Before we get into anything further, this is an important disclaimer. ‘Indonesia’ is a singular term that names a particular nation, but there’s nothing uniform about its culture. There are at least 300 ethnic groups in Indonesia, each with their own set of customs and distinctive cultural objects. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any similarities or tendencies between one culture to the other, but when reading this phrase keep in mind the diversity that comes with it. Often what considered as Indonesia’s culture is in fact an image of a dominant one or reflects an amalgamation of certain similar cultures.
No matter how old or independent they are, Indonesians tend to keep tight relationships with members of their family. For many Indonesian youths, moving out of parents’ house is simply not a thing, even when they already have a stable income of their own. Many choose to live under their parents’ roof unless they absolutely have to (many Indonesians leave their hometown to get a job in the city). And it’s not necessarily a sign of dependency, it just shows the values and principles the nation has when it comes to family.
Some households even consist of extended family — you’ll see grandparents, aunties, uncles, and nieces living together or staying in the same neighborhood just to be close to each other.
When in Indonesia, you’ll see Balinese present their offerings first thing in the morning, or employees dropping everything for prayer time. No matter what religion they uphold, Indonesians are generally very spiritual. They take their religious practices very seriously, and that is reflected in daily rituals, ceremonies, even the grandness of their places of worship.
Indonesia is notorious with its huge Muslim population; the largest in the world despite being a secular country by law. But Islam is just one of six official religions acknowledged in the country — Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. In Bali, for example, the dominant religion is Hinduism, and there are localities where there are more Christians than Muslims.
Indonesia’s diversity extends to the variety of belief systems as well. Many communities still live traditionally and still uphold the religions and practices of their ancestors, often unique to the locality. But to categorize, many belief systems draw from animism, dynamism, and totemism. In some communities, those beliefs interact with traditions or influenced by another mainstream religion, resulting in a myriad of unique practices.
Since its earliest history, Indonesians have always been communal. Farmers work together to cultivate their lands and manage resources, villages keep close-knit communities and take care of each other, and cultural values push forward principles of collectivism. Even in modern settings like the office workplace and modern communities, you’ll see the inclusiveness and friendliness of Indonesians.
The archipelago is rich with herbs and spices, which shape traditional recipes to utilize the abundance of those ingredients. In fact, many Indonesian dishes may come out strong to tourists’ tongues. Recipes do vary from one locality to another, according to the main crops in the area. Javanese, for instance, tend to like sweeter meals due to the abundance of cane and palm sugar. But many other locales like Padang, Manado, and Bali, sure do not hold back on their chili and spices.
It’s fascinating to learn the geological processes that make mountains, hills, and rivers. But Indonesians go beyond tectonic plates and erosion to explain how natural landmarks came to be. In most places, you can talk to the locals and dig stories of gods, spirits, royals, or hermits that contribute to the forming of a particular spot like natural features, temples, or other cultural landmarks.
From a child’s first step on the ground to certain months of pregnancy, many cultures in Indonesia has special ceremonies for even the tiniest milestones. Many cultures also make a huge deal out of life events like weddings and funerals, mixing them with mesmerizing traditional customs and celebrations. There are also communal celebrations like a myriad of different ceremonies of harvest or thanksgiving, and special dates associated with legends or history.
And no, we’re not talking about those living in traditional remote villages. Many Indonesians who find themselves in modern settings still find ways to integrate their traditions and cultural values into the contemporary lifestyle. Some companies still consult traditional almanacs or spiritual elders to determine a good day to do business, and many young professionals still throw traditional ceremonies for their weddings, whether out of the family’s demands or out of their own volition, but the traditions live on.
Indonesia’s rich culture begets so many inspired works of art — paintings, sculpture, music, dance, theatre, and more. From the ancient times to contemporary era, Indonesian artists keep drawing inspiration from the archipelago’s culture, values, and nature, ensuring the art scene stays alive and progressing.