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Introduction, Location, Language, Folklore, Religion, Major holidays, Rites of passage

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LOCATION: Indonesia (Central and East Java [minus the island of Madura], and the Special Region of Yogyakarta)

POPULATION: 60–80 million

LANGUAGE: Javanese

RELIGION: Islam; Christianity (Roman Catholicism); folk religion

The Javanese are the dominant ethnic group of Indonesia. Non-Javanese Indonesians often complain of a Javanese “colonialism” having replaced the Dutch version. Although Javanese culture is just another regional culture, it has far greater power to influence national culture.

The Austronesian ancestors of the Javanese arrived perhaps as early as 3000 BC from the Kalimantan coast. Apparently the island’s agricultural bounty was renowned from the earliest times: “Java” comes from the Sanskrit Yavadvipa (“island of barley”).

Over the centuries, various native Javanese states emerged. Most were fragile coalitions of regional lords under central dynasties, often embroiled in bloody succession struggles. In the fifteenth century AD , Java’s north coast ports fell under the influence of Muslim Malacca, and under the rule of the descendants of non-Javanese Muslim merchants. The Dutch government took control of Java in the 1830s. A population explosion turned three million Javanese in 1800 to twenty-eight million by 1900. The Javanese took the lead in the Islamic, communist, and nationalist movements that challenged colonialism from early in the twentieth century.


The island of Java is roughly the size of Britain. Some 63 percent of the island is cultivated; 25 percent of the surface is devoted to wet-rice paddies. The northern coastal plain faces the shallow and busy Java Sea. Along the southern shore, plateaus fall sharply to the Indian Ocean. The Javanese homeland consists of the provinces of Central Java and East Java (minus the island of Madura) and the Special Region of Yogyakarta. Javanese have also settled for centuries along the northern coast of West Java, particularly in the area of Cirebon and Banten.

Numbering between 60 million and 80 million people, the Javanese account for more than 40 percent of Indonesia’s total population.


The Javanese language is Austronesian. It is most similar to neighboring Sandiness and Madurese. It divides into several regional dialects.

A speaker of Javanese must adjust his or her “speech level” according to the status of the person addressed. There are basically two “speech levels”: nikko and kromo . Nikko is the language in which a person thinks. It is only appropriate to use nikko with people of equal status whom one knows intimately, and with social inferiors. Kromo is spoken to older people, people of higher status, and those whose status is not yet known by the speaker. Many of the most basic sentences differ markedly at the two levels. In nikko, “Where [are you] coming from?” is Soko ngendi. In kromo, it is Saking pundi. Mastering kromo is an acquired skill.

Javanese do not use surnames. They go only by a single personal name. Two examples are the names of twentieth-century Indonesian leaders Sukarno and Suharto, both Javanese.


Javanese recognize several classes of supernatural beings. Memedis are frightening spirits. These include the gendruwo, which appear to people as familiar relatives in order to kidnap them, making them invisible. If the victim accepts food from the gendruwo, he or she will remain invisible forever.

The greatest spirit is Ratu Kidul, the Queen of the South Sea. She is believed to be the mystical bride of Java’s rulers. Her favorite color is green. Young men avoid wearing green while at the Indian Ocean shore so that they will not be pulled down into Ratu Kidul’s underwater realm.

Another set of legendary figures are the wali songo. These are the nine holy men who brought Islam to Java. They are credited with magical powers such as flying.


All but a fraction of Javanese are Muslim. However, only a portion regularly follow the “five pillars of Islam” and other practices of orthodox, Middle Eastern Islam. They have come to be called santri and are further divided into two subgroups. The “conservatives” keep to orthodox Islam as it has been practiced for centuries by the Javanese. The “modernists” reject local traditions and embrace a form of Islam supported by Western-style educational institutions.

Non-santri Javanese Muslims are popularly termed abangan or Islam kejawen. They do not perform the five daily prayers, fast during the month of Ramadan, or make the pilgrimage to Mecca. Their religious life focuses on ritual meals called slametan.

As much as 12 percent of the population of the island of Java adhere to religions other than Islam. There are several hundred thousand Christians. Among these, Roman Catholics are particularly numerous.


