LOCATION: Indonesia

POPULATION: 195 million

LANGUAGE: Bahasa Indonesia (official language); various ethnic languages

RELIGION: Islam (87 percent); Protestantism (6 percent); Catholicism (3 percent); Hinduism (3 percent); Buddhism (1 percent)


By one estimate, there are more than 250 distinct cultural groups (sukus) in Indonesia. They speak as many as 700 mutually unintelligible languages (the language spoken by any given group is not understood by the others), and represent a wide range of physical types. As one moves outward from the national capital, Jakarta, into the rural areas, ethnic group affiliation determines more and more of one's identity and way of life. The Indonesian republic strives to preserve each suku's distinctive heritage within a modern national culture. Its motto, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, is an Old Javanese expression meaning "The Many Are One."

The Indonesian archipelago (chain of islands), crossed by major trade routes, has long been a prime source of spices. These trade routes introduced Islam and Arabo-Persian culture to the region. From the late thirteenth century AD to the early seventeenth century, kingdom after kingdom converted to Islam. The modern state of Indonesia had its beginnings in outposts established by the Dutch East India Company in the early seventeenth century.

By the 1830s, the modern Dutch colonial state was founded. Over the next century, the power of this state expanded throughout the archipelago and penetrated deeply into the lives of those living inland. They lived within the framework of a common Dutch administration and European-style education. In the early years of the twentieth century, a small but rapidly growing group of native Indonesians began the struggle to free the "Indonesian nation." On August 17, 1945, Indonesian nationalist leaders Sukarno and Hatta proclaimed Indonesian independence. It would take years of bloody struggle before the Dutch formally recognized the Indonesian republic on December 17, 1949. Sukarno was president of Indonesia from 1949 to 1967 when he was removed from office after a coup d'état led by Suharto.

Under the thirty years of General's Suharto's "New Order," Indonesia became a favored destination for foreign investment and a major regional power. Political problems and unrest resulted in Suharto's resignation in May 1998. Transitional president B.J. Habibie assumed control and promised to hold elections within a year.


In the Indonesian national language, the usual expression for homeland, Tanah Air Kita, translates as "Our Land and Water." This phrase expresses the central fact of Indonesia's geography: the country consists of more than 17,000 islands. Of these, 6,000 are permanently inhabited (the total land area equals that of Mexico). The principal islands and island groups are Sumatra, Java, Bali, the Lesser Sundas, Irian Jaya (Indonesian New Guinea), the Moluccas, Sulawesi, and Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo).

Much of the country's soil is extraordinarily fertile. Indonesia's islands straddle the equator in a broad belt longer than the continental United States. The overall climate varies little, remaining hot and humid year-round.

Indonesia, with over 195,000,000 inhabitants, is the fourth-most-populous country in the world. (It follows China, India, and the United States.)


Indonesians speak between 250 and 700 distinct languages. However, there is only one official language of government, commerce, education, and mass media. It is Bahasa Indonesia, a dialect of Malay. For the majority of Indonesians, Bahasa Indonesia is the language used in public. A regional language is used for private, family, and local community life. Bahasa Indonesia uses a Latin script (alphabet).

Several separate families of Papuan languages are spoken in Irian Jaya and some other eastern islands. Otherwise the tongues spoken in Indonesia belong to several branches of the Austronesian language family. This language family includes the closely related languages of Madagascar, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

The major ethnic groups in Indonesia are as follows:

Java: Javanese, Sandiness, and Madurese.

Sumatra: Iciness, Gaya, Toby Batak and Dairy Batak, Minangkabaus (in the west); Nias and Mentally (on islands off the west coast); Regan and Lumping (in southernmost Sumatra); and Malay (the dominant population of West Malaysia and present on the coasts of East Malaysia and in Brunei and Singapore).

Kalimantan: Banjarese (southeastern Kalimantan); and a great diversity of inland peoples generally known as "Adak."

