LOCATION: Indonesia (West Java)

POPULATION: 30 million

LANGUAGE: Sundanese; Indonesian

RELIGION: Orthodox Islam; Catholicism; Protestantism


The Sundanese are the second-largest ethnic group in Indonesia. There is a complex history behind their rich cultural traditions. This history can be traced back to the fifth century AD and the Tarumanagara dynasty, which established trade links extending as far as China. A succession of Sundanese kingdoms was followed by 350 years of Dutch colonization. During this time Sundanese lands became an important source of spices, coffee, quinine, rubber, and tea for export.

In the twentieth century, the Sundanese joined in the struggle for an independent, united Indonesian nation, which was established on August 17, 1945. Even after independence, however, some Sundanese worked to establish a separate, autonomous (self-ruled) territory. These efforts were suppressed by Indonesia's first president, Sukarno (1901–70). By the late-1950s, "Sunda-land" had been fully integrated into Indonesia. Called West Java, it is one of the nation's richest provinces.


The Sundanese number more than thirty million people. The vast majority live on the island of Java. Java is a small island, but it is the administrative and economic center of the Indonesian archipelago (chain of islands). The larger Javanese ethnic group forms the majority in Java's central and eastern provinces. The Sundanese constitute a majority in West Java. West Java spreads over an area of 16,670 square miles (43,177 square kilometers), about half the size of greater metropolitan Los Angeles, California. The northern coast is flat, and the southern coast is hilly. The central area is mountainous and is marked by some spectacular volcanoes.


Like other Indonesians, most Sundanese are bilingual. They speak both their native tongue, Sundanese, and the Indonesian national language. Generally, Sundanese is the language of choice among family members and friends, while in the public sphere, Indonesian is used. Both languages are part of the Austronesian language family.

Sundanese is extremely diverse, with various regional dialects. However, all are divided into different levels of formality depending on the social status of the person being addressed. Thus, the words one uses when talking to one's father differ from those used when talking to a friend or to one's younger sister. Most people use only two levels, or sometimes three. However, some older people make use of four.

Sundanese naming practices are extremely varied. Some people have only a single name, while others have a first name and a last name. Women do not legally change their names after marriage but are frequently called "Mrs. [name of husband]."


Myths and heroic stories are an extremely important part of Sundanese culture. Such stories are told through films, puppet shows, oral poetry, novels, and even comic books. Some are regional in character. They explain the history of a local kingdom, or the mythical origin of a lake or mountain. Others, like the Ramayana, are Hindu in origin.

One myth the Sundanese think of as distinctly their own is the legend of Nyi Loro Kidul, the Queen of the South Seas. As the story goes, in the fourteenth century there was a princess in the Pajajaran kingdom whose thirst for power was so great that her father placed a curse on her. The curse gave her more power than he himself had, but allowed her to wield it only over the South Seas. The princess was then reincarnated as the exquisitely beautiful Nyi Loro Kidul. Said to live off West Java's south coast to this day, she is more powerful than all the spirits. She is said to have received nighttime visits from Javanese kings and Muslim saints in her palace beneath the waves. Men who swim or fish off the south coast are warned not to wear green, for those who do are often spirited away by Nyi Loro Kidul and never return.


The overwhelming majority of Sundanese are orthodox Muslim, although some are Catholic or Protestant. Many Muslims pray five times a day, travel to Mecca at some point in their life, and fast during the holy month of Ramadan. In towns and cities, there is a mosque in every neighborhood. Each day the calls to prayer are broadcast over loudspeakers for everyone to hear. There are still many non-Islamic elements in Sundanese ceremonies and rituals, particularly those surrounding the growing of rice. They probably come from the Hindu religion that preceded the spread of Islam, or from pre-Hindu Sundanese culture.


The Sundanese have no special holidays of their own. They follow the calendar of Indonesian national holidays. It includes both secular holidays and those of the nation's official religions.


When a Sundanese child is born, a paraji (midwife) is usually present to provide advice. The paraji also prays to help the mother and the newborn get through the ordeal safely. Once the baby is born, its umbilical cord is cut with a special instrument called a hanis. The placenta is buried beneath a window at the rear of the house. A ritual party is held, attended by family and neighbors.

At the age of seven or eight years, boys undergo a circumcision ritual to usher them into adulthood. Before the circumcision takes place, the boy is bathed and dressed in a sarung (a skirtlike garment). The entire ceremony takes place at the boy's home. Frequently it is accompanied by a party.

