Indonesian culture, like Indonesia itself, is a fascinating blend of indigenous, Malay, Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic elements. Indonesia is a country of great diversity and its national motto is "Unity in Diversity." This diversity is also found in all aspects of culture: language, housing, cuisine, dance and music, artistic expression, etc as each has many local variants.
However, Indonesia is also noted for several distinct and national cultural expressions. These include the Wayang shadow puppet theatre, the gamelan orchestra, Balinese and Javanese dances, batik cloth making traditions, and rice based and spicy cuisine. Indonesia, like much of Southeast Asia, has adopted and adapted the great Hindu epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and uses these stories as the basis of many dance, musical, and puppetry performances.
Wayang (puppet plays)
Wayang is one of the oldest and best developed story telling traditions in Indonesia. The word means shadow or ghost and is used to refer to dramatic performances using live actors or puppets. The most common type of Wayang is that which uses shadow puppets and is called Wayang Kulit. These puppets are two dimensional creations, carved from buffalo or goatskin parchment into exaggerated human shapes. These puppets have moveable limbs and are manipulated by sticks attached to the limbs. Each puppet is a distinct type and the various types: the hero, the villain, the lovely girl, etc, are well known. These plays are performed in villages and towns on special occasions such as a wedding, a public holiday, celebration of birth or circumcision or, in Bali, for funeral cremations. The puppets are manipulated behind a large white screen which is lit with an oil or electric lamp from behind, causing the puppets to cast shadows on the screen. They are manipulated by a puppet master, called a Dalang who also speaks for the puppets, sings, and taps out signals to the accompanying orchestra. He must be able to imitate many voices, from that of a princess to a noble hero.
Many stories are performed in these shadow plays but most of them derive from the two great Indian epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Brought to Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia by Indian merchants, these stories have been popular since their introduction in the 1st century A.D. Over the centuries, these stories have been changed and modified until they have become an intimate part of Indonesian heritage and have particular Indonesian attributes. Rather than referring to Indian kings and deities, they often refer to Indonesian royalty and deities. The Ramayana refers to the cycle of stories about King Rama, the ideal king and the series of trials and tribulations he and his family underwent to demonstrate the ideals and ethics that make him the perfect king. Stories of his marriage to Sita (Indonesian Sinta), their banishment to the forest, Sinta's abduction by the demon Ravanna (Indonesian Rahwana), her eventual rescue by Rama with the aid of the monkey god Hanuman, and their reinstatement as rulers, are some of the most popular and most frequently performed.
The second epic, the Mahabharata, tells the stories of the fratricidal war between two groups of kinsmen, vying for the throne. The rightful rulers, the 5 Pandava brothers, are cheated out of the throne by the 100 "evil" Kurava brothers, their cousins. This struggle is resolved by a bloody war resulting in the eventual triumph of the Pandavas. In the process, there are many stories of nobility, evil, love, humiliation, etc. The Pandava brothers represent justice and right and are the descendants of Hindu Gods. In Java, the kings claimed descent from Arjuna, the central one of these brothers and the essence of nobility. His elder brother, Yudhisthira, is the epitome of wisdom and honesty, while his second brother, Bimasena represents physical and moral strength. These stories have remained popular in spite of the acceptance of Islam as the main religion in Indonesia.
The shadow plays are accompanied by the gamelan orchestra which also plays independently in concerts marking important events. The gamelan orchestra consists of a large array of bronze and percussion instruments. Instruments are tuned in two ways which are similar to the minor and major keys of Western music and a complete orchestra contains two sets of instruments, one tuned each way. For an excellent site with pictures of the instruments, please click on:
www.joglosemar.co.id/gamelan.html. If you go to the home page of this site, you can access many other aspects of Indonesian culture.
The following site also contains good information and pictures of gamelan music, Wayang shadow puppets, as well as Balinese dances, the art of Batik cloth making, architecture and art:
http://www.seasite.niu.edu/Indonesian/Budaya%5FBangsa/. In addition to dealing with music and dance, this site has recipes, costumes, and houses. It is written in both Indonesian and English so it can be a little frustrating at times, but the information and the pictures are great.
Batik refers to the technique of creating beautiful designs in cloth by covering parts of the material with wax and then dying the material. The dye, of course, clings only to the parts of the material not covered with wax. Designs to be created are either drawn onto the material with a hot wax pencil or stamped onto the material with a copper stamp. The cloth is then dipped into the different colors of dyes, and the wax removed, creating a vast array of stunning patterns. Batik is made throughout Southeast Asia, including Malaysia and Thailand; Indonesian Batik has particular designs and different areas specialized in different color combinations.