Javanese Ceremonies

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Introduction to the Island of Java, the heart of the Indonesian Republic

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The Landscape of Java

The landscape of the island of Java, in the Indonesian archipelago, is dominated by volcanoes and rice fields. The human landscape of this; the world's most densely populated island is equally thrilling to the eye, and no visitor can remain unaffected by the special atmosphere that makes this island so unique. This is an island of 120 million people, a complex and sophisticated society in the midst of wrenching changes.

Java anchors the gentle arc of islands that makes up the nusantara the great Southeast-Asian archipelago. The island is long, narrow and volcanic, some 1000 km in length but only 200 km wide at its widest point, and lies roughly parallel and six degrees south of the equator. Its northern coast fronts on the shallow, welcoming Java sea, and its southern coast confronts the depths of the Java Trench and the Indian Ocean, or as they say in Java, the Laut Kidul, the Southern Ocean. Java has been home for man for a million-and-a-half years, and is today the heart of the Republic of Indonesia.

Java is amongst the most romantic and highly diversified in the world, uniting all the rich and magnificent scenery. Javanese villages, towns and even cities are generally green places. The tropical climate is of course a central element: the equatorial heat is tempered by the surrounding seas, and the temperature rarely breaks 35° Centigrade. Humidity is high. The island is mountainous, and temperatures fall quickly on the slopes of the volcanoes. Subject to the southern cycle of monsoon winds, Java enjoys distinct dry and wet seasons.

The People on the Island

Today's Javanese are descended from Austronesian-speaking people who came to the island some five thousand years ago. The Austronesian migrations brought to Java a particual agricultural tool kit, including the cultivation of rice, and a architectural and design heritage that remains legible today. As with most of Southeast Asia, Java's population today is far from homogeneous, with two generally recognized indigenous ethnic groups inhabiting the island, the Javanese and Sundanese, together with a third from the island of Madura just off Java's northeastern corner, the Madurese.

The Javanese

The majority Javanese are mostly lowland inhabitants farming in the broad plains around the slopes of the volcanic mountains of the central and eastern portions of the island. The centre of the Javanese areas is the nagarigung, and it comprises the fertile crescent around Mt. Merapi, including the two old court cities of Yogyakarta and Solo or Surakarta. There is a western periphery, the monconegari kulon, which comprises the plains around Banyumas, and an eastern one: the monconegari wetan, the rice growing plains of today's East Java province, areas drained by the Brantas River.

The Sundanese

A broad, gentle, fertile coastal plain forms the North Coast region of the island, but in the western interior the volcanoes are close together, creating a higher, more rugged landscape not so suited to irrigate rice. This region is home to the Sundanese, by tradition dry-land farmers. The Sundanese and Javanese speak different languages, and are culturally quite distinct. Though they share much in art and ways of life, the Sundanese have never had the all-embracing court culture of Central Java.

The Madurese

In the east, and just of the North Coast of Java, is the island of Madura. The limestone island is drier and poorer than Java, and so the Madurese are more likely to be fisherman and traders than rice farmers. In the past they were famed as warriors and mercenaries, and for centuries they have sought their fortune outside their home island. Some hundred years ago, ,any Madurese migrated to the far east of java, the eastern salient that runs from Malang to the Gilamanuk Straits facing Bali. They now dominate the region.

Other Ethnic Groups

The North Coast of Java, a broad coastal plain running from Banten in the west to Gresik and Surabaya in the east, makes up a distinct cultural zone called the Pasisir, though its people generally identify themselves as ethnically Javanese (with some exceptions in the western part of the zone). The Pasisir is linked by the gentle, shallow Java Sea to the coastal areas of Sumatra, Borneo, the Malay Peninsula and Sulawesi. Linked by the sea, not separated, for the North Coast has always been Java's opening to the world, a highly cosmopolitan place where the people and the cultures of Asia and indeed the world have met.

The Betawi of Batavians of Jakarta are a cultural group that arose from the Pasisir way of live. They are the children of Java's largest city, Indonesia's capital, Jakarta, which has a five –hundred-year history as a metropolis and meeting point. Here various Indonesian people formed a distinct ethnic group in the melting pot of the colonial capital then known as Batavia. Speaking a form of Malay, with an architecture which is a heady mix of Buginese, Balinese, Chinese, Dutch and other traditions, the Orang Betawi have contributed much to what it means to be Indonesian.

One must add to the ethnic map sketched above various isolated groups like the Baduy, who work hard to maintain ethnic identities distinct from the masses around them. Crucial to the overall picture are the Chinese, whose history as sojourners and settlers in Java dates back many centuries.  Added too must be people from the Arabian peninsula and the Indian subcontinent, the Indos or Euroasian cultural group, and more recently the many non-Javanese who have settled her from original homes all over the Indonesian republic. That sketchy map outlines a story of tremendous human diversity and a cosmopolitan way of life. It is a rich setting, indeed, for Java Style.

