Indonesian traditions and customs

What traditions and customs are there in Indonesia?

We discover the customs and traditions of Indonesia, in Asia.


Food in daily life

Indonesian cuisine reflects regional, ethnic, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Western influences, as well as the quality and quantity of food consumed on a daily basis, and the diversity varies greatly by socioeconomic class, season, and ecological conditions.

Rice is a staple in most regional cuisine and the center of Indonesian cuisine in general. (Government employees receive monthly rice rations in addition to wages.)

The rice is accompanied by side dishes of meat, fish, eggs and vegetables and a variety of condiments and sauces using hot peppers and other spices. Javanese and Balinese cuisine has the most variety, while that of the Batak has much less, even in affluent households, and is characterized by more rice and fewer side dishes.

And rice isn’t the staple food everywhere: in Maluku and parts of Sulawesi it’s sago, and in West Timor it’s maize (maize), with rice eaten only for ceremonial occasions. Among rotinos, palm sugar is essential to the diet.

Indonesia is an island nation, but fish plays a relatively small role in the diet of the many people who live in the mountainous interiors, although improved transportation makes more salt fish available to them.

Refrigeration remains poor, daily markets dominate, and food availability may depend primarily on local produce.

Indonesia is rich in tropical fruits, but many areas have few fruit trees and little capacity for timely transportation of fruits. Cities provide the greatest variety of foods and types of markets, including modern supermarkets; rural areas, much less.

In the cities, prosperous people have access to a wide variety of foods, while the poor have very limited diets, dominated by rice and rare meat. Some poor rural regions experience what people call “ordinary famine” every year before the maize and rice harvest.

Food customs on ceremonial occasions

The most striking ceremonial occasion is the Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan. Even the least observant Muslims fast seriously from dawn to dusk despite the tropical heat. Every night during Ramadan, fine celebratory meals are held.

The month ends with Idul Fitri, a national holiday when family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers visit each other’s homes to share food (including visits by non-Muslims to Muslim homes).

In traditional rituals, special food is served to the spirits or the deceased and is eaten by the participants. The ubiquitous Javanese ritual, selamatan, is marked by a meal among the celebrants and is celebrated at everything from life cycle rituals to the blessing of new things entering a village.

Life cycle events, particularly marriages and funerals, are the main occasions for ceremonies in both rural and urban areas, and each has religious and secular aspects.

Elaborate food service and symbolism are hallmarks of such events, but the content varies greatly from one ethnic group to another. Among the Meto of Timor, for example, these events must have meat and rice (“sisi-maka”), with men cooking the former and women cooking the latter.

Elaborate funerals involve drinking a mixture of pig fat and blood that is not part of the daily diet and can be unappetizing for many participants who nonetheless follow the tradition. At such events, Muslim guests are fed in separate kitchens and tables.

In most of Indonesia, the ability to serve an elaborate meal to many guests is a mark of family or clan hospitality, ability, resources, and status, whether for a Toraja buffalo sacrifice at a funeral or a Javanese wedding reception. in a five-star hotel in Jakarta.

Among some peoples, such as the Batak and the Toraja, the portions of animals sacrificed for such events are significant gifts to those who attend, and the portion of the animal that is selected symbolically marks the status of the recipient.


People in Indonesia acquire full adult status through marriage and parenthood. In Indonesia the question is not: “Are you married?”, but “Are you already married?”, and the correct answer is: “Yes” or “Not yet”. Even homosexuals are under great family pressure to marry.

Some societies in Sumatra and eastern Indonesia practice the affine alliance, in which marriages are arranged between people of certain clans or patrilineal lineages who are related as close or distant cross-cousins.

In these societies, the relationship between wife-giving and wife-taking clans or lineages is vitally important to the structure of society and involves lifelong obligations for the exchange of goods and services between relatives.

The Batak are a prominent example of this type of people in Sumatra. Clan membership and inter-clan marriage alliances are important to the Batak, whether they live in their mountain homeland or have migrated to distant cities.

Their marriages perpetuate relationships between lineages or clans, although individual desires and love among the young may be considered by their families and relatives, as can education, occupation, and wealth among urbanites.