The first day (beginning at sunset) of the Islamic year ( 1 Sura) is regarded as a special day. On the eve of the holiday, people stay up all night. They watch processions such as the kirab pusaka (parading of the royal heirlooms) in the town of Solo. Many meditate on mountains or beaches. The birthday of Muhammad ( 12 Mulud) is celebrated in Yogya and Solo by holding the Sekaten fair the week preceding the date. Ancient gamelans (a type of orchestra) are played at the festival. On the holiday itself, there is a procession involving three or more sticky-rice “mountains” (symbolizing male, female, and baby).


On the thirty-fifth day after birth, a ceremony is held with special food and much family celebrating.

Arranged marriages still occur in villages, but most Javanese choose their own partners. The process begins with the man formally asking the woman’s father or male guardian (wali) for her hand. On the night before the wedding, the woman’s kin visit the graves of ancestors to ask for their blessing. Kin, neighbors, and friends come for a slametan feast.

The wedding ceremony itself is the conclusion of the Islamic marriage contract between the groom and the bride’s father or wali. The groom, with his party, proceeds to the bride’s house. There is a festive meal with music and dancing. The groom can take the bride away after five days. The trend today is for wealthy families to display their status by reviving the more elaborate traditional ceremonies.

Javanese hold slametan (ceremonies) for the deceased on the third, seventh, fortieth, one-hundredth, and one-thousandth day after death. On Ramadan and certain other holidays, people put flowers on the graves of their departed loved ones.


The Javanese avoid confrontation at all costs. They react even to disturbing news with a resigned smile and soft words. They never give a direct refusal to any request (however, they are very good at giving and taking hints). In addition to polite speech, proper respect requires appropriate body language: bowing and slow, graceful movements. Children who have not yet learned to behave in a dignified way are said to be durung jawa, “not yet Javanese.”


In Javanese villages, individual houses and yards are enclosed by bamboo fences. Village houses sit on the ground and have earthen floors. They have a framework of bamboo, palm trunks, or teak. The walls are of plaited bamboo (gedek), wood planks, or bricks. The roofs are made of dried palm leaves (blarak) or tiles. Inside, rooms have movable gedek partitions. Traditional houses have no windows. Light and air enter through chinks in the walls or holes in the roof.


The nuclear family (kuluwarga or somah) is the basic unit of Javanese society. It includes a couple and their unmarried children. Sometimes a household also includes other relatives and married children and their families. A married couple prefers to set up a separate household if they can afford to. Otherwise, they usually move in with the wife’s parents. Taking more than one wife is rare. The divorce rate is high among village folk and poorer city folk. After a divorce, the children stay with the mother. If she marries again, the children may go to live with other relatives.

Javanese mothers remain close to their children throughout their lives. Fathers, however, become more distant after children reach the age of four. Fathers are regarded as the heads of the house, but the mother exercises more real control. Parents are supposed to be constantly correcting and advising their children, however old the child is. Children, though, never criticize or correct their parents except in the most indirect ways.

Descendants of a common great-grand-parent form a golongan or sanak-sadulur. Their members help each other hold major celebrations and gather on Islamic holidays. Larger Slot Online still is the alurwaris, a kinship group directed toward the care of the graves of a common ancestor seven generations back.


For everyday wear, Javanese follow the Indonesian style of dress. Men and women also commonly wear sarongs (a skirtlike garment) in public. Ceremonial clothing for men includes a sarong, high-collared shirt, jacket, and a blangkon, a head cloth wrapped to resemble a skullcap. Women wear the sarong, kebaya (long-sleeved blouse), and selendang (sash over the shoulder). The woman’s hairstyle is called sanggul (long hair in a thick, flat bun at the back—now achieved with a wig addition). Handbags are always worn. Traditional dance costumes and wedding attire leave the chest bare for men and the shoulders bare for women.

12 • FOOD

The most common meal ingredients are rice, stir-fried vegetables, dried salted fish, tahu (tofu), tempeh (a bar of fermented soybeans), krupuk (fish or shrimp crackers), and sambel (chili sauce). Favorite dishes include gado-gado (a salad of partially boiled vegetables eaten with a peanut sauce), sayur lodeh (a vegetable and coconut milk stew), pergedel (fat potato fritters), and soto (soup with chicken, noodles, and other ingredients). Dishes of Chinese origin are very popular, such as bakso (meatball soup), bakmi (fried noodles), and cap cay (stir-fried meat and vegetables). Common desserts are gethuk (a steamed cassava dish colored pink, green, or white) and various sticky-rice preparations (jenang dodol, klepon, and wajik).


