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Updated on January 7, 2012

The Republic of Indonesia occupies most of the vast archipelago that lies between the southeast mainland of Asia and the island continent of Australia. The republic consists of more than 13,668 islands and islets (992 inhabited) with a total area of 1,919,270 km2.

These islands extend on either side of the equator for more than 4,800 km in an eastwest direction. In latitude Indonesia extends from 5°N at the northern tip of Sumatra to 11°S in Roti, south of Timor. In a wider sense Indonesia is in the center of a great maritime crossroads; its islands are between the Straits of Malacca, the South China Sea, and the Pacific Ocean to the north and northeast, and the *Indian Ocean and the Timor and Arafura Seas to the southwest and south.

This focal position has exposed Indonesia to a wide range of external influences-ethnic, cultural, commercial and political. But between the outer oceans the sheltered waters of the Java and Sunda Seas provide maritime highways linking all the main islands. This fact, more than any other, explains the underlying unity of Indonesia as a whole.

Villages and Towns

Indonesia is still a land of villages. These vary greatly. In areas where sedentary farmers cultivate rice in wet fields, notably Java where they are known as desas, the villages are large, compact, and closely spaced in the densely-populated countryside. Individual family houses, well-built of timber or bamboo with roofs of palm thatch or clay tiles, are the norm in Java. In the outer islands, villages and houses are more varied and reflect the diversity of regional cultures. The advanced rice-cultivating Menangkabau Malays of central Sumatra have distinctive houses with steeply-sloped and gracefully curving roofs. The less advanced Dyaks, who practice ladang (shifting cultivation) in the interior of Kalimantan live in communal longhouses relatively isolated from one another.

Urban traditions are not deeply rooted in most parts of Indonesia. Present cities, though often built on the sites of precolonial settlements, owe their importance mainly to patterns established during the 300 years of Dutch rule. Most of the larger cities, including the capital Jakarta (population 9,580,000), are coastal ports and key centers in the maritime transportation network which links the country. The only large inland cities are in Java, where Surakarta (520,061) and Yogyakarta (388,088) show a continuity with earlier periods.


Java has a population of 138 million. The main ethnic groups comprise Javanese, Sundanese and Madurese, with a more cosmopolitan concentration in Jakarta and a large ethnic Chinese element in all the main towns. Having been the focal island both before and during the Madjapahit period, and again under Dutch rule, Java remains the metropolitan island of the republic.

It is so densely populated that its agriculture is almost exclusively devoted to supplying the island's own needs and, except for oil, its mineral resources are small. Java, however, has the seat of government and the chief centers of higher education. The island is also the main manufacturing center. Jakarta, Surabaya (12,765,908) and Bandung (2,393,633) are the only cities in Indonesia with more than a million inhabitants.


Sumatra has a population of nearly 21 million and was once the great rival of Java. Its more advanced ethnic groups include the Atjehnese, Menangkabaus and Lampongers, as well as the vigorous Batak hill people, many of whom have abandoned animism for either Islam or Christianity. Although many of the people practice shifting cultivation Sumatra has many small plantations producing cash crops such as rubber, and the island contains Indonesia's largest concentration of plantations. The island's great natural resources include most of Indonesia's oil and, on the nearby islands of Bangka, Belitung, and Singkep, nearly all the republic's deposits of tin. Sumatra provides more than 75% of Indonesia's exports and its two main cities, Medan (2,109,330) and Palembang (1,535,952) are major ports facing the Straits of Malacca.


Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, has a population of about 10,500,000, and because most of that island's coast is swamp-fringed, its interior is isolated and unexploited.

The most advanced peoples are the rice cultivating Bandjarees of the coastlands facing Java. Rubber and copra are widely cultivated and there are important oil fields, mainly along the east coast. The largest town and seaport is Bandjarmasin (625,395).


Sulawesi has a population of more than 8 500 000, and although there is little level land, the island has a higher population density than Sumatra. Apart from copra, produced in large quantities, the island has a subsistence economy, but nickel and other metals are present.

Its most advanced peoples, the Muslim Makassarese and Buginese of the southwest, and the Christian Menadonese of the northeast, are rice cultivators. Both the Makassarese and Buginese have long been famed as seamen. Ujung Pandang (population 1,334,090) is the largest city and chief port.

West Papua

West Papua (412,781 km2) is the Indonesian part of New Guinea and has a population of about 931 000. Its development has been retarded by its remoteness and by the vast swamps along its southern coast.

Most of the population are Melanesians and the process of integrating the territory into Indonesia is still in its infancy. A large copper mine was opened at Tembagapura, inland from the south coast in 1973 (a joint US/Indonesian project), and nickel and cobalt are being obtained from Gag Island, off the northwest coast. Crude oil is also obtained from the southwestern peninsula.

Beliefs and Culture

About 86% of the Indonesian people are Muslims. Hinduism has about 10 million adherents, and more than 2 million of them are on the island of Bali. There are nearly 3 million Christians, and about 1 million Buddhists (mostly Chinese). Animism and ancient tribal cults are common in remote areas.

It is estimated that about 250 languages and dialects are spoken but the official language is Bahasa Indonesia, based mainly on Sumatran Malay, and widely taught after independence to help unite the country and eradicate illiteracy. Education is compulsory from 6 to 12 years, and higher education is provided by than 30 universities and technological institutes, including the University of Indonesia at Jakarta and Bogor, and the University of Gadjah Mada at Jogjakarta. Indonesia has a rich folklore and is known for its Javanese and Balinese dancers who, trained from childhood, interpret the traditional tales of Hinduism and Islam by graceful, rhythmic movements to the accompaniment of the gamelan , an orchestra of gambangs (resembling low xylophones), two stringed rehabs, gongs, flutes and drums. There is also a traditional form of puppet theater.

Sculpture and carving are ancient arts. The great temple at Borobudur has large numbers of magnificent bas-reliefs, while Hindu art and architecture in Indonesia reached its apogee in the temple at Prambanan. Wood-carving is still a major cottage industry, as is the printing of batik-colorful and finely designed hand-printed cloth.


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