Indonesia at a Glance

Last Updated on 08 September 2014

Map of IndonesiaIndonesia is the largest archipelago in the world with a total number of 17,508 islands. The archipelago is on a crossroads between two oceans, the Pacific and the Indian ocean, and bridges two continents, Asia and Australia

This strategic position has always influenced the cultural, social, political and economic life of the country. The territory of the Republic of Indonesia stretches from 6008’ north latitude to 11015’ south latitude, and from 94045’ to 141005’ east longitude.

The Indonesian sea area is four times greater than its land area, which is about 1.9 million sq. km. The sea area is about 7.9 million sq. km (including an exclusive economic zone) and constitutes about 81% of the total area of the country. The five main islands are: Sumatra, which is about 473,606 in size; the most fertile and densely populated islands. Java. 132.107 sq. km; Kalimantan, which comprises two-thirds of the island of Borneo and measures 539.460; Sulawesi. 189.216; and Papua, 421,981 which is part of the world’s second largest island: New Guinea. Indonesia’s other islands are smaller in size.

The archipelago is divided into three groups. The islands of Java, Sumatra and Kalimantan, and the small islands in-between, lie on the Sunda Shelf which begin on the coasts of Malaysia and Indo China, where the sea depth does not exceed 700 feet. Papua which is part of the island of New Guinea, and the Aru Islands, lie on the Sahul Shelf, which stretches northwards from the Australian coast.

Here the sea depth is similar to that of the Sunda Shelf. Located between these two shelves is the island group of Nusatenggara. Maluku and Sulawesi, where the sea depth reaches 15,000 feet. Coastal plains have been developed around the islands of Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan and Papua. The land area is generally covered by thick tropical rain forests, where fertile soils are continuously replenished by volcanic eruptions like those on the island of Java.

Climate and Weather

Indonesia is a tropical country, and the climate is fairly even all year round. The climate and weather of Indonesia is characterized by two tropical seasons, which vary with the equatorial air circulation (theWalkercirculation) and the meridian air circulation (theHardleycirculation).

The displacement of the latter follows the north-south movement of the sun and its relative position from the earth, in particular from the continents of Asia and Australia, at certain periods of the year. These factors contribute to the displacement and intensity of the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) which is an equatorial trough of low pressure that produces rain. Thus, the west and east monsoons, or the rainy and dry seasons, are a prevalent feature of the tropical climate.

The Main Seasons

The seasons in Indonesia are roughly divided into two distinct seasons, 'wet' and 'dry'. The climate changes every six months. The dry season (June to September) is influenced by the Australian continental air masses; while the rainy season (December to March) is the result of the Asian and Pacific Ocean air masses. The air contains vapor which precipitates and produces rain in the country.

Tropical areas have rains almost the whole year through. The heaviest rainfalls are usually recorded in December and January. However, the climate of Central Maluku is an exception. The rainy season is from June to September and the dry season from December to March. The transitional periods between the two seasons are April to May and October to November. The transitional period between these two seasons alternates between gorgeous sun-filled days and occasional thunderstorms.

Temperature and Humidity

Due to the large number of islands and mountains in the country, average temperatures may be classified as follows:

  1. coastal plains: 28°C, inland and mountain areas: 26°C
  2. higher mountain areas: 23°C, varying with the altitude.

Being in a tropical zone, Indonesia has an average relative humidity between 70% and 90%, with a minimum of 73% and a maximum of 87%.


Indonesia contains one of the world’s most remarkable geographical boundaries in its distribution of animals. This dates back to the glacial period when sea level fell all over the world. During this period the islands of Java, Sumatra, Kalimantan and Bali on the Sunda Shelf were joined together with one another and with the Asian mainland, but Papua, Aru and the Australian continent of the Sahul Shelf were separated.

This early geographical separation explains why the tropical animal species of Java, Sumatra and Kalimantan do not exist in Papua. For the same reason, the kangaroo of Papua is missing in the other region. Maluku, Sulawesi and the Lesser Sunda Islands, which lie between the Sunda and Sahul shelves, have a strikingly different fauna. Most of the eastern faunas do not exist in Sulawesi even though this island is close to Kalimantan, being just across the Makassar Strait. Similarly, the animal species of Papua are not found on Seram and Halmahera, Papua’s closest neighbours. One possible reason for this is that Kalimantan and Sulawesi might have been separated by a deep strait at one point, while the great depth of the Banda Sea kept them apart during the glacial period.