In societies without linear descent groups, love is more prominent in driving people to marry, but again education, occupation, or wealth in the city, or the ability to work hard, be a good provider, and having access to resources in the village, are also considered.

Among the Javanese or Bugis, for example, the higher the social status of a family, the more likely it is that parents and other relatives will arrange a marriage (or veto potential relationships). In most Indonesian societies, marriage is seen as an important means of promoting individual or family social status (or losing it).

Divorce and remarriage practices are diverse. Among Muslims they are governed by Muslim law and may be resolved in Muslim courts or, as among non-Muslims, they may be resolved in the civil court of the government. The initiation of divorce and its settlements favors men among Muslims and also in many traditional societies.

Divorce and remarriage may be handled by local elders or officials according to customary law, and the terms of such agreements may vary considerably by ethnic group. In general, societies with strong descent groups, such as the Batak, avoid divorce and it is very rare.

These societies may also practice levirate (widows marrying the brothers or cousins ​​of their deceased spouse). In societies without descent groups, such as the Javanese, divorce is much more common and can be initiated by either spouse.

Remarrying is also easy. Javanese who are not members of the upper class have a high divorce rate, while divorce between the upper class and wealthy Javanese is rarer.

Polygamy is recognized among Muslims, some Chinese immigrants, and some traditional societies, but not among Christians. These marriages are probably few. Marriages between members of different ethnic groups are also rare, although they may be increasing in urban areas and among the more educated.


When riding a Jakarta bus, fighting in post offices, or walking into a football game, one might think that Indonesians just have a push-and-shove etiquette.. And in a pedicabary or in the market, negotiation always delays action.

Children may repeatedly yell “Belanda, Belanda” (white Westerner) at a European, or young people yell “Hey, sir.” In some places, a young woman walking or cycling alone is harassed by young men. But public behavior contrasts sharply with private label.

In an Indonesian home, one joins in quiet speech and enjoys humorous banter and frequent laughter. People sit properly with their feet on the ground and their legs uncrossed, while guests, men, and the elderly receive the best seats and deference.

Strong emotions and quick or jerky movements of the face, arms, or body in front of guests are avoided. Drinks and snacks should be served, but not immediately, and when they are served, guests should wait to be invited to drink. Patience is rewarded, displays of greed are avoided, and a host may offer a sumptuous meal that apologizes for its inadequacy.

Whether serving tea to guests, passing money after trading in the market, or paying a clerk for stamps at the post office, only the right hand is used for giving or receiving, following Muslim custom (the left hand is reserved for bathroom functions).

Guests are served with a slight bow, and seniors are passed to juniors with a bow. Handshakes are appropriate between men, but with a light touch (and between Muslims with the hand and then lightly touching the heart).

Until one has a truly intimate relationship with another, negative feelings such as jealousy, envy, sadness, and anger must be hidden from that person.

Confrontations should be met with smiles and a calm demeanor, and direct eye contact should be avoided, especially with social superiors. Punctuality is not appreciated – Indonesians speak of “rubber time” – and can be considered impolite. However, good guides warn that Indonesians can expect Westerners to be on time.

In public, people of the opposite sex are rarely seen holding hands (except perhaps in a Jakarta shopping mall), while same-sex friends hold hands.

Cleanliness in the toilet is highly appreciated, whether on a crowded bus or at a festival. Civil servants wear clean uniforms to work, as do schoolchildren and teachers.

The Javanese emphasize the distinction between refined behavior (“halus”) and crude behavior (“kasar”), and young children who have not yet learned refined behavior in speech, demeanor, attitude, and general behavior consider themselves “not yet Javanese”.

This distinction can be extended to other peoples whose culturally correct behavior is not considered appropriate by the Javanese. The Batak, for example, can be considered rude because they generally value directness in speech and behavior and can be argumentative in interpersonal relationships.

And the wife of a Batak man is regarded as the wife of his brothers (although not in a sexual way), which a Javanese wife might not accept.

