javanese adat past_ present_ and future

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					Javanese Adat: Past, Present, and Future


       The Javanese cultural system can be described as “an unwritten, traditional code

governing all aspects of personal conduct from birth to death” (

This code of behavior is composed of group norms that are formalized into a body of

customary law described as Adat (Leinbach, 307.) This paper will focus upon the birth

and foundations of Adat, the customs currently practiced, and the changes that may occur

in the future for Adat and the Javanese people. Javanese Adat is roughly translated as

“custom,” or “tradition” and it “represents the center of traditional Javanese identity”

( in many different aspects of their culture.

       Two types of Adat, Adat Perpateh and Adat Temenggong, came into practice

around the 15th century. Prior to the 15th century, other more informal types of Adat

existed as well. Adat Perpateh generally emphasized law based on group responsibility.

Crime and punishment were highly stressed as well. “Criminal or civil offenses were not

differentiated, punishment stressed compensation rather than retribution, a crime was

absolved by payment in kind or by a reconciliation feast given to the aggrieved person,

and payment was enforced by community pressure” Mutilation and death penalties were

rarely invoked, and acceptance of circumstantial evidence was a prominent feature

( “Contrary to Adat Perpateh, Adat Temenggong was bilaterally

based between different societies, and consisted of a mixture of Hindu law and native

custom. It implemented civil, criminal, constitutional, and maritime law. Adat

Temenggong also

invoked the practice of

torture, amputation, and

even death as

punishment for



In order to better

understand the complex culture of the Javanese people, it is important to initially focus

on various characteristics of their environment. The Javanese people‟s surroundings

shape and influence many aspects of their culture. The climate of Java is generally hot

                                                                          and humid

                                                                          throughout the

                                                                          year. Maximum

                                                                          temperatures are

                                                                          found in the

plains along the northern coast, and in the mountains it is cooler (

The northwest monsoon season, occurring from November to March, is rainy and cloudy.

Annual rainfall at Jakarta averages about 69 inches ( In

comparison, the annual rainfall in Ohio averages about 40 inches. In contrast, the

southeast monsoon season, from April to October, brings some rain but is usually sunny.

Java‟s soil is highly fertile due to enriching volcanic ash from the island‟s numerous

volcanoes. Fertile soil is also quite conducive for numerous and diverse plant life.

“Java‟s forest composition contains more than 5,000 species of plants”

( Rainforests envelop Java‟s mountain slopes, and bamboo forests

flourish in the west. In addition, Java contains many different species of trees and fruit.

Teak, Rasamala, Casuarina, the Sago Palm, and the Banyan tree are very common. In

addition, fruits such as bananas, mangos, and other Asian fruit varieties grow in


       Amidst the diverse vegetation, people living in Java and Indonesia appear equally

as diverse. In Indonesia, there are three major ethnic groupings. The dominant first

group consists of the Javanese, Sundanese, and Madurese. “The Javanese constitute

approximately 70 percent of Java's population and live primarily in the central and

eastern portions of the island” ( The Sundanese live mainly in the

west and the Madurese live in the east and on Madura Island. All three groups speak

Malay languages, and most are Muslims ( The second grouping,

composed of Islamic coastal peoples, is incredibly diverse, and includes the Malays from

Sumatra and the Makasarese. The third grouping consists of tribal peoples such as the

Toraja and Dayak. These groups are generally isolated and have developed a wide range

of cultures ( Many of these groups practice various forms of

Adat.Ethnic groups such as the Javanese possess their own unique cultural systems that

influence every aspect of their lives. For example, Javanese Adat can be found in their

agricultural production. The Javanese harvest seven basic crops: Wet rice, corn, cassava,

soybeans, dry rice, peanuts, and sweet potatoes. Wet rice remains the staple in

agricultural production, and as a primary source of food for the Javanese. Cultivated land

includes the sawah, or irrigated land, and tegal, or unirrigated land (

                                                                     Sawah, which

                                                                     accounts for 42% of

                                                                     the land in Java, is the

                                                                     only area in which

                                                                     wet rice can be

                                                                     grown. It is of

                                                                     Javanese custom to

                                                                     engage in the

agricultural technique, “multiple cropping”. This technique allows for greater efficiency

and higher production of agricultural goods. Two major crop combinations used in Java

are wet rice-


and wet rice-


soybeans. The

Adat tradition

of rice

harvesting was

traditionally run by women using a small hand knife. Now this technique is being widely

replaced by harvesting with a sickle, using contracted male laborers

( Women used to pound the rice, though small rice mills have

slowly replaced this technique. The introduction of tractors has also changed the face of