Some scientists have attributed the phenomenon to three faunal lines. ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE (1823-1913) wrote in his book, "The Malay Archipelago," that Nusantara was separated into an Oriental ecological area (west side) and an Australian ecological area (east side) by a Wallace Line that runs from South to North, passing the Lombok and Makassar Straits and ending in the south eastern part of the Philippines. The Weber line which passes the sea between Maluku and Sulawesi, and the Lydekker line which starts at the edge of the Sahul Shelf. Su-lawesi Island is in a transition zone known as the Wallace Area.

The other two faunal lines are the Weber Line, which passes the sea between Maluku and Sulawesi, and the Lydekker Line, which starts at the Sahul Shelf and skirts the western border of Papua and the Australian continent.

Other scientists, however, prefer to call the area a "subtraction transition zone".The Directorate General of Forest Protection and Nature Conservation adopted a national strategy on natural conservation whereby the entire ecosystem is conserved. This is necessary because it is often impossible to preserve wildlife outside its natural habitat. For example, the orangutan, which literally means "jungleman" (Pongopygmaeus) and only lives in the jungles of Sumatra and Kalimantan, is very dependent on a primary forest habitat. For this purpose, the Directorate General, in cooperation with the World Wide Fund for Nature (W.W.F.), established "orangutan rehabilitation centers" to prepare illegally-captured orangutans for return to life in the wilderness.Komodo Dragon

The Komodo dragon (Varanuskomodoensis), the world’s largest lizard, can grow to 3 meters long. Its home is on the Komodo group of reserves, which are composed of Komodo, Padar and Rinca islands, off the coast of Flores in the eastern part of the country.

Papua and Maluku are rich in colorful birds, varying from the big and unable-to-fly cassowaries (Casuarius) and the brilliantly-plumaged birds of paradise that belong to the family of Paradiseidae and Ptilinorhynhidae and number more than 40 species, to a large variety of birds from the parrot family.Other members of Indonesia’s fauna include the hornbill bird, or "rangkong/enggang" of the Bucerotidal family, which is noted for its enormous horn-tipped beak.


Rafflesia Flower

The rich flora of Indonesia includes many unique varieties of tropical plant life in various forms. Rafflesia Arnoldi, which is found only in certain parts of Sumatra, is the largest flower in the world.
This parasitic plant grows on certain lianas but does not produce leaves. From the same area in Sumatra comes another giant, Amorphophallus tatinum, the largest inflorescence of its kind. The insect trapping pitcher plant (Nepentheaspp) is represented by different species in many areas of western Indonesia.The myriad of orchids is rich in species, varying in size from the largest of all orchids, the tiger orchid or Grammatophyllum Speciosum, to the tiny and leafless species of Taeniophyllum which is edible and taken by the local people as a medicine and is also used in handicrafts.

The forest soil is rich in humus which enables the luxuriant growth of a multitude of fungi, including the horse hair blight, the luminescent species, the sooty mold and the black mildew. Indonesia’s flora also abounds in timber species. The dipterocarp family is renowned for its timber (meranti), resin, vegetable oil and tengkawang or illipe nuts. Ramin, a good-quality timber for furniture, is produced by the Gonystylus tree. Sandalwood, ebony, ulin and Palembang timber are other valuable forest products. Teakwood is a product of man-made forests in Java.Because the flora is so rich many people in Indonesia have made a good living of this natural resource. About 6,000 species of plants are known to be used directly or indirectly by the people. A striking example in this modern time is the use of plants in the production of traditional herbal medicine or "Jamu". Flowers are indispensable in ceremonial, customary and traditional rites.

To care for animals and plants in the country, the fifth of November was designated as the national Flora and Fauna Day. To foster the society’s love for its fauna and flora, the Komodo reptile (Varanus komodoensis) has been designated as Indonesia National Animal, the red freshwater Liluk/arwana (Scleropage formosus) as the Fascinating Animal and the flying Elang Jawa (Javan Hawk Eagle, Spizaetus barteisi) as the Rare (endangered) species. These decisions complement the previous designation of Indonesia’s national flowers.