The Bugis do not respect people who smile and withdraw in the face of challenges, as the Javanese often do; they respect those who defend their honor even violently, especially the honor of their women. Therefore, conflict between Javanese and others over matters of etiquette and behavior is possible.

The Javanese wife of a Batak man may not react kindly to his visiting brother’s expectation that he be served and do his laundry without being thanked; a young Javanese man may politely smile and wave at a young bugi, which may draw the ire (and perhaps the knife) of her brother or cousin; a Batak civil service official may publicly clothe his Javanese subordinate (in which case both the Batak and the Javanese lose face in the eyes of the Javanese).

The Batak who migrate to Javanese cities organize night classes to instruct the newcomers in proper behavior with the majority of the Javanese and Sundanese with whom they will live and work. The potential for inter-ethnic conflict has increased in recent decades as more people from Java transmigrate to the outer islands, and more people from the outer islands move to Java.


Religious beliefs

Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any nation, and in 1990 the population was 87 percent Muslim. There is a well-educated and influential Christian minority (about 9.6 percent of the population in 1990), with nearly twice as many Protestants as Catholics. The Balinese still follow a form of Hinduism.

Mystical cults are well established among the Javanese elite and middle class, and traditional belief systems are still followed by members of many ethnic groups. Officially the government recognizes religion (“agama”) to include Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, while other belief systems are called just that, beliefs (“kepercayaan”).

Those who have beliefs are subject to conversion; the followers of religion are not. Belief in ancestral spirits, spirits of various kinds of places, and powerful relics are found among both peasants and educated people, and among many adherents of world religions; witchcraft and sorcery also have their believers and practitioners.

The colonial regime had an uneasy relationship with Islam, as did the Indonesian government. The first of the Five Principles exalts God (“Tuhan”), but not Allah by his name. Dissidents have wanted to make Indonesia a Muslim state, but have not prevailed.

Javanese are predominantly Muslim, although many are Catholic or Protestant, and many Chinese in Java and elsewhere are Christian, mainly Protestant.

The Javanese are characterized by a less strict adherence to Islam and a greater orientation to the Javanese religion, a mixture of Islam and earlier Hindu and animist beliefs. The Sundanese of West Java, on the other hand, are ardently Muslim.

Other prominent Muslim peoples include the Acehnese of North Sumatra, the first Indonesians to become Muslims; the Minangkabau, despite their matrilogy; the Banjares of South Kalimantan; the Bugis and Makassarese of South Sulawesi; the Sumbawans of the Lesser Sunda Islands; and the population of Ternate and Tidor in Maluku.

The Dutch tried to avoid European-style conflicts between Protestants and Catholics by assigning particular regions for each to convert. Thus, the Batak of Sumatra, the Dayak of Kalimantan, the Toraja and Menadonese of Sulawesi, and the Ambonese of Maluku are Protestant; the Flores peoples and the Tetuns of West Timor are Catholic.

Religious professionals

Islam in Indonesia is of the Sunni variety, with little hierarchical leadership. Two major Muslim organizations, Nahdatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah (both founded in Java), have played important roles in post-independence education, nationalist struggle and politics.

The New Order regime allowed only one major Muslim political group, which had little power; but after the fall of President Suharto, many parties (Muslim and others) emerged, and these two organizations continued to play an important role in the elections.

The UN leader, Abdurrahman Wahid (whose grandfather founded it), successfully campaigned and became the country’s president; one opponent, Amien Rais, head of Muhammadiyah, became a spokesman for the DPR. During this time of transition, the forces of tolerance are being challenged by those who have wanted Indonesia to be a Muslim state. The outcome of that conflict is uncertain.

Relations between Muslims and Christians have been strained since colonial times. The Dutch government did not proselytize, but allowed Christian missions to convert freely among non-Muslims. When Christians and Muslims are segregated on different islands or in different regions, relations are friendly.

However, since the 1970s, large movements of people – especially Muslims from Java, Sulawesi and parts of Maluku into formerly Christian areas in Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Maluku and West Papua – have led to changes in religious demographics and imbalances in economic, ethnic and political power.

