Thursday, January 26, 2012

Revisting Gunung Tujuh: The Political Ecology of Forest Encroachment

A couple of days ago I made my way back to Gunung Tujuh, the site of several villages bordering on Kerinci Seblat National Park.  I'd previous visited the villages a few months back and had been meaning to return, but the sabotage of the reforestration project I discussed in a previous post gave me immediate cause to make a repeat visit (1).  As it turns out, somebody (or more likely, somebodies) took an industrial sprayer filled with herbicide to 500 hectares of tree seedlings, destroying approximately 1/3 of the 1500 hectare project.  I wanted to find out who was responsible or at least why they did it, so I scheduled a meeting with some of the village heads.

I had a number of questions prepared for the village heads.  I wanted to know about how land is managed in the villages.  I also wanted to learn about social aspects of the villages, including the education system.  I was curious about the history of the villages and wanted to hear their take on the conflicts with the park, since these villages have a particularly contentious history with the park authorities.  I learned that the villages were founded back in the 1960s and were originally settled by people moving out of more crowded areas of Kerinci Valley.  At that time there was no national park, and the Basic Forestry law, which gave the central government formal authority over all forested areas in Indonesia, had not yet been passed.  Thus at that time migrating villagers, at least in this part of Sumatra, were free to open up new land for cultivation, as they'd been doing for hundreds of years previously.

I learned a great deal talking to the village heads.  They were happy to talk to me about their troubles with the park and seemed glad that someone was paying attention to them.  We talked about population dynamics, including birthrates and in/outmigration.  We talked about schools and educational opportunties (or lack thereof)  We also talked about the life of a farmer in here in the hills.  All of the folks I spoke with felt that they were being treated unfairly by the park, while at the same time they didn't feel like anyone in the regional government was interested in their plight.  One of the village officials I spoke with told me that, before the park was officially designated, the members of the village met with representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture to map out where the borders of the park ought to go.  They went so far as to physically construct border markers on the ridge behind their ladangs (cultivated fields).  According to the story, though, the park's planners had different ideas and drew the borders in such a way that 60% of the villages' cultivated land would fall inside the park's boundaries.

Then I headed to one of the small dry goods shops in the middle of one of the villages.  As a foreigner in remote Sumatra I always draw a lot of attention from people that are milling about.  People gather around because they are curious and want to know what I'm up to and where I'm from, and it's always a friendly interaction.  At the same time this is a good way for me to get information as to what's going on in the area and how people are doing.  I figured maybe I'd get the scuttlebutt on the aforementioned forest sabotage, but the topic didn't come up, though we did have a pretty good conversation about how women are like the weather.  Maybe next time.  But I did learn enough to formulate a theory as to why forest encroachment is so problematic in this area.

Political Ecology?

Scale Diagram from Wilson, 2009 (see refs)
My little branch of geography is called "political ecology"  This subfield attempts to figure out the connection between social, economic, and political processes and on the ground change.  Political ecologists are generally skeptical of simple answers to environmental problems.  For example, around here the common explanation for why people encroach into the national park, or why they illegally cut down trees, is that they are hungry.  I call this the "imperative of the stomach".  But if we see this as a problem that needs to be addressed, we need to think about why people are hungry, and why are they pushed into difficult situations.  One of the main questions political ecologists ask is how processes operating at different scales interact to produce outcomes on the ground.  By "scale" I mean basically how big a lens we use to look at what's happening.  We can see a problem from the global perspective, the national perspective, the regional perspective, the local, and even the individual viewpoint.  And often the picture that is revealed at these different scales is different.

So back to the farmers at Pesisir Bukit and Pauh Tinggi.  The people I talked to said the local folks are locked into a specific pattern because they need to make money to eat.  From the global perspective that pattern is a problem because it leads to the destruction of resources that are considered important at a global scale (trees and biodiversity).  At the national level it's a problem because the local farmers encroach into an area that the national government has decided should be set aside.  So the priorities of the global and national scale are expressed in the policies of the park, which prohibit farmers from moving in (2).  However, if we look at the regional scale, the rules that keep people from farming in the park are more of a political issue.  The leaders of the district say that the park is bad for people because it keeps them from making a living, and it also keeps the district from making money from things like plantations and production forests, which they could tax.  The district headman has been very vocal about this; he often says that "the world cries out for us to protect the 'lungs of the earth', but they don't care about the lungs of the people of Kerinci'" ("Dunia berkoar-koar mengatakan TNKS paru-paru dunia, tapi mereka tidak memperhatikan paru-paru masyarakat Kerinci").  This has been a very effective strategy for the district headman because he has been able to portray the park as a common enemy, and so people in the district support him (3).

