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Introduction to Indonesia

A map of southeast Asia that shows Indonesia and nearby countries.
Map of Southeast Asia. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum.
The Southeast Asian country of Indonesia consists of more than 17,000 tropical and volcanic islands that straddle the equator between the Indian and Pacific oceans. Among Indonesia’s principal regions are the islands of Java, Bali, and Sumatra, as well as large parts of Borneo and New Guinea (a contested region). Today, Indonesia is home to more than three hundred ethnic groups with approximately five hundred spoken languages and dialects. Eighty-seven percent of the population, or some 200 million people, is Islamic, making Indonesia the largest Muslim nation in the world.
For thousands of years Indonesians developed complex agricultural societies with rich artistic and cultural traditions rooted in a belief in ancestral spirits and animism. The history of Indonesia also chronicles the influx of maritime trade, the transmission of religions, the rise and fall of Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms, 350 years of colonization by the Dutch, invasion by the Japanese, and the establishment of an independent nation in 1945. The Indonesian people have nurtured a world view that incorporates diverse religions and traditions with indigenous beliefs that lie at the heart of Indonesia’s cultures.
For two thousand years, merchant ships have traversed the Straits of Melaka, the sea route connecting South Asia (the Indian subcontinent) and East Asia, carrying maritime traders in search of gold and fine spices. Midway in their journeys along this thoroughfare, in the archipelago of Indonesia, traders from India and China in search of exotic trade items discovered goods ranging from gold, nutmeg, and cloves to rhinoceros horn and kingfisher feathers. During this time Indonesian rulers drew upon new religions and cultural ideas brought by these foreign traders, who were sometimes accompanied by Hindu and Buddhist priests. After these Indian religions were established on the island of Java, Indonesian rulers in turn patronized the development of religious sites in India.
The story of how these diverse religions coexist with and support the indigenous beliefs of Indonesia is told in the arts and architecture of the islands. The Southeast Asian tradition of rulers claiming close association with divine beings extended to Indonesian kings who patronized Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism. To honor the ancestors and to legitimize their rule, these kings built monumental structures to adorn the island of Java. The most famous are the Buddhist monument of Borobudur and the Hindu temple complex at Prambanan. In the late 1200s the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit emerged, during which time both Buddhism and Hinduism were practiced in the royal courts. However, the spread of Islam centuries later had an even more lasting influence on the people of Indonesia. Originally brought to the islands by Arab, Chinese, and Indian traders, Sufism (a mystical branch of Islam) was practiced in royal courts. In the 1500s the Sultan of Demak, originally a Hindu king, converted to Islam and conquered Majapahit, furthering the spread of that religion throughout the island.
Although aspects of the Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim faiths may appear to be in conflict with one another, the way these religions coexist with indigenous Indonesian beliefs may be viewed as a natural expression of its people’s spirituality. Some Indonesians believe that these religions hold common teachings of morality and virtue. This is reflected in the theater tradition of shadow puppet theater (wayang kulit) and three-dimensional rod puppet theater (wayang golek), in which a Muslim puppet master (dalang) entertains and educates the people using puppets to reenact indigenous versions not only of Islamic legends but also of the Hindu epics and Javanese traditional tales. In a wayang performance the spirit world and the earthly world converge, and the inner struggles of human existence—love, passion, hate, fear, and pain—are played out, revealing the history, spirit, and values of the people.

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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    What is the written language of Indonesia given that it is the most populous Muslim nation? Do those that are literate read Arabic or another native language...or both?
    (3 votes)
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    • leaf orange style avatar for user Alex 'Good' Graniere
      I'm not entirely sure what the ancient forms of writing were, but modern day Indonesian's use an alphabet based off of Latin. The official language of Indonesia is Bahasa Indonesia, a form of Malay. The written system of Malay was not invented in Southeast Asia but instead rendered from various outside systems like Indic, Arabic, and, most recently, Latin scripts.

      The adoption of Bahasa Indonesia is relatively new and only became popular during and predominantly after the Dutch Colony of Indonesia. Therefore, if you walk around Indonesian cities today you will recognize the letters as they are based off of Latin.

      However, there are many, many different languages other than Bahasa Indonesia used throughout the country like Javanese, Balinese, etc. I'm not too familiar with their histories or writing systems, so I'll just leave it at that.
      (9 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user kent_ravemaster
    "Indonesia the largest Muslim nation in the world"
    does it mean Indonesia is an Islamic country like Saudi Arabia?
    (1 vote)
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  • aqualine sapling style avatar for user sa84289
    Does the article say that the Indonesian language developed over time during invasions?It's too confusing for 4th grader me
    (2 votes)
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    • leafers tree style avatar for user Vincent Santosa
      From my point of view, the making of the Indonesian Language or Bahasa Indonesia , was made during the Dutch colonization, precisely on October the 28th 1928 as the Indonesian youth came to gather from all over Indonesia to make an oath called Sumpah Pemuda in an effort to stop Dutch colonization by uniting Indonesian youth.
      (1 vote)
  • leafers seed style avatar for user Thoriq Yahya
    When the first time Muslim came to Indonesia? Are they came from Chinese?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby yellow style avatar for user Vla Sibarani
    In the fourtenth paragraph. "The establishment of an independent nation in 1949," should be the establishment of an independent nation in 1945.
    (1 vote)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user sigit wiyono
      In 1945, we did proclaim our independence following the surrender of Japan to the Allied Forces of which was not acknowledged by the The Netherlands. And, in 1949 Dutch soldiers came again to Indonesia with their Military aggression. The dispute went on to the talks in United nations
      (2 votes)