Javanese Culture – History, People & Art

Java is a rather small island compared to giants like New Guinea, Borneo or Sumatra.

Yet it is called home by more than half of the Indonesian population : a staggering 145 millions people by 2015.

This is on Java that the most powerful kingdoms of the pre-colonial times flourished. And this is also Java that will become the core of the Dutch colonial empire.

This article is the first of a serie to introduce to you to the culture of the Javanese people, the main ethnic group of Java island. The second part deals with the Javanese religion.

Java and the Javanese

Java is not home only to the Javanese, even if they form the main ethnic group. The Sundanese, the Madurese or the Betawi are other close neighbours, that speak a different language as their mother tongue.

To make it simple, the Javanese are the one that speak the Javanese language. Their homeland is the central and east regions of Java island.

Map Ethnic Groups Java
Approximate map of the ethnic groups of Java island

A short history of Java

Or more exactly, a short history of the Javanese homeland. I have divided it in 3 phases

Ancient times – 16th century : Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms

For centuries, the history of Java is that of Hindu kingdoms that fight for the control of a larger territory. Both Buddhism (under different forms) and Hinduism (from various traditions) prevails among the rulers that build temples.

The apogy of this era is reached with the Majapahit empire (14th until early 16th century) that ruled over the entire island of Java and actually claimed sovereignty over almost all of modern Indonesia as well as a parts of South-East Asia (recommended read about the actual extent of Majaphit empire).

The best idea one can get about how the ancient Javanese practiced their old religions is maybe to look at Bali.

From the 14th century, Javanese Hindu-Buddhist influence replaced most of the original animists cults of Balinese. The old ties between Bali and Java are obvious when one look at the architecture for instance :

14th – 16th century : the advent of Islam

The history of the early days of Islam in Java is still not fully clear to this day.

But we know that from the 14th century, muslim traders (most of them from South India or Persia) visited the port-towns of Java’s north coast (Gresik, Demak, Tuban …) after stopping at Malacca. They brought with them an Islam that has picked up many mystic elements on its way from Arabia.

Eventually the merchant class of those ports adopted Islam as their trading partners. Trade over the spice routes thrived and they grew each year more prosperous and powerful. Islam eventually became dominant in this region of the north coast (the Pasisir).

Muslim burial sites from the 14th century have been found in Trowulan and Tralaya, near the location of Majapahit capital. Based on the details of the tombstones, it can be assumed that they belonged to members of the Javanese elite. It suggests that some members of the Majapahit elit may have converted to Islam under the Hindu-Buddhist era (Ricklefs).

In 1527, Demak attacked a highly declining Majapahit and destroyed it. The royalty and many members of its aristocracy were probably killed, while others fled to the still Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of eastern Java and Bali (where there were Javanese courts).

Demak expanded to the east but was stopped by the Hindu state of Panarukan (East Java) in 1546. Demak ruler Trenggana is killed in the battle.

Gradually, the power shifted back to the interior of Central Java, with the expansion of a former Demak vassal in Pajang (near present day Surakarta). According to the Javanese historical tradition (there are almost no other sources about Pajang), Pajang was Islamized in the 1530s.

The Wali Sanga

In the Javanese tradition, Islam has been propagated through Java by 9 semi-historical missionaries called the Wali Sanga. They are thought to have founded the first pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) on the basis of the old mandala.

The most famous of them is Sunan Kalijaga, who is credited with the building of the great mosque of Demak, the first one built in Java in the 15th century.

Probably from the 17th century, their biography started to develop into extensive legends of holy men. Their graves (in Surabaya, Gresik, Tuban and Cirebon) are still visited until today.

The teachings of those early missionaries have been compiled by disciples in books during the 16th and 17th century. As it was common in this era, they are written as songs called suluk. Their content is quite mystical.

16th to 18th : the Mataram era

In the second half of the 16th century, the Sultanate of Mataram emerged. Its founder Senopati triumphed over Pajang in 1588 and established its rule over Central Java, from its court in Kota Gede (near present-day Yogyakarta).

Mataram rapidly adopted an ambivalent attitude towards Islam that is illustrated by the story of Senopati’s ascent to power in the 17th century chronicles Badad Tanah Jawi. Senopati is said to have established a spiritual alliance with Nyai Roro Kidul, the Goddess of the Southern Sea, a powerful spirit from the indigenous culture. But he is also said to be supported by Sunan Kalijaga.

