A Very Short History of Indonesia - and South East Asia सुवर्णभूमि, សុវណ្ណភូមិ



1. Prehistory and the Hindu-Buddhist Era

2. Muslim Indonesia, the Islamization of South East Asia

3. Colonialism to Independence

4. The Contemporary State


This article is far from a complete history and I am trying to focus on less known facts. Consequently I will not tell you about familiar things like Borobodur, Prambanan, gamelan music, batik or Bali. I hope you will find this interesting anyway and that it will give you a deeper understanding for Indonesia and South East Asia. Some parts of this article is maybee a bit complicated, but I hope you can grasp it. It can be a good idea to read the appendix first, because as usually, I focus a lot on scripts and languages. To get a real deep understanding of the culture of South East Asia I strongly recommend that you get at least an introduction to the great Indian epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Hindu pantheon, the gods, is also basic knowledge that makes it much more interesting when you go to visit tourist sites in South East Asia. Some of the Jataka stories are also important, for example the Vessantara Jataka. For Thailand, Lao and Cambodia the Phra Malai story is also something I recommend. At the end of this article you can find links to some movies that makes it easy to learn about Indonesia. Film is also a good way to learn the language.

This is the national symbol of Indonesia. The Five Precepts, pancasila, a word that is borrowed from Buddhism. The background is the flag, the Bendera Pusaka Sang Saka Merah Putih or The Sacred Red and White Heirloom Flag. Red and white is an old Austronesian concept of Mother Earth (red) and Father Sky (white). Bhinneka Tunggal Ika "unity in diversity" is the slogan of the country and a guarantee for freedom of religion, speech, your mother tongue and democracy, in a state that is doing very well in that field at the moment. It is also a way to give every ethnicity space for independence within a very large state constituted by thousands of islands and hundreds of different languages. A remarkable and fantastic country in many ways!

Part 1

Prehistory and the Hindu-Buddhist era

The oldest evidence of human activity in Indonesia is the Java man, a Homo erectus, approximately from 700.000 BCE. The remains of this hominin was discovered at Java in 1891 and was at the time believed to be the oldest human in the world, but now we know it was not a Homo sapiens. All Homo erectus outside Africa was most likely exterminated by the eruption of the super volcano Toba (Sumatra) around 70.000 BCE. Others believe that the first Homo sapiens in Asia merged with Homo erectus and that there actually was some interbreeding, at least some archeological evidence point in that direction.

Another early hominin, and a fairly mysterious one, is the Ibu Gogo, or the Flores Hobbit, as they are named. It seems like dwarfed remains of the Homo erectus, but this is largely unknown and pure speculation. Anyhow, the Hobbit lived at the island of Flores around c.90.000 - 18.000 BCE. Around 40.000 BCE Homo sapiens arrived to Indonesia and Australia and what archeologists call the Hoabihian culture is interesting in a prehistoric perspective.

Cave paintings at Pettakere Cave, Sulawesi, dated c.38.000 BCE

We also know that early settlements of hunter-gatherers, like Papuans, Negritos and Orang Asli inhabited Indonesia before the Indonesians. They were all later assimiliated into the general population. The Indonesians of today all comes from the Proto-Austronesians from Taiwan, with some exceptions. In Phillipines we still have some groups of so called Negritos. In Malaysia the Orang Asli people still exist and they speak a Mon-Khmer related language. And, of course, in Irian Jaya there are many Papuan tribes.

There is evidence of rice cultivation 3000 BCE, in the ancient homeland of the Indonesians (Austronesians), and that is Taiwan. Most likely, the knowledge of rice growing developed in China around 6000 BCE and then followed the Austronesian expansion to the archipelago. The Austronesians also brought with them water buffalos, taro, yam, pigs, chicken and dogs. The water buffalo is an interesting example of a word that seems to be very similar in many languages, it seems like one of the proto-words of South East Asia (SEA). For example: We have the Cambodian-Khmer "krabei" (ក្របី) and the Indonesian "kerbau". In the Phillipines they say "kalabaw" in Tagalog and in Thailand it is called "khwāy" (ควาย). In Myanmar they say "Kyawal" ( ကျွဲ  ). None of those languages belongs to the same language family but rice farming and the water buffalo are central concepts in all of these cultures and rice is sometimes a synonyme to the word for "food". But, as always, dating is up to debate, so don't take my historical chronology of rice domestication to serious. The domestic use of taro as food might be even older. For more on rice se later in this article about the rice goddess.

In Indonesia these bronze drums are known as Pejeng. They are known from 500 BCE. This one is from Sumba island.

We don't know very much about the Austronesian expansion (See appendix) and the origins of Indonesian people, but we know that the Dong Son culture and the proto-Cham Sa Huynh culture has similar properties and that the assumed Austronesian people of those cultures are connected to early Indonesia. We know that the bronze drums of Dong Son was exported from modern day Vietnam to the Indonesian Archipelago in the span 1500 BCE - 500 CE. We also know that there was a trade network operated by the early Cham inhabitants of Vietnam between 400 BCE - 200 CE.

In western Java a culture that are known to us as the Buni-culture developed c.400 BCE and lasted to c.100 CE. They had contacts with India according to the typical Indian pottery tecnique that they practised. Typical Indian pottery has been found at Bali too, dating from 200 BCE. The Buni culture was proto Malayic, not proto Javanese. Most of the pottery shows also remarkable similarity to the Sa Huynh pottery. The successor to the Buni culture is the Tarumanagara kingdom. We can therefore conclude that Hinduism and Indian culture came to Indonesia at a very early stage. With the religion came knowledge and litteracy. The Indonesians eneterd a path that formed the history, the language and the culture to this day.

