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THE SUNDANESE PEOPLE OF WEST JAVA, INDONESIA

 


In 1998, the Sundanese numbered about 33 million, most of whom lived in West Java.
An estimated 1 million lived in other provinces. The 1990 census found that West Java had the greatest population of any province in Indonesia with 35.3 million people. In addition, the urban population stood at 34.51% , a truly significant number who could be reached with various media. Despite this, the Sundanese are one of the least known people groups in the world. They are often confused with the Sudanese of Africa and their name has even been misspelled in encyclopedias. Some spell checks on computer programs also change it to Sudanese.

This short history of pre-20th century is intended to introduce you to the Sundanese of West Java, Indonesia. In this century, their history has been intertwined with that of the rising nationalism which eventually became modern Indonesia.

Creation Myths
Unlike many people groups, there are no creation myths or records of other myths describing the origins of the Sundanese. No one knows where they came from nor how they settled West Java. Probably in the early centuries after Christ, a small number of Sundanese tribal groups roamed the mountain jungles of West Java practicing a swidden (slash and burn) culture. All the earliest myths speak of the Sundanese being field workers rather than paddy farmers. To top

Original Belief System
Their beliefs formed the foundation of what is now called the original Sundanese religion. Although it is impossible to know for sure what these beliefs were, the best indications are found in the oldest epic poems (Wawacan) and among the remote Badui tribe. The Badui call their religion Sunda Wiwitan [earliest Sundanese]. Not only are the Badui almost totally free of Islamic elements (except those imposed over the past 20 years), they also display very few Hindu characteristics. Some Sanskrit words and Hindu related myths do remain. In his monograph, Robert Wessing quotes several sources which show for the Sundanese in general, “The Indian belief system did not totally displace the indigenous beliefs, even at the court centers” (Cosmology and Social Behavior in a West Java Settlement. Ohio University Center for International Studies. 1978:16). Based on a system of taboos, the Badui religion is animistic. They believe spirits inhabit the rocks, trees, streams and other inanimate objects. These spirits do good or evil depending on one’s observance of the taboos. Thousands of taboos apply to every aspect of daily life. To top

Influence of Hinduism
No one knows just how or when Hindu patterns began to develop in Indonesia nor who brought them. It is agreed they came from India; probably from the southern coast. But the character of the Hindu presence in Java raises more questions than it answers. The main Hindu centers, for example, were not in the coastal trading cities but rather inland. It seems clear that religious ideas rather than armies conquered the indigenous mind. One theory holds that the power of the Hindu/Indian rulers attracted Indonesians to the spirit-magic beliefs of the Hindu religion. Somehow many aspects of the Hindu belief system permeated the mind set of the Sundanese as well as that of the Javanese.

The oldest known Sundanese literary work is Caritha Parahyangan. It was written about 1000 AD and glorifies the Javanese king Sanjaya as a great warrior. Sanjaya was a follower of Shivaism so we know that the Hindu faith was strongly entrenched by AD 700. Oddly enough, about this time a second Indian religion, Buddhism, made a brief appearance on the scene. Shortly after the Shivaist temples were built on the Dieng plateau of Central Java, the magnificent Borobudur monument was constructed near Jogjakarta to the south. The Borobudur temple is the largest Buddhist monument ever built in the world. It is thought that Buddhism was the official religion of the Shailendra Kingdom in Central Java from 778-870. Hinduism never faltered in other parts of Java and continued strong until the 13th century. A rigid class structure developed in the societies. The Sanskrit influence was widespread in the languages of the Java peoples. The idea of divinity and kingship blurred so that they became indistinguishable.

Among the Sundanese as well as the Javanese, Hinduism mixed with the ancient ancestor worship. The custom of celebrating ritual days following the death of a family member continues until today. The Hindu view of life and death enhanced the meaning of rituals like this. With infinite variations on the theme of the spiritual body co-existing with the natural body, Indonesians have incorporated Hindu philosophy into their own configurations. J.C. van Leur theorizes that Hinduism helps solidify Sundanese cultural forms. Magic and spirit beliefs, in particular, have absolute value in Sundanese life. One of the experts in Sundanese customs, Prawirasuganda, mentions scores of taboos similar to those of the Badui which relate to all the important aspects of the life cycle ceremonies of the Sundanese people. To top