The Javanese Skills

The prehistoric Austronesian people of the nusantara had four great skills: as seafarers, as rice growers, as textile makers, and as architects. Five thousands years on, the people of Java are still worthy of this inheritance.

  •  Java's mastery of the seas ended in the 17th century, but its engagement in trade and the affairs of Asia and the world remain.
  • As farmers, the people of Java perfected wet-rice cultivation. Rice thrives in swamps and wetland, and the discovery that rice grew best in waterlogged fields must have been part of the Austronesians at an early date. Still, the gentle, curving slopes of the volcanoes of Java and Bali are perfectly suited to the establishment of irrigation systems, and it is in these soils wet rice cultivation reached its peak.
  • The old textile heritage of the Austronesians has its greatest expression on Java today in the dominance of batik, a wax-resist method of colouring finished clothes. Though Javanese batik in the courts and on the North Coast has achieved a rare sophistication, it is still linked – through design motifs, dyestuffs and ritual – to the ancient textile tradition.
  • As architect, the Austronesians were masters of the materials afforded in tropical and subtropical environments: wood, bamboo, rattans, grasses, and the products of the many varieties of palm tree. Making a most elegant use of these natural materials, the Austronesian house is characterised first and foremost by its roof. Supported by thick wooden columns which convey its load directly to the ground, the roof is the dominant element. Living space is typically formed by a wooden platform or raft, which is attached to the columns, and raised from the ground. Walls in an Austronesian house are optional. In Java, this is clearly seen today in the most characteristic feature of local architecture, the pendopo.

The History of Java


At the dawn of our era, and true to their Austronesian roots, the Javanese were trading though the region and across the Indian Ocean. The ancient Indian epic the Ramayana describes Yavardviap, an island rich in grain and gold, a reference that probably dates back to the 3rd century BCE.

In the 5th century CE an inscription in the Pallava script of Southern India turns up from King Puranavarman, ruler of the river valleys of Northern West java. Two centuries later the people of Central Java began to make inscriptions in Javanese using Indian lettering, and they began to make Hindu temples of stone and brick.

The years 700 to more or less 920 saw a great flowering of art, scholarship and literature in Java. Monuments like Borobudur bear testament to the creative ferment taking place in this period: rice surpluses provided the wealth needed to create these temples, and priests, pilgrims and traders moved ideas and images in a lively exchange across the oceans, from India to Japan.

At the beginning of the 11th century, power shifted in Java from the central crescent around today's Yogyakarta and Solo, to the east, near the deltas of the Solo and Brantas rivers. Whether political crisis, volcanic eruption, epidemic or economic collapse, something seems to have disrupted the court of Central Java, which only regained its seat as the centre of political power in the 16th century.  

The Majapahit

East Java offers a similar landscape to the central plains, with the added value of an easier communication with the Java Sea. This plus a world trade boom from the 13th century until the end of the 16th meant that java became integrated into a trading network that was truly global. Foreign ways of life had a correspondingly higher impact. The late 13th century saw the birth of the Majapahit kingdom, the Empire of the Bael or Golden Apple. It was to dominate the archipelago for the next hundred and fifty years, commanding tribute from ports and principalities across the nusantara. The Majapahit reign was a time of relative political unity across the archipelago, a unity that was later to inspire 20th century nationalists as a model for an independent Indonesia. And importantly, Majapahit was witness to the coming of a new religion from the West. We know that members of the court adapted Islam. Majapahit's rulers never converted to Islam however, a religion which had first appeared in the region some two hundred years before. The first Islamic state on Java is Demak, one of the North Coast ports cities.

As internal conflicts weakened Majapahit, and as it lost trade to new ports like Mallaca, Demak was able to challenge the old empire, succeeding over the last half of the 16th century. Java's art and architecture of the 16th and 17th centuries witnesses a robust engagement between the new world of Islam and the Javanese Hindu-Buddhist past. No single court or city was able to dominate the island for the next two hundred years. The new kingdom of Mataram in Central Java, let by the Sultan Agung from 1613 to 1646, came closest.

The Verenigde Oost-Indische Companie

By the first quarter of the 17th century the dominant European presence was the Dutch Verenigde Oost-Indische Companie or VOC. Their military power, based on efficient weaponry and a fanatical courage, allowed them to challenge the military dominance of Mataram.  The Dutch founded their capital Batavia on Banstam's doorstep in 1619, and over the next two hundred years they expanded through Java, first at the expense of the Pasisir, and later becoming drawn into conflicts with Central Javanese courts. This expansion was not a calculated operation: as Mataram lost central authority after the reign of Sultan Agung, the Duthc became drawn into internecine conflicts, concluding deals to control trade and taxies for cities or regions as the price for alliance.