The strategic position of Indonesia and its waterways between the Indian and Pacific Oceans has led to a fascinating and complex cultural, religious, political and economic history.Evidence of Indonesia’s earliest inhabitants include fossils of "Java Man" (Pithecanthropus Erectus), which date back some 500,000 years, discovered near the village of Trinil in East Java by Dr. Eugene Dubois in 1809.

Major migration movements to the Indonesian archipelago began about 3000 years ago as the Dongson Culture of Vietnam and southern China spread south, bringing with them new Stone, Bronze and Iron Age cultures as well as the Austronesian language. Their techniques of irrigated rice cultivation are still practiced throughout Indonesia today. Other remnants of this culture such as ritual buffalo sacrifice, erection of stone megaliths and lkat weaving are still visible in isolated areas across the archipelago.

Indonesia came under the influence of a mighty Indian, civilization through the gradual Influx of Indian traders in the first century AD, when great Hindu and Buddhist empires were beginning to emerge. By the seventh century, the powerful Buddhist Kingdom of Sriwijaya was on the rise, and it is thought that during this period the spectacular Borobudur Buddhist temple was built in Central Java. The thirteenth century saw the dominance of the fabulous Majapahit Hindu Empire in East Java, which united the whole of modern-day Indonesia and parts of the Malay peninsula, ruling for two centuries.

Monuments across Java such as the magnificent Prambanan temple complex near Yogyakarta, the mysterious Penataran temple complex in East Java and the ethereal temples of the Dieng Plateau are all that remain of this glorious period in Indonesia’s history.The first recorded attempt at armed invasion of Indonesia is credited to the notorious Mongol Emperor Kubilai Khan, who was driven back in 1293. Arab traders and merchants laid the foundations for the gradual spread of Islam to the region, which did not replace Hinduism and Buddhism as the dominant religion until the end of the 16th century.

A series of small Moslem kingdoms sprouted up and spread their roots, but none anticipated the strength and persistence of European invasions which followed. In 1292, Marco Polo became one of the first Europeans to set foot on the Islands, but It wasn’t until much later that the Portuguese arrived in pursuit of spices. By 1509 Portuguese had established trading posts in the strategic commercial center of Malacca on the Malay peninsula. Their fortified bases and the inability of their enemies to unify against them allowed the Portuguese to control strategic trade routes from Malacca to Macau, Goa, Mozambique and Angola.

Inspired by the success of the Portuguese, the Dutch followed at the turn of the 16th century. They ousted the Portuguese from some of the easternmost islands, coming into conflict with another major European power, Spain, which had focused its colonial interests in Manila. The Dutch expanded their control of the entire area throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Dutch East Indies, as it was known at this tune, fell under British rule for a short period during the Napoleonic Wars of 1811-1816, when Holland was occupied by France, and Dutch power overseas was limited. While under British control the Lt. Governor for Java and its dependencies was Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, who was known for his liberal attitude towards the people under colonial rule and his research on the history of Java.With the return of the Dutch in 1816, a period of relative peace was interrupted by a series of long and bloody wars launched by the local people against the Dutch colonial government.

The Indonesian nationalist and independence movements of the 20th century have their roots in this period. Upper and middle class Indonesians, whose education and contact with Western culture had made them more aware of colonial injustice, began mass movements which eventually drew support from the peasants and urban working classes.The Japanese replaced the Dutch as rulers of Indonesia for a brief period during World War II. The surrender of the Japanese in 1945 signalled the end of the Second World War in Asia and the start of true independence for Indonesia. With major changes in global consciousness about the concepts of freedom and democracy, Indonesia proclaimed its independence on the 17th of August of that same year.

The returning Dutch bitterly resisted Indonesian nationalist movements and intermittent fighting followed. Under the auspices of the United Nations at the Hague, an agreement was finally reached on December 9, 1949, officially recognizing Indonesia’s sovereignty over the former Dutch East Indies.


The staple food of most of Indonesia is rice. On some of the islands in eastern Indonesia, staple food traditionally ranged from corn, sago, cassava to sweet potatoes, though this is changing as rice becomes more popular. Fish features prominently in the diet: fresh, salted, dried, smoked or paste. Fish is abundant and of great variety: lobster, oyster, prawns, shrimp, squid, crab, etc.