Javanese agriculture as well. In addition to these changes, the Javanese have been

experiencing a growing number of “pest and disease problems, caused by excessive

pesticide use and by the widespread, asynchronous planting of a limited number of rice

varieties” (    Rice is so highly valued in their culture that many

Javanese look down upon other crops, believing them to be only fit for the poor. “Such

dependence on a single staple food carries with it the risks of serious socioeconomic and

political problems should major crop failure occur” ( However,

the rice field is not the only site of food production in Indonesia. “Traditionally, a

significant proportion of each household's food is derived from the homegarden or

pekarangan, the cultivated land on the site where the house is built”

( Though agricultural production has undergone some

transformations, traditional harvesting methods, tools, and the Javanese value of rice

production has been maintained through the Adat system.

       Because rice production is so critical to the way of life in Java, religious practices

and beliefs are often related to Javanese agriculture. For example, the rice goddess Dewi

Sri (a Javanese version of Vishnu‟s wife) is an important part of fertility rites (Weekes.)

“A westerner may believe that a good harvest was the result of climatic conditions,

fertilizer, and pesticides. A Javanese farmer may just as surely believe that the harvest

was a result of following the properties and ceremonies to maintain harmony with nature”

(Whitfield.) This idea of harmony is present throughout much of the religious practice in

Java for it is the main foundation of Adat. The “Iata Tenteram,” or “peace and order in

harmony” is strongly emphasized in Javanese culture. This idea is best expressed by the

selamatan, a “religiously grounded common meal given by a villager to his neighbors and

associates on the occasion of critical or important moments in his life” (Geertz.) All

social classes in the village are invited to participate in the feasting. This celebration is

designed to restore balance in the community or slamet, well being. The Javanese way of

life and events like the selamatan are firmly grounded in religious belief.

        Astounding amalgamation and syncretism of religious practice exists in Java. The

Javanese have combined various aspects of Animism, Mysticism, Hinduism, Buddhism,

and Islam. The selamatan, for example, contains an animistic background. Animism, the

original religion of Java, is a major part of Javanese cosmology and is associated with the

belief that “man is surrounded by spirits and deities, apparitions and mysterious super-

natural forces” (Geertz.) The Javanese believe that unless proper precautions are taken to

ward off such spirits, disaster may occur. “Javanese folktales frequently revolve around

humans possessed by the spirits, and the control of “unbalances” caused within or among

men by the unseen magical world” (Geertz.) Control of unbalances is often considered

the ultimate purpose of Adat. “Frozen-faced unmoving placidity and self control called

“kaprawiran” among the Javanese is considered the cultural ideal that is equally related to

this animistic origin” (Geertz.)

        Numerous forms of mysticism can be found in Java as well. The components of

mysticism are highly correlated with animistic ritual. Mysticism is often demonstrated

through other formalized religions, such as Hinduism and Islam. An early form of

Javanese religious belief was Ratu Adil, or “just king.” Ratu Adil was an idea that

formed as a natural reaction toward suffering and represents the hope for a leader that

would bring peace and harmony to the Javanese. It emerged as a natural reaction toward

the Javanese way of life, etiquette, and emphasis on harmony, the foundations of Adat in

other words (Yewangoe, 233.) Hinduism arrived in Java around the 5th century,

influencing the Javanese belief system further, including the foundations of Ratu Adil.