Until the first half of the 17th century, Mataram kept harassing its Muslim neighbours in Surabaya and the Brantas delta region.

Under Mataram era, the Javanese culture and litterature experienced a sort of renewal after decades of decline due to constant wars. The current court of Surakarta and Yogyakarta are the direct heirs of Mataram.

In paralel, Islam slowly grew in influence in the countryside where it coalesced with the existing peasant culture in the pesantren (Islamic boarding schools).

Despite having embraced Islam, Senopati and its heirs had not changed much in their way and conception of life. According to Koentjaraningrat, Mataram adopted a deliberate strategy of nurturing Islamic syncretism in order to achieve a balance between the ancient Hindu-Buddhist tradition and Islam.

According to Ricklef, the turning point is 1633, when Mataram’s ruler Sultan Agung undertook a kind of pilgrimage in Tembayat. In the same year, Agung decided to abandon the Hindu Saka Calendar for a lunar calendar mixing Javanese and Islamic tradition.

In the Serat Cabolek (a peom from the 18th century), Surakarta court poet Yasadipura I accepted the emergence of Islam as a fact. Nevertheless he proposed that Islam and the Islamic law ” should serve only as a formal guide to the Javanese culture, that is, a wadah (container), of Javanese culture, but that for their inner spiritual life, the Javanese should adhere to the essential values of Javanese culture: the search for spiritual purificationand perfection of life and the search for the Divine Unity, the ultimate experience of the unity of man and God” (Koentjaraningrat).

The colonial era (17th – 19th century)

In 1619, the Dutch merchants of the United East Indies Company (VOC) had erected their fortress of Batavia (present-days Jakarta).

Gradually they increased their domination on maritime trade routes. Later they shifted their focus on the interior of Java.

Sultan Agung from Mataram failed to take over Batavia in 1628 and 1629. From his death in 1646, the Javanese land will experience a period of almost constant warfare for the throne of Mataram.

The most bloody episodes are the rebellion against Sultan Agung’s son between 1675 and 1679, then the 3 sucessive Javanese War of Succession (1704-1708, 1719-1723, 1746-1757).

The VOC involved itself in those feuds. “The Dutch had sought stability by maintaining a king on the throne of Mataram who would rule all of Java in their interest. They had found instead of enjoying the profits of stability, they were constantly fighting wars on behalf of the kings whom they supported, at a crippling cost to themselves” (Ricklefs).

The VOC nonetheless obtained by treaty the control of the north coast of Java as well as the Eastern Salient from 1743.

Peace returned only from 1755, the kingdom of Mataram was divided in 3 vassal kingdoms. But it’s only in 1830, after the Java War that the Dutch will be the actual sovereign rulers of the Javanese.

In 1799, the VOC had gone bankrupt and its possession were transmitted to the Kingdom of Holland. This is the actual start of the colonial era in Indonesia.

The submission of the Javanese aristocracy by the Dutch had a long-lasting effect on their prestige. Soon the colonial government recruited this now idle aristocracy to populate the rank of its administration as clerks or teachers.

In 1873, the last court poet of Surakarta R. NG. Ronggawarsita wrote that kasekten (magical power that was detained by the ancient kings of Java) was now lost.

The Javanese language and literature

Tablets of stone or metal as old as from the 8th century have been found in East Java by archeologists. They are written in an ancient form of Javanese that uses a script derived from an old Indian sanskrit script called the Palawa script.

This script evolved a lot through the centuries but remained the basis of the Javanese script that is still used and read today.

The modern Javanese language is spoken as their mother tongue by tens of millions of Javanese, even though they use the latin script in to write it in the daily life.

After the fall of Majapahit (1527), the transmission of the cultural heritage in Old Javanese became more difficult. According to Ricklefs, Old Javanese was nonetheless still studied in Javanese court in the 18th century.

But at one point, the knowledge of Old Javanese became virtually lost. It’s only from the late 19th that Dutch and then Indonesian philologists will achieve the first modern translations of ancient documents (directly from the Old Javanese and not from the version adapted earlier in classical Javanese).

The most ancient works of Javanese literature that have survived to these days were actually found in Bali and Lombok :

  • The famous Nagarakretagama poem from the 14th century that describes the glory of Majapahit was preserved as a palm-leaf manuscrit (lontar) that Dutch soldiers will seize in the late 19th century during their attack of the Cakranegara royal house of Lombok.
  • Another famous poem from the Majapahit era, the Sutasoma was preserved on lontar in Bali for centuries.