Coconut is found everywhere and besides being processed for cooking oil, its milk and meat is an ingredient for many dishes. Spices and hot chilli peppers are the essence of most cooking, and in some areas they are used generously such as in West Sumatra and North Sulawesi. Each province or area has its own cuisine. West Sumatra is known for its Padang restaurants, found nationwide. Besides the hot and spicy food, these restaurants are known for their unique style of service.rendang

Further to the east, seafood is a staple of the daily diet, either grilled or made into curries. In Bali, Papua and the highlands of North Sumatra and North Sulawesi pork dishes are specialities.

As the population of Indonesia is predominantly Moslem, pork is usually not served except in non-halal restaurants. There is a wide variety of tropical and sub-tropical vegetables all year  round. Fruit is available throughout the year. Some fruits such as mangoes and water melons are seasonal, but most of the other fruits can be bought throughout the year, such as bananas, apples, papayas, pineapples and oranges. Coffee and tea are served everywhere from fine restaurants to small village stalls. There are several breweries which produce local beer. Bali produces "brem" which is a rice wine, whereas Toraja has "tuak".

For most people, a meal consists of steamed white rice with side dishes of meat, chicken, fish and vegetables along with a glass of tea. There is such a rich variety in the Indonesian cuisine that one should sample specialities in each area. However, most common nationwide are "sate" (skewered grilled meat), "gado-gado" (vegetables salad with a peanut sauce), "nasi goreng" (fried rice served at anytime) and "bakmi goreng" (fried noodles).

Art and Culture

Indonesia is blessed with a rich and diverse mix of traditional cultures and art forms. The basic principles which guide life across this colorful tapestry of life-styles include the concepts of mutual assistance or "gotong royong" and communal meetings and gatherings or "musyawarah" to arrive at a consensus or "mufakat". Derived from the traditions of agriculturally based rural life, this system, is still very much in use in community life throughout the country.

Social life, as well as rites of passage, are steeped in ancient traditions and customs, or "adat" laws, which differ from area to area. "Adat" laws have a binding impact on Indonesian life and have been instrumental in maintaining equal rights for women in the community.

Religious influences on communal life vary from Island to island and village to village, depending on local history. Art forms in Indonesia are not only derived from folklore, as in many other parts of the world. Many were developed in the courts of former kingdoms, as in Bali, where they are integral elements of religious ceremonies. The famous dance dramas of Java and Bali are derived from Hindu mythology and often feature fragments from the Ramayana and Mahabharata Hindu epics.

The Performing Arts

From graceful court and temple dances to charming folk dances and boisterous play, the performing arts of Indonesia offer an astounding range of types and styles for the visitor to study or enjoy, reflecting, as they, do, the soul and traditions of the various ethnic groups who perform them. Music, dance and drama are very often interwined, as in the ludruk transvestite theatre of East Java and the lenong folk theatre of Jakarta, both known for their slapstick humour and early Shakespearean simplicity in their stage settings.

An important form of indigenous theatre is puppetry, of which the most celebrated is the wayang kulit shadow play of Java. These plays are magical and mysterious, and have often been seen as roads to the true heart and soul of Javanese culture. They are performed with leather puppets held by the puppeteer (dalang), who narrates the story of one of the famous episodes of the Mahabharata or the Ramayana. The play is performed against a white screen, while a lantern in the background casts the shadows of the characters on the screen.

Most of the audience sits in front to watch the shadow figures, but it is also possible to sit behind the screen and watch the dalang at work. A traditonal performance can last from dusk till dawn, but shorter versions catering to a western sensibility are available in many cities.


The puppet theatre has many forms and employs a variety of media. In West Java, for example, the most popular form is the Wayang Golek, using carved and painted three dimensional wooden puppets. Both the Wayang Kulit and Wayang Golek take their repertoire from the clasical Indian epics but in Central Java, the wooden puppet theatre traditionally revolves around stories derived from popular folk legends and the spread of Islam.

The oldest form of "shadow" play is probably the Wayang Beber, in which the dalang or puppeteer simply unrolls a scroll bearing the scenes and figures of the story while he delivers his narration, accompanied by a gamelan orchestra. A popular contemporary form of wayang theatre is the Wayang Wong, is which actors or dancers represent the characters in the story, presented on a conventional stage.