The Hindu ideas of the four cyclical periods were incorporated into Ratu Adil as well as

the idea of Javanese rulers being “divine incarnations of Vishnu.” Artistic expressions,

such as the Wayang Kulit, were affected as well. Buddhism was influential, though its

practice has become less popular, especially since the arrival of Islam. About one

thousand years later, Islam arrived in Java. In present day Java, according to



Geertz, there

exist three

main groups

of Muslims: The Abangan, Santri, and Priyayi. Around 90% of Javanese people identify

as one of these three types of Muslims. The Abangan are nominal Muslim and constitute

approximately 75% of the total number of Javanese Muslims (Geertz.) They are

generally lower class people, mostly peasants and laborers. Geertz describes the

Abangan as “an expression of Javanese syncretism.” The Abangan tend to neglect the

basic rituals of Islam. They do not pray five times per day, fast during Ramadhan, or go

to the holy city of Mecca (Geertz.) They generally focus more upon animistic belief than

the Holy Koran. Santri, the second group, which constitutes around 5-10% of the

population (Geertz), is comprised of devout Muslims who strictly adhere to Islamic

doctrine. They are associated with the trades and ardent students of Islam (Geertz.) The

third group, the Priyayi, stress neither animistic beliefs nor Islamic beliefs. This group

consists of nobles, gurus, bureaucrats, and professionals. They tend to focus upon

Hinduistic elements and “their lives are characterized by intuitive mysticism” (Geertz.)

The multi-faceted aspects

of Islam co-existing in Java

and the syncretism of ideas

can be attributed to

Javanese Adat. “For

centuries, the Javanese

have emphasized the

outward harmonious and

peaceful relationship

between men”

(Koentjaraningrat.) Adat allowed the Javanese people to recognize a multiplicity of ideas

and beliefs. Often, religious beliefs and artistic expressions are highly inter-connected

                                within Javanese culture. An example can be found in

                                Wayang Kulit, or “shadow puppet theatre” serves as a

                                spiritual experience for the Javanese in order to become

                                closer to god and the spirit realm. Originally, the

                                Wayang Kulit was formed as a ritual designed to evoke

the ancestors (Stutterheim.) and is closely related to Javanese Adat. The Wayang is

usually performed after important events in the community such as a wedding,

circumcision, birth, or an epidemic in the human or animal population. The performance

usually takes place in the evening and the Dalang, the puppeteer or spirit medium,

performs for nine hours straight. Themes of the Wayang Kulit usually involve characters

from the Hindu Mahabharata primarily, and the Ramayana as well. A Gamelan

orchestra, providing interesting musical interludes between the Dalang‟s breaks,

accompanies the show. A Dalang may use up to 80 different leather bound, ornately

decorated puppets in one night. The Wayang also represents several important Gods in

the stories told. The most important Gods that appear are Batara Guru, and Semar

(Stutterheim.) Batara Guru, also known as “the divine master” is a representation of

Siwa, or Shiva. He has four arms, and stands on a bull. He also represents fertility and

destruction. Semar, Guru‟s brother, is endowed with great powers and is much more

ambiguous than Batara Guru since he generally speaks through allusion and indistinct

words (Stutterheim.) Semar appears in nearly every performance of the Wayang, usually

as a servant of the Pandawas, and is a central figure to the Javanese. The Javanese hold

Semar in high regard due to his perfection of Adat behavior. Semar is portrayed in the

Wayang Kulit as a gender-less, potbellied, unattractive creature that speaks modestly and

humbly at all times. Interestingly, Semar possesses the greatest powers of all. The

balance between humility and extreme power, and the unification and harmony of

opposites is fundamental according to Javanese Adat. Not only is Semar a symbol for

ideal Adat behavior, he represents the logical Javanese approach to the universe, or the

O-Locus, as well. Other important characters found in the Wayang Kulit are several of

the Pandawa brothers: Yudistira, Bima, and Arjuna. Arjuna especially depicts Javanese

Adat ideology. He is portrayed as handsome like a god, and his conquests are numerous

yet he remains humble and softly spoken. He has the ability to “control his passions and

impulses perfectly, a fundamental feature of Javanese philosophy” (Stutterheim.)

       Adat not only represents a critical aspect of religious and artistic practices, it plays

a role in the function of Javanese law and legal systems as well. Political power in Java

was historically deployed through a “patrimonial bureaucratic state in which proximity to

the ruler was the key to command and rewards” ( Historically, the

most prominent kingdoms of Java were Mataram and Majapahit. Mataram existed

around 880-1050 AD during the apex of Airlangga‟s rule. Airlangga, known as the

unifying king, represented and endorsed many ideals of Javanese Adat, such as religious

tolerance, and harmony between different belief systems.

He promoted the arts and literature, and was seen by

the Javanese people as an incarnation of the Hindu

god Vishnu. The cycles of his life represented the

ideal Hindu and Javanese way of being, in

coordination with the four quadrants. For example,

he meditated for 19 years (Quadrant I), fought a

series of battles (Quadrant II), became king and consolidated power (Quadrant III), and

transitioned back into the spirit realm to meditate (Quadrant IV.) In coordination with

Adat values, he humbly retired from kingship to pursue a life of meditation. Even in

modern times, political culture in Java still contains trace elements of Adat.

Bureaucratically, Javanese culture is suffused with an attitude of obedience. The

Javanese emphasize conformity to hierarchical authority, and avoidance of confrontation,

all characteristics of Adat and the traditional Javanese courts ( In

recent times, it seems that in order to maintain the syncretic melting-pot of belief systems

apparent in Java, the Javanese have turned to more secular political parties such as

Sukarno's Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI), the PKI, and Golkar rather than Islamic

political parties. In present day Java, “there exists a variety of subcultures: bureaucratic,

military, intellectual, commercial, literary, and artistic, each with its own criteria for

judging politics, but all directed to the successful operation of the modern Javanese

political system” ( On a smaller scale, most Javanese Adat villages in

the early 1990s “were differentiated into smaller units known as either rukun kampong, a

village mutual assistance association, or rukun tetangga, a neighborhood association”

( Rukun is considered both as a "state of being and a mode of

action.... a state in which all parties are at least overtly at social peace with one another,"

according to anthropologist Robert Jay "a process of sharing through collective action”

( The foundations of Adat are fundamental to the establishment of

social order, harmony, and collective communal responsibility of Javanese villages.

       Beyond politics, Javanese villagers practice Adat within many aspects of their

daily lives. Adat influences the Javanese‟s social stratification, language, ways of dress,

family structure, gender roles, and marriage arrangements. “In terms of social

stratification, the Javanese distinguish between two broad social levels: the wong cilik,

and the priyayi, the high-class society” ( The wong cilik consist of

peasants and the lower classes, and the priyayi are comprised of civil servants,

intellectuals, and the aristocracy. The aristocracy maintains greater emphasis on certain

aspects of Javanese Adat such as refined manners, and self-control. “Javanese society is

relatively open and socially mobile” ( Peasants are able to move upward,

by way of education, into white-collar governmental positions ( Social

mobility minimizes unrest and dissatisfaction among the lower class, thus promoting

harmony and peace among the Javanese people. This stratification is quite apparent in

the Javanese language.

       Since Adat greatly emphasizes proper etiquette, many of these rules center on the

proper use of language ( In fact, the Javanese use nine different types,

or levels, of speech. Each level is based upon your status, and the status of the person to

whom you are speaking. “Such speech levels comprise words that have the same

meaning but are stylistically different” ( The function of Adat in

Javanese culture is demonstrated by the varying levels of formality and informality used

to bestow respect in regular conversation. Furthermore, the Javanese way of dress follows

a traditional way of politeness, or propriety. Traditional Javanese attire involves formal

and informal dress for men and women, though there is much variation between different

groups of people in Java. Generally, for a man‟s formal dress, a shirt is worn made out of

intricately and artfully designed Batik cloth. Batik shirts are worn with leather shoes, and

always with socks ( Traditionally, women wore strapless

attire called kemben. Now women‟s formal dress usually constitutes of a kebaya, or

jarik, which are v-necked, and collarless.

        Marriage arrangements, and family structure are influenced by Adat as well.

The following is a depiction of a traditional Javanese wedding, or Panggih ceremony:

       “The bridegroom, accompanied by his close relatives (but not his parents who

       are not allowed to be present during the ritual), arrives at the house of the bride's

                                             parents and stops at the gate of the house. The

                                             bride, accompanied by two elderly women,

                                             walks out of the bridal room. Her parents and

                                             close relatives walk behind her. Preceding the

                                             bride are two young girls, Patah, holding a fan.