New houses in Desa Harapan Jaya; Rawa Bento
swamp (trees) and Gunung (Mt.) Kerinci in background
Then in the middle we have the farmers, who are operating under local, rather than regional, national, or global conditions.  They are caught in the middle; while the park says that they can't farm within the borders, the district government, on the surface, at least, supports them.  However the district government hasn't offered any strategies to help the farmers, either by offering them land someplace else or helping them find new livelihoods.  One of the village heads complains that the district government has failed to provide funds for a middle school, which he sees as a key tool in improving the opportunities available to the youth in the village.  In fact there isn't very much real support at all for the farmers on the part of the regional government, and some folks told me that they don't feel like anyone, not the regional government and not the national government, supports them.  In short, they are all alone.

This is important because is creates a kind of trap for the farmers.  Because they don't seem to have any options they continue to do what they are doing.  But the conflict between the park and the district government has some important consequences for the farmers at the local scale.  For one, as I mentioned in the previous post, the farmers don't have any formal title of ownership over their land.  Rather it is governed by an adat (traditional law) system.  Land transactions and conflicts are regulated rather harmoniously under this system, but there's a big defect.  The farmers can never be absolutely certain that they will have access to the land in the distant future.  Since they have no legal protections, they could be evicted next year, next month, next week, or even tomorrow (4).  So instead of buying and selling land, they have a system they call ganti rugi.  If you are in the village and you want to secure some land to cultivate, you don't buy it.  Rather you pay the person that currently owns it compensation for the work they did to open up the land in the first place.  But since there is always uncertainty, securing the rights to the land always carries the risk that the government will come in and kick you off.  Thus the future value of the land is a lot lower than it otherwise would be if the farmers had clear title to it.  This changes their long term calculations and affects how they use the land.  In this situation it makes a lot of sense economically to clear land, cultivate on it a couple of years, flip it, and start the whole process over again.

Of course this has implications for conservation at the park.  It encourages "unsustainable" agricultural practices, as the farmers in the area have neither reason or capacity to adapt less-damaging agricultural systems.  And it effectively prevents the farmers from making investments in the land that would lead to long-term increases in productivity.  No one really benefits from the situation except for the people exploiting it for  political gain.  For their part the people managing the park sympathize with the farmers, though their primary responsibility is to enforce the law.  They have made some efforts to help farmers with alternative livelihoods, providing villagers with ducks to reduce their reliance on the land in the park, but villagers complain that these small-scale programs come nowhere close to compensating them for the loss of land.

I don't know how to solve this problem, but now I have a good idea of the processes driving the encroachment.  Knowing about the social, economic, and political contexts surrounding environmentally destructive behavior helps us to understand what sorts of interventions definitely will not work, and points us in the direction of addressing causes rather than symptoms.


(1)  I hate to say "I told you so", but I told you so.

(2)  It should also be noted that although encroachment is against the law, the national park does not have the resources to enforce the law, which complicates the picture still further.

(3)  I would say the bupati uses this to distract attention from other issues.

(4)  The park has tried to evict encroaching farmers in the past; most recently in 2010 the park had an agreement with the district headman to expel the villagers, but the headman backed out and no action was taken.


Wilson, Geoff A.  2009.  The Spatiality of Multifunctional Agriculture: A Human Geography Perspective.  Geoforum 40:2 pp269-280.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Palm Oil Plantations Vs. Villagers on Sumatra

Picture from here
Over the past month or so two land disputes on the island of Sumatra have gained a significant amount of media attention.  The first case gained coverage worldwide as farmers in Lampung province alleged that at least 32 farmers have been murdered by palm oil companies since 2008.  The second case so far has been limited to the regional papers and is still unfolding.  In Jambi province villagers have repeatedly attacked the base camp of a palm oil plantation, claiming that they have been wrongfully evicted from their land by the company.  In the most recent attack the villagers destroyed heavy equipment, set fire to buildings, and severely injured (one subsequently died) personnel from the company.  In my mind these two incidents illustrate two separate problems related to land tenure on Sumatra.  I'll begin with the first case.

