The Sundanese hail from western Java but are found throughout Indonesia. Also known as the Ornang Sunda, Orang Prijangan, Urang Sunda., they are culturally similar to the Javanese but regard themselves as less formal, more soft spoken and lighter hearted than Javanese. Sundanese make up 15.5 percent of the population of Indonesia, meaning there are about 34 million of them. They have their own distinct culture and speak their own language, which requires speaker to adjust their speech and vocabulary to accommodate the status and intimacy of the person they talk to. Nearly all are Muslims. The Sundanese homeland is the Priangan Highlands of West Java, an area they call “parahyangan” (“paradise”). [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

The Sundanese had their own state—the kingdom of Pajajaran (1333-1579)—but mostly they have been dominated by Javanese kingdoms while remaining somewhat isolated and keeping alive their own traditions. Islam was introduced by Indian traders in the 15th century and spread inland from the ports, where Indians traded. The nobility was forced to convert to Islam in1579 after the existing royal family was killed by the sultan of Bantem. The Dutch introduced coffee plantation agriculture. The Sundanese both cooperated with and resisted the Dutch. Some Sundanese pursued a Western education and became civil servants. Others fought two holy wars against the Dutch: one in the 1880s and another after World War II.

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 percent. Despite their large numbers, 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. [Source: ***]

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. 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.” Perhaps “we will soon observe an ethnic renewal among the Sundanese accompanied by a new definition of what it means to be Sundanese.” ***

See West Java Under places

Sundanese Versus Javanese

The Sundanese are regarded as more Islamic, earthy, egalitarian and direct than Central Javanese. Although there are many social, economic, and political similarities between the Javanese and Sundanese, differences abound. The Sundanese live principally in West Java, but their language is not intelligible to the Javanese. The more than 21 million Sundanese in 1992 had stronger ties to Islam than the Javanese, in terms of pesantren enrollment and religious affiliation. Although the Sundanese language, like Javanese, possesses elaborate speech levels, these forms of respect are infused with Islamic values, such as the traditional notion of hormat (respect — knowing and fulfilling one's proper position in society). Children are taught that the task of behaving with proper hormat is also a religious struggle — the triumph of akal (reason) over nafsu (desire). These dilemmas are spelled out in the pesantren, where children learn to memorize the Quran in Arabic. Through copious memorization and practice in correct pronunciation, children learn that reasonable behavior means verbal conformity with authority and subjective interpretation is a sign of inappropriate individualism. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Although Sundanese religious practices share some of the HinduBuddhist beliefs of their Javanese neighbors — for example, the animistic beliefs in spirits and the emphasis on right thinking and self-control as a way of controlling those spirits — Sundanese courtly traditions differ from those of the Javanese. The Sundanese language possesses an elaborate and sophisticated literature preserved in Indic scripts and in puppet dramas. These dramas use distinctive wooden dolls (wayang golek, as contrasted with the wayang kulit of the Javanese and Balinese), but Sundanese courts have aligned themselves more closely to universalistic tenets of Islam than have the elite classes of Central Java. *

Although Sundanese and Javanese possess similar family structures, economic patterns, and political systems, they feel some rivalry toward one another. As interregional migration increased in the 1980s and 1990s, the tendency to stereotype one another's adat in highly contrastive terms intensified, even as actual economic and social behavior were becoming increasingly interdependent. *

Early History of the Sundanese

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. [Source: ***]

The oldest known Sundanese literary work is Caritha Parahyangan. It was written about 1000 A.D. 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 A.D. 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. ***

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. ***

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. ***

Introduction of Islam to the Sundanese

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. 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. [Source: ***]

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. ***

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. ***

Sundanese Under the Dutch

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. [Source: ***]

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. 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. ***

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. ***

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.