                                             Two elderly women or two young boys are

                                             carrying   two    Kembar     Mayang     (bouquet

                                             ornament). One woman from the bridegroom's

                                             family walks forward and gives a Sanggan (a

                                             gift in the form of banana fruits and flowers put

                                             in a tray covered with banana leaves) to the

       mother of the bride, as a sign of appreciation to the hostess of the ceremony.

       During the Panggih ceremony, the Kembar Mayang are brought outside the

       house and thrown away in a crossroad nearby the house, depicting all evil spirits

       should not disturb the ceremony in the house and its surrounding area”(

To the Javanese, marriage is meant to establish a new, nuclear, and autonomous

household. Marriage is highly significant to the Javanese because it represents new

growth, and the unification of opposites (male and female.) Within the family structure,

“kinship ties are traditionally reckoned through both the mother and father equally. Upon

marriage, the nuclear family of the mother, father, and children is more or less

independent” ( There exist no clans or lineages within a Javanese

village. Due to high competition between the males of the family, “sons tend to treat

their fathers with great formality and deference” ( The average

Javanese family lives in a standardized house, with rooms separated by woven bamboo or

wood plank dividers. “The husband, wife, and baby sleep in one sleeping chamber, and

older children sleep in other rooms” (

       In the typical village, the gender roles and status of women may be related to

Adat. The status of women in Javanese society is much more favorable than in other

Asian countries, and much of the world as well. “Javanese women contribute to the

household economy by earning income from wages, trading, and agricultural activities”

( Many Javanese women are economically independent. “The typical

woman has no difficulty in supporting herself and her children, should she wish to”

(Geertz, 1961). Women are able to own and control their own land. "Strong-willed men

may have a relationship of equal partnership with their wives, but families actually

dominated by the man are exceedingly rare" (Geertz 1961, 45). In Java, “the position of

women within society was viewed as no different from that of men, and women were

frequently found in positions of military and political leadership” ( The

high status of women in Java is linked to the agricultural system. Since men and women

were both involved equally in the farming work, the status of women was elevated.

Because Adat focuses upon the union of opposites, it seems as if women are considered

an opposite to men, and men an opposite to women, therefore making each side equal,

balanced, and living in harmony with one another.

       Though the success of women is apparent, the majority of Adat communities in

Java living in poverty appear even more obvious. There are at least three basic causes of

poverty in Adat communities. First is the problem of inadequate access, and

unavailability of facilities and services for fulfillment of basic needs. “The absence of

means for education and health services, and of roads, markets, clean water, and other

services are regarded as a reflection of a low quality of life” ( Second,

socio-cultural problems that include values and behavior inhibit the improvement of

community life. “Low work ethics, consumptive behavior, and short-term outlook are

some values said to reflect a culture of poverty” ( Third, structural

problems such as policies and regulations do not benefit Adat communities. It is believed

that “poverty is not derived from Adat communities, but from external groups that control

the wider system” ( It is often injustice in the system that hinders the

success of Adat communities. “An Adat community is not poor, but is made poor. The

problem is not poverty, but impoverishment” (

       Impoverishment in Java can be traced back to the arrival of European legal

systems. The arrival of European legal systems and economic changes caused Javanese

Adat law to diminish in power. The arrival of Europeans in Java resulted in trade similar

to Chinese and Indian practice. The Portuguese settled and began to control trade in the

Moluccas, commonly exporting Java‟s minerals and spices. “During the next two

centuries, the Dutch increased their presence in Java. Eventually the Dutch East India

Company came to be a dominant force in Java during the 17th and 18th centuries”

(Leinbach, 310.) The result of this colonization of Java inevitably led to the exploitation

and extortion of the Javanese people. The Dutch extracted raw materials such as rubber,

oil, sugar, and spices at a very minimal cost. “The development of indigenous economic

activity was suppressed” (Leinbach, 310.) The “Culture System” implemented by the

Dutch was introduced to make the colony more profitable. “It was essentially a system of

forced labor [that] generated great wealth for the Dutch” ( Through

this system, education, and health programs were not extended and the rights of the

Javanese people were greatly limited. Javanese Adat law, and Adat communities were

subjugated and suppressed. In 1942, the stranglehold of Dutch rule was broken, and in

1945, the countries of Indonesia declared their independence. Following the war of

liberation against the Dutch, The Old Order under President Sukarno was established,

lasting two decades, followed by the New Order of President Suharto (Leinbach, 310.)

