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Exotic Indonesia, and the stunning Indian influence

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While exploring Indonesia, Uday k Chakraborty marvels at its India influenced cultural life

During my childhood I read how, during the golden era of Bharatvarsh, Indian religion and culture had spread to the distant lands of the Far-Eastern Asia. I also remember the annual ritual called Bali Yatra (meaning ‘Going to Bali’) practiced in costal districts of Orissa and Bengal, when boats made from stem of banana plant are launched in to the sea. Naturally, my agenda during our visit to Indonesia followed such memories.

A historical bond


Hinduism was brought to Indonesia by South and East Indian sea traders. It is also thought that the Indonesian royalty welcomed Indian religions and culture, and it is they who first adopted these spiritual ideas followed by the masses. Ancient Chinese records of Fa Hien mentioned how, around 414 AD, powerful Hindu Kings coexisted peacefully with Buddhist people and rulers in Java and Sumatra. Ancient Hindu kingdoms of Java built many temples, named rivers on the island as Gomati and Ganges. Much later Arab traders brought Islam to Indonesia but allowed Indonesians to preserve and practice their prevailing culture.

The result is a predominantly Islamic country that extensively shows manifestation of Indian sub-continent’s culture. Notable ancient Javanese books extensively uses Sanskrit words, Indian deity names and religious concepts. Indeed, many educated elites as well as big and small commercial organizations have names derived from Indian epic or Sanskrit words, most well-known being Garuda Indonesian Airlines. You would find traces of Hindu culture right from airports to everywhere, particularly in Java and Bali.

Culture in daily life

In their dance and dance drama influence of Ramayana and Mahabharata are virtually omnipresent. However, the versions mirror those found in southeast Indian peninsular region. While in Java, I was advised not to miss the enactment of the Indonesian version of Ramayana. It is held every evening in a hall just opposite magnificent ancient Hindu temple complex of Pambanan at Yogyakarta. But, frankly I saw a more vivid influence of Ramayana in Indonesian when I happened to be present during an Inter-School Ramayana dance drama competition held in the open ground of Borobudur Archaeological Park. And, I was very much impressed how the story of Ramayana is still the part of day to day living culture of Indonesian youth. Why not it is the same in India today, I wondered?

Adherents of Hindu region in Indonesian archipelago are largely located in Bali, Java and Lombok. The last bastion of the orthodox Hindu religion in the world, exquisitely picturesque island state of Bali in Indonesia is a small world unto itself. Balinese religion and culture offers fantastically bright and colourful manifestations that seep into every part of their daily life. The secret of Balinese charm would appear to lie in the fact that their religion and culture and their art is so intrinsic a part of their daily life. And we were fortunate to get some interesting glimpses of it.

Hindu icons in arts and crafts

Naturally creative, the Balinese have traditionally used their talents in arts and crafts for religious purposes and most of the beautiful work to be seen here has been inspired by stories from the Hindu epics. Indeed, Artists are placed at the highest level of social hierarchy. Art and crafts is part of daily life in almost all towns and interior villages.

An island of statues of various Hindu gods, animals, human form and mythical figures, here they have symbolic value. Interestingly, statues also offer a message of religious ethics for its Hindu inhabitants. In Bali, masks are also considered sacred object and are revered as such.

Balinese dance forms are expressive, dynamic and dazzling. They are usually based on Hindu epics, but pepped up with local influences. Some of the best form are dazzling Kechak dance held at major temple complex in Bali or Barong dance involving lion or dragon (Barong) representing good taming the witch (Rangda) representing evil.

Enchanting experience

During our visit, I got a rare and wonderful experience, when by sheer chance I was invited to watch and photograph a Balinese marriage ceremony of three couples together. We saw several women relatives and guests bringing their offerings and gift on their head and were ceremonially placing them in front of the temple. The women were dressed in sarongs and blouses made of brightly coloured lacy material. They were looking quite charming, having noticeably pleasant demeanour. Men, also sarong clad, were wearing beautiful headscarves. In addition to the Hindu priest (called pudunta) solemnly chanting Mantras, Balinese marriage ritual had many similarities with the traditional marriage ceremonies of Bengal. However, there were many significant local variations as well.

The marriage mandap was placed adjacent to the temple where traditional Gamlan musicians were playing their lilting music with gongs, bells and other percussion instruments. In Balinese custom, marriage is preceded by “Attainment of Adulthood” ceremony, for which the girls and boys entered the mandap wearing sparklingly beautiful traditional dresses. Their attires during the actual marriage ceremony were even more dazzling in which the girls, particularly, were looking like heavenly bodies. Suddenly it occurred to me that while Hindu attires and culture in India has changed with time due to outside influences (through long periods of non-Hindu rules), in distant Bali it could remain in its more original form.

In Indonesia, particularly in Bali and Java, we experienced an exotic cultural life of people that is so like ours in many respect, but so enchantingly distinct.

(Photos by: Uday K Chakraborty)