Case #1: Mass Killings in Mesuji

Graphic from Jakarta Post
On December 14, 2011 several residents of the Mesuji region of Lampung (the Southern part of Sumatra) journeyed to Jakarta seeking a meeting with members of the House of Representatives.  They were accompanied by a retired army general, who served as a kind of spokesperson for the group.  The group claimed that since 2008 dozens of farmers have been killed (hundreds injured) by private security forces working for two palm oil companies: PT Sumber Wangi Alam and PT Silva Inhutani.  Clashes between the companies and the villagers stemmed from conflict over land; the villagers claimed rightful ownership while the companies insisted they had been granted use rights by the government.  The group showed video of gruesome killings, including beheadings and mutilation of bodies, allegedly perpetrated by the security forces.  The accusations sparked outrage within the government and across the country, and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono promised to launch a full-scale investigation into the issue.

Poster from here
Since the story initially broke a significant amount of confusion has emerged surrounding the land conflict.  One of the most embarrassing things that has come out concerns the origin of the videos used.  Close examination reveals that they were most likely made in the Pattani region of southern Thailand, where separatists have been locked in a bitter struggle with government forces.  No one disputes that killings actually took place, though.  The main point of contention lies in identifying the aggressors; as mentioned in the previous paragraph the villagers claim they are the victims of brutality perpetuated by private security forces, whereas the companies claim that the villagers have ambushed their work camps, killing several personnel.  The team dispatched by the House of Representatives to investigate concluded that at least 9 people were killed in April (1).  But there is still a lot of back and forth about who is to blame.

This whole conflict boils down to the control of land, which is a pretty big issue in Indonesia.  Land "ownership" is complex problem and can be understood in a number of ways, but to really get to the heart of it we need to understand a little bit about land in Indonesia.  Under the Dutch, who controlled most of the territory that would become Indonesia, a western system of ownership (domein) was introduced.  In many places this system of private and state ownership was in conflict with local systems of management, which as a general rule are more communal in nature.  Moreover, across the 17,500 islands of the archipelago there is tremendous variability in local systems of land management, but the colonial authorities replaced these with a one-size-fits all simplified system.  When Indonesia became independent in 1949 the new leaders inherited the Dutch system.  During the early years of the Republic some minor reforms were enacted, but the most significant move to codify land use regulations was contained in the Basic Agrarian Law (#5/1960) which outlined the main forms of tenure recognized across the country:
  1. Hak Milik (right of ownership): this is what most people think of when they think of "land ownership"; there is no time limit and land can be transferred and mortgaged
  2. Hak Pakai (right to use): applies to usufruct rights but doesn't imply ownership of the land.
  3. Hak Guna Usaha (right to exploit): this arrangement was established mainly so that extraction companies (mining, plantations, etc) could use government land for a certain period of time.
  4. Hak Guna Bangunan (right to build): means you can construct structures on the land, but not own the land.

Though there were token efforts to incorporate traditional (adat) systems into the overall legal framework stalled when Suharto came to power in 1967.  In fact, with the passage of the Basic Forestry Law (#5/1967) the national government, in the form of the Ministry of Forestry, granted itself ownership and the right to manage all land classified as "forests", which amounted to about 75% of the country.  In "forest" areas this law replaced the Agrarian law and gave a huge amount of power to the central government while at the same time marginalizing virtually every local user group and system in the country.  In other words, even if people had been working land for generations, the central government could (and very frequently did) take the land and award it to some mining, plantation, or logging company.  Any opposition was harshly put down by the army and national police. 

When Suharto fell in 1998 so did his authoritarian system of control.  Power swung back to district (kabupaten) governments, and people were emboldened to reassert traditional claims over land and other natural resources.  However, adat systems, though recognized at some levels, have yet to be integrated into the national system of land titling and tenuring.  Instead what has happened is that the formal and adat systems exist in parallel, with adat rules being subservient to formal rules.  Moreover, in order to be recognized, an adat system has to be recognized by the government, and most haven't reached this level.  This has created a significant amount of conflict, including the Mesuji case.

Complicating this is the fact that the system of land titling in Indonesia is fairly byzantine.  It is difficult and expensive (2) to get land ownership registered with the government, and so most people don't do it.  Over the past 40 years the national land authority (BPN, Badan Pertanahan Nasional) has registered about a third of the country's privately-owned land, but there are still approximately 60 million unregistered.  At the current rate of about 1 million registrations per year, it will take another 60 years to finish the job.  

The upshot of all this confusion is that there's really no good way to settle land disputes.  District governments grant usage rights to companies without regard to local claims in an effort to increase revenues.  Villagers are underserved by the system and are frequently in the dark about the legalities of land as well as district development plans.  No one really trusts the courts since they are open to outside manipulation.  

