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Java island

Java (Jawa) is an island of Indonesia and the site of its capital city, Jakarta. Once the center of powerful Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms, Islamic sultanates, and the core of the colonial Dutch East Indies, Java now plays a dominant role in the economic and political life of Indonesia. Home to a population of 130 million in 2006, it is the most populous island in the world. Java is also one of the most densely populated regions on Earth.

The five Jawanese regional cultures

In contrary to the rest of Indonesia Java is ethnically pretty homogeneous. The population of the island consist mainly of Javanese, Sundanese and Madurese people. The two first groups form the native, while the Madurese came in the 18th century from the Island of Madura, close to Java. The Javanese are about two third of the total population of Java, Sundanese and Madurese have twenty and ten per cent. The neighboring islands of Sumatra and Borneo are much less populated and ethnically much more heterogeneous than Java.
In cultural view the differentiation is much bigger. From historic ages there are four zones on Java, the Javanese core-area, the Northern coast, the Pasundan or Sunda-area in West-Java and Blambangan in the Eastern corner. The island of Madura forms a fifth area, it has strong cultural bands with the coastal area of Java.

The Javanese core-area

The most famous area of culture is the core-area of Central-, and East-Java. It is the region of Javanese culture, called kejawen. The area is leading in the cultural way, it's language, art and manners are the finest of Java. Here, in own environment, the Javanese nobility still stands. Also this is the area where the most generals, polotical leaders and businessmen come of Indonesia come from.
The kejawen area stretches from Banyumas in the West to Biltar in the East, and contains the most densely populated agricultural area of Indonesia. The volcanoes which dominate the landscape are reasonably far from each other and are separated by wide valleys, which are rich of water and are therefor very good for wet rice-plantations. It is no coincidence that this area produced the most powerful kingdom of the old Java.

The 18th century palaces of Yogyakarta and Surakarta make the center of the kejawen-area. The aristocratic refinement of the palaces has clear tracks in the language, art and culture of the area. In the daily manners modesty rules. Also the textile decorations show this rule, with their stress on the earthly colors like soga-brown and indigo.

It's not strange that the population attaches much value to social status. Differences in status are shown in a difficult system of higher and lower languages, each with their own words and use. In religious ways the population is heterogeneous. As everywhere on Java Islam rules, but there are big differences between orthodox Muslims, which attach much value to prayer, the Quran and Islamic times, and the 'Javanese' Muslems which place mythical, local rituals and traditional Javanese laws of normality (adat) on top of the list. Frequent conflicts between both camps lead to Muslems changing to Christianity or Hinduism. In some Central-Javanese cities 20 per cent of the population is Christian.

The Northern Coast

The second area with a clear own culture is the great Northern coastal area or pasisir, which stretches from Cirebon in the west to Surabaya and Pasuruan in the east. The population is ethnically and in the way of language Javanese, but due to centuries old trading much in common with the Malay speaking traders and sailors in other parts of the archipelago. Compared to the Javanese core-area the population of pasisir is more direct, less reserved and more Islamic.

The kejawen-Javanese sees them as rather aggressive and rude. In the hinterlands widely appreciated soft, round faces are changed by fierce faces and somewhat curling hair, prove of mixing with Malay, Arabs and Indonesians from other islands. Also the clothing is different; the pasisirbatik had bright colors, red, green, blue and yellow.

The coastal population is city-like and normal, while the core-area more has the rural and feudal character. When the Dutch improved the Javanese infrastructure in the 19th century, the pasisir-merchants went to foreign countries as businessmen. They introduced Islam as well as their preference for tambourines and drums instead of gamelan, and Koran instead of wayang, and the martial art silat instead of the kingdom-like dances.

The Sundanese from West-Java

The Sundanese in the mountain range of West-Java form the biggest ethnic group. Their language has more in common with Malay or Minangkabau than with Javanese. Their system of higher and lower languages though, has been taken from the Javanese, but also the kejawen-dance , literature, gamelan, and wayang are from the Javanese.
The Sundanese culture differs strong on two points from the Javanese; Islam has more influence and the social hierarchy is less intense. The Sunda-area is somewhat hilly and was, until the start of the last century, densely forested and low populated. The population had dry rice fields and lived mainly in small villages, where the kings didn't have much influence on them at all.

However the area also had known royal cultures, these seem not powerful enough to found sacred sites like in the monumental Central-, and East-Javanese type. With the opening to the hinterlands in the 19th century, for tea, coffee and kina production, the highlands got a character of buffer zone, which encouraged the individuality of the people again. The strong influence of the Islam features the wayang-theater, which is merely based on Islamic stories than the Central-Javanese wayang.