Batujaya temple complex is probably the first evidence of an organized hindu state in Indonesia. The temple was erected around 450 CE and is situated in the village of Bekasi, not far from modern day Jakarta. The Buni culture flourished in the same area. Batujaya was probably the first centre of what we know as Taruma Nagara Hindu kingdom.

Above we see artifacts from the Viet-Champa Sa Huyn culture. A burial jar, two kitchen ceramic items and a bronze weapon.

Above is some Buni pottery and some stone tools that predates Buni and found at the same place. Last picture shows the remains of the Jiwa temple that belongs to the Batujaya temple complex.

Is South East Asia the legendary Suvarnabhumi?

When talking about the historical South East Asia and Indonesia we have to talk about the legend of Suvarnabhumi, The Golden Land! This concept is Indian/Sanskrit and is disputed and every SEA nation of today claim their heritage from Suvarnabhumi. In Sanskrit, the most influential language at this time, it is written Suvarṇabhūmi सुवर्णभूमि and in the language of the Buddhists, Pali, it is written Suvaṇṇabhūmi. Similar words can be found in Khmer (Cambodia), in Thai and in Indonesian. Myanmar also claims to be Suvarnabhumi. As you probably know, the new airport in Bangkok has this name, or Souvannaphoum សុវណ្ណភូមិ as they say in Cambodia and Thailand .

What we know about the name is that it is mentioned in some ancient sources. One of the oldest sources that mention it is the Jataka Tales, i.e. stories about coming and former Buddhas written in India inbetween 304-232 BCE, before the time of the legendary Indian emperor Ashoka. This Asian Eldorado is also mentioned in the Artashastra, a book about political science and economy. Artashastra was written or composed from 2nd century BCE to 3rd century CE. Another ancient source about Suvarnabhumi is Milinda Panha, (The Questions of Menander), written c. 100 BCE - 200 CE. Next time we come across this name is in the Mahavamsa, a 5th Century CE Pali book that deals with the history of Sri Lanka. Two later notifications comes from Cambodia and Sumatra. The former is a stone inscription from Sambor Prei Kuk, dated 627 CE, during the era of Chenla. The Cambodian inscription says that the "Khmer king is the ruler of Suvarnabhumi", but on the Indonesian island of Sumatra an inscription on a statue identifies Sumatra as the Golden land. So? What to believe? My conclusion is that the Indians at the time had a vague idea of a prosperous land situated between China and India and that they named it Suvarnabhumi. So! It is simply a name for what we call South East Asia. To understand SEA during it's early history we must also understand the concept of the Mandala state order and the thallassocratic economy.

The statue of Amoghapasa on top of the Padang Roco inscription, that identifies Sumatra as Suvarnabhumi (1286 CE, Sumatra).

Mandala State Order

A mandala state is caracterized by a centre from which power is spread in a circle outwards. The closer to the centre the stronger connection to the core. The core was always symbolized by a temple and the ruler was considered something sacred, a ruler appointed by god. They used the title "god king" or Chakravartin that later became Devaraja in SEA. A small village or city sometimes pledged loyalty towards two different Mandalas if it's geographical position was on the edge of those mandalas. The concept of a national state with exact defined borders was unknown to the people of SEA during this time. Language as an identity marker and unifying nationalist concept was probably unknown too. I can not resist a comparison with Europe and the idea of a divine King and absolute monarchy, a society where religion is much more important than ethnicity and language. The mandala states was probably ruled by despotic dictators. And for shure, they were all based on slavery. The earlier mentioned Artashastra is a very interesting book in many ways, because it was composed aproximately at the same time when Konfucius and Platon wrote their famous books about politics. The mandala state was probably managed according to the ideas of Artashastra and this Indian work is often compared to Machiavellis Il Principe (The Prince).

SEA mainland c.1360 CE
SEA mainland c.1360 CE

First we see some of the larger mandala states that existed in the past. The second picture shows several mainland mandala states (c.1360 CE), from left to right: Lan Na, Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, Lan Xang (Lao), Yashodharapura (Angkor) and Champa. In addition there was Dvaravati and Pegu , both early kingdoms founded by the Mon people. Dvaravati predates Thailand/Sukhothai and Pegu predates Myanmar/Bagan. The city of Pegu is often historically termed as Hanthawaddy and lower Burma/Myanmar is often called the country of Rāmaññadesa. These mandala political entities were the Indianized States of South East Asia, as George Coedes once defined them.

The Spread of Religion, Litteracy and Scripts

Already at an early stage, before Christ, there was trade between China and India, and that maritime trade had to pass through the Malacca strait. The Malacca strait was inhabited by people with excellent skills in navigation and boatmanship. This people are known to us as Malayu people, or Indonesians. The Malayu speaking people dominated the trade, and benefited from it at an early stage and they created kingdoms inspired by Buddhists and Hindus from India, especially influential was the South Indian states of Chola and Pallava, but the Northern Indian state of Gupta was also important. The influence of the South Indian states can be seen in the development of the scripts in SEA. In Java the South Indian Pallava script eventually became the Kawi script, and in Bali, Hanacaraka. In Cambodia Khmer script evolved and later became Thai and Lao scripts as well. The Burmese script developed from the earlier Mon script. And of course, religion spread simultanously with the script and the whole area became Hindu-Buddhist, but with some local believes embedded into it, notably animism and ancestor worship. Also China became Buddhist, but to China most of the influence came by a land route in Central Asia. The sea route has been named "Maritime Silk Road". 

