With more than 700 languages spoken by its 250 million inhabitants, there are nearly as many unique cultures in Indonesia as there are islands—and there are a lot of those (17,000, to be exact). As a whole, the nation defies categorization; it is a destination for spiritual pilgrims, food lovers, nature buffs, history fans, adventure seekers, and those in need of a beachside getaway. Just about anyone can find something to love within the Indonesian archipelago.
The annals of history show that the region has been an important trade center for thousands of years. With trade routes connecting Indonesia to China and India, the islands imported Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism throughout the centuries. As parts of the archipelago traded hands between dynasties and kingdoms, rulers left their mark by constructing massive religious structures like the Buddhist monument at Borobudur.
Western influence arrived with the Portuguese in 1512, but it was the Dutch who eventually took control of Indonesia, turning it into a lucrative colony. Indonesians were allowed a greater role in governance during a period of Japanese occupation in World War II, and finally declared independence from the Dutch in 1945. Despite the islands’ stunning diversity of landscape, culture, and language, they now form one, unified nation.
Most Popular Films
Films featuring Indonesia from international, independent filmmakers
The mellow side of Bali
Accompany some of Bali’s locals to their favorite spots and listen as they explain why they find peace there.Courtesy of CNN
Javan Rhino Expedition
Follow photographer Stephen Belcher into the jungles of Ujung Kulong in search of the endangered Javan rhino.Produced by Kirsten Horne, Sarah Lustig, and Stephen Embleton
Religion in the Rainforest
See how rural Indonesian villagers get around strict rules governing religion.
Produced by Jonah M. Kessel and Go Eun Kim
©2015 The New York Times
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Immerse yourself in Indonesia with this selection of articles, recipes, and more
Bali is making strides toward more modern ideals, including small victories for gender equality.
Discover the many religions of Java and Bali—from Islam to Catholicism to Buddhism.
In the sacred Monkey Forest of Ubud, the flora is full of history and the fauna is holy.
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Days in Indonesia
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Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 2:
Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
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Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.
Activity Level 4:
Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.
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Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.
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New Times, New Traditions
The changing roles of women on Bali
by Lyette Mercier for Overseas Adventure Travel
“Today visitors can attend all-female gamelan performances, as women have begun to take up instruments along with their other ritual duties.”
On the Indonesian island of Bali, history and tradition infuse every aspect of daily life. Bali’s unique practice of Hinduism incorporates elements of Buddhism, ancestor worship, and ancient beliefs including animism and gods and goddesses of nature. Each home has a shrine, each village has temples, and each rice paddy has a place to worship Dewi Sri, goddess of rice. Balinese Hinduism extends throughout the culture, making nearly every act, from cooking meals to making music, an expression of belief.
As tourism, democratization, and interactions with the global community influence Bali, their traditions are undergoing changes, including the growing inclusion of women in public life and performance. For centuries, Bali’s ritualized way of life included a strict division of labor between men and women. Men traditionally worked outside the home: tending cattle, working in the rice fields, making handcrafts, constructing homes and temples, and participating in the village’s local governing body, the banjar.
Women were in charge of the domestic sphere: caring for the house and children, keeping up the local temples and preparing elaborate offerings for the village’s many holidays and celebrations. Historically women’s artistic impulses have been channeled into decorations and offerings—intricate constructions of flowers, fruit, and other food given to the gods.
But in the past two decades, these traditional divisions have become less rigid. Indonesia’s 21st-century move to democratic governing has led to political and human rights gains for women, giving them more clout in the public sphere. In 2010, the High Council of Customary Villages, which rules on local laws that are often more widely followed than national laws, ruled for the first time that women could inherit property upon the death of their father or husband. The Council also altered traditional law that awarded custody of a single mother’s children to the father’s closest male relative and ruled that in divorce, a woman is entitled to half of the couple’s shared assets, whereas before she was left with nothing.
These dramatic transformations in Indonesian society began after the country’s president, General Suharto, stepped down in 1998 following 30 years of authoritarian rule. Under Suharto’s “New Order” regime, a strong central government improved Indonesia’s economy and living conditions, but it also discouraged the practice of local law and traditions in favor of a national identity and focus. Post-Suharto, as the country has transitioned to a more democratic, less-centralized form of government, the old traditions have returned, but are now adapting and changing in the face of new times and new audiences.
Tourism’s impact has also influenced transformation in traditional displays. Before Bali became a popular vacation destination, performances were enacted solely for local religious and community celebrations. Now that the beauty and artistry of their music and dance are appreciated by visitors from all over the world, these local traditions have become regular performances, separated from their sacred meaning for the first time.
An excellent example of the way customs are evolving to both include women and accommodate the rise of tourism is gamelan, an ensemble of percussion, woodwind instruments, and vocals, often accompanied by dancing and puppeteering. Each village has a gamelan, and every instrument is tuned to its specific gamelan, providing an amazing metaphor for the strength of local identity in Bali—no two gamelan groups are alike, meaning villages literally sound different.
Gamelan groups are traditionally all-male, but today visitors can attend all-female gamelan performances, as women have begun to take up instruments along with their other ritual duties. Considering the traditional importance of gamelan and the way rituals influence every aspect of Balinese life, it is not surprising that women have begun to share men’s customary roles as they also demand the same civil rights.
The changing roles of women on Bali
Keeping the Faith
Spirituality in Java & Bali
by Pamela Schweppe, from Dispatches
For Americans, living in a country where faith is a private matter and religious displays in secular spaces are uncommon, it might be difficult to imagine a country where spiritual practice is as much a part of daily life as eating, sleeping, and breathing. Indonesia is one such country, where spirituality is deeply interwoven into the fabric of everyday life.
The predominant religion in Indonesia by far is Islam, to which 88% of the population belongs. An important component of the faith is an adherence to high moral principles. In 1945, when the country was still splintered by World War II, a nationalist leader named Sukarno described Five Principles based on Islamic belief. Called Pancasila, this national philosophy (belief in one and only God, a just and civilized humanity, national unity, democracy, and social justice) was formally adopted in 1950 and is now embedded in the country’s constitution and legal system.
The Indonesian government is not an Islamic one, however. Although Indonesia became the second-largest Islamic nation in the world when it gained its independence in 1945 (and the largest in the world in 1971, when Bangladesh separated from Pakistan), the government its people created was based on a civil code rather than a religious one.
The decision to create a non-religious government may be due to the fact that Indonesia still hosts a diversity of faiths, despite the dominance of Islam. The Indonesian government officially recognizes six religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Every citizen is required to hold an identity card specifying his or her religious affiliation. Although that space may be left blank, agnosticism or atheism are not formally acknowledged.
The rise of Islam
Among these religions, Islam is a relative latecomer. The earliest settlers of the archipelago were animists, who believed that animals, plants, and even inanimate objects such as rocks are endowed with a soul. Next to arrive was Buddhism, which was imported along with material goods along the Silk Road between India and China.
How Hinduism made its way into Indonesian culture is a little less certain. Because some Sanskrit inscriptions dating to roughly the fifth and sixth centuries have been found far from the trade route, many now believe that Brahmin priests invited by developing courts imparted this new religion to the region.
While Arab traders began setting foot on Indonesian shores as early as the eighth century, Islam didn’t gain a foothold in the region until the twelfth and 13th centuries. It was embraced first by royalty, as Muslim traders began marrying into the aristocracy. As royalty converted to the religion, so did their subjects. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Islam became the state religion, and as it mixed with animist and Hindu traditions, it became a uniquely Indonesian, mystical interpretation of the faith—less strict in observance than the form that is practiced in the Middle East.