Javanese Influence
According to Bernard Vlekke, the noted historian, West Java was a backward section of Java as late as the 11th century. Great kingdoms had arisen in East and Central Java but little had changed among the Sundanese. Hindu influence, while definite, was never as strong among the Sundanese as it was among the Javanese. However, as insignificant as West Java was, it had a king at the time of Airlangga of East Java; about 1020 AD. But Sundanese kings came increasingly under the sway of the great Javanese kingdoms. Kertanegara (1268-92) was the Javanese king at the conclusion of the Indonesian Hindu period. After him, the kings of Majapahit ruled until 1478 but they were not significant after 1389. However, this Javanese influence continued and deepened the impact of Hinduism on the Sundanese. To top

Pajajaran Near Bogor
In 1333, the kingdom of Pajajaran existed near modern day Bogor. It was subdued by the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit under the famous prime minister, Gadjah Mada. According to the romantic tale Kidung Sunda, the Sundanese princess was supposed to be married to Ayam Wuruk, king of Majapahit. However, Gadjah Mada opposed this marriage and after the Sundanese had gathered for the wedding, he changed the conditions. When the Sundanese king and nobles heard the princess would become only a concubine and there would be no wedding as promised, they fought against overwhelming odds until all were dead. Although enmity between the Sundanese and Javanese continued for many years after this episode (and may still continue), never-the-less the Javanese exercised influence on the Sundanese.

Until recently, the Pajajaran Kingdom was thought to be the oldest Sundanese kingdom. Even though it existed as late as 1482-1579, much of the activity of its nobles is shrouded in legend. Siliwangi, the Hindu king of Pajajaran, was overthrown by a plot between the Muslims of Banten, Ceribon, and Demak in league with his own cousin. With Siliwangi’s fall, Islam took control of much of West Java. A key factor in Islam’s success was the advance of the Demak Kingdom of East Java into West Java by 1540. From the east and west, Islam penetrated to the Priangan (central highlands) and encompassed all the Sundanese. To top


Advance of Islam
There was a Muslim presence in the archipelago as early as 1100 but there was little Islamic growth before Malacca on the Malay straits became a Muslim stronghold in 1414. Aceh in North Sumatra began expanding its Islamic influence about 1416. Muslim scholars push the date of Islam’s advent in Indonesia back almost to the time of Muhammad. But some of the incidents they record were probably not significant.
The real advent of Islam seems to be when Arab and Persian missionaries entered Java in the early 1400’s and gradually gained converts among the ruling classes. To top

Fall of Majapahit
By 1450, Islam had gained a foothold in the court of Majapahit in East Java. Van Leur feels this was aided by a disintegration of the Brahman culture in India. Surabaya (Ampel) became the center of Islamic learning and from there famous Arab entrepreneurs spread their power. The fall of the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit in 1468 has been linked with intrigue in the royal family due to the fact that a royal son, Raden Patah, had converted to Islam. Unlike the Hindu leaders, Islamic missionaries encouraged military power to seal their advantages. No foreign army invaded Java to force the people to believe. But coercion was involved in getting the rulers to accept the faith of Muhammad. Both in East Java and West Java, rebellion in the royal families was fomented by the Islamic military pressure. As the nobility changed allegiances, the people followed suit. Despite this, we must remember as Vlekke points out that religious wars seldom occurred throughout the history of Java. To top

The Demak Kingdom
Raden Patah settled in Demak which became the first Islamic kingdom on Java. It reached the zenith of its power by 1540 and in its time subdued peoples as far away as West Java. Bernard Vlekke says Demak expanded towards West Java because Javanese politics had little interest in Islam. In the meantime Sunan Gunung Jati, a Javanese prince, sent his son Hasanudin from Cirebon to make extensive conversions among the Sundanese. In 1526, both Banten and Sunda Kelapa (Jakarta) were under the control of Sunan Gunung Jati who became the first sultan of Banten. This alignment of Cirebon with Demak brought much of West Java under the sway of Islam. “In the second quarter of the 16th century, all the northern coast of West Java was under the power of Islamic leaders and the populace had become Muslim” (Edi S. Ekadjati, Masyarakat Sunda dan Kebudayaannya. Jakarta: Girimukti Pasaka, 1984:93). Since population statistics of 1780 list about 260,000 people in West Java, we can assume the amount was much less in the 16th century. This shows that Islam entered when the Sundanese were a small tribe located primarily on the coasts and in the river basins like the Ciliwung, Citarum, and Cisadane Rivers. To top