The concept of a thallasocratic political entity means that it is a state based on maritime trade, and all of the early mandala states were thallassocratic and hence situated at the mouths of important rivers. The Indian languages Sanskrit and Pali became the language of educated South East Asians and all languages of today are heavily influenced by those languages. There are an immense amount of lexical loans from the scientific languages of India.


Alphabet: akṣaranyāsa अक्षरन्यास is Sanskrit for "the alphabet". Aksara is alphabet in Javanese. In Khmer aksar ឣកសរ means "letter" (not mail). In Sundanese aksara is "letter, alphabet". (In Indonesian and Malay the Arabic word abjad is used though). The Balinese script Hanacaraka is also named Aksara Bali. There are thousands of examples and when the first major Javanese-English dictionary was released almost half of the 25.000 entries came from Sanskrit. Some helpful websites are: 



First Indonesian Kingdoms and Inscriptions (Prasasti)

The Kutai Yupa Inscriptions, in all seven stones. I mentioned earlier that Batujaya at Java was the oldest trace of an organized Hindu state in Indonesia, but in east Kalimantan (Borneo), some inscriptions in Sanskrit and Old Pallava script has been discovered and they are dated from late 4th century. They mention a king with the name Mulavarman and he ruled a kingdom called Kutai Martadipura. Very little is known about Martadipura and that is a fact that makes it even more exciting. Most likely the people of Martadipura was of Dayak origins, an Austronesian sub-group, native to Borneo.

Taruma Nagara Kingdom lasted from 358 to 669 CE. It was a Sundanse entity and was annihilated by the more powerful Malayu speaking Srivijaya. Below are three examples of stone inscriptions, prasasti, from Taruma Nagara. They are the oldest text examples from Java and are written in Sanskrit with Pallava script. All three inscriptions dates from around 450 CE. Taruma Nagara was a west Java kingdom with their capital near todays Jakarta, maybee at the village of Bekasi.  According to the legend, the founder of the kingdom was an exiled Indian nobleman who married a Sundanese princess, but that is unconfirmed as far as I know. Taruma Nagara had trade and diplomatic ties with China and is mentioned in Chinese sources. Pajajaran, the Sunda Kindom was the inheritor of Taruma Nagara. Pajajaran had it's capital at modern day Bogor and the capital had the name Pakuan Pajajaran. The sunda people count Bogor as their cultural capital still today and outside the city an almost sacred place for the Sundanese is located, it is the village of Batu Tulis, (see for example the Batu Tulis inscription).

The Tapak Gajah or Kebon Kopi-1 text reads as follows: "Behold, here it looks like a pair of feet ...like Airavata, the elephant ride of the great Taruma ruler in... and (?) glory". The meaning is that the king is equal to the Hindu god Indra who rides an elephant called Airavata, hence the carved prints of elephant foot marks. Indra, the god of the sky, rain and thunder and Airavata, the flying white three tusked elephant, are well known in Indian mythology.

The Maritime Silk Route

Among the more important states in India that used the maritime route we find the Kalinga (Odisha) with beginning c. 400 BCE and peaking in the 600s - 700s CE. The northern Gupta state (Bay of Bengal) was also important. Most important though, was the South Indian Tamil states of Chola and Pallava. Also Chinese wessels sailed the waters of Malacca and usuallay they came from Hokkien areas. We have proof of Hokkien activity from 1st century BCE. And, interestingly, a Roman European coin has actually been excavated by archeologists in Southern Vietnam, in a layer from 100 CE. The trade route is obviously very old.

The most prominent early Indonesian kingdoms in the trade was Srivijaya in Sumatra and Sailendra in Java. 

We also have proof of early Persian and Arabian trade along the maritime silk route. Chinese written sources mentions Persian presence in a Chinese port in 671 CE. We also know that a Persian convoy of 35 ships visited the Srivijayan main port of Palembang in the year 717 CE. Sailors to the west brought silk and porcelain from China. From SEA they exported rice, spices, resin, aloe, ivory, gold and gems. But also Buddhist pilgrims from China went with the Austronesian ships. The boats on the way to the east brought Buddhist and Hindu missionaries but also cinnamon from Sri Lanka, glass and wine from Middle East. Futhermore, from India came language, script and religion. Later Islam and Arabic came by the same means along the same route. As we will learn later, and as I already mentioned, the Austronesians along the Malacca strait benefited from the trade inbetween China and India, and as far as we know, many ships from a number of countries was manned and sailed by Austronesian crews. It seems like they have navigation and boatmanship in their blood, the Austronesians, but they come from islands, so it is not a big surprise.

Three ships are very interesting archeological evidence:

 The Belitung (Arabian Dhow) shipwreck from c.830 CE

The Cirebon (West Austronesian) shipwreck c. 970 CE

Phanom surin (Persian?) shipwreck, Thailand/Dvaravati. 8th - 9th century.

Above we see an Indonesian outrigger ship from a relief at Borobodur temple, 8th 9th century, Java. Some Chinese porcelain, cargo from the Belitung shipwreck (photo: Michel Flecker). An inscription in Persian Pahlava language from the Phanom Surin ship, and finally a picture from the Arabian book Maqamat by Al-Hirari (1200s) showing an an Arabian Dhow sailing the Indian Ocean. The sailors has been identified as (probably) Austronesians.

More Kingdoms and Dynasties

Medang i Bhumi Mataram, or first Mataram. This is a kind of blury name, because we are talking about the first Mataram kingdom with two different dynasties, the Sailendra and Sanjaya. And there is another muslim dynasty later that is also called Mataram. Mataram is a geographical term, an area in east-central Java.

