What started as an attempt to write about Indonesian cultural events has evolved through many different forms over the past few weeks. Realizing it would be impossible to sufficiently cover the three main types of selamatans (celebrations for weddings, funerals and births) I decided to narrow the focus to weddings only. Surely a single type of event would provide substantial interesting material while simultaneously being easy to encapsulate in a few hundred words.
Well even this more focused task proved too complicated as I spent the majority of time trying to explain the origins of the major wedding traditions. A big problem is that Javanese weddings can have a lot of variation, too much variation to apply a simple generic explanation. To solve the problem I switched from weddings to traditional Javanese culture and the external influences they have adopted over the years. Maybe this iteration was a step up in difficulty as my goal was nothing short of disentangling one-thousand years of culture from foreign influences. Then it is not surprising to learn that I have fallen terrifically short of my previous goals.
Budaya campur (‘c’ makes a ‘ch’ sound) means ‘mixed culture’. A mixed culture is exactly what Indonesia has. There is no one group of people that exemplify “pure” Indonesian culture. The nation is massive. It stretches over 5,000 km (3,000 miles) east to west, there are over 13,000 islands and over 6,000 of those are inhabited. There are over 300 distinct ethnic groups and more than 700 languages and dialects. Despites all facts indicating otherwise, before I came to Indonesia I believed the country to be homogeneous and the people to be very similar one to another. After all, nearly 85 percent of the population identifies themselves as Muslim. How diverse can a country be when there is such a strong slant in a single area as important as religion?
On first arrival I thought of Indonesia as if it were just a big glass of milk, very well mixed and smooth. Even after spending a significant amount of time in Indonesia it can be easy to perceive homogeneity, however; that is only when looking at the surface.
It turns out that Indonesia is not homogenous at all. Indonesia is like a great confluence of rivers with all the silt, fish, plant life and small water craft that you might imagine on or in a great river. It has been the terminus for many imperial expansionist designs over the past millennia and with each wave of foreign influence, the indigenous people’s integrated foreign cultures into their own, however they did so without losing what made them unique. Standing downstream, past the intersection of the many different rivers that pour into what is modern Indonesia, one can still detect traces and elements of each of the original rivers as the current rushes past. Another way to see the nation is to think of Indonesia as a Venn diagram. Many different circles of varying sizes are superimposed across the archipelago. Not much of anything exists by itself in isolation. For the sake of my sanity, I will primarily write about the island of Java and Javanese culture, though it may seem as though Java and Indonesia are used interchangeably.
Religion is a large part of culture and for this post I will focus on the changing religious practices of Indonesia and attempt to give you a very compact, concise summary. The island of Java has been inhabited for a long time. Early Javanese people practiced varying forms of animism. Hinduism, organized religion, arrived in Indonesia around the first century, and not too long after that Buddhism appeared on the scene. With organized religion came a series of dynastic rulers, each claiming portions of the archipelago as best their military forces and political prowess could sustain. Near the end of the thirteenth century Islam arrived in Indonesia and eventually displaced Hindu-Buddhist beliefs as the dominant religion in the sixteenth century. Islam came not through conquest but by commerce. Indonesia has always been a place though which many trade routes pass through as well as the origin for many internationally desired items. With the arrival of each new religion came strong cultural influence.
Modern day Indonesia (present, recognized boundaries) did not exist until the arrival of the Dutch at the end of the sixteenth century. Dutch colonialism lasted for the three-hundred years and was not a pleasant experience for the indigenous peoples of the archipelago. The Dutch lived as a separate class of citizens above Indonesians and largely viewed the land and the people as something to exploit. Colonialism was not good, however for better or worse, colonialism did show that the region could function as a cohesive unit despite geographical limitations, distinct societies, and disparate people.
During WWII the Japanese occupied Indonesia and those few years of occupation made 300 years of Dutch colonialism seem like a cake walk. A terrible experience, surely, but the Japanese occupation did catalyze the urgency for Indonesian statehood and foster a strong feeling of nationalism among the Indonesian people. Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, established Indonesia as people know it today.
At each step Indonesia rolled through whatever came into its path, picked up bits and pieces of what was in its way, and kept rolling along much like a cartoon snowball that gets bigger as it rolls down a hill; always integrating new things but maintaining a unique core and an independent trajectory.
All of these periods have helped form Indonesia into what it is today: a region of strikingly different customs, beliefs, languages, and histories. The fact that Indonesia has not spun apart into a collection of smaller nations due to centrifugal forces, and separatist movements is quite impressive. Indonesia’s national motto is “unity through diversity,” and they have managed to bring such an idea home and do so spectacularly.
Before I lived in Indonesia I thought of the people as one thing: Indonesian. With one religion: Islam. Speaking one language: Indonesian. Of course that’s not true at all. There are hundreds of languages and ethnic groups. There are also hundreds of social, cultural and religious influences from outside and from within. Only about five to ten percent of Indonesians adhere to orthodox Islamic beliefs, roughly the same percentage of Indonesians that identify as Christian. Many Javanese practice Kejawen; a religion that takes parts from animism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. There is so much to Indonesia that to think of its people as just one thing is a gross over simplification and an egregious error. Imagine if Europe were one nation. Not the European Union, which is a relatively loose collection of sovereign states, but one singularly governed country. Indonesia has as much, or more, cultural diversity within its borders than any other country.
This brings me to my last metaphor. Indonesia is nothing like milk. Indonesia is es campur, or “mixed ice.” Es campur is a delicious drink/snack popular in Indonesia. It is usually contains fermented coconut water (the gelatin cubes), fruit, milk, ice, and sugar. It’s one of my favorite things about Indonesia and also the perfect analogy for Indonesia. Filled with different things, from different places, all mixed together and all delightful.