Like most of the performing arts of the Orient, dance in Indonesia is believed to have had its roots in religious worship. Even today, many dances are considered sacred or can be traced back to their early spiritual associations.

Among these are not only the temple dances of Bali, but also such seemingly profane dances, such as the Bedoyo Ketawang of Solo, performed only on such rare occasions that they are in peril of becoming lost due to the lack of young dancers able to perform them. Dance traditions today are as widely diverse as the various ethnic cultures of which they are part. Nurtured to refined perfection in the royal Javanese courts, the classical dances of Central Java are highly stylized expressions which had probably already attained their basic movements during the height of the Hindu-Javanese culture, from the 8th to the 13th century.

Those dances eventually reached the common people, who gave them a more spontaneous form of expression. In the hands of the people, these dances provided a rich source not only for popular dance dramas, but also for social dances, which often display clear erotic overtones, such as Tayuban or Ngibing. The bumbung dance of Bali evolved into the beautiful "Bumblebee Dance" and "Tamulilingan", a creation of Bali’s late maestro, I Mario. Other popular folk dances still display strong magic associations, as in the "Kuda Lumping Horse Dance".

Whereas rigid discipline and artistry mark the dance of Java and Bali, those of Sumatra, Maluku and most of the other islands are characterized by their gracefulness and charm, a distinction which is further accentuated by non-gamelan musical accompaniment. The old traditions of dance and drama are being preserved in the many dance schools which flourish not only in the courts, but also in the modern, government-run or supervised art academies.

For comparative study and enjoyment, the introduction of serious western art forms is also being encouraged through performances sponsored by private organizations or foreign, missions, as well as by government supervised institutions such as Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM) Art Center in Jakarta


Musical traditions are as diverse as the population, but the one musical expression best known and most widely associated with the country is probably the gamelan. A complete gamelan orchestra may consist of as many as eighty instruments, the largest part comprising various types and sizes of metal percussion instruments.

Drums, a zither (celempung), a rebab two-stringed upright lute, a flute and often a few other instruments complete the ensemble. Although there are variations known within each, the gamelan orchestra is basically tuned to two systems, the old pentatonic slendro and the younger seventone pelog, each producing its own mood and having its own uses in the musical or theatrical repertoire. The creation of moods or "colour" is further archieved by the use of three principal modes (pathet) within each tuning system.

The most elaborate form of gamelan is that of Central Java (Yogyakarta and Surakarta). West Java has it own gamelan ensemble, usually simpler than the Javanese, with more stress on flute, drums and the bonang family of horizontally placed kettle gongs. But the most brilliant is that of Ball, where sets of "male" and "female" megalophones produce a beautiful timbre associated with the Balinese gamelan. In much more simple forms, the "gamelan" is also known in other islands of Indonesia, from southern Sumatra to Sulawesi and Kalimantan. angklung

Bamboo xylophones are used in North Sulawesi and the bamboo "angklung" instruments of West Java are well-known for their unique tinkling notes which can be adapted to any melody. The Bataks of North Sumatra are famous for their popular singing groups who today entertain visitors in many International hotels.

Performances of Javanese gamelan can be heard every Sunday in the Kraton of Yogyakarta. The Central Museum, in Jakarta has performances of Sundanese (West Javanese) gamelan every Sunday morning. Javanese gamelan also accompanies the shortened wayang kulit performances given at the Wayang Museum in Jakarta every Sunday morning. 


The crafts of Indonesia vary in both medium and style. As a whole the people are artistic by nature and express themselves with canvas and paint, wood, metal, clay and stone. BatikIndonesian artists create some of the finest wood-carvings to be found anywhere in the world. Paintings of an infinite variety, both traditional and contemporary, are to be found all over the country.

The silverwork and engravings of Yogyakarta and Sumatra, and filigree of South Sulawesi are famous throughout Indonesia.The batik process of waxing and dyeing originated in Java centuries ago and classic designs have been modified with modern trends in both pattern and technology.

There are several batik centers on Java, the major ones being Yogyakarta, Surakarta, Pekalongan and Cirebon. Batik is also being produced In Bali, where local designs are incorporated. Artists in West Sumatra and Kalimantan produce hand-woven cloths with gold and silver threads, silk, and cotton of fantastically intricate design. On the islands of Sumba and Flores you can find the traditional ikat, a type of weaving with hand-dyed threads.



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