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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 27, No. 5. 1964.

Indonesian Culture Not What Europeans Think

page 8

Indonesian Culture Not What Europeans Think

Until recently, the greatest quantity of authoritative information on Indonesian culture came from European scholars, especially Dutch. Today, however, Indonesians themselves are becoming increasingly articulate on the subject of their own culture—and many of their views on it conflict with Western conclusions.

A lew of these new views were evident in the talk "Indonesian Culture" delivered by Mr. Ali Marsaban as part of Indonesia Week. The talk dealt with the cultural history of the Indonesian region and was followed bv two films illustrating Javanese architecture, carving and dance.

The most important foreign influence on Indonesian culture has been Indian. Indian culture appeared in Java and Sumatra early in the Christian era and became dominant about the 7th century. Before this time the Indonesian puppet shadow-play had already become established, and the distinctive lines of Indonesian architecture formed. Although these were temporarily blanketed by Indian culture, they emerged many centuries later modified by the Indian influence.

Mr. Marsaban was critical of the generally held theory that Hindu and Buddhist ideas were diseminated in Sumatra and Java through Indian merchants and invaders. He claimed that Indonesian priests had spread Indian ideas after having returned from study in India. He said that although the great kings of the Hindu Sailendra empire had borne Indian names, they were in fact Indonesians. This conflicts with the usual view that Indians ruled in Western Indonesia for many centuries.

Commenting on the mighty temple of Borobudur in Central Java, Mr. Marsaban said its architecture showed clearly the merging of Indian and Indonesian ideas. But, he said, far from being a monument erected about a relic, of the Buddha, Borobudur was the burial place of ten Indonesian kings of the Sailendra empire.

It should be noted however, that the nine terraces and the stupa of Borobudur apparently correspond to ten stages on the Buddhist path to enlightenment. The carvings on many of the terraces illustrate some of the important Buddhist scriptures. It seems unlikely (but by no means impossible) that a structure so explicitly Buddhist should have been erected to house the bodies of Hindu kings.

The Hindu epics "The Mahabharata" and "The Ramayana" were translated into Old Javanese about the 10th or 11th century and became very popular. The Indian origin of these epics was forgotten but they formed a basis for stories acted in Balinese and Javanese dance and in the wayang or shadow-play.

The shadow-play originated deep in Indonesian antiquity and was at first an attempt to represent the spirits or shadow people of the primitive animist religion. Later, the shadow-play was adapted to present Indian epics and other popular stories. Although frowned upon by the early Moslems, the shadow-play has survived through to the present and remains very popular.

The transition to Islam was very peaceful said Mr. Marsaban. This was because the Moslem religion had absorbed elements of Persian and Indian thought which made it more acceptable to Indonesians when it reached that region. The Moslem contact had been especially fruitful in producing paintings and new puppet forms.

Indonesians were still at grips with Western culture. Mr. Marsaban said (referring obliquely to the present political situation) that Indonesians would always seek an accommodating solution to problems arising from contact with Western culture. He said Indonesians were tolerant and flexible but also strong, and would inevitably incorporate Western cultural patterns into their own.

Although he had little time, it is surprising that Mr. Marsaban made no mention of Balinese dance which is renowned throughout the World. Nor did he mention Indonesian music, the most highly developed in South East Asia. Despite this the talk (heard by ony a moderately sized audience) was one of the most interesting and stimulating of Indonesia Week.

Above—cultivated terraces in Indonesia. Below—a river scene. Tin-culture of this tropical land was the topic of a recent talk by Mr. Ali Marsaban, an Indonesian diplomat stationed in Australia.

Above—cultivated terraces in Indonesia. Below—a river scene. Tin-culture of this tropical land was the topic of a recent talk by Mr. Ali Marsaban, an Indonesian diplomat stationed in Australia.

a river scene