In all my time living and traveling in Asia, I never had the desire to travel to Indonesia. I don’t know why, but it just didn’t have the appeal to me as much as places like Myanmar, Tibet, Laos, or even Thailand. But, in the summer of 2012, I was assigned to go to Jakarta to photograph an article, and my mind was opened up to Indonesia.
Indonesia is the fourth most populated country in the world with 238 million people. It’s a string of over 17,000 islands that straddle the equator between Southeast Asia and Australia. The people are quite diverse: 87% are Muslim, 9% are Christian, 3% are Hindu, and the rest have too many religions and cultures to count. 742 different languages are spoken throughout the archipelago, but Bahasa Indonesian is a common language understood by all.
My destination this time, was the “main” island of Java, along with a few days of R&R on the famous island of Bali.
Java is the most populate island in the country. It’s 138 million people are almost entirely muslim, and they speak several different dialects of Javanese. The Javanese culture goes back thousands of years, and I found that they are very proud of their cultural heritage.
Other than the excellent hospitality of the Javanese people, I ran into two interesting aspects of the culture. Javanese gamelan is an orchestra of percussion instruments that plays a very inviting melody. To this beautiful sound, the Javanese often perform a traditional dance. The dances that I saw, all told stories.
The other impression of the island’s culture that will stick with me is the sight of endless, perfectly manicured fields. It seems that everywhere you go, you will see farmers tending their picturesque fields of mostly rice, but also bananas, onions, sugar cane, and even coffee in the east. (Where do you think the term “Java” came from?)
I was also lucky enough to visit a very small factory where men were making gongs in the traditional way. They all seemed to do their hot, hard work happily.
The religion of Java is Islam. Everywhere you go, you see mosques, children in their madras school uniforms, and women wearing hijabs. But, other than the daily 4am wake up calls to prayer, I didn’t find the religion to be too prevalent or obvious. What I mean is, I don’t recall seeing anyone praying during those calls to prayer nor did I see many people at any of the mosques at any time. The average Javanese seems to have a laid back attitude towards their religion, unlike the picture that western media would like to paint of the average Muslim.
Historical Javanese Religion
Throughout history, Java has seen many religions come and go. From the animistic religions of prehistory (still practiced in some of the outlying islands), to modern Islam, the island has also seen a strong influence of Buddhism and Hinduism.
Built in the 9th century, this Buddhist monument is one of the three ancient wonders of the Buddhist world (along with Bagan in Myanmar, and Ankor Wat in Cambodia).
The Prambanan Hindu temple was built about 50 years after Borobudur, and dedicated to the Hindu Gods. It actually bears a remarkable resemblance to Ankor Wat and it and its surrounding temples were an interesting place to explore for the day
This ends part one of my series of photo essays on Indonesia. Part Two includes images of Indonesia’s volcanoes Mount Bromo and the Ijen Sulfur Mines.