Sulawesi: on the southwestern peninsula, Bugis, Makassares, and Mandar; in the central highlands, many diverse groups, of which the best known are the Sa'dan Toraja and Pamona; on the northern peninsula, the Tomini, Gorontalo, Bolaang Mongondow, and Minahasa; and in the east and on offshore islands, the Mori, Bungku, Muna, and Butonese.

The Lesser Sundas (better-known groups): Balinese; Sasak; Sumbawans; Bimanese; Sumbanese; Savunese; on Flores, the Manggarai, Ngada, Endenese, Sikanese; and on Timor, the Tetum, Atoni, Helong, and Rotinese.

The Moluccas: Non-Austronesian—Ternatans; Tidorese; and in northern Halmahera, the Tobelorese, Galelarese, and other small groups; Austronesian—in southern Halmahera, small language-groups such as Sawai; in the southern islands, the Tanimbarese, Aru, and Kei; the most important culture in the central islands is Ambonese.

Irian Jaya: Austronesian languages are spoken along the north and west coasts, while Papuan languages are spoken elsewhere (e.g., Asmat and Dani).

Chinese: numbering 4 million, they form the most important "nonindigenous" group (though most have resided in Indonesia for generations).

Naming practices vary from ethnic group to ethnic group as well as across class and religious lines. The most commonly encountered type of name is Arabic associated with Islam. Except for a few sukus (cultural groups), family names are not used.

In general, Indonesians are fond of nicknames, usually based on the last syllable of the full name. Thus, the male name "Hermawan" becomes "Wawan," or the female name "Hermawati" becomes "Titi." Etiquette requires that titles be used at all times to indicate respect. In Bahasa Indonesia, one addresses persons of greater age or status with the word "Bapak" for men and "Ibu" for women.


Indonesia has a long list of "national heroes," who are commemorated in monuments and in the names of streets, airports, universities, and other public institutions. A few of the best-known figures are Gajah Mada (d. 1364), a fourteenth-century Majapahit prime minister who furthered Indonesian nationalism; the Javanese prince Diponegoro (1785–1855) and the Minangkabau priest Imam Bonjol (1772–1864), who led an armed resistance to Dutch power; and Raden Ajeng Kartini (1879–1905), a Central Javanese noblewoman who advocated women's rights.


All Indonesians must register as followers of one of five recognized religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, or Buddhism. Atheism, associated with the banned communist movement, is not allowed. An elaborate bureaucracy oversees the operations of each of the five religious communities. Legislation discourages marriage between members of different religious communities: one of the prospective partners must officially convert to the religion of the other. Religious communities are forbidden to seek converts from each other's memberships.

The vast majority (87 percent) of the population adheres to Islam, making Indonesia the largest Muslim nation on earth. It has more Muslims than all of the Arab world put together. The degree of individual observance varies.

Six percent of the population is Protestant. Catholicism (3 percent of the population) was first introduced by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. Hinduism (3 percent of the population) in Indonesia means almost exclusively the religion of Bali, which combines the Indian religion with native religious practices. Buddhism (no more than 1 percent of the population) claims mostly Chinese adherents. Their traditional practices combine Mahayana Buddhism with Taoism and Confucianism.


The Department of Religion authorizes a list of twelve public holidays (on which government offices and schools are closed). Two are purely secular: New Year's Day (January 1) and Independence Day (August 17). The others are feasts observed by the five recognized religions: Nyepi, the Hindu-Balinese New Year; Waisak, the birth of the Buddha; Christmas, Good Friday, and Ascension Thursday for Christians; and five Muslim holidays—the Islamic New Year; the Birth of Muhammad; the Night of the Ascent (Muhammad's visit to heaven); Eid al-Fitr, the end of the fasting month of Ramadan; and Eid al-Adha, recalling Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son at God's command.

On Independence Day, each village and city neighborhood is decorated with red and white national flags. Colorful paintings commemorate the Revolution. Parades, speeches, and performances of traditional music, dance, and theater also mark the day.