Sundanese Religion

Sundanese Islam incorporates many traditional beliefs in spirits and agricultural rituals. Over the last few decades there has been an effort to purify the religion and expunge these elements and give non-Muslim rituals Muslim names and contexts. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

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. [Source: ***]

Although it is impossible to know for sure what early Sundanese beliefs were, the best indications are found in the oldest epic poems (Wawacan) and among the remote Baduy tribe. The Baduy call their religion Sunda Wiwitan [earliest Sundanese]. Not only are the Baduy 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 Baduy 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. ***

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. ***

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 Baduy which relate to all the important aspects of the life cycle ceremonies of the Sundanese people. ***

Sundanese Islam

As anthropologist Jessica Glicken observed, Islam is a particularly visible and audible presence in the life of the Sundanese. She reported that "[t]he calls to the five daily prayers, broadcast over loudspeakers from each of the many mosques in the city [Bandung], punctuate each day. On Friday at noon, sarong-clad men and boys fill the streets on their way to the mosques to join the midday prayer known as the Juma'atan which provides the visible definition of the religious community (ummah) in the Sundanese community." She also emphasized the militant pride with which Islam is viewed in Sundanese areas. "As I traveled around the province in 1981, people would point with pride to areas of particular heavy military activity during the Darul Islam period." [Source: Library of Congress *]

It is not surprising that the Sunda region was an important site for the Muslim separatist Darul Islam rebellion that began in the 1948 and continued until 1962. The underlying causes of this rebellion have been a source of controversy, however. Political scientist Karl D. Jackson, trying to determine why men did or did not participate in the rebellion, argued that religious convictions were less of a factor than individual life histories. Men participated in the rebellion if they had personal allegiance to a religious or village leader who persuaded them to do so. *

Spirts, Magic and Non-Islamic Elements of Sundanese Religion

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. [Source: ***]

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. ***

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. ***

Sundanese Marriage and Wedding Ceremony

Sundanese marriages were traditionally arranged but now are mostly love matches The marriage process begins when the grooms presents a gift to the bride’s parents and is sanctified with a Muslim ceremony. Many marriage rituals revolve around the rice goddess, Dewi Sri. Ideally couples live on their own after the wedding but few can afford this so they live with one or the other’s parents. Most child rearing is done by the mother.

According to “Some common practices from a traditional Sundanese (West Java) wedding ceremony:Welcoming the bridegroom ceremony: 1) The bridegroom is welcomed with the umbul-umbul, a decoration indicating that a wedding ceremony is going on, which is also auspicious for the bridegroom. 2) The welcome is followed by a procession of ladies with candles. They pray to the Almighty seeking His blessing in order that there maybe no hindrances in the ceremony. 3) The showering of flowers by the dancers is symbolic of a fragrant future for the couple. 4) The umbrella held over the couple's heads, apart from serving as a protective symbol, indicates esteem and respect. 5) The mother of the bride gives the bridegroom a garland of flowers indicating his acceptability to the family. 6)The mother of the bride gives the bridegroom a keris, a hidden message to the son-in-law not to be disheartened while toiling for his family. [Source: /~/]

During the wedding ceremony, the bride and groom are seated next to each other with a selendang or veil covering their heads indicating two people but having one mind. The bride and groom bend forward and kiss the knees of their parents, called sungkem, asking for forgiveness and blessing and reassuring them that they will continue to serve their parents. Sawer This ceremony should take place in front of the sawer or gargoyle. The water flowing from the gargoyle indicates the continuous flow of priceless parental love for their children./~/

The bride and groom are seated under an umbrella in front of the entrance to the house. There are two singers, a man and a woman, who sing on behalf of the parents. The song, called kidung, advises the couple to treat each other well, living in harmony, and serves as a prayer to the Almighty to bless the couple. /~/

Then the sawer is showered on the couple. It consists of: 1) Turmeric rice Rice is a sign of prosperity and yellow stands for everlasting love; 2) Coins Reminding the couple to share their wealth with the less fortunate; 3) Candy Indicates sweetness and fragrance throughout their marriage; 4) A betel nut set near the couple is a reminder that their different customs should not spoil their harmonious marriage.