Yet, older piece of Javanese culture had passed through the centuries via the oral tradition of the shadowplay (wayang) and myth telling (lakon).

  • Historians believe that the two major sanskrits epics of Ancient India, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, were translated and adapated under the Medang and Kediri kingdoms (9th-11th century).
  • The stories cycle around the mythical prince Panji are also anterior to Majapahit.

The Javanese litterature was revived under Mataram through royal chronicles (like the Badad Tanah Jawi) and or more general books like the Serat Centhini whose detailed description of the Javanese daily life is often considered as an encyclopedia of the Javanese culture.

Regional differences

The Javanese recognize some regional particularities :

  • The negarigung : the region encompassing Yogyakarta and Surakarta (Solo). This is the core of the court civilization of Java that is very proud of its literary tradition and sophisticated art of court as dances and music. The religious life is rather syncretistic.
  • The pasisir or the north coast region spanning from Cirebon to Gresik. Puritan Islam is dominant here.
  • The town of Surabaya and its surroundings shares many similarities with the pasisir but is often considered a cultural area of its own, with its own dialect.
  • The mancanegari (“Outer region’) is the region of East Java bordered by Central Java to the West and Mount Semeru to the East. The towns of Madiun, Kediri and Malang are part of it. The culture here is close to the court culture of the negarigung even there is no more court in this region since centuries. A survey from 1978 in the regency of Blitar found that less than 30% of the population identified as Santri (quoted in Koentjaraningrat).
  • Further east, one finds the tanah Sabrang Wetan (‘the area beyond the eastern border). A large portion of the population actually hails from Madura, but in the South (very poor and arid) and on the mountain slopes.
  • The regions of Banyumas (and its distinct sub-region of Bagelen) have very distinct dialects, unique life-cycle rituals and particular folklore.
  • There are also 3 very unique pockets of population with a separate dialect and distinctive customs : the Tengger who live in the caldera of the Tengger volcano (within which one finds the Bromo), the Osing around Banyuwangi and the Blambangan population on the eastern tip of Java.
Regional cultures Java
From Koentjaraningrat

Javanese art

The arts of the court

The Javenese shadowplay (wayang) is internationaly known as a striking feature of the Javanese art. The puppeteer (dalang) tells myths by acting, singing and the song of gamelan accompanying him.

Traditionaly, the women and children would sit in front of the screen so that they could only see the shadow, while men would sit behind it with the dalang. A wayang show was typically given for special occasions like wedding or circumcision.

Already in the 50s, the family and the guests of the host giving the wayang would usually sit in front of their house on the shadow side, while a crowd of uninvited guests would gather to watch the dalang work on the other.

The wayang is part of a wider art complex that has been refined in the Javanese courts over the centuries. It includes :

  • Javanese percussion orchestra (gamelan)
  • The tradition of myth telling (lakon) and poem reading and singing (tembang)
  • The Javanese court dances (djogèd) : the most ancient ones being the princess dances performed only by young girls (srimpi and bedaja). Later came the wayang wong dances for both sexes that acts out the wayang stories.
  • The art of wax and dye textile (batik)

The court dances tends to be rather abstract. The rythm is slow and controlled, the posture must be absolutely still and perfect, breathing unoticeable, eyes kept fixed in one place. The esthetic ideal is that of controlled motion, of perfect self-contained grace.

As Geertz noted already in the 50s, these art forms associated with the courts were already losing popularity among the masses to the profit of movies for instance. The priyayi were left as the main patrons of the traditional arts (a situation quite close to that of opera or classic music in Europe).

Other art forms

Aside the traditional arts, other form of entertainments not aiming at the aristocracy exists.

One can things about ludrug (popular farces featuring male travestism and clowns), klèdèks and djaranan (street dancers) as well as the tradition of dongèngs (folktales told orally).

Another art tradition has formed in the pesantren where pupils are often trained to terbangan (elaborated chanting inspired from Persia), gambusan (Middle-Eastern type of orchestra with string instruments) or pencak (an indigenous martial art that is now mainly associated with the pesantren).


  • C.Geertz – The Religion of Java (1960) : if you had to read only one book about Java, pick this one. An absolute classic of Indonesian ethnography. Full of lively descriptions.
  • Koentjaraningrat – Javanese Culture (1985) : covers a much broader scope than Geertz book but it’s so dense that it’s easy to miss things. Best read after Geertz.
  • M.C. Ricklefs – A History Of Modern Indonesia Since C.1200

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *