The Beauty of Indonesian Culture
The 17,000 islands of the Indonesia archipelago are home to over 300 distinct ethnic groups, each with their customs, beliefs, art forms and rituals. the benign climate and astounding fertility of most Indonesian islands have encourage the development of colourful, sophisticated ritual observances and social events. In theory and practise, everyone, including any tourist who happen to pass by, are welcome at most events and ceremonies. In the more isolated communities, a foreign visitor might even cause offence by not making an appearance at a community function. In all case, a foreigner is welcome provided Indonesian customs of dress and behaviour are observed.
Cycle of life ceremonies
Ceremonies marking life milestone are invariably public events in Indonesia, as these occasions are also employed to reinforce community ties and mutual obligation.
In most cultures, Indonesian weddings are the primary social events of the community, a time for reaffirming family ties and making new friends. Indonesian weddings are also fascinating performances in their own right, as each group in the archipelago's ethnic tapestry celebrates the founding of new family with unique, intriguing rituals.
On ancient, tradition-bound Java, the bride is not allowed to leave her house for 40 days and has to fast on Monday and Thursday. Two days before the wedding a tent is erected in front os the bride's house and on the day before the wedding two ceremonies are held in which the bride and groom are bathed with scented water. During the wedding ceremony itself, the couple throw rolled betel leaves at each other, followed by the groom stepping on an egg and the bride washing his feet with scented water.
In neighbouring Bali, formal weddings are often dispensed with altogether, with all parties, including both sets of parents, preferring their children to elope and thus save the expense of a ceremony. Weddings, when they do accur, are often private affairs, with the bride and groom being blessed by a priest and enacting simple rituals symbolising their mutual commitment to tilling the land and raising family.
In the Outer Island, weddings are often day-long affairs, with entertaining rituals such as bargaining the bride price in verse, mock confrontation and colourful processions. The one common denominator is the delicious wedding feast which all are welcome to enjoy.
Coming of Age
A child passage into adulthood is a profoundly serious occasion for all Indonesian cultures. However, they are also joyous affairs, as befits embarking on a new, fulfilling stages of life.
The Balinese, believing pointed teeth too animal like for human dignity, file their incisor teeth flat at puberty. Often, every youth coming of age that year will have their teeth filed at the same ceremony, with attendant wayang plays, dancing and other highly entertaining examples of Bali's religion-based performing arts.
On the island of Nias, about 100 km off the West Coast of North Sumatra, young men celebrate their entry to adulthood by leaping unaided over stone pillar about two meters in height. Derived from the wartime practise of leaping over village walls, the stone jumping ceremony is testimony to the ancient traditions that still thrive throughout Indonesia.
An many Indonesian cultures, funerals can be joyous affairs, less mourning the loss of a loved an than celebrating his advance to the next stage of the circle of life, or to a well-deserved place in heaven, where the late loved one will be in a position to shower blessing on descendants. In Bali, the Ngaben cremation ceremony is held to cleanse the souls of the dead from contamination by the body. Seven days before cremation the heirs of the deceased, who might have actually passed away years before, dig up the bones from the grave, wrap them in white cloth and then make two dolls from sandalwood and leaves. The dools are decorated with jewellery and other decorations and then ritually bathed. On the day of the Ngaben, a tower and sarcophagi in the form of lions, cattle or elephants, which contain the remains, are carried in procession to a nearby field, where they are set alight. Afterward, sometimes days or weeks later, the ashes are scattered at sea.
The ceremony is usually a collective effort in order to share the costs. Cremations are often held close to tourist areas, and tour companies will often arrange transport and a guide, as the Balinese fell the presence of foreign visitors only adds to the gaiety of the occasion.
In Toraja, in South Sulawesi, the bodies of the deceased are first placed in open caves in cliff face. At this time tens of buffalo are sacrificed. The buffalo are pitted against each other before the sacrifice and are thought to serve as the transportation for the soul of the dead. After the sacrifice the meat is distributed to the guest and the local community who have helped stage the ceremony. Wooden statues of the deceased wearing their clothes are placed in the open caves in the cliff face facing outwards with the coffin close by.