Marriage is the most elaborate Sundanese rite of passage. Formally, it involves nine stages, from the initial visit between both sets of parents to the sharing of food and gifts on the day of the wedding. The groom's family brings gifts and money to the family of the bride. A few days before the wedding, the groom is "given" to the bride, along with clothing, jewelry, and money. On the day of the wedding, the groom is picked up at his home and taken to the bride's house, where he presents her with an agreed-upon amount of gold. The parents of the couple ceremonially feed them the last bites they will receive from their parents' hands. One week after the wedding, a gathering is held at the groom's house for his family and friends to meet the bride.

After a death, friends and relatives immediately gather at the house of the deceased. They bring gifts of money and rice for the family. Flowers are soaked in water, which is used for washing the body of the deceased. A religious leader (kiai) reads a prayer over the body before it is carried in a procession to the cemetery. The death is later marked by ritual gatherings on the third, seventh, fortieth, one-hundredth, and one-thousandth days after the person has passed away.


The Sundanese place great value on showing people respect by following an unwritten code of behavior. Formal greetings are made by bowing the head and upper body. The hands are held together in front of the chest with fingers outstretched, and the fingertips touch the tips of the other person's fingers. In business settings, handshaking is acceptable. It is done with the right hand. When one lets go, the heart should be touched briefly with the same hand.

Social visits are governed by rules of etiquette for both guests and host. When the visitor is ready to go, she or he should always announce the intention to leave. The host will reply that the visitor is leaving too soon and has not even eaten yet (even if the visitor has been there for hours and the host had hoped to be doing something else).

A man must treat the woman he asks on a date with respect. This means he must pick her up at home, make small talk with her family, and pay for any food and entertainment. It would be considered humiliating for a woman to openly take the initiative in dating. However, Sundanese women have all sorts of tricks that allow them to do so while appearing to remain passive.


Living conditions in West Java are extremely diverse. Some people live in luxurious tropical mansions, while others live in squatter settlements with no running water or electricity. Most people live somewhere between these two extremes.

The growth of consumerism is apparent at all levels of society. The greatest objects of consumerism are cars, televisions, jewelry, and clothing.


Kinship among the Sundanese is bilateral, meaning that descent lines are traced through both the mother and the father. In principle, all the descendants of a seventh-generation ancestor are members of one extended family. The smallest kin group is the nuclear family of parents and their children. Members of a nuclear family usually live in their own house. However, it is not uncommon for relatives of either the husband or the wife to stay with them for a time.

Although marriages are sometimes arranged by parents in the traditional nine-step ritual, urbanization has made such matches increasingly rare. Couples often meet at school or in the workplace rather than at family or neighborhood gatherings. The parents of a woman often try to prevent her from seeing someone they do not approve of, in the hope that she will find someone more to their liking. The preferred marriage partner should come from the same neighborhood and be a descendant of a common ancestor. Such a marriage is called perkawinan gulangkep .

Sundanese society draws a clear line between male and female gender roles. In rural areas, women participate in subsistence agriculture and are thus quite powerful. But in cities, women are economically dependent on their husbands. To combat this dependence, many have taken on careers or part-time jobs to help earn additional cash.


Traditional Sundanese clothing for women consists of a kebaya and a sarung (a skirt-like garment). The kebaya is a long-sleeved, fitted lace blouse that is worn over another layer of clothing. The sarung is a length of cloth that is wrapped around the waist and hangs down to the ankles. Men also wear a sarung, but instead of a kebaya, they wear a long-sleeved batik shirt or a fitted, embroidered jacket.

Increasingly, such traditional clothing is worn only on formal occasions such as weddings. Everyday dress follows either Western or Islamic styles.

12 • FOOD

The Sundanese like to say, "If you have not eaten rice, then you have not eaten." Rice is prepared in hundreds of different ways. However, it is simple boiled rice that serves as the centerpiece of all meals. Side dishes of vegetables, fish, or meat are added to provide variety. These side dishes are spiced with any combination of garlic, galingale (a plant of the ginger family), turmeric, coriander, ginger, and lemon grass. Usually the food itself is not too spicy, but it is served with a very hot sauce made by grinding chili peppers and garlic together.

On the coast, saltwater fish are common; in the mountains, fish tend to be either pond-raised carp or goldfish. The Sundanese, being Muslim, do not eat pork. They eat the meat of goats, sheep, water buffalo, and cows. Preferred fowl include chickens, ducks, geese, and pigeons. A well-known Sundanese dish is lalapan, which consists only of raw vegetables, such as papaya leaves, cucumber, eggplant, and bitter melon. It is said to be the only Indonesian dish that features raw vegetables. Thus it often gives rise to jokes comparing Sundanese people to goats.


The Sundanese follow Indonesia's national education system. Six years of compulsory primary school may be followed by three years of middle school, three years of high school, four years of college, and then studies toward a graduate degree.