The end of the New Order regime has led to an outcome of tensions and great violence in places such as Ambon (capital of Maluku province), other Maluku islands and Sulawesi. Commanders’ loss of authority over Muslim and Christian troops in the outer islands is playing a role.

Christians have generally kept to themselves and avoided national politics. They lack mass organizations or leaders comparable to Muslims, but a disproportionate number of Christians have held important civil, military, intellectual, and business positions (as a result of the Christian emphasis on modern education); Christian high schools and colleges are prominent and have educated sons of the elite (including non-Christians); and two major national newspapers, Kompas and Suara Pembaruan, were Catholic and Protestant in origin, respectively.

Some Muslims are unhappy with these facts, and Christians were historically smeared in their eyes by association with Dutch and foreign missionaries and the fact that Chinese Indonesians are prominent Christians.

During the New Order, those without a religion were suspected of being communists, so there was a rush for conversion in many areas, including Java, which gained many new Christians.

Followers of traditional ethnic beliefs were also under pressure. In places like Kalimantan and Sulawesi, some individuals and groups converted to one of the world’s religions, but others sought government recognition for a reorganized traditional religion through regional and national policies.

Among the Ngaju Dayak, for example, the traditional belief system, Kaharingan, has gained official acceptance in the Hindu-Buddhist category, although it is neither.

People who follow traditional beliefs and practices are often considered primitive, irrational, and backward by urban civilian and military leaders who are Muslim or Christian, but these groups formed new types of organizations, based on secular urban organizations, to bolster support.

These measures represent both religious and ethnic resistance to pressure from abroad, from neighboring Muslim or Christian groups, and from government and military officials exploiting or outside developers of logging and mining industries.

In Java, mystical groups, such as Subud, also pushed for official recognition and protection. Their position was stronger than that of remote villages because they had supporters in high positions, including the president.

Rituals and sacred places

Muslims and Christians follow the main holidays of their faith, and in Makassar, for example, the same decorative lights are left to celebrate both Idul Fitri and Christmas. National calendars list Muslim and Christian holidays, as well as Hindu and Buddhist ones.

In many places, people of one religion may acknowledge the holidays of another religion with visits or gifts. The mosques and churches have the same characteristics as in other parts of the world, but the temples of Bali are very special.

While centers for spiritual communication with Hindu deities, they also control the flow of water to Bali’s complex irrigation system through their ritual calendar.

The main annual Muslim rituals are Ramadan (the month of fasting), Idul Fitri (the end of the fast) and the hajj (pilgrimage). Indonesia annually provides the largest number of pilgrims to Mecca. Smaller pilgrimages can also be made in Indonesia to the tombs of saints who are believed to have brought Islam to Indonesia, Sunan Kalijaga being the most famous.

The rituals of traditional belief systems mark life cycle events or involve propitiation for particular occasions and are led by shamans, spirit mediums, or prayer teachers (male or female).

Even in Muslim and Christian areas, some people may perform rituals at birth or death that are traditional in nature, honor and nurture the spirits of places or graves of ancestors, or use practitioners for sorcery or counter magic. The debate about what is or is not a custom allowed by the followers of the religion is frequent in Indonesia.

Among the Sa’dan Toraja of Sulawesi, the elaborate sacrifice of buffalo at funerals has become part of the international tourist circuit, and the conversion of local customs into tourist attractions can be seen in other parts of Indonesia, such as in Bali or on the island of Samosir in North Sumatra.

Death and the afterlife

It is widely believed that the deceased can influence the living in various ways, and funerals serve to ensure the spirit’s proper passage to the afterlife, although cemeteries are still considered potentially dangerous dwellings for ghosts. In Java, the dead may be honored with modest family ceremonies held on Thursday nights.

Among Muslims, the burial must occur within twenty-four hours and must be attended by Muslim officiants; Christian burial is also led by a local church leader. The two have separate cemeteries.

In Java and other areas there may be secondary rites to ensure the welfare of the soul and protect the living. Funerals, like marriages, require the coming together of family, neighbors, and friends, and among many ethnic groups, social status can be expressed through the elaborateness or simplicity of funerals.

