Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country, and home to a diversity of both recognized and unofficial religions. A secular state whose constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the massive archipelago has been become dominated by non-native religions over the centuries. It’s home to a unique strain of Hinduism and interesting fusions of ancient beliefs with more established theologies.
Over 200 million Islamic adherents populate Indonesia, 99 percent of whom are Sunni. There are six official religions recognized by the government — Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. There are a number of minor religions as well, including Sikhism and ancient native belief systems.
Indonesia’s main religions were all brought to the country by outsiders. Arab Muslim traders entered the country as early as the 8th century, and the religion was being spread by scholars and missionaries by the end of the 13th century. Hinduism appears to have arrived in the first century. Two major theories are that South Indian sea traders brought Hinduism with them, and that Indonesian royalty welcomed Indian religions and culture, and spread these spiritual ideas to their subjects. Buddhism is the second oldest religion in Indonesia, arriving around the sixth century via trading activity on the maritime Silk Road between Indonesia and India. Similarly, Confucianism was brought by Chinese merchants in the 3rd century. The two Christian religions arrived with Europeans - Catholicism with Portuguese spice traders in the early 1500s, and Protestantism with the Dutch East India Company and Lutheran missionaries in the 1800s.
The rise in Islamic prevalence also began through trading. Indonesia's historical religious inhabitants were animists, Hindus, and Buddhists. When the mighty Javanese Majapahit Empire began to decline in the 15th century, foreign Muslim traders and the Malacca Sultanate of the Malay Peninsula began to dominate the region. By the end of the 16th century, Islam had become the main religion in Java and Sumatra. The remaining Hindu population existed in small numbers in Eastern Java, Bali, and Lombok. Hindu rituals and traditions were absorbed into this new Islamic culture. The culture continued to grow and expand, and fully integrated into the political system. Post-Indonesian independence, there was great upheaval and advancement in society due to increased education and freedom. While many pushed for an Islamic code of law, Indonesia adopted a civil code in respect of the diversity of its people. Today, there are ongoing tensions between the more conservative strains found in the Aceh Province and the more moderate practitioners in the rest of the country.
Major worship centers include the Baiturrahman Grand Mosque in Banda Aceh city, Aceh Province. Considered a symbol and landmark of the religion, culture, spirit, struggle, and nationalism of the Acehnese people, it notably survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The Great Mosque of Palembang is the main mosque of Palembang, the capital of South Sumatra, and is the largest mosque in South Sumatra. The Great Mosque of Malang is located in Malang, East Java. Built in 1890, it is one of the oldest mosques in Indonesia.
Islam spread on the island of Lombok from the 16th to 17th centuries, either via traders from Sumbawa or a religious missionary. Records from this time are not clear. What is clear is that an orthodox version of the religion did not catch on. Instead, it absorbed elements of the ruling Balinese Hinduism and local animist religions, evolving into the unique worship known as Wektu Telu, which means “three times.” It’s differentiated from traditional Islam by the frequency of prayer (three times daily as opposed to five times). Wetu Telu has survived numerous attempts to destroy or absorb it by other sects. It has essentially been driven underground, and is practiced by approximately 30,000 or so Sasak living in isolated northern and southern areas of Lombok today. While the Wektu Telu consider themselves Muslim, orthodox Muslims consider them heretics.
Wektu Telu practitioners believe that the spirit world ancestors have power to influence the present and that Mount Rinjani is a holy home for god. They also only believe in three pillars of Islam instead of the traditional five — faith, prayer, and self-purification via Ramadan fasting. Traditional magic is practiced to ward off evil and illness and to seek solutions to disputes.
Wektu Telu mosques are the oldest mosques in Lombok. The main one is the 17th-century Bayan Beleq Mosque in Bayan, Northern Lombok. It is regarded as the central sanctuary for all North Lombok Wektu Telu Muslims. Wektu Telu mosques are built of traditional materials with a multi-tiered pyramid-style thatched alang-alang roof supported with four main posts.
More traditional orthodox Islam increased in popularity in Lombok by the beginning of the twentieth century. This sect, Waktu Lima (five times), was considerably more conservative and dedicated to wiping out Wektu Telu. Today, almost all Sasak villages adhere to this strain of orthodox Islam, which of late has been making more overtones against Western tourism to Lombok. Indeed, the Indonesian government has begun promoting Lombok as a sort of Sharia tourism destination, with non-Muslims not allowed in certain areas.
Following the rise of Islam at the fall of the Majapahit Empire, many Javanese Hindu leaders migrated to Bali, reinforcing its status as the Hindu stronghold of Indonesia. Balinese Hinduism is a distinctly unique form of Hindu worship incorporating animism, ancestor worship, and reverence for Buddhist saints.
The origins of Balinese Hinduism, known as Agama Hindu Dharma, can be traced back to the 1st century, as traders brought the religion to Java and then to Bali. Owing to its isolated location, Bali held onto its faith even as larger islands converted to Buddhism and then Islam. The influence of animistic beliefs strengthened the Balinese conceit that the gods and goddesses are present in all things. The principal gods of Balinese Hinduism are Brahma, the God of Creation; Wisnu, the God of Providence; and Siwa, the God of Dissolution. Balinese Hinduism observes the concept of Tri Hita Karana, which emphasizes creating and keeping a harmonious relationship between humans and God as well as humans and nature.
This Hindu sect’s practice is deeply interwoven with art and ritual. Colorful ceremonies with gamelan music occur regularly for holy days, cycles of the moon, temple festivals, and holidays. The most important festival is Galungan, the celebration of the triumph of dharma over adharma, when the spirits of the dead descend from heaven and return ten days later on Kuningan. Nyepi, or the Day of Silence, is the start of the Balinese New Year, and usually falls in March. Other unique rituals and festivals include funerals followed by cremations, cockfights, and tooth filings. Each temple anniversary, as well as festivals and family events such as weddings, include flowers, offerings, towering bamboo decorations, and a procession.
Major Balinese worship sites include the spectacular sea temples of Uluwatu Temple and Tanah Lot, built as part of a protective ring around the island to protect it from evil spirits. While Uluwatu Temple sits on high cliffs overlooking the sea, Tanah Lot literally sits on a giant stone surrounded by the sea. Besakih Temple is The Mother Temple of Bali Hindus. It’s 3,280 feet (1000 m) tall and sits on the southwestern slopes of the holy volcano Mount Agung. A complex of 23 temples spread across a series of parallel ridges, it’s the only Balinese temple open to Hindus of all castes. Home to scenic views and impressive ancient architecture, it is popular with both religious pilgrims and tourists year round.
A key link between Hinduism and Islam can be found in Lombok at Pura Lingsar Temple. Lombok’s holiest temple site is a symbol religious unity between Lombok’s Balinese Hindu population and the followers of Wektu Telu. The temple is divided in half, with large worship areas and shrines for each religion, and is the home to an annual festival.
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