Sanjaya dynasty 

Tha Sanjaya dynasty lasted 732 - 929 CE. At the beginning they were probably a close ally to Sailendra but later an enemy. (There are different theories) Sanjaya also had close relations to Champa in Vietnam. they were Hinduist-Shivaist and they built the massive temple complex Prambanan at Java. We are talking about the first period of first Mataram and this is an era when classic Javanese literature blossoms. The Indian epic Ramayana is translated to Javanese and becomes Kakawin Ramayana.

Above are four inscriptions from Central Java. They represent the shift from Sanskrit and Pallava script, to Javanese and Malayu language and early Javanese Kawi script. They also represents contacts with both North and South India. The Sojomerto stone uses Malayu language and Kawi script. The Canggal stele mentions "Jawadvipa that is blessed with rice and gold" and is in Sanskrit and South Indian Pallava script. "Dwipa" is Sanskrit and is understood as "island". The Kalasan inscription is written in Sanskrit and uses the North Indian Pranagari script. The Kalasan prasasti is also the first mention of the Sailendra dynasty.  The Balitung inscription is Old Javanese language in early Kawi Script. 

More about inscriptions at:  https://anangpaser.wordpress.com/prasasti/ (In Indonesian)

Sailendra Dynasty

The Sailendra Dynasty emerges in the 8th century in Java and they probably spoke Malay (and Javanese) and they were closely associated with the powerful Srivijaya in Palembang (also Malay speaking). They were Mahayana Buddhist but there were Hindu presence as well. To mark their presence and to emphasize their power towards their Hindu rival, Sanjaya, they built the impressive Borobodur temple (Completed in 825 CE). Written records comes as inscriptions in Old Malay, Old Javanese and Sanskrit, all written in the Kawi alphabet or in Nagari script. The North Indian Nagari script is the script that is still used today in India when you want to write something in Hindi or Sanskrit, but it is today a developed style that is named Devanagari देवनागरी .

The Sunda people developed a script of their own called Kaganga. This stone comes from Kagali and the Galuh kingdom (669 - 1482 CE). This is one of four stones known as Astana Gede/Kagali inscriptions. All four stones commemorates those nobles who died at Bubat 1357 (see the Majapahit section).

Apart from Sanjaya and Sailendra, history has seen many small Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms on the island of Java and at the Malaysian peninsula. Kediri, Kalinga, Singhasari and Kahuripan was shortlived Javanese enteties. Langkasuka and Kedah was situated on the Malysian peninsula. Galuh and Sunda kingdoms was Sundanese dominated states at western Java. But from now on we will focus on the two great and important Hindu-Buddhist empires, the Srivijaya centered on Sumatra and the later Majapahit with their capital, Trowulan, on eastern Java.

Srivijaya Empire

c.650 - 1377 CE

The Srivijaya empire was the first powerful state that used Malayu (Old Malay) as their language. From Srivijaya comes also the oldest proof of written Malayu. The fact that Malay spread at this early stage affects the situation today and paved the way for Bahasa Indonesia as the national language of Indonesia. Srivijaya was a typical Hindu-Buddhist state with a typical thalassocratic maritime economy. They were not dependent on agriculture and were more Buddhist than Hindu. Tentacles from their capital reached as far as Champa/Vietnam, the Phillipines and the Chao Praya river in modern day Thailand. But also some early Khmer entities (Cambodia) and small kingdoms on the Malaysian peninsula were vassals of Srivijaya. But the Khmer empire and the Champa states were also rivals. The Srivijaya capital is not really known, but speculations are common. One theory states that the capital was made of floating houses, like many places still are. This theory argues that it was situated somewhere on the river Musi, South Sumatra, near modern day Palembang. The second, less popular theory,  is that the Muara Takus Buddhist temple are remains of the capital Minanga Tamwan that is mentioned on the Kedukan Bukit inscription. The temple remains are dated to 11th Century and its location is North-Central Sumatra. Maybee, I think, Srivijaya changed it's capital at some time. Between the South Sumatran, and the presumed late Central Sumatran period, the political capital of Srivijaya was the Sailendra court of Central Java, in Java known as the "Srivijayan Episode". During this period a member of the Sailendra family was Maharaja (Great King) of the Srivijaya network of mandalas. In 1125 Srivijaya and Sumatra was invaded by the Cholas from South India and this event mark the beginning of the end for the already declining state of Srivijaya.

Srivijaya traded with the Tang and Song dynasties of China in the North east. In the west they had exchange with the Buddhist Pala dynasty in the Bengal bay and the Islamic caliphate in the Persian gulf. They also reached Madagascar and Manila. It is also known that merchant Austronesian ships reached East Africa a very long time ago, and we have linguistic evidence that certain boat terminology reached East African languages hundreds of years before Christ. Another story is that of batik and it's popularity in Africa. Batik is certainly a Javanese word, but the handicraft of batik is also known from ancient Egypt.

Prasasti Kedukan Bukit, from 683 CE, is the oldest specimen of written Malayu. Also here the South Indian Pallava script is used. The stone mentions an emperor by the name Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa who left a place named Minanga Tamwan. He went by boat with 20.000 soldiers and conquered a lot of land. According to other evidence he went as far as Java and sacked Taruma Nagara. Around 30 inscriptions has been discovered in South Sumatra that tell a similar story. Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa was probably the founder of Srivijaya. The Muara Takus Buddhist temple (11th century) may have been a part of the Srivijayan capital at a later stage, at least according to some scholars.

