Indonesia is one of the world’s most diverse countries. The archipelagic nation is 14th largest by land and 4th most populous, with more than 17,000 islands and 300 distinct ethnic and linguistic groups. It’s no wonder, yet also wondrous, that Indonesians have actively adopted the motto, “Unity in Diversity.”
Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim-majority population, though religious choice is permitted and the country also includes Hindus and Buddhists, Catholics and Protestants — and “Confucianists” (though strictly speaking, not a religion). The practice of Islam is 99% Sunni, though both Shia and Ahmadi are also present. Antecedent to all is an indigenous animism, dynamism, and ancestral worship typical of Austronesian peoples.
Balinese rituals are a synthesis of Hinduism and indigenous animistic beliefs. The island’s Hinduism originated on Java and is itself a syncretism of Shivaism and Buddhism, while the underlying Austronesian animistic practices, which further integrate a practice of ancestor worship as seen in China, can be found in similar forms throughout Asia. Their island, according to the Balinese, belongs to the supreme deity Sanghyang Widhi — held by the people in sacred trust.
The religious practices of Indonesia’s Balinese are strongly integrated with the arts: theatre, dance, visual, music, literature. Religion and art are inseparable — neither would exist without the other, just as nature and divinity or the spirit world utterly co-exist.
Even the daily offerings to the gods and the unseen world, as prepared by Indonesia’s Balinese, must be aesthetically pleasing. Religious practice is intertwined with daily life … as are the arts, and as such, worship and beauty become one.
Art in all forms is very much a part of Indonesian life. In Yogyakarta, art is deeply valued — including independent, alternative, and even post-alternative forms. Here children are studying art not in an art academy, though these also abound — but at the Affandi Museum, itself an alternative space, established by one of Indonesia’s most well-known painters of the same name.
Indonesia is one of the earliest inhabited areas of the world, as early as 1.5 million years ago by anthropological evidence such as “Java Man” (later identified as homo erectus). Other such fossils have indicated that the archipelago is home to some of the earliest hominids outside of Africa — including one of the smallest, discovered in 2004 and thought to represent an as-yet unidentified species. Austronesian, this is one of the earliest cultural groups still in existence today.
There have been royal courts as well as Sultanates in Indonesia throughout its history — traditionally, 2 in Java alone. For 350 years, Indonesia was colonised or otherwise occupied by the Dutch, regaining independence only in 1949 through armed conflict. Though a constitutional republic today with an elected president, the country maintains a number of courts — in Java, Bali, Borneo and the Spice Islands — along with a call to return the Sultanates. One of the world’s largest democracies today, Indonesia maintains its royalty as a matter of history, pageantry, and cultural identity.
Indonesia has achieved a certain degree of affluence today, as evidenced by this shopping mall in Sumatra’s economic hub of Medan. The country is widely considered one of the 4 emerging economies in SE Asia (along with Thailand, Malaysia, and Philippines) — and despite the 2004 tsunami disaster, the likes of which the modern world has never before seen.
Indonesia is not without its tragedies, and on a grand scale. The 2004 tsunami saw an estimated death toll of 170,000; many other natural disasters have also been endured, the most recent in 2018 with 2 earthquakes and an approximate 5,000 deaths.A tragedy of human making occurred in 1965-66, from which the nation continues to heal: the so-called “Communist Purge,” a genocide over just a few months in which 500,000 to 3 million lost their lives.