Nature of Islam
As Islam came to the Sundanese, the five major pillars of the religion were emphasized but in many other areas of religious thought a syncretism developed with the original Sundanese world view. The Indonesian historian Soeroto believes that Islam was prepared for this in India. “Islam which first came to Indonesia contained many elements of Iranian and Indian philosophies. But it was precisely those components which made the way easy for Islam here” (Indonesia Ditengah-tengah Dunia dari Abad Keabad, Vol. 2, 1968:177-178). Scholars believe Islam accepted that the customs which benefit society should be retained. Thus Islam was mixed with many Hindu and original customs of the people. The marriage of these religious strains is commonly called “the religion of Java.” The subsequent mixture of Islam with multiple belief systems (most recently called aliran kebatinan) makes an accurate description of present day religion among the Sundanese very complex. To top

Dutch Colonialism
By the time the Dutch arrived in Indonesia in 1596, Islam had become the dominant influence among the nobility and leadership levels of Javanese and Sundanese societies.
Simply put, the Dutch warred with Islamic power centers for control of the island trade and this created an enmity that extended the Crusades conflict into the Indonesian arena. In 1641, they took Malacca from the Portuguese and gained control of the sea lanes. Dutch pressure on the kingdom of Mataram was such that they were able to wrest special economic rights to the highlands (Priangan) area of West Java. By 1652, large areas of West Java were their suppliers. This began 300 years of Dutch exploitation in West Java which only ended with the advent of World War II.

Events of the 18th century present a litany of Dutch errors in the social, political and religious fields. All of the lowlands of West Java suffered under oppressive conditions imposed by local rulers. An example of this was the Banten area. In 1750, the people revolted against their sultanate which was controlled by an Arabian woman, “Ratu Sjarifa.” According to Ayip Rosidi, she was a tool of the Dutch. However, Vlekke holds that “Kiai Tapa,” the leader, was a Hindu and that the rebellion was directed more against Islamic leaders than Dutch colonialists. [It is difficult to reconstruct history from any source as each faction had self interests which colored the way events were recorded. To top

Religion Not An Issue Until 1815
During the first 200 years of the Dutch rule in Indonesia, few of the problems were linked to religion. This was because the Dutch did practically nothing to bring Christianity to the indigenous people. Until 1800, there was a “company church” which was a “church” only in name for it served only the needs of Dutch employees of the East India Company. The Company administered all Dutch activity in the Indonesian archipelago. There were no schools for native children until well into the 19th century so the people had no way to hear the gospel.

At the turn of the 19th century, the East India Company was bankrupt and Napoleon occupied Holland. In 1811, England took charge of the Dutch East Indies. One of their initiatives was to open the country to the missionary enterprise. Despite this momentous occasion, little was done in Java until near the middle of the century. However, some foundations were laid in East and Central Java which became models for work among the Sundanese. To top

Culture System
The most famous political error made by the Dutch was inaugurated in 1830. It was called the Culture System but should more properly be called a system of slavery. This system intensified the government’s efforts to extract more produce from the land. It exacted the produce of one-fifth of a peasant’s land in lieu of taxes. By instituting new crops such as sugar, coffee and tea, it put a greater area of land under cultivation. The economic impact on villages was dramatic and the social ramifications were significant. Across the middle of the century, private investment in West Java land began to grow and plantations came into being. The land was taken out of the peasant’s control and was given to big land owners. By 1870, an agrarian law was necessary to protect the people’s rights over the land. To top

Population Growth in Java
In 1851, there were 786,000 Sundanese and 217 Europeans in West Java. In 30 years the population doubled and the Priangan became a focal point of trade goods with an accompanying influx of western businessmen and Asian (mostly Chinese) immigrants. At the beginning of the 19th century, it was estimated that seven/eighths of Java was covered with forests or fallow land. In 1815, all of Java and Madura had only five million inhabitants. That increased to 28 million by the end of the century and reached 108 million in 1990. Population growth among the Sundanese is probably the most important non religious factor in their history. To top

