The Southeast Asian country of Indonesia consists of more than 17,000 tropical and volcanic islands that straddle the equator between the Indian and Pacific oceans. Among Indonesia’s principal regions are the islands of Java, Bali, and Sumatra, as well as large parts of Borneo and New Guinea (a contested region). Today, Indonesia is home to more than three hundred ethnic groups with approximately five hundred spoken languages and dialects. Eighty-seven percent of the population, or some 200 million people, is Islamic, making Indonesia the largest Muslim nation in the world.
For thousands of years Indonesians developed complex agricultural societies with rich artistic and cultural traditions rooted in a belief in ancestral spirits and animism. The history of Indonesia also chronicles the influx of maritime trade, the transmission of religions, the rise and fall of Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms, 350 years of colonization by the Dutch, invasion by the Japanese, and the establishment of an independent nation in 1949. The Indonesian people have nurtured a world view that incorporates diverse religions and traditions with indigenous beliefs that lie at the heart of Indonesia’s cultures.
For two thousand years, merchant ships have traversed the Straits of Melaka, the sea route connecting South Asia (the Indian subcontinent) and East Asia, carrying maritime traders in search of gold and fine spices. Midway in their journeys along this thoroughfare, in the archipelago of Indonesia, traders from India and China in search of exotic trade items discovered goods ranging from gold, nutmeg, and cloves to rhinoceros horn and kingfisher feathers. During this time Indonesian rulers drew upon new religions and cultural ideas brought by these foreign traders, who were sometimes accompanied by Hindu and Buddhist priests. After these Indian religions were established on the island of Java, Indonesian rulers in turn patronized the development of religious sites in India.
The story of how these diverse religions coexist with and support the indigenous beliefs of Indonesia is told in the arts and architecture of the islands. The Southeast Asian tradition of rulers claiming close association with divine beings extended to Indonesian kings who patronized Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism. To honor the ancestors and to legitimize their rule, these kings built monumental structures to adorn the island of Java. The most famous are the Buddhist monument of Borobudur and the Hindu temple complex at Prambanan. In the late 1200s the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit emerged, during which time both Buddhism and Hinduism were practiced in the royal courts. However, the spread of Islam centuries later had an even more lasting influence on the people of Indonesia. Originally brought to the islands by Arab, Chinese, and Indian traders, Sufism (a mystical branch of Islam) was practiced in royal courts. In the 1500s the Sultan of Demak, originally a Hindu king, converted to Islam and conquered Majapahit, furthering the spread of that religion throughout the island.
Although aspects of the Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim faiths may appear to be in conflict with one another, the way these religions coexist with indigenous Indonesian beliefs may be viewed as a natural expression of its people’s spirituality. Some Indonesians believe that these religions hold common teachings of morality and virtue. This is reflected in the theater tradition of shadow puppet theater (wayang kulit) and three-dimensional rod puppet theater (wayang golek), in which a Muslim puppet master (dalang) entertains and educates the people using puppets to reenact indigenous versions not only of Islamic legends but also of the Hindu epics and Javanese traditional tales. In a wayang performance the spirit world and the earthly world converge, and the inner struggles of human existence—love, passion, hate, fear, and pain—are played out, revealing the history, spirit, and values of the people.