In the end, the VOC was unable to cope with the demands of organisation and administration of the territories in which it held power. The Company could not rein in the corruption that its officers thrived on, and bitter internal divisions had Batavia in a constant state of intrigue. Under the pressure of French and English competition for world trade, with revolution in Europe; the system collapsed, and the VOC was declared bankrupt. The very first day of the 19th century was the day that the sovereign French-Dutch government took over the administration of Java.

Britain's interest in Java stimulated the Dutch regime to new efforts when they regained control in 1817, thanks to a European peace deal. In 1830 the Dutch introduced the Cultivation System, whereby peasants grew cash crops like coffee, sugar and indigo, for purchase by the state at its own prices. The system was to be a great financial success for the colony. This operation required the active co-operation of Javanese elites. Dutch government worked through local bupati or regents, who held all the trappings of power in their districts, and were themselves usually descended from families that had traditional claim to rule in the areas.

But his world was changing. Improvements in technology, communication and transportation had brought new wealth to Java's cities at the end of the 19th century. A new Ethical Policy extended Dutch-language education beyond the European community, inevitable training a generation of Javanese that would demand change and equality. Old worlds and new were in increasing tension during the first thirty years of the 20th century. Much of Java's tempo doeloe or ‘good old days' version of a colonial life remained, but it was increasingly confronted with a more-quickly-paced industrialised future. When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s the dram of a European Java was truly over. Java's economy, tuned to the production of export crops, was devastated. The countryside became terribly impoverished; the tension between nationalists and the Dutch government grew stronger.

The Republic of Indonesia

Java had still not recovered by the time the Japanese occupation of 1942 brought an end to the European domination of the island for good. Four years of brutal occupation were succeeded by more suffering, as Java struggled against Dutch re-imposition of colonial rule. The Republic of Indonesia was declared on 17 August 1945, but it took four years of armed struggle before the Dutch recognised the independent Republic of Indonesia.

The 1950s and 1960s alternated between the euphoria of independence and the continued struggle of nation building.  Indonesia wrestled with awesome problems, including sharp regional conflicts and an almost totally decayed infrastructure. Inside Java there were deep political divisions that took an increasingly bitter toll. Soekarno, the nation's first President, could only walk the tightrope for so long. In 1965 an abortive Communist coup sparked a wave of violence that devastated the island.

In the wake of this trauma, a General Soeharto succeeded in consolidating power. By the 1970's, he was beginning to turn the economy around, rejecting a discredited economic nationalism and opening up to foreign investment. Soeharto's rule sparked nearly thirty years or rapid development and wealth creation. Whilst concerns remain about the equity and sustainability of this growth, the last quarter of the 20th century saw Java once more moving forward.

In 1997 Indonesia is afflicted by the Asian financial and economic crisis, accompanied by the worst drought in 50 years and falling prices for oil, gas, and other commodity exports. The rupiah plummets, inflation soars and capital flight accelerates. Demonstrators, initially led by students, call for Soeharto’s resignation. Amidst widespread civil unrest, Soeharto resigns in 1998.

Soeharto’s hand-picked vice president, Bacharuddin Jusef Habibie, becomes Indonesia’s third president. Parliamentary elections are held 1999, in which 48 parties compete. International and domestic observers and monitors declare that the elections, while not problem-free, are free and fair.

Abdurrachman Wahid is elected president by parliament in 1999, but replaces hem with Megawati Soekarnoputri in 2001. That year Indonesia accepts the independence of East Timor.

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was elected president in September 2004 after defeating Ms Megawati in an election run-off.

Indonesia is the third largest democracy in the world after India and the United States. A robust media and civil society, combined with direct and fair elections, are at the heart of Indonesia's political institutions.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was elected to a second and final five year term in presidential elections in July 2009. Receiving around 61 per cent of the national vote and winning ballots in 28 of 33 provinces, President Yudhoyono was the first Indonesian president to be re-elected to office in free and fair elections. Now nearing the end of his second term, President Yudhoyono is justifiably proud of the boost to Indonesia's stature achieved during his tenure. He has been an influential voice in the UN, EAS and G20 and is credited with leading Indonesia through a period of extended political stability, consolidated democratisation and economic growth.

The third Indonesian presidential election was held on 9 July 2014 and matched former general Prabowo Subianto against the governor of Jakarta, Joko Widodo. On 22 July the General Elections Commission announced Joko Widodo's victory. He and his vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, were sworn-in on 20 October 2014, for a 5-year term.


Java, the heart of the Indonesian Republic. An Orientation to the Culture and Traditions of Java.




  • The Island of Java Java is the fifth-largest island of Indonesia. With a population of 120 million people (65% of the total population in Indonesia) living on an area of 127569 sq. km (7% of the total Indonesian area), it is the most crowded island in the world..
  • Javanese Ceremonies Traditions that are celebrated within the culture of the Indonesian people on Java.
  • Mixed Marriage A mixed marriage is when two people from different cultural backgrounds or different religious traditions or faiths marry.