Consolidation of Islamic Influence
As more land was opened and new villages arose, Islam sent teachers along with the people so that Islam increased in influence in every habitat of the Sundanese. The Islamic teachers competed with the Dutch controlled Sundanese nobility for leadership among the people. By the end of the century, Islam was the acknowledged formal religion of the Sundanese. The strong spirit beliefs of many kinds were considered part of Islam. Christianity, which came to the Sundanese in the mid-century had little effect outside of the small Sundanese Christian enclaves. To top

20th Century Reform
The story of this century began with reform in many areas. Influenced by sharp criticism in many quarters, the Dutch government instituted an “Ethical Policy” in 1901. The reforms were mainly economic, covering agricultural development, health, and education. The people felt alienated from their own traditional nobility and Islam became their chief spokesman against the great imperialistic expansion which was taking place in the world through the economic thrusts of European countries. Islam was one of the major religions which sought to adjust to the modern world. The Reformist movement which began in Cairo in 1912 was exported everywhere. It created two major groups in Indonesia. One was Sareket Islam which was created for the trade sector and was nationalistic. The other was Muhammadiyah which was not political but struggled to meet the educational, health, and family needs of the people. To top

No Characteristic Sundanese History
What stands out in the history of the Sundanese is their association with other groups. The Sundanese have little characteristic history of their own. Ayip Rosidi outlines five barriers which make it difficult to define the character of the Sundanese. Among these, he
gives the Javanese as an example of a people group who have a clear identity in contrast to the Sundanese who lack one.

Historically, the Sundanese have not played any major role in national affairs. Some very important events have transpired in West Java but usually they were not characteristic Sundanese events. Few Sundanese have been leaders either in conception or implementation of nationalistic activities. There are a lot of Sundanese and they have been involved in many events in the twentieth century but, statistically speaking, they have not been significant. In this century, the history of the Sundanese is essentially the history of the Javanese. To top

Twentieth Century Religious Orientation
Religion among the Sundanese is like their other cultural forms. In general, it mirrors that of the Javanese. The important difference is a stronger attachment to Islam than one finds among the Javanese. Although this attachment is not as fierce as that of the Madurese or Bugis peoples, it is important enough to merit special attention when one looks at Sundanese history.

One very important aspect of Sundanese religions is the dominance of pre-Islamic beliefs. They constitute the major focus of myth and ritual in the Sundanese life cycle ceremonies. These ceremonies of the tali paranti (customary law and traditions) have always been oriented primarily around worship of the goddess Dewi Sri (Nyi Pohaci Sanghiang Sri). Not as great as Dewi Sri but also an important spirit power is Nyi Ratu Loro Kidul. She is the queen of the south sea and is the patroness of all fishermen. Along the south coast of Java, people fear and appease this goddess to this day. Another example is Siliwangi. This is a spirit power which is a force in Sundanese life. He represents another territorial power in the cosmological structure of the Sundanese. To top

Magic Spells
In the worship of these deities, systems of magic spells also play a major part in dealing with various spirit powers. One such system is Ngaruat Batara Kala which was designed to elicit favor from the god Batara Kala in thousands of personal situations. People also call on numberless spirits which include those of deceased people as well as place spirits (jurig) of different kinds. Many graves, trees, mountains and other similar places are sacred to the people. At these spots, one may enlist supernatural powers to restore health, increase wealth, or enhance one’s life in some way.

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Spirit Practitioners
To aid the people in their spiritual needs, there are practitioners of the magic arts called dukun. These shamans are active in healing or in mystic practices like numerology. They claim contact with supernatural forces which do their bidding. Some of these dukun will exercise black magic but most are considered beneficial to the Sundanese. From the cradle to the grave few important decisions are made without recourse to the dukun. Most people carry charms on their bodies and keep them in propitious places on their property. Some even practice magic spells independently of the dukun. Most of this activity lies in an area outside of Islam and is in opposition to Islam. But these people are still counted as Muslims. To top

Conclusion
Understanding the Sundanese today is a great challenge to historians, anthropologists, and religious scholars. Even the leading Sundanese scholars are loath to try to delineate the character and contributions of the people. Perhaps, in many ways, Sundanese have been absorbed into the new Indonesian culture of the past 50 years. My personal opinion is we will soon observe an ethnic renewal among the Sundanese accompanied by a new definition of what it means to be Sundanese. To top

Roger, 1999