The name ‘Indonesia’ is formed from two Greek words: ‘Indos’ which means ‘Indian,’ and ‘nesos’ which means ‘islands’. The Indonesian name for Indonesia is ‘Tanah Air Kita’ - Our Land and Water.
The Republic of Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago, and is probably the last territory on earth still not fully explored and mapped. It is estimated to have about 18,000 islands, of which 6,000 have been named and fewer are inhabited. Based on these approximations, it would take 48 years in order to spend a day on each island (not factoring transportation time).
Situated between Indochina to the north and Australia to the south, the archipelago stretches east and west along the equator, from the Indian to the Pacific Ocean, for more than 5,000 kilometres (the average length of a continent). The coastline, 100,000 kilometres, is the longest in the world and boasts the greatest marine biodiversity on earth. It is home to 25 percent of the world’s coral reef and 3,500 of the world’s 4,500 reef fish species.
The lush tropical forests of the islands provide refuge for the one-horned rhinoceros (Java); the orangutan (Kalimantan and Sumatera), the only great ape living naturally outside Africa; the giant lizard known as the Komodo dragon (the Lesser Sunda Islands); and the the Draco volans (flying dragon), a lizard which glides from trees and other high points. The Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatera was added to the World Heritage List in 2004.
Indonesia’s main islands are Sumatera (473,606 sq km), Sulawesi (189,216 sq km), Papua (421,981 sq km), Kalimantan (539,460 sq km), Java (132,187 sq km), and the small but world-renown island of Bali. Indonesia's region of Papua shares the island of New Guinea with Papua New Guinea; the region of Kalimantan shares the island of Borneo with Malaysia and Brunei. The islands of New Guinea and Borneo are two of the largest islands in the world.
Together, Indonesia’s islands form part of the Ring of Fire which includes about seventy-five percent of all the world's volcanoes. (The rim of the Pacific Basin is ringed with volcanoes, from Alaska through the United States, Mexico and South America, then on to New Zealand and up to Japan and Russia.) Of the 400 volcanoes located in Indonesia, 150 of them are active, about 75 percent of all active volcanoes on the planet. The eruption of Mount Tambora, on Sumbawa Island, in 1815 was the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history. 1816 was known as the “Year Without Summer” because of the global climatic effects of the eruption.
In 1883 the volcanic island of Krakatoa (part of the Indonesian archipelago) was destroyed by a volcanic eruption, causing a tidal wave that killed over thirty thousand people.
On 26 December 2004, volcanic activity off the coast of Sumatera set off an undersea earthquake (between 9.1 and 9.3 on the Richter scale) in the Indian Ocean. Known as the Great Sumatera-Andaman earthquake, it is the second largest earthquake in recorded history, and its duration (between 8 and 10 minutes) is the longest ever recorded. Its vibrations spread across the entire planet, triggering other earthquakes as far away as Alaska and a series of devastating tsunamis along the coasts of most landmasses bordering the Indian Ocean. The enormous waves of the tsunamis, up to 30 metres, inundated coastal communities in eleven countries, causing untold flooding and destruction, and killing more than 225,000 people in Sumatera, Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Thailand, Seychelles, Sri Lanka and the east coast of Africa (Kenya and Somalia).
The plight of the many affected people and countries prompted a widespread humanitarian response. In all, the worldwide community donated more than $7 billion in humanitarian aid.
The island of Java is one of the most important areas for the study of early man. The Sangiran Early Man Site, on the World Heritage List, is estimated to have been inhabited one and a half million years ago and is home to half of the world's hominid fossils. In the early 1890s Eugene Dubois discovered a skull and thigh bone of Homo erectus in East Java. Dubois published his findings of "Java Man" in 1894, claiming that Homo erectus was an ancestor of modern humans.
About five thousand years ago people migrated to Indonesia from other parts of Southeast Asia. Later, people from India moved to the area. A number of important kingdoms were established: Buddhist, Hindu and Hindu-Buddhist. In central Java, the rulers of the Sailendra dynasty erected the renown Borobudur Temple, the world’s largest Buddhist monument, between AD 750 and 850. A few kilometres away, the Sanjayas built the largest Hindu complex on Java, Prambanan Temple, between the eighth and tenth centuries AD. (The Borobudur and Prambanan temple complexes are on the World Heritage List.)