West Java has been a center of education since colonial times. Education is valued very highly among the Sundanese. Parents will sacrifice a great deal to pay for their children's education. This is reflected in the fact that West Java has higher literacy rates than other areas of Indonesia.


The Sundanese have an extremely rich cultural heritage. Many of Indonesia's most famous pop stars are Sundanese. Local music is sometimes set to the beat of "house music." One of the more traditional varieties is called degung. It is performed by a simplified gamelan orchestra blending soft-sounding percussion instruments with the melancholy sounds of a flute. Another type of orchestra is made up of an instrument called angklung (consisting of suspended bamboo tubes in different lengths that make a musical sound when shaken).

One of the oldest forms of Sundanese literature still in existence is the pantun cerita. It is a kind of traditional poetry, in which each verse consists of two couplets. It tells of Sundanese heroes from ancient times. More modern forms of literature, such as the novel, have also emerged among the Sundanese. Sundanese novels are strictly popular, rather than "high brow."


Unemployment is not as great a problem as is underemployment in West Java. Most people have some way of generating income, but they still have a hard time making ends meet. Even the new generation of college-educated youth is having a hard time finding work. When a job does open up, it is often for very low pay at one of the new factories that produce sneakers, televisions, clothing, or furniture. Such positions are usually filled by young women and uneducated men. Many jobs are filled by migrants from Central Java who are more willing to work long hours without vacations than are the family-oriented Sundanese.


The most popular sports in West Java are soccer, volleyball, badminton, and a martial art called pencat silat. Most neighborhoods have a small field in which children play volleyball and soccer. Badminton is played in neighborhood front yards or in courts at a community center. Soccer pulls in large crowds of local supporters. Pencat silat is a martial art that blurs the line between dance and self-defense. It is usually taught to groups of children at Islamic boarding schools (pesantren).


The central form of entertainment in West Java is called sore, or "evening." People go out to movies, take strolls, eat in open-air cafes, and watch public performances. It is a way to "see and be seen." People get a chance to put on their best clothes and show off their cars.

Cinemas in West Java show a mixture of Indonesian and foreign movies. Movie theaters in the city are air-conditioned and have plush seats. Poorer rural areas sometimes have open-air cinemas, which are like driveins without the cars. For those who prefer live performances, there is music and theater. One performance that always draws a crowd is sinten, in which magicians exhibit their powers. One can see, for example, people turned into birds, eggs cooked on someone's head, and people who are not hurt by the stab of a sword. Another is wayang golek, a type of puppet show, accompanied by singing and gamelan music.

At home, there is always television. Broadcasts include a peculiar blend of Indian movies, Latin American soap operas, American dramas, and Indonesian shows of all types. Television is sometimes considered a background entertainment like radio, with people going about their business while watching. It provides entertainment while people do their chores, and the soap operas provide a popular topic for discussion.


Like the neighboring Javanese, the Sundanese are known for the art of batik. This is a technique that uses beeswax to create patterns on textiles. Originally, batik was made by painting the wax on by hand and then bathing the whole cloth in a dye. Using this process it could take up to six months to complete one sarong . Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, however, an industrial technique of stamping the cloth with wax was developed. This allowed for mass production, and today batik can be found in American and European stores.


West Java has the usual problems of a society with a large gap between the rich and the poor. As in other urban environments, there is a certain amount of crime. The Indonesian government is known internationally for its high level of corruption and its infringements on human and civil rights. It is common for criminals who have money and influence to go free, while petty thieves are given sentences of six months or more for a first offense. While alcoholism is not a serious problem, drug use in all segments of the population appears to be on the rise.


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 Sundanese from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

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Jan 11, 2009 @ 9:09 am
Really good brief introduction to the Sundanese people..:), Thank you for making it..would be better if there is some pictures of Sundanese people
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Nov 7, 2010 @ 1:01 am
Hi, I want to use this article as one of my references for my research paper. I was wondering if you don't mind telling me your name (the author's name) and what year you retrieved this document. Please let me know asap. I appreciate your information. Btw, this is a really great article. Thank you.
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Aug 30, 2011 @ 6:06 am
I am Sundanese myself, und you are right about the corruption not the sarcastic way.
Saiful Anwar
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Aug 24, 2013 @ 12:00 am
I am Sundanese myself, This is a really good web i had found, and I want to use this web as my references for my project. I wonder you want to tell me your name (the author's name) and the date you publish this article. Please let me know asap. Thank you
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Apr 13, 2015 @ 9:09 am
I am half Sundanese and this was great Information.
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Apr 6, 2019 @ 10:10 am
This is a really good web I had found, and I want to use this web as my references for my project. I wonder you want to tell me your name (the author's name) and the date you publish this article. Thank you

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