A small Sundanese community, the Badui, in the Southeastern mountain-area, still hasn't any influence from the Islam nowadays. The Badui-religion is a mix from pre-Islamic polytheism, and Hinduism. The Badui are farmers which live by pre-Islamic traditions from their ancestors. In a wrong way, they are sometimes called a separate ethnic group.

Blambangan: the rough East

The Eastern corner of Java starts just west of Malang and stretches to Straight Bali. It is also calles the Blambangan, the remembrance of the earlier Hindu kingdom. The Eastern corner is the most rough and in cultural ways the most varied area of this part of Java.

After the fall of the Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit in the 16th century, the Javanese Islamic armies regularly attacked the Eastern corner. The small Blambangan ( the capital was just south of Banyuwangi ) stayed independent until far into the 18th century. After the fall of the kingdom, the local population, the Osing, became Islamic. The Osings kept their arts and the adat, which are nowadays unique on Java.

A more pure, more rural type of the East-Javanese culture can be found with the Tenggerese, which remain in the mountain area around Mount Bromo and Semeru. After the fall of Blambangan they refused to become Islamic. Unless several attacks by Islamic armies which wanted their slaved, the far-away mountain-area was never conquered. Until now, 500 years after the fall of Majapahit, the Tenggerese priests read for Shiva, Brahma and Visnu. Opposite to the also Hindu Balinese people, they didn't have any relation with Hindu royalty.

The wars between Islamic armies of Central-Java and the Tenggerese, slowed population growth in the Eastern corner. By the start of the 19th century the most villages were destroyed. On that, the Dutch government stimulated migration of laborers for coffee ans sugar plants, which were built in the area at that time. New people from Central-Java came to the southern coast, Malang and Lumajang, while the Northern coast was mostly populated by Madurese.

The Madurese

The Madurese society is very clear influenced by Malay sailors from the coastal area's of Western-Indonesia. Madura is dry and hilly. The soil on top has eroded dramatically. Farming is hardly possible and the population is extremely poor. It's likely that Madurese were sailors for a long time. Some were mercenary for the Javanese kings, and later the Dutch. The Javanese would like to look down on the Madurese, but what martial arts concerning they have to admit their better opposite, but above all they fear the Madurese hothead. The Madurese say that the Javanese are cowards and are worse Muslems.

With the first Madurese to go to Java were a lot of religious teachers, which founded religious centers with religious education (pesantren) in the center. The result is still noticeable nowadays, from elections to dressing for females.

New borders

In the five areas named above even so much cultures started. Bacause of the fact that borders were never waterproof, these cultures have influenced each other in one way or another, while recent migration has led to elements of each of those cultures was spread over entire Java.
Picture: Farmer woman
Within the areas there were also clear differences. Mountain people were, and are, much more direct than inhabitants of the lower areas, which they see as snobbish. On the other side the people in the lower areas think that the people in the mountains are no more than rural farmers. What the religious factors concerns the aristocratic pull to the mystical, traders to the orthodox and farmers to a mixture of idea's.

The traditional cultural and ethical borders have lost their power. They have been covered up by modern differences, mostly between the city middle class and the rural population. However only a quarter of the population lives in cities, they are at the base of a new 'Indonesian culture', which is spread by education and media. With some left behind, the Javanese, Sundanese and Madurese are nowadays more interested in car's, tv's and pop-music, than with gamelan and wayang.

In contrary with the modern Bali the Javanese civilization is the keeper of the traditional culture. The farmers, not the people from the city, keep their wayang kulit and masks where they belong. Many people from the city probably haven't even seen it in their life, except on television.

In contrary to the many small differences between all cultures at different cultural and ethical changes have one base, the roots of the Javanese. At first is noticed that the friendliness and cosines is liked by Javanese. Relaxation and amusement is sought in intensive and versatile others. The Javanese have a special word for it; rame, This points at the cosey and relaxed atmosphere, which appears when Javanese meet each other. Pre-war psychologists already discovered that depressions were hardly known on the island. Javanese seem to adapt to almost every situation, and stay happy and lively as long as they are between people.

Foreigners with a tight traveling schedule are overwhelmed by heat many times, the masses of people or the poorness of Java. They do the best with reminding the simple truth: the beauty of Java is not just only in art, landscape and old things, but also in the smiling people and the immense warmth of the people. In hotels and stations it can be difficult to value it. Just as with the tropical heat relaxation is the secret. Only then it's possible to enjoy the power of life of the fascinating island.

Last revised on December 27, 2009
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