       Outside European influence is not the only factor in the changing face of Adat.

Much speculation focuses on the method in which Javanese Adat communities have

absorbed the arrival of Islam in Java. The earliest impact of Islam in Java was reflected

in the new formulation of Adat as the ideal pattern of behavior ( The real

“codification” of Adat began only with the introduction of the Arabic script.

Additionally, the logical foundation of the Adat formulation was also based on the

Islamic “logical law” ( Differing opinions relate in the way Adat has

been and will be affected by Islamic practice. Nonetheless, it is likely that Javanese Adat

will experience some changes from Islamic influence in the future. Several Javanese

writers stated that “Islam is complementary to adat, and the synthesis between Adat and

Islam is not like the combination of „water and milk‟ but like the „union of water and oil

in milk‟” ( They believe that the theoretically possible conflict between

Islam and Adat does not exist. “Many have even questioned the legitimacy of the

problem itself. According to Nasrun, a writer, “nature should be taken as the teacher,

while in the Koran there is a passage in which God indicates that He reveals some of His

secrets through nature” ( Nasrun argues that Islam is the perfection of

Adat, not just in a supernatural aspect but in the formulation of Adat itself

( Many Javanese believe that “Adat is based upon religion and religion is

based upon Adat” ( It appears that the Javanese have taken Islamic

practice and made it their own in many respects, resulting in the harmonious unification

of various belief systems.

       On the other side of the spectrum, it is apparent that Islam and Adat do conflict

over various issues. For example, disagreement is evident in certain aspects of political

action, and the treatment and status of women in Java. In opposition to Islamic political

parties, Javanese politics recently have turned toward the defensive, “seeking to preserve

its particular heterogenous practices from demands for Islamic orthodoxy”

( Consequently, rather than Islamic political parties, the Javanese

have turned to more secular parties. In fact, “most Javanese peasants….resist the

political connotations and universalism of Islam” ( Furthermore,

matrimony and the status of women, according to Adat rule, remains contradictory to

Islamic teachings. For example, the average Javanese person will say that “Muslim law

does not play any part at all [in Javanese matrimony,] only Adat prevails”

( Adat rule results in the equality between husband and wife, unlike

Islamic practice. They share equal rights to the land and have equal authority over their

children. Unlike Adat, the Muslim religious custom called the Shari‟at, among many

other rules, gives the husband “special privileges” such as repudiating his wife whenever

he sees fit ( However, the Shari‟at is often neglected in Java. Islamic

Shari‟at and Javanese Adat frequently conflict with one another, especially regarding

women‟s equality and power in Javanese society.

       In the end, it is difficult to determine how far a degree orthodox Islam will

influence Javanese society. On a political scale, it is possible that the Muslim Party in

Java will grow in power and create a gradual expansion of Islamic doctrine, including the

Shari‟at. In fact, recent trends in Javanese communities indicate that a greater number of

women cover their heads in Islamic fashion. This is a relatively new custom and

generally not associated with the traditional Adat system. In contrast, there remains

evidence that Java will continue to be a diverse and syncretic society, a nation tolerant of

many beliefs and cultures. At the core of this approach lies Adat, which permeates

through virtually every dimension of the Javanese way of life. Adat is present in Java‟s

agricultural production, religious practices, artistic expressions, marriage arrangements,

legal systems and politics, gender roles, family structure, and class stratification.

Furthermore, the Javanese perform Adat on a daily basis through their language and

manner of dress. Adat provides insight into the abject poverty so pervasive in Java, and

the outside forces of European influence that fostered such destitution. Regarding the

arrival of Islam, questions and speculation arise concerning the changes that may occur in

the future for Javanese Adat. It is believed that change in the modern Adat community is

inevitable, yet it is quite likely that the practice of Adat will continue far into the future,

and thus, maintain their diverse and syncretic society. The world will have to wait and

see just how this culture maintains its O-Locus.