A typical Arabic dhow similar to the Belitung shipwreck. Second picture shows a typical Austronesian outrigger in Palawan, Philippines. Third picture is a model of a typical Chinese Junk. All three types must have been seen in Srivijayan ports. First two pictures shows a Dhow in Oman and a replica of an old, Paraw type, Philippine ship. Paraw is called Prao in Indonesian. The Austronesian invention of the catamaran and the trimaran made it possible for them to travel to far away islands, crossing wast distances at open sea. The Chinese Junk was developed from Austronesian knowledge of boat construction.

Majapahit Dynasty

c.1293 - c.1500 CE

Majapahit dynasty existed at Java 1293 - c.1500 CE and had it's capital at Trowulan, not far from modern day Surabaja. It was the last Hindu-Buddhist kingdom of importance in Indonesia and had it's peak under Hayam Wuruk, 1350 to 1389.  In the 15th century it was in gradual decline. The most famous person of the Majapahit was Gajah Mada (Mahapatih/vice regent), or the Elephant general, as he is known in English. Gajah Mada lived c.1290 - c.1364 and was the de facto ruler and the general commander of the military. The probably most famous event that occured under the era of Majapahit was the Battle of Bubat, 1357.

Majapahit empire, also named Bhumi Jawa or Mandala Jawa, had the extent of modern day Indonesia, briefly. The era serves as an example of a glorius past and as a national symbol. When Indonesian nationalism grew in the 1920s, the example of Majapahit and the expansion of the realm under Gajah Mada was set as an example of a powerful national state. Note also that both the Srivijaya flag and the Majapahit banner uses red and white, precisely as the flag of today, the Bandera Pusakah Merah-Putih.

But Gajah Mada is not a hero for all Indonesians. The Sundanese population of Java have big problems with the memory of Gajah Mada and the massacre of the Sundanese royal family at Bubat 1357. It was only in the 21st century that the Sundanse and the Javanese made reconciliation and a street in the Sundanese capital Bogor was named Gajah Mada street, a name impossible in Sunda for 700 years. In 1357 CE, the Sundanese court had travelled to East Java because a wedding between the two royal families had been agreed upon. However, Gajah Mada told the Sundanese that their princess was going to be a second wife, a mistress, and not a honarable wife as the Sundanse believed. When the Sundanese therefore cancelled the wedding, Gajah Mada turned on them and killed most of the men. The females of the royal party then comitted suicide, a not uncommon practice in Indonesian past. See last chapter and puputan, mass ritual suicides of Bali 1849, 1906 and 1908 CE.

Part 2

Muslim Indonesia

The first Arab muslim traders comes to Indonesia in the 8th century and we also know about Egyptian merchants in the 11th Century. In the 1560s an Ottoman fleet of 22 ships aids Sumatra against the Portuguise that colonizes at this time.

The Terengganu Inscription from Malaysia is the oldest known Malayu in Arabic script, c.1303-1328. It actually contains many Sanskrit words, but only a few Arabic, so there is continuity despite the change of script.

First serious spread of Islam happens in the 13th century and the Samudera Pasai Sultanate appears in 1267 and lasts to 1521. Samudera Pasai was located on the northern tip of Sumatra. The island of Java adopts Islam in the 1500s. What we know as Sufi-islam easily integrated, because in sufism they have veneration of saints and that suits the Indonesians and their practice with ancestor veneration. This typical form of islam, that is mixed with both local practices and hindu-buddhist elements (reincarnation) are called Kejawen or Kebatinan in east and central Java. In the west Sundanese area it is named Wiwitan and this typical Java religion still practices ancestor and spirit worship. One Javanese friend once told me that "Indonesia is 90% muslim, but 100% Kejawen". At Sumatra, where Islam first settled, they have a more traditional conservative Islam, as we know it from the Arabian peninsula. 

(Today the province of Aceh, North Sumatra, actually has sharia law as the only province in Indonesia. Indonesia is not a muslim state and it is not written in the constitution. Indonesia is a Pancasila State. But in Aceh the governament has made an exception and it was agreed upon after the tsunami in 2004. The tsunami and its aftermath actually ended the long lasting civil war)

The island of Bali has the lowest percentage muslims, c. 13%, because Bali is dominated by Hindus. The island of Flores has the highest Christian percentage, but Christians can be found among Bataks of Sumatra and Dayaks of Borneo. The once important spice island, Ambon, is also known for a large Christian population.

In late 14th century the Malacca Sultanate is established on the Malaysian peninsula but it is conquered by the Portuguise in 1511. The Malacca Sultanate establishes the tradition with litterature in the prestigous language of classical Malay and this litterary tradition continues with the follower, the Riau-Johor Sultanate. At this early stages of history it is not really possible to make a clear distinction between Malaysia and Indonesia, as water was a uniting means of transport, not a border like today.

About Religion in Java and South East Asia

Taman Sari, Yogyakarta. This so called Water Castle was built by the muslim sultan of Yogyakarta in the mid 18th century. Despite the islamic faith of the ruler, the two snakes and the architecture is typically Indian in appearance. But the snakes, the nagas, is also known from even older Austronesian myths of water dwelling guardian monsters, myths that flourishes all over South East Asia and on the islands in the Pacific ocean. Taman Sari actually translates to something like "beautiful flower garden" and the name is Javanese.

The Javanese dragon-snake Antaboga as a wood carving at Keraton, the royal palace in Yogyakarta.

