Treasures of Indonesia: Exploring its rich traditions

Indonesia is home to a rich tapestry of traditions passed down through generations. From Sumatra to Papua, each region boasts its own distinct customs and celebrations.

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Traditional dances

One of the most enchanting aspects of Indonesian culture is its traditional dances. The graceful movements and intricate costumes showcase the country’s history and mythology. Whether it’s the elegant Legong dance of Bali or the dynamic Saman dance of Aceh, these performances captivate audiences around the world.

Legong Dance is one of Bali’s most significant and cherished traditional dances. “Legong,” in Balinese, translates roughly to “delicate dance,” encapsulating the dance’s elegance and refined movements. It’s a classical dance form characterized by intricate finger movements, complicated footwork, and expressive gestures and facial expressions. Historically, it was performed by pre-pubescent girls who began rigorous training from a very young age. Today, however, dancers may be of various ages. The dancers wear vibrant and intricate costumes, often including gold brocade, and a headdress, known as a “gelungan”. The dance usually tells a story, often a tale from ancient Indian epics such as the Ramayana or Mahabharata. One of the most common narratives depicted in Legong is the tale of King Lasem, derived from the Malat, a series of Balinese epic poems. In this story, the king becomes enraptured by a maiden, who in turn repels his advances and eventually succumbs to his violent rage. The music that accompanies Legong Dance is typically played on a gamelan ensemble, a traditional Indonesian orchestra that includes a variety of percussion instruments.

The Saman Dance, also known as the “Dance of a Thousand Hands,” is a captivating traditional dance that originates from the Gayo ethnic group in Aceh, Sumatra, Indonesia. UNESCO officially recognized it as part of the world’s Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2011. One of the most striking features of the Saman dance is its group dynamic, which typically involves a large number of performers (often more than 20). These dancers sit in close rows, shoulder-to-shoulder, usually led by a single individual who stands in the middle of the group, guiding the tempo and rhythm. The dance is performed with exceptional synchronization and speed, characterized by complex, fast-paced movements that include clapping, slapping chests or hands on the floor, clicking fingers, and shifting the body or head from side to side in harmony. The dancers’ hands, heads, and bodies flow in rhythm, presenting a stunning visual spectacle, hence the nickname “Dance of a Thousand Hands.” The Saman dance is traditionally accompanied by a song, or chant, and no musical instruments. The song often carries messages of daily life, religion, advice, love, and community service. The song’s lyrics are usually in the Gayo language. The dance is often performed to celebrate important occasions or the Islamic holidays. It’s also used to convey philosophical messages, socialization, religious values, and to express love for nature. Due to its cultural significance and the potential for the tradition to fade away, there are ongoing efforts to preserve the Saman Dance by teaching it to younger generations in Aceh and other parts of Indonesia.

Arts and crafts

Another tradition that flourishes in Indonesia is its vibrant arts and crafts scene. While visiting Indonesia, you can explore the bustling markets, where you can find exquisite batik fabrics, intricate wood carvings, and beautiful silverware.

Batik is a traditional Indonesian cloth that has been recognized by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The word batik is thought to be derived from the word ‘ambatik’ which translated means ‘a cloth with little dots’. The technique of batik involves drawing dots and lines of the resist with a spouted tool called a tjanting, or printing the resist with a copper stamp called a cap. The applied wax resists dyes and therefore allows the artisan to color selectively by soaking the cloth in one color, removing the wax with boiling water, and repeating if multiple colors are desired. Batik is traditionally made in a way that both sides of the fabric show the design clearly. Cities like Yogyakarta and Solo have been notable centres for this art form for centuries, each developing distinct styles. Today, batik has not only been reserved for traditional ceremonies, but has also become an important part of Indonesian fashion.

Wayang kulit, or shadow puppets, are without a doubt the best known of the Indonesian wayang. As it is recognized by UNESCO in 2003 as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, wayang kulit is a unique form of theatre employing light and shadow. The puppets are crafted from buffalo hide and mounted on bamboo sticks, and when viewed from behind a screen lit from behind, they cast beautiful, intricate shadows. Performances of shadow puppet theatre are accompanied by a gamelan orchestra in Java, and by gender wayang in Bali. The stories enacted in the puppet shows are typically drawn from Hindu epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. A dalang (puppet master) controls all the puppets, provides all the voices, and is also responsible for the spiritual aspects of the performance.

Ikat is a dyeing technique used to pattern textiles that employs resist dyeing on the yarns prior to dyeing and weaving the fabric. In ikat, the resist is formed by binding individual yarns or bundles of yarns with a tight wrapping applied in the desired pattern. The yarn is then dyed. This process can be repeated multiple times to produce intricate, multicolored patterns. Once all dyeing is completed, the bindings are removed, and the yarns are woven into the fabric. The name comes from the Indonesian word ‘mengikat’ meaning ‘to tie’. This textile art is found in various cultures but is most prevalent in Indonesia. It is highly valued for the complexity of the technique and the skill required to produce high-quality fabrics. In Indonesian culture, ikat textiles are used for traditional clothing, traditional ceremonies, and as a form of wealth or currency. Each region of Indonesia has a distinct style and technique of ikat, and the colors and patterns often have deep cultural and symbolic meanings. For example, in Sumba, East Nusa Tenggara, ikat textiles are central to traditional ceremonies and rituals, and certain patterns can only be worn by individuals of a certain status or during specific occasions.

Traditional cuisine

No exploration of Indonesian traditions would be complete without mentioning its mouthwatering cuisine. From the spicy rendang of Padang to the aromatic nasi goreng, Indonesian food tantalises the taste with its bold flavours and unique combinations of spices and ingredients.

It’s a must to try the famous satay and savour this country’s diverse culinary delights:

  • Nasi Goreng is a famous Indonesian dish, essentially fried rice, often served with a fried egg and a side of krupuk (prawn crackers).
  • Satay: these are skewered and grilled meats, served with a peanut sauce. Different regions have different variations.
  • Rendang: Originally from the Minangkabau region, Rendang is a spicy meat dish slow-cooked in coconut milk and a mixture of lemongrass, galangal, garlic, turmeric, ginger, and chilies.

Festivals and ceremonies

Indonesia is also a nation of festivals and ceremonies where communities celebrate various occasions. From the dazzling lantern festival of Yogyakarta to the vibrant processions during Nyepi in Bali, these events showcase the country’s deep-rooted traditions and a strong sense of community.

Waisak, known also as Vesak, is the most important festival in the Buddhist calendar, marking the birth, enlightenment, and death of Gautama Buddha. The festival’s highlight at Borobudur is the evening procession, where thousands of Buddhist monks, and followers gather at the temple. They then ascend the temple and release lanterns into the sky, symbolizing enlightenment for the entire universe. The Borobudur ceremony is a grand event, with participants walking from nearby Mendut Temple to Borobudur. The procession is filled with monks in bright orange robes, carrying torches and chanting. After prayers and speeches, the monks then perform the Pindapata ritual, where they accept food offerings from the locals. The culmination of the celebration is a grand release of thousands of lanterns into the night sky, creating a mesmerizing and emotional scene. This is intended to symbolize hope and enlightenment, sending good merit and positive energy into the universe. The glowing lanterns against the night sky create a breathtaking and deeply spiritual spectacle, one of the most iconic images of this festival.

Nyepi, also known as “Day of Silence” is a Hindu celebration mainly celebrated in Bali. It’s a day of silence, fasting, and meditation. Nyepi marks the start of the Saka New Year and the arrival of spring. Unlike New Year celebrations in many other cultures, which are marked with loud festivities, Nyepi is a day dedicated to silent meditation. The holiday is observed for 24 hours from 6 a.m. one day to 6 a.m. the next. During this time, the whole island comes to a standstill: there’s no working, no entertainment, nor pleasure, no traveling, and for some, no talking nor eating at all.

Kasada Ceremony takes place among the Tenggerese people, who live in the mountainous region of East Java, Indonesia. This unique ceremony is held annually at Mount Bromo, an active volcano that is part of the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park. The festival is rooted in a legend about a 15th-century princess named Roro Anteng and her husband, Joko Seger. According to the tale, the couple was childless and prayed to the mountain gods for help. The gods granted them children, but with one condition: their 25th child, named Kesuma, must be sacrificed to the volcano. When the time came, despite their grief, they fulfilled their promise and threw their son into the crater. In the present day, the Tenggerese people commemorate this act of sacrifice and show their gratitude to the gods for their blessings during the Kasada Ceremony. The festival takes place on the 14th day of the Kasada month in the traditional Hindu lunar calendar, typically falling in July or August. During the ceremony, participants gather at the foot of Mount Bromo’s crater and make offerings to the gods. These offerings, carried in a procession to the crater’s edge, can include vegetables, fruit, livestock, flowers, rice, and even money. They are believed to ensure safety and prosperity for the family and the community. Some Tenggerese toss their offerings directly into the crater, while others leave them at the temple at the volcano’s base. As part of the ritual, some Tenggerese people also climb down into the crater despite the dangers involved, to collect the offerings. They believe that retrieving these offerings will bring them good luck and blessings. The ceremony usually takes place at midnight and continues until dawn. The Kasada Ceremony is a vibrant and significant cultural event that attracts both domestic and international tourists. It’s a unique opportunity to witness the enduring strength of ancient traditions among the Tenggerese people.

In this unique part of the world, traditions bring people together, transcending language, religion, and ethnicity boundaries. They reflect the country’s spirit of unity and diversity, reminding us of preserving and cherishing our cultural heritage.

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