Nincak Endog; Sundanese Egg-Breaking Wedding Ceremony

The Nincak Endog is the egg breaking ceremony at a Sundanese wedding. According to “The couple are required to stand facing each other in front of the entrance of the house. The bridegroom stands outside the entrance and the bride is inside the entrance. This ceremony is conducted by the lady in charge of the bridal makeup and serves as advice to the couple for their happiness and long wedded life.[Source: /~/]

The following items are used: 1) Harupat, seven broomsticks, are burnt and thrown away symbolizing the discarding of bad habits which endanger one. s married life. 2) An egg is broken, indicating that the groom will be the master of the house henceforth and the bride will serve him. 3) Ajug, seven candles, represents the direction the couple should follow to ensure a happy married life. 4) Elekon, hollow bamboo, which symbolizes emptiness. 5) Kendi, an earthen water jug filled with water, which stands for peace. 6) In the past, unmarried girls were not allowed to cross over logs. Here the bride is made to cross the log as a sign that she will always obey her husband. 7) The lady in charge of the ceremony gives the bride the harupat. The groom lights the harupat with the ajug. Then the flames are put out and the sticks are broken and thrown away. After the groom breaks the egg with his right foot, the bride cleans the groom's foot with the water from the kendi. Then the bride throws the kendi to break it. Then the couple are escorted to the house. The bride crosses the log and enters the house while the groom remains outside to perform the buka pintu ceremony. /~/

The Buka Pintu is a dialogue between the bride and groom in front of the house. However, they are represented by a couple who also sings for them. First, the couple knocks three times on the door, then enters into a dialogue whereby permission is requested by the groom to enter the bride's house. The bride consents on the condition that the groom will say the syahadat (confirming his Moslem faith). The song also solemnizes the importance of the nuptial ceremony. /~/

Huap Lingkung is symbolic of the last time the parents of the bride will feed their daughter. This is also the first dish prepared by the daughter in her new home. The dish consists of turmeric sticky rice with yellow spiced chicken on top of it. During the Patarik-Tarik Bakakak couple are given a barbecued spiced chicken. On hearing the word “go” from the lady conducting the ceremony, the couple has to pull the chicken apart. The one who gets the larger piece supposedly will bring in the larger share of the family fortune. This ceremony also serves to remind the couple to encourage each other to work hard together to gain good fortune. /~/

Sundanese Life

Sundanese villages tend to be larger than those of the Javanese, with 1,000 to more than 7,000 residences. Clusters of houses are divided by fields, which tend to be small and scattered. Sundanese houses different from those of the Javanese in that they are built on pilings. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Most Sundanese are wet-rice farmers, who are capable of producing up to three crops a year. Yam, vegetables, peanuts and soybeans are raised for consumption. Cash crops include corn, root crops, chili peppers and tobacco. Many Sundanese fish or practice fish farming. Water buffalo and cattle are for work and transportation. Landholdings tend to be too small to support their owners, who find jobs doing something else. Many trade, make handicrafts or work as farm laborers. ~

In Sundanese culture it is common that a nickname or name given later are integrated as the first name. For example someone is born with the name Komariah, Gunawan or Suryana written in their birth certificate. Later they acquire nicknames such as Kokom for Komariah, Gugun or Wawan for Gunawan, and Yaya or Nana for Suryana; as the result the nickname become the first name thus creating rhyming names such as Kokom Komariah, Wawan Gunawan, and Nana Suryana. [Source: Wikipedia]

Tali Paranti and the Meaning of Sundanese Life

Tali Paranti refers to the culture of the Sundanese and covers the meaning of a Sundanese person's life. Before a Sundanese is born, and until a thousand days after his/her death, there are some basic principles that must be applied. There are also some requests that have to be fulfilled. There are elements from the unnatural world (ghostly world) that affect every human being, and all of these factors are part of the Sundanese belief system. These beliefs hold a very strong value. Since time immemorable, before even having a knowledge of literature, the Sundanese were maintained by Tali Paranti. Until today, those beliefs still exist. A few changes have colored the Sundanese religion, but the principles are still the same. [Source: ***]