Marco Polo was one of the first Europeans to visit Indonesia. In the fourteenth century, reports of his travels led to waves of Indian and Chinese adventurers travelling to Indonesia’s Maluku islands – the fabled “Spice Islands” - in search cloves and nutmeg which grew nowhere else and were worth their weight in gold. (Indonesia is still one the world's largest producers of cloves and nutmeg.)
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Arab traders looking for the isles where “money grows on trees” introduced Islam, which emerged as the predominant religion of the region. In the face of Islam, Javanese Hindus evacuated to neighbouring Bali and established the island as the Hindu enclave (as it remains to this day).
In the early sixteenth century the Portuguese arrived, followed by the Dutch. By the late eighteenth century "Indonesia" was part of the Dutch colonial empire and was known as the Netherlands East Indies. Between 1811 and 1816 (during the Napoleonic Wars) "Indonesia" came under British rule but was returned to the Dutch.
Stories abound of the difficulties the Dutch faced in attempting to gain and maintain control of a vast archipelago inhabited by hundreds of ethnic groups with diverse cultures and languages. Perhaps most fascinating to Westerners are the stories of Dutch encounters with the Bugis people of southern Sulawesi, Indonesia’s third largest island. A seafaring people, the fiercely independent Bugis (or Buganese) became famous for the terror they reeked on their European conquerors. The ruthless “Bugis pirates” cloaked themselves and their ships in black, rendering them completing invisible by night - they dressed in black, painted their faces and hands black, painted their ships black, even painted their sails black. In the pitch of night they would pull silently alongside Dutch and English trading ships, namely those of the Dutch East India Company or British East India Company, and attack their victims unawares. The great fear inflicted by these “Bugis pirates” is evidenced by the reports that made their way back to Europe and formed the basis of our “Boogey Man” stories.
During the Second World War, Japanese forces invaded the Dutch East Indies (1942). After the War, Indonesia declared independence (1945), and Soekarno, the independence leader, became the country's first president. He was succeeded by President Soeharto. A Revolution in 1998 led to the resignation of President Soeharto and the establishment of free elections and democracy in Indonesia.
In 1999, East Timor (on the island of Timor), a former Portuguese region with a culture unique to the archipelago, voted for independence. After much political and military turmoil, the region gained independence in 2002.
Today, Western media often paint unfair and misleading pictures of Indonesia as a “troubled spot.” Quite the opposite, current crime statistics confirm that Indonesia is a much safer place to live than most Western countries. Indeed, the peaceful nature of the Indonesian people has led to, arguably, the most rapid and least problematic transition to democracy in history.
POPULATION AND PEOPLE
With more than 250 million people, Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world (after China, India and the United States). About half of the population (120 million) live on the island of Java, making it, possibly, the most densely populated region on Earth. Located in West Java, Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital city, has a population of almost 14 million and is the world’s ninth largest city.
Islam is the official religion of 85 percent of Indonesians; Christians (Protestant and Catholic) represent about ten percent and are scattered throughout the archipelago; combined Hindus and Buddhists account for approximately four percent and live mainly on the islands of Bali and neighbouring Lombok.
Agriculture provides employment for a large percentage of the working population. Agricultural products include rice, cassava, peanuts, nutmeg, cloves, palm oil, copra, coffee, cocoa, meat and eggs. Indonesia's other main industries are petroleum, natural gas, mining, cement, chemical fertilisers, rubber, plywood, textiles, clothing, footwear and food processing. Tourism is an important industry, especially on the island of Bali.
Traditional sports enjoyed by Indonesians include pencak silat, a form of martial arts; sepak takraw, a ball game involving a rattan ball that must be kept in the air using any part of the body except the hands; and boating. Indonesians are also fond of football (soccer) and are “fanatical” about badminton (which rarely fails to earn them Olympic gold). Kite flying is extremely popular amongst young children, whose kites can be seen in the dusk sky almost every evening during the dry season – so popular, in fact, that kites merit their own museum (the Kite Museum) in Jakarta.