Java: Islamic—yet a religious melting pot
Home to 60% of the Indonesian population and the national capital, Jakarta, Java is also an important religious center. The island’s history as a center for Buddhism may be seen at Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple complex in the world, located in central Java. Built more than 1,000 years ago, Borobudur predates even Cambodia’s magnificent Angkor Wat and is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The influence of Hinduism throughout Java is also evidenced by the ruins of ancient monuments scattered across the countryside. For more than a millennium, Java was divided among different kingdoms. The largest and most influential of these was a Hindu kingdom, Majapahit, which reached its peak in the 15th century. As it collapsed, however, Islamic sultanates began to dominate the island.
Today, more than 90% of the inhabitants of Java are Muslim—yet, other religions continue to be observed. It is on Java that most Christian communities are located, despite persecution, such as physical attacks, the destruction of churches, and a ban on Christmas services. Hinduism has also been undergoing a revival on Java in recent years, though the number of declared adherents is still less than 1% of the island’s population. Indonesians could not even identify themselves as Hindu on their identity cards until 1962, and during that decade, many declared themselves Muslim to protect themselves. Others fled to Bali.
Bali: the “Island of a Thousand Temples”
Hinduism is practiced by only 3% of the population of Indonesia—and of those, nearly 95% are on the island of Bali. It would be hard to find a place on Earth where spirituality is more integral to daily life.
Even though the religion was brought to Bali from India, like Islam, the faith has evolved here to reflect local customs and culture. The Balinese version differs from Indian Hinduism in that it does not embrace the caste system, and instead of concentrating on rebirth and reincarnation, it focuses on communing with local and ancestral spirits.
Bali’s nickname is the “Island of a Thousand Temples”—yet more than 11,000 temples have officially been catalogued by the Department of Religion, and many more temples and shrines may be found in farmlands and private homes. These temples typically are open courtyards with rows of shrines and altars and are not considered sacred in and of themselves. Rather, they are designed as places where visiting gods are welcomed, bathed, and entertained on festival days. Deities can also be called down by priests.
Religious life isn’t celebrated only on festival days on Bali, however. Rituals are performed throughout the day, and rituals celebrating all of life’s major milestones—including birth, puberty, and cremation at death—connect each Balinese practitioner to his or her family, community, ancestors, and deities. It is not unusual for travelers to witness these colorful and exotic rituals performed by smiling Balinese people as they seek harmony between our world and that of the gods.
In both Java and Bali, one of the most important ways religious sentiment is expressed is through the arts. In fact, the Balinese have no word for “art,” so deeply is it engrained in religious practice. A large percentage of the population participates in these artistic rituals, which take forms that are very different from those of the West.
The primary forms of artistic expression in Indonesia are dance, wayang (shadow puppetry), and music. While dance has been performed on Bali since before the island’s written history, Indonesian dance actually originated on Java more than 1,000 years ago, and inscriptions of Javanese dancers can be seen on ancient temple walls. As Islam spread over that island, however, it disappeared there.
On Bali, dance remains an important part of the local culture and is performed during festivals and other ceremonies. Although dances are sometimes performed for visitors, their primary purpose is for the gods and may act as a channel for visiting gods or demons—or as entertainment for them. Like the Balinese practice of Hinduism itself, Balinese dance derives from India but has been adapted to island folklore and its animistic history.
Religious ceremonies on the archipelago also feature gamelan music, a uniquely Indonesian form of music featuring an ensemble of drums and tuned percussion instruments, such as xylophones, chimes, and gongs. Some gamelan music also features vocalists.
Like dance, this form of music has a long history on Java, where it is rich and complex in nature. Unlike dance, however, it remains an important component of local culture and continues to be featured at religious ceremonies and popular entertainment.
By contrast, Balinese gamelan music has a brighter sound, with greater reliance on metallic instruments, such as metallophones, gongs, and cymbals. Balinese gamelan music also features more shifts in tempo and dynamics than its Javanese counterpart.
On both islands, gamelan music is used to accompany wayang, or shadow puppet performances. For these, a wide linen screen is stretched across a wooden frame atop a platform. For nighttime performances, the screen is lit by corn-husk lamps. Using wooden rods, the dalang, or puppeteer, manipulates flat, cut-out figures that are silhouetted against the screen and also serves as narrator. Because the stories he tells provide an oral history that is passed down from one generation to the next, the dalang is highly respected in Indonesian culture.
Javenese wayang is used primarily for education and entertainment. Performances are held at night—often beginning after midnight—and last until dawn. While wayang performances may be pure entertainment on Bali, it can also serve a more religious purpose. During temple festivals, the purpose of the play is to invite ancestral spirits to visit, and offerings are presented throughout the performance and beyond. These performances are held during the daytime and last up to about four hours—but never all night, as on Java.
Despite these slight variations, however, perhaps the similarities among these diverse art forms show a fundamental unity among the Indonesian people—which transcends their differences in faith.
Spirituality in Java & Bali
Playful Primates in a Holy Sanctuary
The Sacred Monkey Forest in Bali
by Phil McCluskey, from Dispatches
It is a rare experience to sit close to an animal in its natural setting. It is perhaps more unique when that animal takes the opportunity to rifle through your bag in search of an afternoon snack.
This is exactly what happens in the Sacred Monkey Forest of Ubud, Bali every day. But the long-tailed macaques scattered throughout this place—which are known locally as Wenara Wana—are forgiven for being forward with visitors: After all, they are considered holy. Monkeys are considered protectors from evil spirits here, so they are not only taken care of, but venerated.
This sanctuary, which is on the outskirts of the town of Ubud, is home to hundreds of these animals—and it offers travelers a truly distinctive experience. Although it was once an afterthought on the traveler trail of Ubud, the Forest is now one of its stars. In 1986, an average of 800 people a month visited the forest; now it is not uncommon for 15,000 people to come to see this simian spectacle.
This is all a result of a religious ethos on the island: that of Balinese Hinduism. This strain of the religion is different from its northern counterparts. It is an amalgam of traditional Hinduism, Animism, Buddhism, and ancestor worship. While their religion dictates respect for the animals, locals have a conflicted view of their primate neighbors: they revere them because of their religious standing, but they grumble at their larcenous tendencies and their proclivity for crop destruction.
Though the trees are wild, the area is full of reminders of the history of human occupation here. There are three different temples: the Pura Dalem (otherwise known as the death temple), the Pura Prajapati (cremation temple), and the Bathing Temple. You’ll find the monkeys all over the complex, yet it is indeed a place for people—the temples are seen as an ideal place to pray to ancestors, give offerings to the spirits of trees, and generally reconnect with one’s spirituality.
The nearby village of Padangtegal is responsible for taking care of the Forest, not only for its value as an attraction but because the villagers see it as a moral imperative. Their efforts align with the Tri-Hita Karana, a Hindu doctrine which states, among other things, that since nature provides for humanity, that we have a duty to preserve it. They see the forest as an example of humans and nature coexisting in harmony.
It’s one of the reasons the villagers are so focused on conservation—both of the man-made temples and of the environment surrounding them. The former have been meticulously restored when necessary, as the soft volcanic rock that was used to create them originally tends to break down in the tropical climate of Bali. The preservation of the ecosystem is also taken very seriously by members of the Padangtegal community. In 1990, seeing the impact of increased tourism, they established the Wenara Wana Padangtegal Managerial Committee as stewards of this jungle gem. The committee has been essential to maintaining not only the environmental integrity of the Forest, but its cultural relevance as well.
Today, the Forest continues to attract travelers from around the world to see a band of monkeys swing and frolic in this sacred place. If you go, you should be able to get up close to them, as they are quite at home in human company. Be sure to check your pockets for food beforehand, though—because while these monkeys are holy, they are also hungry.