The end of the Muslim fast month of Ramadan is marked by a great celebration, called Eid al-Fitr, Lebaran, or Hari Raya. Throughout Indonesia, special feasts are prepared. These are heralded by the mass weaving of ketupat, small palm-leaf containers for cooked rice. Migrants return to their hometowns, and ancestral graves are cleaned and sprinkled with flower petals. Even non-Muslims visit family members, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and superiors to ask forgiveness for the offenses of the past year.


Rituals marking major life events differ greatly according to ethnic group, religion, and social class. For many, modernization has simplified the traditional rites of passage. However, many wealthy families display their status by holding elaborate traditional rituals. Celebrations are public affairs to which the extended family, friends, workmates, and local officials are invited. In fact, celebrations are generally open to the entire neighborhood or village—all of whom must be fed.

The most important celebrations accompany births, circumcisions (for Muslim boys), weddings, and funerals. Weddings usually consist of the legally required religious ceremony (usually Muslim or Christian) and rites following ethnic custom. These are followed by a large reception held in a family home, a hotel, or a rented hall.

Among the Muslim majority, funerals tend to be somewhat uniform among the different ethnic groups. They including the washing and enshrouding of the body, and burial within twenty-four hours. Mourners by the truckload accompany the body to the cemetery and, after collective prayer, each mourner tosses a handful of earth into the grave.


In general, interpersonal relations throughout Indonesia are governed by a concern to preserve social harmony and personal honor. In their interactions with others, Indonesians take great care to show respect to those of higher status, whether due to age, nobler ancestry, superior educational attainment, or higher organizational rank.

Indonesian life tends to be group—rather than individual—oriented. Individuals have little personal space, rarely having even a bed to themselves, and privacy is largely an unknown concept. Putting the group's interests above one's own is a village value that has been carried into many aspects of modern urban life. Great care is taken to avoid overt disagreements within groups. Fear of bringing shame upon one's family and other groups to which one belongs has a powerful influence on personal decisions.

The Islamic greeting, Wassalamu alaikum (warakhmatullahi wabarakatuh), "Peace upon you (and God's blessings)," has become the standard greeting in public life, even for non-Muslims. It is often accompanied by the shaking of hands, concluded by bringing the right palm to one's chest. The most common informal greeting is Dari mana, "Where are you coming from?" Even in informal situations, great importance is placed on asking permission to depart (a common phrase is the Dutch-derived Permisi?) .

While passing in front of older or higher-status people, it is customary to bow low, extend the right hand in front of oneself, and walk forward slowly. Especially in Java, the index finger is taboo. Pointing is done with the right thumb, and one beckons others to come with a downward, inward movement of the right palm. Folding one's arms over one's chest or holding them akimbo (hands on hips with elbows outward) while speaking appears aggressive.

Unannounced visits may be made in the late afternoon between nap time and dinnertime (4:00–6:00 PM ). Visitors are served tea and snacks; one leaves a little food on the plate to show one wants no more. Indonesian attitudes toward punctuality are reflected in the expression jam karet (rubber time). Being late for appointments is the norm.

Although there is considerable variation, interaction between young men and women tends to be closely monitored by elders and peers. Dating and premarital sex are not condoned. Early marriage is the norm. Public displays of affection between the sexes (such as holding hands or kissing) are taboo (forbidden). However, physical contact between members of the same sex (such as walking arm in arm) is common and is not considered a sign of homosexuality.


Given the large average family size, Indonesian houses tend to be crowded. Some 30 percent of houses have walls of bamboo, the cheapest material. The rest have brick or wooden walls. Roofs are of tile, zinc, or thatch. The layout of a wealthy family's house is similar to that of Western houses, with separate rooms for receiving guests and eating dinner. Most bathrooms, however, have squat toilets and an open tank of water to be used for bathing and flushing. Many poorer Indonesian homes lack such facilities, forcing their owners to use public areas such as riversides. While nearly all houses in Jakarta have electricity, under half of all homes have electricity nationwide. Very few houses (mostly urban) have running water (not generally drinkable).


