Indonesia, the land of unity in diversity

Did you know that Indonesia has the most populous island in the world? Java, the main island, hosts over half the country’s total population of 270 million people for a land area of around 130 000 km². In other words, it means that over 135 million people live in an area as big as Greece. The capital city, Jakarta, is a bustling cosmopolitan city where traditional Indonesia meets the modern world.

Indonesia, literally meaning “Indian Islands”, is a country located in Southeast Asia, lying between Malaysia and Australia. Sitting on the “Ring of Fire”, an area of frequent seismic activity that circles the Pacific Ocean, the nation experiences a high frequency of earthquakes and ranks among the top three countries having the highest number of active volcanoes on Earth.

The archipelago has always appealed to merchants from across the globe: Indonesia was successively colonized by the Portuguese, French, British, Dutch, and Japanese. The Maluku islands (eastern Indonesia) are the homeland of some of the most expensive and luxurious spices in the world, such as cloves, mace, and nutmeg. It thus comes as no surprise that these islands were formerly called the Spice Islands. These commodities were mostly sold by Chinese and Arab traders. Europeans have always dreamt of having direct access to spices in order to dominate the spice trade; thus, they sent expeditions to find their source. The Dutch are the ones who managed to colonize the majority of the territory and stayed the longest. The colony was then named the Dutch East Indies. During the Second World War, Japan conquered the Dutch colony and occupied it for three years. Indonesia declared its independence in 1945.

Today, the world’s fourth most populated country is mostly known as a tourist destination for its white-sand beaches. Actually, most people know more about Bali than Indonesia itself. Though, Indonesia is a heterogeneous country made up of diverse cultures, ethnicities, and religions. The world’s largest archipelago comprises more than 17 000 islands, each island having its own unique mix of languages, religious practices, dances, cultural traditions, and cuisines.

Indonesia’s main religion is Islam: the country has the largest Muslim population in the world – approximately 87% of the total population. The sound of adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, is part of daily life; polygamy is also permitted: Muslim men can take up to four wives. The province of Aceh (north-western part of Sumatra island) is an exception to the country’s promotion of moderate understanding of Islam since it is the only region where Sharia law, or Islamic law, is officially practiced. Despite some occasional religious conflicts, Indonesia is often seen as a model in terms of peaceful coexistence among diverse religious and ethnic groups. Even the national motto “Bhinnekka Tunggal Ika” (literally meaning “Unity in Diversity”) advocates the commitment to national unity. In total, the government officially recognizes six religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Indonesian citizens must choose one of the six official religions as atheism is illegal. Bali is the only Hindu-majority island whereas most eastern islands are Christian.

The numerous colonizations that occurred over the centuries have highly influenced the national language, Bahasa Indonesia (literally the “Language of Indonesia”). Indonesian is one of the only Asian languages that use the Latin alphabet. It has absorbed many loanwords from several languages, including Dutch, Sanskrit, Chinese, Arabic, Portuguese, and English. For instance, the Indonesian words zaitun (olive), nikah (to marry) and mungkin (maybe) come respectively from the Arabic words zaytūn, niika and yumkin; gereja (church), mentega (butter) and sepatu (shoe) come respectively from the Portuguese words igreja, manteiga and sapato; ambah (handicraft), pabrik (factory) and wortel (carrot) come respectively from the Dutch words ambacht, fabriek and wortel. Although Indonesian was adopted as the national language at the beginning of the 20th century to unify its people, only a small part of the population speak it as their mother tongue. Hundreds of regional languages are still spoken throughout the archipelago.

Photo by Lucile Guéguen

Every 2nd of October, Indonesians commemorate the National Batik Day. Batik is an Indonesian traditional method of wax-resist dyeing and decorating fabric. The term batik is thought to be derived from the word ambatik which means “a cloth with little dots”. The wax is applied to a white or colored fabric using a canting (pen-like tool) or brush. The applied wax resists dyes. The waxed areas keep their original color and when the wax is boiled out, the contrast between the dyed and undyed areas gives the pattern. Originally used in Java, batik can be found in several countries, such as Malaysia, India, Nigeria, and China.

The country boasts the second-highest level of biodiversity in the world. The Southeast Asian nation is home to the largest orangutan and Komodo dragon population. Rafflesia, the biggest and heaviest individual flower on Earth, is a rare sight that can be spotted in the rainforests of Southeast Asia. It blooms from three to five days only; it can measure up to over one meter in diameter and weigh between 9 to 12 kg. The largest Rafflesia flower ever recorded was found recently in a West Sumatran forest. The locals often call it “the monster flower”.

Rafflesia, by Henrik Ishihara Globaljuggler, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Indonesia also has the most expensive coffee on the planet: Kopi Luwak. Even more interesting, the coffee beans are made from poop! Kopi Luwak is a coffee that consists of partially digested coffee cherries, which have been eaten and defecated by a civet. This fermentation process makes it one of the rarest and most unique coffee in the world. Would you like to try?

Lucile Guéguen


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