Nasi Tumpeng (Festive Rice Cone)


  • 6 cups cooked white rice
  • 6 scallions
  • 1 hard-boiled egg
  • 1 small shallot or pearl onion
  • 1 small red chili
  • Bamboo skewer


  1. With clean hands, mound the rice into a cone shape about four inches in diameter and about five inches high. Press firmly to form a cone that will hold its shape.
  2. Carefully peel six or eight lengths of green scallion, and tie them together about one inch from their end. (A small rubber band could be used for this.)
  3. Place the tied end on top of the rice cone. Drape the green ends evenly to form stripes down the side of the cone.
  4. Thread the chili, pearl onion or shallot, and hard-boiled egg onto the skewer. Carefully insert the skewer into the rice cone to make a garnish top for the cone.

Javanese often buy prepared food from peddlers making the rounds of neighborhoods. They enjoy lesehan, late-night dining on mats provided by sidewalk food vendors. For special occasions, the tumpeng slematan, a cone-shaped mound of steamed rice, is served ceremoniously. The guest of honor holds a knife in his right hand and a spoon in his left. First, he cuts off the top of the cone, usually featuring a hard-boiled egg and some chilies in a type of garnish, and places it on a serving plate. Then he cuts a horizontal slice from the top of the rice cone and serves it to the most-respected (usually the oldest) guest.


See the article on “Indonesians” in this chapter.


The full gamelan orchestra is an important part of traditional rituals, festivities, and theater. It consists of bronze gongs, keyed metallophones (like xylophones), drums, a flute, a rebab fiddle, and a celempung zither. It also includes male and female vocalists. The music (either loud or soft styles) includes hundreds of compositions (gending) in a variety of forms.

Traditional dance emphasizes precise control of the body, particularly in graceful hand movements. The most revered dances are the bedoyo and srimpi, in which young women symbolically enact combat. Male dancing includes the tari topeng in which solo performers portray folktale characters.

Javanese literature goes back to the eleventh century AD , beginning with adaptations of the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. The earliest surviving literature in modern Javanese includes babad, poetical chronicles of Java’s history. Novels and short stories are produced in Javanese but must compete with better-known works in Indonesian.


Some 60 percent of Javanese earn a living from agriculture. They grow wet rice and dry-field (tegalan) crops (cassava, corn, yams, peanuts, and soybeans). In mountain areas, many peasants engage in market gardening (vegetables and fruits).

Traditionally, Javanese look down on manual labor and commercial occupations. They prefer white-collar jobs and, most of all, aspire to bureaucratic service. However, most nonfarming Javanese work as artisans or as petty traders (many are women). With Indonesia’s economic boom, more Javanese are taking factory or service jobs. Poverty has forced many Javanese into low-status jobs such as maid, street peddler, fare-collector, parking attendant, or ngamen (street musician who plays on sidewalks or on buses between stops).


See the article on “Indonesians” in this chapter.


On the whole, urban middle-class Javanese prefer pop culture to the traditional performing arts as a source of entertainment. However, the urban poor, peasants, and some members of the elite still enjoy the traditional performing arts.

Java’s master art form is the wayang kulit shadow-puppet play. Flat puppets are manipulated against a screen lit by a lamp or electric bulb overhead. The plays are based on the Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana and include intrigues, romance, comedy, and tragedy. Nowadays, wayang is broadcast on the radio, blaring from open-air eateries.

Today a popular form of theater is central-Javanese ketoprak. Based on stories from Javanese history, and Chinese and Arab tales, it emphasizes spoken comedy and melodrama rather than music and dance.


Batik textiles are the best-known Javanese craft. The intricate designs are created in several dyeings. The space not to be dyed in a particular color is covered with wax. Batik styles differ radically. Some emphasize dense geometric patterns in brown, indigo, and white. Others feature delicate floral patterns in red and other bright colors.

Other noteworthy crafts are leatherwork ( wayang puppets), woodcarving (dance masks, furniture, and screens), pottery, glass-painting, and ironsmithing ( kris swords).


Javanese peasants must support themselves on smaller and smaller landholdings. Many lose their land and must become tenant farmers, sharecroppers, or wage-laborers for the better-off peasants who can afford fertilizers and some machinery. The military helps industrialists suppress labor unrest in the factories that are multiplying in Java’s crowded cities.


Keeler, Ward. Javanese Shadow Plays, Javanese Selves. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987.

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