The family is the central institution of Indonesian society, and the model for other social relations. The family household includes not only parents and children but also grandparents, other unmarried relatives, and servants. Child-care responsibilities are shared among mothers, grandmothers, older daughters, and others. The father is often the ultimate authority figure, while the mother manages the family money. Remaining at home, children remain dependent on their parents until, and often well into, marriage. Children are duty-bound to take care of their parents in old age. Older siblings likewise help younger ones, even going as far as financing their education.

Indonesian women play a more prominent public role than their counterparts in Middle Eastern Muslim societies. In Indonesian Islam, women are not segregated from men in the mosque. However, female illiteracy (percent who cannot read or write) is still higher than male illiteracy, and female attendance at educational institutions is lower than male attendance.


Context and class determine the choice between modern and traditional clothes. For instance, a male office worker will wear a Western-style shirt and trousers to work, but relax at home in some kind of sarong (a traditional skirtlike garment). Shorts are not worn by adults, except by low-status laborers. In their everyday clothing, members of the upper classes follow Western fashions closely (for example, young people commonly wear jeans and T-shirts). A number of Muslim women wear a head covering in public. This may be either a traditional scarf (kudung) or the current preference, a full veil (jilbab) exposing only the face.

A standard "national costume" has come into style for use on formal occasions. For men, a black felt peci cap is worn with a batik shirt (untucked) and trousers. Women wear a sarong and a kebaya (tight-sleeved, collarless shirt) and put their hair up into a bun (or tuck it under a wig of the required shape).

Elementary school students and civil servants all wear uniforms.

12 • FOOD

"Indonesian cuisine" is the sum of the diverse food traditions of the country's numerous ethnic groups. These have been influenced by Indian, Middle Eastern, Chinese, Portuguese, and even Dutch cooking.

Throughout the country, rice is the primary staple. Many restaurants features rijsttafel, the Dutch word for "rice table." The definition of a full meal is cooked rice (nasi) with side dishes (lauk-pauk). Side dishes range from boiled vegetables with a piece of dried fish to fried and stewed dishes including meat curries. In most families, red meat is consumed only on special occasions. Chicken, seafood, and soybean products provide a cheaper protein. For special occasions, nasi kuning (yellow rice) is prepared. See accompanying recipe.

The traditional mode of eating is to scoop up food from flat dishes with the fingers of the right hand. Individual portions are not separated. Rather, everyone eats from common dishes laid out in the center of the table or dining mat.

Most Indonesians do not eat a distinct breakfast, other than leftovers from the previous evening's meal, if there are any. For lunch, office workers and students will either go to warung or kedai (small food stalls) or buy dishes like bakso (meatball soup) from mobile street vendors. For those who can afford them, afternoon snacks such as rujak, a fresh-fruit salad, are also common.


Nasi Kuning
(Yellow Rice)


  • 2 cups rice
  • 2¼ cups coconut milk
  • 2 teaspoons turmeric
  • 1 blade lemon grass
  • Rice steamer


  1. Wash and drain rice.
  2. Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil.
  3. Lower heat to a simer, and continue to cook until all the coconut milk is absorbed.
  4. Put rice into a steamer. (If a steamer is not available, use a vegetable steamer lined with cheesecloth set over boiling water.)
  5. Steam until rice is tender.

As unboiled water is usually unsafe, tea and coffee are drunk in great quantities, usually with sugar and sometimes milk. Soft drinks, including bottled tea and bottled water, are also popular.


Six years of elementary school (ages seven to twelve) are required by law. Curriculum in primary and secondary schools is determined by the central government. Teaching methodology stresses rote memorization. For poorer families, sending a child to a public school is often a financial burden because of fees and other expenses such as textbooks and uniforms.

Few enroll in higher education, and only one in four applicants is admitted to state institutions. The requirement of a written thesis (skripsi) prevents most students from earning their degrees on time. Many must interrupt their study in order to work.

About 15 percent of the school-age population attends private (mostly Islamic) schools.