Internationally, Indonesia is perhaps best known for its surfing and diving. Boasting the best waves on earth (with Hawaii and South Africa), Indonesia attracts thousands of international surfing competitors each year. And the coral reefs of the coastline put Indonesia on the top-ten list of diving destinations.
Indonesia has been influenced by many cultures throughout the centuries, and its art forms reflect those influences. The famous shadow puppet (wayang kulit) shows of Java and Bali display many of the ancient mythological stories of the islands. The well-known Javanese and Balinese dances originated later (during the pre-Muslim era) and are often based on Indonesian versions of the epic Hindu poems, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Gamelan orchestras, consisting mainly of percussion instruments, accompany shadow puppet shows and traditional dance performances.
Indonesia is famous for wooden carvings, batik and textiles. Traditional cloth paintings can be seen in the temples and shrines of Bali. Hangings show scenes of stories set out in consecutive boxes, often with themes from the Sanskrit epics.
The most well-known author in Indonesia today is Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who won the Magsaysay Award and was considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Another important figure is the late Chairil Anwar, a poet and member of the Generation 45 group of authors who were active in the Indonesian independence movement.
BAHASA INDONESIA (INDONESIAN LANGUAGE)
The official language of Indonesia is Bahasa Indonesia (literally, “the language of Indonesia”). It is the language that unifies the world’s fourth most populous country – a country comprised of 18,000 islands and inhabited by 350 ethnic groups speaking 750 native languages and dialects. Bahasa Indonesia, a standardised version of Malay, is the sixth most widely spoken language in the world (after Mandarin, English, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic).
With dialect variations, Malay-Indonesian is spoken by as many as 250 million people in the modern states of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. It is also an important vernacular in the southern provinces of Thailand and among the Malay people of Australia's Cocos Keeling Islands in the Indian Ocean. It is understood in parts of the Sulu area of the southern Philippines and traces of it can be found among people of Malay descent in Sri Lanka, South Africa and other places.
From the ninth to the fourteenth century, Malay was the court language of the Sumateran empire of Sriwijaya. It was also the language of the greatest of all medieval Malay states, Malacca. As a result, Malay became the native tongue of the people living on both sides of the Strait of Malacca that separates Sumatera from the Malay Peninsula.
In the succeeding centuries, the Strait of Malacca became a busy sea thoroughfare. Countless travellers and traders passed through and came into contact with the Malay language. They bore the language throughout the islands of Indonesia and, eventually, it became a widely used lingua franca. Later, Muslims and Christians helped spread the language as they used it in the propagation of their faiths. By the time Indonesia began to fall under the control of the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, Malay was so well entrenched as a lingua franca that the European rulers adapted it as the primary medium of communication between the government and the people (rather than force communication in Dutch).
With anti-colonial sentiments running high in the early twentieth century, it was not easy to see what would define Indonesia as an independent nation. Given the diversity of cultures and native languages of the islands, it was difficult to find what Indonesians had in common. That common identity would eventually be found by developing a standardised version of Malay to unify the islands, and calling the language Bahasa Indonesia.
In 1928, with the country’s nationalist movement in full swing, the Congress of Young People drafted the famous Young People’s Vow (Sumpah Pemuda) declaring Bahasa Indonesia the pre-eminent language of Indonesia as well as the language of national unity. When the Indonesian nationalists emerged from the shadow of the Japanese occupation in 1945 to declare an independent republic, the Proclamation of Independence was uttered in Bahasa Indonesia. Both the state philosophy of Pancasila and the Constitution were framed in Bahasa Indonesia. The subsequent victory of the Republic in the Revolution (1945-1949) consolidated the prestige of the language and gave its development unstoppable momentum.
Today, Indonesians are overwhelmingly bilingual. In infancy, they learn the native language of their island region and, when they enter school, they learn Bahasa Indonesia – the national language and medium of instruction in educational institutions at all levels throughout the country. It is rare to meet an Indonesian who is not fluent in her or his native tongue as well as the national language.
In politics, administration and the judiciary, Bahasa Indonesia is the sole official language. It is the language of legislation, political campaigning, court proceedings, and national and local government.
This article was generously contributed by Rahdian Saepuloh,
Director of Studies at LANGUAGE STUDIES INDONESIA.