In clan-based societies, funerals are occasions for the exchange of gifts between the groups that give the wives and those that take them. In these societies, representatives of the wife donor group are often responsible for conducting funerals and carrying the coffin to the grave.

Funeral customs vary. Burial is more common, except in the case of Hindu Bali, where cremation is the norm. The Sa’dan Toraja are noted for making large wooden effigies of the deceased, which are placed in niches in steep stone cliffs to protect the tombs.

In the past, the Batak made stone sarcophagi for the prominent dead. This practice stopped with Christianization, but in recent decades prosperous urban Batak have built large stone sarcophagi in their home villages to honor the dead and reestablish a connection otherwise severed by migration.

Secular celebrations

The most important national celebration is Independence Day, on August 17, which is celebrated with parades and displays in Jakarta and in the provincial and district capitals. Provincial celebrations may have a local cultural or historical flavor. Young people are usually prominent.

Kartini Day, April 21, honors Indonesia’s first emancipating woman; schools and women’s organizations hold activities on that day. The army also has its celebrations. The New Year is celebrated on January 1, when businesses close and in some places local fairs with fireworks are held. Western-style balls are held in hotels in cities.

Public celebration by the Chinese of their New Year was not allowed for decades, but this rule was lifted in 1999 and dragons danced in the streets again. Previously it was celebrated only in homes, although businesses closed and for two days the hustle and bustle of Jakarta’s traffic stopped.

Local celebrations recognize the founding of cities, historical events and characters, or heroes (some national, some regional), while others mark special events, such as bullfights in Madura and palace processions in Yogyakarta or Surakarta.

In Bali a lunar New Year calendar is celebrated with fasting, prayer, silence and inactivity. All people (including tourists) must stay inside and with no lights on so that harmful spirits think Bali is empty and leave.

The arts and humanities

Arts support

In the past, in Java and Bali, royal courts or wealthy people were great patrons of the arts. They continue with their support, but other institutions joined them. The Dutch founded the Batavian Society for Arts and Sciences in 1778, which established the National Museum that continues to display artifacts from the national culture.

The National Archives, founded in the Netherlands, try to preserve the literary heritage, despite the scarcity of funds and the dangers of tropical weather and insects. In recent decades, regional cultural museums were built with funds from the national and provincial governments and with some foreign aid.

The preservation of arts and crafts traditions and objects, such as house architecture, batik and tie-dye weaving, woodcarving, gold and silversmithing, statues, puppetry and basketry, are seen threatened by the international craft market, local demands for cash, and evolving indigenous values.

A school for art teachers, founded in 1947, was incorporated in 1951 into the Bandung Institute of Technology; an Academy of Fine Arts was established in Yogyakarta in 1950; and the Jakarta Institute of Art Education was started in 1968.

Academies have since been founded elsewhere; the arts are part of several universities and teacher training institutes; and private music and dance schools have been founded. Private galleries for batik painters and designers are legion in Yogyakarta and Jakarta. The academies and institutes maintain the traditional arts and develop new forms of theater, music and dance.


Indonesia’s literary heritage includes centuries-old palm, bamboo, and other fiber manuscripts from various literate peoples, including Malay, Javanese, Balinese, Buginese, Rejang, and Batak.

The 14th century Nagarakrtagama is a long poem praising King Hayam Wuruk and describing the life and social structure of his kingdom, Majapahit. The I La Galigo de los Bugis, which traces the adventures of their culture hero, Sawerigading, is one of the longest epic poems in the world.

In colonial times some works were published in regional languages, mostly in Javanese, but this stopped after Indonesian independence. The first official publisher of Indonesian literature is Balai Pustaka, founded in Batavia in 1917.

The national culture was expressed and somehow formed through spoken Indonesian Malay (understood by many people) and through newspapers, pamphlets, poetry, novels and short stories for those who could read. At the time of independence, literary production was not large, but it has grown considerably since the 1950s.

The literary tradition is now rich, but it must be kept in mind that reading for pleasure or enlightenment is not yet part of the culture of average urban Indonesians and plays little or no role in the lives of the villagers..