Hypsiscopus plumbea or Rice Paddy snake, is associated with Dewi Sri. In Indonesian this snake is called Ular Sawah. Dewi Sri is the ruler of the underworld or the world of the serpents, the world of the Naga race. The Khmers of Cambodia count the Nagas as their ancestors in an ancient Austroasiatic myth, so the water dwelling serpent is obviously popular among SEA people in general and not only among the Austronesians.

Above we have two depictions of  the originally Javanese, Sundanese and Balinese rice goddess Dewi Sri. Second picture is a Wayang Kulit figure famous from shadow theatre, and the style of this one is very Indonesian. Third picture is an Indonesian variation of the mother earth godess named Ibu Pertiwi and she is actually the Hindu mother goddess Prithvi. The Dewi Sri goddess is native Austronesian and predates Hinduism and Buddhism, but she has been integrated into later religions of Indonesia. Dewi Sri is often seen in the same role as the Hindu goddess Lakshmi who represents prosperity in the Indian pantheon.  The last picture shows the Buddhist goddess of Phra Mae Thorani, or mother earth, and she is also associated with water, rice and fertility, especially in the Theravada countries, Thailand, Cambodia, Lao and Myanmar. There is a famous legend and an episode in Buddhist history when goddess Phra Mae Thorani saves Buddha from Mara (temptation and desires). Equivalents to Dewi Sri can be found in all SEA cultures i.e. Po Ino Nogar in Cambodia and Mae Posop in Thailand. 

See more at https://www.devata.org/rice-goddesses-of-indonesia-cambodia-and-thailand/#.XyYt2Sgzbb0

Sultanate of Banten

The Banten sultanate lasted 1527 - 1813 CE. It was an important port and a center for spices, especially pepper. In the 1570s, it was one of the largest trading ports in SEA. Traded goods was, among other things, spices, silk, Chinese ceramics, gold. The port was frequented by merchants from China, India, Middle East and Europe. The main rival of Banten was Mataram. The decline of Banten starts in the late 1600s and from 1752 CE the Dutch control all important areas. In 1808 the palace is destroyed by the dutch, a result of the Dutch-British rivalry in the East Indies and the fact that Banten had to close ties with the British.

Sultanate of Mataram 

The Sultanate of Mataram lasted 1587-1755CE. They had their first capital at Kota Gede (Yogyakarta). The army of the sultan captures Surabaya in 1625 and the Mataram Sultan Agung besieges Batavia (Jakarta) in 1628 and 1629, but it fails. Mataram now faces military and economic decline and negotiate a peace agreement with the new powerful player, the Dutch in 1646. In 1741-1743 the large Chinese worker community rebell against the Javanese and the Dutch and it resulted in the first great purge of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia. In 1755 Mataram is divided and the Dutch East India company (VOC) has almost total control of Java.

Kotagede cemetary, a 16th century memorial to the royal family of Mataram sultanate. Kotagede is today a suburb of Yogyakarta and probably the most beautiful part of the nicest town in Indonesia. ꦏꦸꦛꦒꦺꦝꦺ is how the name "Kotagede" looks when written with modern Javanese script.

Javanese Islam is very Javanese. Here at a beautiful little mosque you are welcomed by a sign in Arabic, Latin and Javanese letters. It is like the hearts and minds of the Indonesians is visible in the appearance of their houses, it's remarkably lovely!

Part 3

Colonialism to Independence

Colonialism started with the arrival of the Portuguise in1509 (Lopes de Sequeira ), followed by the British in1579 (Francis Drake) and finally the Dutch 1596 (Cornelis Houtman). The Dutch East India Company (VOC) was founded 1600 and became the dominant player for the coming two hundred years. The British East India Company made their first voyage in 1602 . Most important in the archipalago was the Banda Islands (Maluku), earlier "Spice Islands" where there were a lot of cloves and nutmeg.

The dutch also forced the Indonesians to grow cash crops, like sugar, tobacco and coffee, later rubber and tea was introduced as well. Oil from Borneo and Sumatra was important too and helped the Netherlands to industrialize. In late 19th century there was a shortage of land for food production and prices fell for commodity products. In combination with increase in population the rural population suffered real hardships and faced starvation.

Dutch administration by the VOC lasted to 1800 when the company faced bankruptcy. The Dutch state then took control that lasted until the Japanese occupation in 1942. Indonesia declared independence in 1945 but real independence was achieved first in 1949.

Star anise Illicium verum, Nutmeg Myristica fragrans, Pepper Piper nigrum and Cloves Syzygium aromaticum were the most economically important spices in the lucrative trade. Ginger, cinnamon, cardamom and turmeric was also shipped to Europe in the wider spice trade that also involved India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Chilli, that is very popular today, actually comes from America and was introduced to the wider world by the Portuguese. Before the arrival of the Europeans, the location of the Spice Islands of Indonesia was known by the Arabs since 13th century. The European struggle for control of the spice trade is described in Giles Milton's book Nathaniel's Nutmeg. (The Swedish translation is given the name "Muskotkriget", and it is actually more suitable as it means "Nutmeg War")

Vredeburg, the Dutch fortress in Yogyakarta, a symbol of repression and colonialism, but still there as a tourist attraction. When I visited it was closed due to the Corona pandemic in 2020.

The Dutch presence can be seen at old Christian cemeteries, like the one I visited in Cilacap.

Me downtown Yogya
Me downtown Yogya

The road to independence starts with the formation of the organization Budi Utomo in 1908. It is followed by the formation of the Nationalist Movement and Sukarno became the undisputed leader. One of the more important events during the Indoensian National Awakening was the the Second Youth congress in 1928 and the declaration of Sumpah Pemuda, or the Youth Pledge. The Sumpah Pemuda stated that "Indonesia should have one language, be a united country under one state administration", in many ways a traditional nationalist view that was popular all over the world by the time.

