Indonesian Culture

Social and religious duty has, over time, been refined to form a code of behaviour called adat or traditional law. Islam is the predominant religion of the archipelago but it’s somewhat tempered by elements of Hindu-Buddhism, adat and animism. In Java, especially, there are hundreds of places where spiritual energy is thought to be concentrated and can be absorbed by followers. Despite a lengthy colonial period, missionaries were only successful in converting small pockets of the Indonesian population to Christianity – the Bataks of Sumatra, the Toraks of Sulawesi and 95% of the population of Flores being notable examples.

Over 300 languages are spoken in the archipelago and most belong to the Malay-Polynesian group. Within this group, many regional languages and dialects are spoken. The lingua franca of the archipelago is Bahasa Indonesia, which is almost identical to Malay. It uses a number of foreign words, indicating the long history of contact Indonesia has had with other cultures. In recent years, Bahasa Indonesia has been appropriated by teenagers into a new and trendy vernacular called Bahasa Prokem; it has proved mostly unintelligible to the older generation.

Batik, the art of applying wax to cloth and then tie-dying in colourful and dramatic designs, is produced throughout Indonesia, and the centre of this activity is Yogyakarta in Java. Other craft forms include: ikat, which is a type of weaving with tie-dyed threads; songket, a silk cloth with gold or silver threads woven into it; and kris, artwork often decorated with jewels. Javanese wayang (puppet) plays and gamelan (hypnotic music composed mostly of percussive instruments) are also popular artistic forms.

Many Indonesian dishes are Chinese-influenced, but some, such as Padang food from Sumatra, are distinctly home-grown. Wherever you travel in Indonesia you’ll see vendors selling snacks such as potatoes, sweet nuts, biscuits or fruit. Rice is the basis of each meal, eaten as a soup or with an assortment of hot and spicy side dishes, salad and pickles. Nasi goreng (fried rice) is the most common dish, while sate (skewered meats with a spicy peanut sauce), gado-gado (bean sprouts and vegies in peanut sauce) and seafood are also popular. The variety of tropical fruits grown would make a greengrocer swoon. They include custard apples, durians, guavas, jackfruits, mangoes, papayas, starfruits and rambutans.

Events

With such a multiplicity of ethnic groups, Indonesia has, unsurprisingly, a surfeit of cultural events throughout the year. On Sumba, mock battles that hark back to the era of internecine warfare are held in February and March. The day before Balinese Caka New Year (March-April) temple icons are taken to the sea to be bathed and drummers drive evil spirits back to the spirit world. During the Balinese festival of Galungan (moving dates) even the gods descend to earth and join in the revelry. There’s a dramatic Easter Parade on the island of Larantuka, whip duels in Ruteng, Flores in August and Torajan funereal feasts are held in central Sulawesi, mainly between August and October. As most Indonesians are Muslim, many festivals are affected by the lunar calendar; dates are subsequently pushed back 10 or 11 days each year.

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