings, studs, breastplates, etc.


Sources of design are taken from fauna, Hindu architecture, birds and reptiles, Moguls and Islamic icons, Chinese motifs especially the dragon, and symbols of animism. Stones that are used with the metals include rubies, garnets, diamonds, emeralds, etc. that are mined in various parts of Indonesia.


9.6    Woodwork, Bone, Horn and Stone


It is believed that the tree symbolises unity between heaven and earth because its roots reaches down into the earth and its branches reaches to the sky. The wooden house is therefore suffused with life and energy. Internal spaces are considered as wombs  - warm and secure. It is maternal in essence. Around its walls and embellishing doors and windows are carvings to protect. The singa is popular, being strong and potent.


Indonesian furniture too is designed with such concepts. In the coastal communities, Chinese and European influence is very strong. But these were beautifully fused and absorbed into Indonesian furniture forms. The Chinese influence came in the form of its traditional lacquerwork expressed on cupboard panels, tables, betel boxes and baskets.


Traditional decorations are undergoing great change in Indonesia today. In certain areas, the carvings of ritual  motifs are discouraged by evangelical Protestant missionaries. The Catholics however do allow the preservation of traditional ornamentation on utilitarian items.


Bone objects include lime containers for betel nut chewing and are decorated with traditional motifs of birds, reptiles, etc. Dagger and sword handpieces are also made of decorated carved bones.


10.0    Masks and Puppets


The origin of Indonesian drama lies deep in prehistoric culture. Like Chinese wayangs, such performances are performed to invoke good harvests, acquire blessing from ancestors, drove away danger and placate the dead.


Many masked dances called topeng in Indonesia are spiritual in nature. In the Dieng Plateau, maskes of animals and demons are worn in trance dances e.g the exorcistic barongan, or kuda kepung.


In central Java (Jogjakarta), court dances are highly formalised. Very refined and slow moving, the dances are always accompanied by the complete Gamelan Orchestra. The theme usually centres around the lives of the Javanese kings. Public performances near the Prambanan temple are based on the Indian epic Ramayana.


In Bali, major and minor festivals elaborate masked dances and ceremonial dramas are colourful events. The most popular Balinese drama includes the barong and calon arang in which the widow rangda is temporarily defeated by the barong, a positive underworld creature that neutralises evil .


Another popular Indonesian form of entertainment is the wayang kulit or shadow play. It is performed at night in villages and towns on public holidays, religious festivals, weddings, birthdays and circumcision. The puppeteer who is called the dalang provides the spoken and sung dialogue while manipulating the puppets behind a back-lighted screen through stories of lore. He also conducts the accompanying orchestra. Popular stories are the Ramayana and Mahabharata, both ancient Indian epics.


Wayang Golek is a performance of rod puppets which are 3-dimensional. These puppets are usually clothed in sarongs and velvet or braided cotton jackets. This is because the stories portray historical and human stories rather than divine stories.




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