Tali Paranti explains the orientation of the two powerful rulers of the unnatural world, which has a huge impact on the natural world, the dwelling of human beings. The first is called Nu Kawasa. The Sundanese belief about Nu Kawasa probably has been changed somewhat, due to the influence of foreign religions. Nowadays, the original characteristics of Nu Kawasa are not clearly defined. However, the concept of Nu Kawasa's well-being is still around. Tali Paranti remains the power that governs human life. The goal of the Sundanese is Mulih ka jati, pulang ka asal (at death, you return to your original place). The Sundanese believe that they will have a place in the future world, and that Nu Kawasa will be the one who chooses this place for them. ***

The function of Tali Paranti is to organize the life cycle of the Sundanese. The life cycle's ceremonies start before one is born and continue until the thousandth day after one's death. Out of all the life cycle ceremonies, the most important is circumcision for men and marriage for women. Circumcision is ranked first, followed by marriage. In these ceremonies, Dewi Sri (See Below) holds a vital position.

Sundanese Arts and Music

The Sundanese are fond of clothes made of batik with bright colors. Batik cloth varies enormously in artistry, elaboration, quality, and cost. Formal occasions require that Javanese, Sundanese and Balinese women wear whole cloths wrapped ornately to form a skirt.

Mournful Sundanese "kecapi" music has origins which can be traced back to the early civilizations that lived in this part of Java. The music is named after a lute-like instrument called the kecap, which has a very unusual sound. The Sundanese are regarded as expert instrument makers who get a good sound out of almost anything. Other traditional Sundanese instruments include the “suling”, a soft-tines bamboo flute, and the “angklung”, a cross between a xylophone and made from bamboo.

Sundanese gamelan from southwest Java highlights the “rehad”, “kendang” a large two-headed barrel drum), “kempul”, “bonang rincik” (a set of ten pot-shaped gongs) and “panerus” (a set of seven pot-shaped gongs), “saron”, and “sinden” (singer). Jaipongan is a percussion-based music using instruments from the Sundanese gamelan, particularly the “rehad” and “kendang”. It has a strange but danceable 16- or 32-beat rhythm, marked by a one-note gong, and no discernable Western influence.

Wayang Golek

“Wayang golek” (wayang klitik) is like wayang kulit except the puppets are carved in relief and used without a screen. The three-dimensional puppets are carved from wood and elaborately painted and costumed. They have movable heads and arms and are manipulated with rods by a puppeteer below the stage. Many of the stories are the same Hindu ones used in Wayang Gulik but some are also inspired by Islamic stories.

“Wayang golek” is particularly popular in West Java and is associated with the Sundanese ethnic group. It is regarded as more populist and artheri than wayang kulit. It has traditionally been performed in Sundanese, the language of southwest Java. The puppets are often elaborately crafted. Some of the newer ones can stick out their tongue. Philip Kennicott wrote in the Washington Post, “They are extraordinary works of art even when inanimate; in the hands of a dalang their rudimentary motions take on exceptional subtlety. They strut and mope, bean each other on the head a lot, and enact complex stories while all the time swaying, just a little bit, rather like people on the edge of a dance floor.”

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Wayang golek is a still popular form of rod puppetry, which, according to tradition, was invented by a Javanese Muslim ruler in the late sixteenth century. Its main repertoire is derived from the Menak cycle, dealing with the Muslim hero Amir Hamzah. Local variants of wayang golek have evolved in various parts of Java. The tradition is strongest in West Java, where it has been used in performing the stock repertoire of wayang purwa, that is, the Ramayana, the Mababbarata, as well as local tales, and the East Javanese Adventures of Prince Panji. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“Wayang golek uses a set of 60–70 puppets, which do not always portray specific characters, but stock types, the puppets thus being interchangeable. The heads and arms are carved three-dimensionally in wood, and the lower part of the body is covered by a batik sarong, beneath which the dalang operates the rod that makes the puppet’s head turn. He uses his other hand to manipulate the rods for the arms and hands. There is no screen, the dalang, the orchestra, and the singers all being visible to the audience.”**

Wayang Cepak

“Wayang Cepak” is a style of wayang golek practiced in West Java. It is a dying form practiced mostly around Cirebon. It has been around for at least 700 years, making it one of the oldest continuously performed forms of theater in the world, and is known for its distinctive style of carving.