Bung Tomo, a military nationalist leader who became famous with the Battle of Surabaya in 1945. The nationalist movement fought the Dutch, but the resistance fight soon turned pretty nasty and racist. The Indonesians turned on civilian Dutch women and children and killed indiscriminately. The first year of the independence struggle is variously called "The Chaos" or the Bersiap "Awakening". Tomo bacame well known for his radio broadcasted speeches that incited the masses, "Saudara-saudara, merdeka, bersiap! Was the message! Brothers, siblings, freedom is coming, wake up! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEvPBfM7OSQ

In rememberance of the resistance movement and the freedom fighters, Yogya. A kind of monument outside one of the houses where the resistance movement used to gather during the liberation war 1945-1949. Yogyakarta was a refuge for the resistance movement and the king and the nobles protected them. As a result Yogya has status as a special autonomous region (Daerah Istimewa Yogyakarta)  where the king still has political power. 

Part 4

The Contemporary State 

The period after independence has been far from free of trouble and some parts of the vast country did not embrace the idea of a united country ruled from Jakarta. The Ambonese rebellion occurred in 1950 and Sulawesian resistance or the Permesta rebellion was under way from 1958 to 1961. Then came the great purge of the 1960s and the two nationalist, anti socialist, paramilitary extreme right wing organisations Pemuda Pancasila and Ansor Banser. There was also a violent conflict in East Timor from 1975 to 1999, as well as an armed conflict in Bandah Aceh that ended just recently in 2005. Last great trouble was the riots in Jakarta in 1998 that ended dictatorship and introduced a new era of democracy, something rare in the history of Indonesia.

Pictures as follows: President Sukarno, the founding father of modern Indonesia. Suharto, former dictator and appointed by Transparancy International as the most corrupted leader in the world. Suharto was owerthrown in a popular uprising in 1998. Suharto was supported by the CIA and responsible for the massacre of one million oppositional civilians in 1965-66. Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, present leader and democratically elected. And finally, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, finance minister and leading economist in the fight against corruption. Mulyani is not very popular among many powerful persons in Indonesia, because some of the corrupted has been prosecuted and jailed. Sri Mulyani comes from the matrilineal culture of the Minangkabau, Sumatra.

The 1965-1966 massacres is maybee the darkest period of modern Indonesia. It was supported by CIA and a part of the Cold War, and the widespread fear of communism. The Vietnam war was a result of the American/US so called "Domino Theory" and so was the mass killings of Indonesia. But the massacres of civilians in Indonesia was also a racist mob movement that targeted people with Chinese background, a very bad habit among Indonesians still to this day.

Discrimination and Persecution of Chinese Indonesians

The first major outbreak of anti Chinese violence happened in Batavia (Jakarta) in 1740 and around 10.000 was killed by the Dutch authorities and the VOC. Different Indonesian ethnic groups living in Batavia participated too. Since then the Chinese has played the role of the scapegoat as soon as social unrest has occured in the country. Some Chinese became wealthy merchants, consequently the Chinese came to play the same role as the Jews in European history, and the Armenians in Turkey.

Next time the Chinese was targeted was during the Java War in 1825 - 1830 and thousands were killed by the Indonesisan rebel leader Dipo Negoro and his militia. The Chinese became a symbol of foreign rule and therefore targeted, a scapegoat.

During the early years of nationalism some violence erupted and there were nationalistic and anti Chinese riots in Surakarta (1912), in Tangerang (1913) and in Kudus (1918). In 1946 it happened in Tangerang (close to Jakarta) again and during the entire independence war from 1945 to 1946 persecution of Chinese was common. The worst period though, was during the 1965-66 wide spread masskillings. In Kalimantan, Borneo, the local Dayak people killed at least 5000 Chinese and displacing another 45.000 in the year of 1967. Last serious outbreak of violence directed towards the Chinese was during the 1998 Jakarta riots when many Chinese businesses was looted and burned.

Except from direct violence, the Chinese has faced both social, economic and linguistic discrimination troughout the Indonesian history. It is still forbidden to import books and other printed matter containing Chinese script, as far as I know. At least it was when I first visited Indonesia in the early 1980s. 

Chinezenmoord 1740, Batavia. 

Batavia, that is Jakarta today, was constructed in a swamp. The Dutch knew the technique for that kind of construction very well, because that's how large parts of Holland was built. This has the consequence that Jakarta is infested with mosquitos and it is an unhealthy place. Today the city is sinking and is frequently flooded, and the capital of Indonesia has to be moved. The city is actually disappearing.

Pemuda Pancasila, a paramilitary organisation with 3 million members, affiliated with organized crime (but still widely accepted) and anti communist. Involved in the killings of 1965-1966. Surprisingly, the democratically elected president Jokowi was invited and accepted the invitation, to participate in the annual convent of Pemuda Pancasila at Medang, Sumatra. Medang City is actually one of the strongholds of Pemuda Pancasila.

Ansor Banser is the paramilitary wing of NU, anti radical islam and anti communist. Involved in the killings of 1965-1966. Today Ansor is active in the struggle against radical islamic groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir and others.

Nadlathul Ulama, founded 1926, 90 million members (2019). A progressive, liberal and pluralistic Islamic movement, but a diverse organization with large conservative factions. Uses vernacular language instead of Arabic. Social and humanitarian organisation. Largest Islamic organisation in the world.