Indonesia has made literacy and widespread primary education a major national effort, but functional literacy is limited in many rural areas of the country. It is not common for students to own many books; colleges are still geared toward class notes rather than student reading; and libraries are poorly stocked.

In the conflict between left and right politics in the 1950s and early 1960s, authors’ organizations were drawn into the fray.

In the anti-communist purges of the late 1960s, some writers who had participated in left-wing organizations were jailed. The most famous is Pramoedya Ananta Toer, a nationalist who had also been imprisoned by the Dutch from 1947 to 1949. He composed books as stories told to other prisoners in exile on the island of Buru from 1965 to 1979.

He was released from Buru and settled in Jakarta, but remained under municipal arrest. Four of his novels, the Buru Quartet, published between 1980 and 1988 in Indonesian, are rich documentaries about life in turn-of-the-century colonial Java. They were banned in Indonesia during the New Order.

Pram (as it is commonly known, rhyming with Tom) received a PEN Freedom-to-Write Award in 1988 and a Magsaysay Award in 1995. In English translation, the Buru Quartet received critical acclaim, and after completion of the New Order in 1999, Pram toured the United States. He is the only Indonesian novelist to have received such acclaim abroad.

Graphic arts

Stone sculptures of the elaborate Hindu variety in Java or the ornate sarcophagi of Sumatra are archaeological finds of value, but elaborate stone carving continues only in Bali (aside from that which may decorate some luxury homes or public buildings in Jakarta). Wood carving is more common.

Bali’s artisan carving industry finds a wide domestic and international market for its statues of people, deities and animals, many of which are finely artistic, some of which are hackneyed. Perhaps the most common carving is found in the street furniture industry, primarily in Java, where ornately carved sofas and chairs are very popular.

The traditional sculptures of puppets or animals from the Batak mountain of Sumatra or Dayak from Kalimantan are now mainly for tourists, although they once displayed rich art (now largely seen in museums). Toraja houses are still elaborately carved, and small examples of these carvings are sold to tourists.

The Toraja carve decorations on large bamboo tubes used to carry palm wine or rice, and the people of eastern Indonesia decorate small bamboo tubes that carry lime used in chewing betel. Among contemporary street artists, painting on canvas or batik is much more common than sculpture.

Indonesian textiles are becoming more and more popular abroad. Batik is the Javanese word for “dot” or “stiletto”; Ikat, a Malay-Indonesian word for “to tie,” is a type of cloth that is tie-dyed before weaving.

Batik textiles were made in royal courts and country houses, but also became a major commercial industry in Java and Bali, an industry that has experienced economic vicissitudes over the decades.

Batik cloth varies greatly in artistry, workmanship, quality, and cost. Formal occasions require Javanese, Sundanese, and Balinese women to wear whole cloths ornately wrapped to form a skirt. Men today do it only in their marriage (or if they are in royal courts or are performers in gamelan, dance or theater).

Long-sleeved batik shirts are now accepted as formal social dress for men of all ethnic origins, although men’s formal wear also includes civil service uniforms, shirts and ties, or Western suits.

Performing arts

Performing arts are diverse and include: Javanese and Balinese gong-chime orchestras (gamelan) and shadow plays (“wayang”), Sundanese bamboo orchestras (“angklung”), Muslim orchestral music at family events or Muslim festival celebrations, trance dances (“reog”) from East Java, dramatic barong dance or monkey dances for tourists in Bali, Batak puppet dances, horse puppet dances from South Sumatra, Rotino singers with lontar leaf mandolins, and dances for ritual and life cycle events performed by the many ethnic groups of Indonesia’s outer islands.

All of these arts use locally produced costumes and musical instruments, the most complex of which are the costumes of the Balinese barongs and the metalwork of the gamelan orchestra.

The best known in Indonesia is the Javanese and Balinese shadow theater based on the Ramayana epic, with its brilliant puppeteers (“dalang”) who can manipulate more than a hundred puppets in oral performances throughout the night accompanied by a gamelan orchestra..

Bali is best known for the diversity of its performing arts. Although Bali attracts visitors from all over the world and its companies operate abroad, most

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