Describing a Wayang Cepak show presided over by a dalang named Warsad Darya, Jamie James wrote in the New York Times, "The stage, a pair of stout banana trees, was flanked by a brilliant array of 130 puppets, all carved and painted by Warsad. They were costumed in lustrous silk and satin, and adorned with glittering spangles, bugles and beads. A fluorescent tube, mounted on a beam overhead and shaded by a pink curtain, cast a soft light. From the beam dangled offerings to the ancient pre-Muslim gods of Java: pineapples, pumpkins, passion fruit, bottles of soda and beer, cigarettes." [Source: Jamie James, New York Times, March 26, 2000]

"After a clangorous overture, a 15-year-old girl came out in front of the stage and impersonated several characters from the wayang, wearing masks and scarves and moving with grace or heavy-limbed power, as the character demanded....Then Warsad, seated in the floor behind the stage began to work his magic: no other word suffices. The puppets floated across he stage, their heads and arms manipulated from below by slender rods. An aristocratic lady rushed into view, tossing her head fretfully and flailing her arms as the dalang crooned her cry of distress...A handsome prince entered, strutting purposely, his virile confident voice offering her solace. One by one the characters were introduced and planted in their places, carrying on complex conversations, punctuated by songs, which propel an enormously complicated plot." [Ibid]

Early Sundanese Mythology - Origin of Dewi Sri

Another power held in high esteem by the Sundanese is Dewi Sri—the goddess of rice and fertility, closely associated with the Hindu goddess Lakshmi as both are attributed to wealth and family prosperity. Dewi Sri’s stature is revealed in importance she holds in Sundanese ceremonies. One myth that is very well known by the Sundanese is Nyi Pohaci Sanghiang Sri, a story about origin Dewi Sri. Once upon a time in the heavens, the Batara Guru commanded all the gods and goddesses to contribute their power in order to build a new palace. Anybody who disobeyed this commandment would lose his or her head. Upon hearing the Batara Guru's commandment, one of the gods, Anta, was very anxious. He didn't have arms or legs, and he wasn't sure how he could possibly do the job. Anta was shaped as a snake and he couldn't work. He sought advice from one of his friends, but unfortunately his friend was also confused by Anta's bad luck. Anta became very upset and cried. [Source: Wawacan Sulanjana, ***]

As he was crying, three teardrops fell to the ground. Amazingly, after touching the ground those teardrops became three eggs. His friend advised him to offer those eggs to the Batara Guru, hoping that he would give a fair judgement. With the three eggs in his mouth, Anta went to the Batara Guru's palace. On the way there, he was approached by a black bird who asked him a question. He couldn't answer because of the eggs in his mouth, but the bird thought that Anta was being arrogant. It became furious and began to attack Anta, and as a result one egg was shattered. Anta quickly tried to hied in the bushes, but the bird was waiting for him. The second attack left Anta with only one egg to offer to the Batara Guru. ***

Finally, he arrived at the palace and offered his teardrop (in the shape of an egg) to the Batara Guru. The offer was accepted and the Batara Guru asked him to nest the egg until it hatched. Miraculously, the egg hatched into a very beautiful girl. He gave the baby girl to the Batara Guru and his wife. Nyi Pohi Sanghian Sri was her name, and she grew up into a beautiful princess, becoming more and more beautiful as the days passed by. As her beauty grew, every man who saw her became attracted to her. Even her stepfather, the Batara Guru, started to feel an attraction toward her. Seeing the Batara Guru's new attitude toward Nyi Pohaci, all the gods became so worried about the situation that they conspired to separate Nyi Pohaci and the Batara Guru. To keep the peace in the heavens, and to maintain Nyi Pohaci's good name, all the gods planned for her death. She was poisoned and her body buried on earth in a hidden place. But the graveyard was to hold a strange sign, for at the time of her burial, up grew a very useful plant that would forever benefit all human beings. From her eyes grew the plant that is called padi (rice paddy). ***

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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