Language in Indonesia

Indonesia has c.550-700 different languages, most are Austronesian but around 250 are Papuan (All depending on how you define language versus dialect, and how many Papuan languages that has gone extinct). Very few have Indonesian or Malayu as their mother tongue. The national language is called Bahasa Indonesia formally and "bahasa" is a loan from sanskrit that has the meaning "language".

Population is c.250 million, almost all speak Bahasa Indonesia, more or less (83% 1990), but many speak an informal variety at home if it is their mother tongue, (Diglossia). Formal Indonesian is used in education, in news and in administration.

About 80 million (as by 2000), have Javanese as their mother tongue. High-Javanese is considered the most refined language culturally. Javanese is spoken in three registers, Krama, Madya and Ngoko. Those registers are also sociolingustic class markers, with Krama (High-Javanese) beeing the upper class language, spoken by the elite, the nobility. In Yogyakarta, that has a special status, the traditional Javanese nobility is still very powerful.

About 28 million (as by 2000), speak Sundanese as their mother tongue (Sunda is the Western part of Java)

Bahasa Malayu, or what we can call informal Indonesian (close to Bahasa Indonesia), is spoken, in different dialects and as mother tongue in central to South Sumatra and around Jakarta. In Jakarta city a special urban dialect of Bahasa Indonesia is spoken. Minangkabau language is very close to Malayu, or even a dialect.

Indonesian is used as lingua franca inbetween different ethnical groups and has been the language of trade in the ports for more than tousand years, known also in the ports of India an China in the remote past. Malayu or Indonesian is still spoken as a trade language of Southern Phillipines. During the era of Dutch colonial rule Bahasa Indonesia was promoted by the colonial administration. 

Borneo and Sumatra has c.50 languages each. Sulawesi maybee 100. Sumbawa 2. In Bali the old Balinese language is threathened because of tourism and Bali is the only place in Indonesia where they can speak English. Balinese is slowly replaced by English actually and tragically.

In Jakarta, with a population of 20 million, almost every Indonesian language is represented.

Other notable languages in indonesia are Meningkabau, Buginese and Madurese, plus different Batak and Dayak languages at Borneo and Sumatra respectively.

The script used is Latin today, but earlier Arabic (Pegon or Jawi) and different Brahmic/Indian scriptsystems was used, e.g. Kawi and Kuno (Sunda) at Java and Hanacaraka at Bali. The Brahmic scripts of Indonesia all developed from South Indian Pallava (and Grantha) script.

Arabic is still used as a liturgical language at some mosques, and Sanskrit is used as liturgical language at Bali. Sanskrit is also used in theatre and music, because the Indian epics of Ramayana and Mahabarata are still very popular.

Bahasa Indonesia has many loanwords from Sanskrit, Javanese, Arabic, Portuguise, Dutch and English, and basically in that order historically. But also loanwords from Hokkien, Tamil and Persian. Pali was also influential, but not particularly in Indonesia. Pali is the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism and therefore very important in Thailand, Cambodia, Lao and Myanmar.

Austronesian languages are spoken from Madagascar to Easter Island and from Taiwan and Vietnam to New Zeeland. The three most common loanwords from Malayu are, Orangutan (From orang hutan "forest man"), Batik (a way to dye textiles, originally actually Javanese) and Bamboo, the plant. The word kampung/kampong is Malayu and has been borrowed into the Cambodian Khmer Austroasiatic language with the meaning "harbour", but in Austronesian it has the meaning "village". This change of meaning is explained by the fact that Austronesian Cham people live on and along the rivers of Cambodia.

Austronesian Expansion 1500BCE-1200CE
Austronesian Expansion 1500BCE-1200CE

Learn more:

The movie Max Havelaar is very interesting and describes colonial Java in the mid 1800s. It's in Dutch and Indonesian with English subtitles. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cm0uV-oOIbc&list=PLkNMwKq-nlsnw-vM6czLYJ7fWTrUyR9Lo&index=25&t=239s

Shadow Play, a documentary of the masskillings of 1965-1966  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=esC1fiPl4X8&list=PLkNMwKq-nlsnw-vM6czLYJ7fWTrUyR9Lo&index=25 (There is also a drama film from 1982 on the same theme, The Year of Living Dangerously,  with Sigourney Weaver and Mel Gibson)

A documentary about the Indonesian war of Independence 1945 - 1949  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8U2QImMSzwE&list=PLkNMwKq-nlsnw-vM6czLYJ7fWTrUyR9Lo&index=28&has_verified=1

The Act of Killing, a very strange documentary about the people involved in the massacres in the 1960s. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-349HTKhPno&list=PLkNMwKq-nlsnw-vM6czLYJ7fWTrUyR9Lo&index=37&has_verified=1

The Bird Dancer, a documentary about a girl with Tourette syndrome who lives at Bali.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kjTNDnFddQk&list=PLkNMwKq-nlsnw-vM6czLYJ7fWTrUyR9Lo&index=34

A short story about the rice goddess of Thailand  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ZLGq8mY6MU

A complete playlist with movies and Indonesian language lessons: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLkNMwKq-nlsnw-vM6czLYJ7fWTrUyR9Lo

Litterature and articles:

The Indonesian Language, Its history and Role in Modern Society by James Sneddon.

Water shortage in Bali and how tourism is killing itself: 'https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/12/bali-tropical-indonesian-island-running-water-191201051219231.html

Article (in Swedish) about plastic waste from tourists on Bali: https://www.extrakt.se/balis-kamp-mot-plastskrapet/