No dance styles can be said to be truly national. However, three urban-based music genres have won nationwide popularity. Melancholy music for voice and strings, kroncong, is widely heard though considered old-fashioned. Pop Indonesia is modeled on American-European pop music. Dangdut features high-pitched vocals and an insistent beat and is derived from Indian film music. Holiday fairs will feature large tents where hundreds of young people crush together dancing to live dangdut singing.

Novels and poetry in the Bahasa Indonesia language have been written since the early years of the twentieth century. Internationally, Indonesia's most famous writer is Pramoedya Ananta Toer, a leftist author who was imprisoned for years. His novels, This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and House of Glass, explore the birth of Indonesian nationalism.


With more than 70 percent of the population living in rural areas, agriculture employs more than half of Indonesia's work force. Only a small percentage of cultivated land belongs to large plantations. The rest is divided among tens of millions of small farmers. Many peasants either do not own enough land to survive or they have none at all and are forced to work others' land.

Rice (sawah) grown in irrigated fields is by far the most important food crop, particularly in Java and Bali. Corn, cassava, taro, sago, soybeans, peanuts, and coconuts are also widely grown. Cattle, goats, chickens, and in non-Muslim areas, pigs are the main livestock. Fishing employs only a small part of the work force.

Almost 25 percent of the work force labors at jobs requiring little skill or financial investment. Petty traders, including half of all nonfarming women, make up most of the 16 percent of the work force engaged in commerce. A further 13 percent are in service jobs. Industry employs 11 percent of all workers, including great numbers of young women in textile factories.


Part of the Dutch colonial heritage, the most popular modern sport is soccer. It is played in large open spaces in towns throughout the country. The other two most widely-played sports are basketball and badminton, which is often played in the middle of the street without a net.

Martial arts are also widely practiced, both the native silat and imported East Asian forms such as kung fu and tae kwon do . Many people can be seen jogging in streets and public squares and parks, especially on Sunday morning. Young people enjoy hiking in large groups through mountain areas.


Numerous radio stations broadcast programs in the national and regional languages and play regional, national, and foreign music (heavy metal, for instance, appeals to a wide teenage audience). Television programming includes government-produced news, comedies set in middle-class Jakarta homes, historical dramas, music concerts, and old movies. Dubbed or subtitled foreign imports consist of American TV series, Japanese cartoons and melodramas, and Latin American soap operas. Many well-to-do households receive a wide selection of foreign channels through a satellite dish (parabola) and often allow neighbors to pay to tap in. In the countryside, families wealthy enough to purchase a television set permit fellow villagers to watch.

Upper-class audiences prefer to watch subtitled American movies and Hong Kong kung fu films. The masses watch Indonesian, Hong Kong, and Indian movies.

Other popular urban pastimes include window shopping in malls and department stores, browsing in all-night markets, and eating at evening-only food stalls.


A variety of crafts are practiced by individual Indonesian ethnic groups, including woodcarving; weaving textiles, baskets, and mats; metalworking (gold, silver, copper, and iron); pottery and stonecarving; leather-working; tie-dying and batiking; glass-painting; boat-building; and gardening.


Indonesia's large and growing population continues to strain national resources. Rapid development has not brought comparable benefits to all of Indonesia's people. Economic growth has widened the gap between the rich and the poor, especially the rural landless. Violations of human rights and widespread corruption have generated considerable discontent.


Cribb, R. B. Historical Dictionary of Indonesia. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1992.

McNair, S. Indonesia . Chicago: Children's Press,1993.

Palmier, Leslie, ed. Understanding Indonesia. Brookfield, Vt.: Gower, 1985.


Indonesian Embassy in Canada. [Online] Available , 1998.

Interknowledge Corp. [Online] Available , 1998.

World Travel Guide. Indonesia. [Online] Available , 1998.

Also read article about Indonesians from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

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Nov 8, 2010 @ 8:20 pm
please put in festivals and ceremonies i need it for my project!!!
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Mar 9, 2015 @ 5:05 am
I really like this because this gives me a lot of info.

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