Case #2 Villagers vs. Oil Palm Developers in Jambi

Palm oil picture from here
The second example comes from Tebo district in Jambi province, where as many as 300 villagers last week rampaged though an oil palm camp belonging to PT Lesari Asri Jaya (3).  Newspaper reports describe the attackers as "encroachers" (perambah), which to me indicates a bias towards the company.  Other villagers prevented the police from reaching the seen of the attack.  The dispute is over claims to an area totaling about 60,000 hectares.  The difference between this case and the Mesuji case, though, is that the violence has been perpetrated by "pendatang", or people that have recently settled in the area.  According to Tebo district authorities the villagers come from other districts and acquire land through illegal transactions with locals.  This is a common occurrence on Sumatra; the group encroaching into Kerinci Seblat National Park in Merangin district, which I described in a previous post, were also from other districts and provinces.

This second case illustrates a dynamic that seems to have received less attention.  In Central and South Sumatra, at least, there is a phenomenon whereby local people sell land to outsiders.  This happens in protected forests and national parks.  What motivates local people to do this is unclear; they may view the land as rightfully theirs or they may be motivated by shear opportunism.  The reasons aren't really important for this discussion; what is important is that there are several enabling factors that allow this to happen.  The first is that in many places there is little enforcement or patrolling, so it's relatively easy to squat on land and be reasonably certain that nothing is going to happen to you.  another enabling factor is the lack of recorded titles to land; land is frequently bought and sold without survey and paperwork here.  A third enabling factor is the existence of a ready market of people that are willing to move to a new place and buy the land on the word of the villagers alone.  This market exists, according to many sources, because there are no other opportunities for the people.  What makes more sense to me, however, is that this movement into "frontier areas" is the result of all of the previously described land problems taken together.  

Cases like these are frequent in Indonesia.  USAID estimates there are at least 1500 major land conflicts that have yet to be settled.  The cases seem to be increasing since the fall of Suharto, which has in many cases created a power vacuum in which various local interests struggle to gain control over natural resources and land.  Though there are many capacity and advocacy NGOs working in the field to improve the situation, the recent violence shows that these issues are far from being resolved.


(1)  According to one account, tensions between PT Sumber Wangi Alam and the villagers came to a head when a grandson of a village leader was beheaded by security personnel for attempting to confiscate the company's harvest.  Several hours after the murder, approximately 200 villagers descended on the plantation, killing 5 SWA workers. 

(2)  According to USAID, the cost of registering land averages out to about 11% of the total value of the property.  This is three times greater than the average cost across Southeast Asia.  

(3)  "PT" indicates a corporation.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Prambanan Temple Refurbished...

This past week I made a visit to Prambanan, a large temple complex located about 17 kilometers from the center of Jogjakarta in Central Java.  I first visited Prambanan back in 2007 and was really impressed by the structure, which was built in the 9th and 10th centuries by kings from the Sanjaya dynasty.  At that time, though, the temples had been heavily damaged by the catastrophic earthquake that struck the Jogja region on May 27, 2006.  Scaffolding surrounded several of the main temples, and because of the danger of falling stones you couldn't get too close.  I was pleased to see on my most recent visit that the restoration work seems to have been completed, and now visitors can actually enter some of the temples of the main compound.  Although I'd been to Prambanan several times, I was still awestruck by the temples, which seem all the more majestic without scaffolding surrounding them.

Photo taken in 2007
During the later half of the first millennium AD there were several competing kingdoms in the central part of Java.  One of these dynasties, the Sailendras, built the Buddhist monument of Borobudor which I've described in a couple of posts previously.  It is thought that construction of Hindu Prambanan (1) started later and was at least in part a response to the Borobudor project.  Prambanan is the largest temple complex on Java (there are over 230 temples in total), and so construction of all the hundreds of temples at the site took a long time, but most of the work was carried out under the reign of two kings: Rakai Pikatan and Rakai Balitung.  The main part of Prambanan consists of a walled compound of 11 temples.  Six of these are quite large and are what you see in the postcards of Prambanan.  The one in the middle, at 47 meters, is actually 5 meters higher than Borobudur.  This temple is for Shiva, while the large temples to the north and south are for Brahma and Vishnu respectively.  These three gods represent the Trimurti of deities in the Hindu religion and correspond to the cyclical nature of the universe; Brahma is the god of creation, Vishnu is the sustainer, and Shiva is the destroyer.  Each of these main temples has a smaller temple immediately to the west for each god's vehicle: Nandi the bull for Shiva, Garuda the eagle for Brahma, and Hamsa the sacred swan for Vishnu.  Outside of this central square there are several concentric squares of smaller temples, known as perwara ("guardian" or "companion") temples.  Almost all of these still stand as heaps of rubble, but you can easily get the idea of how expansive the complex was in its heyday.  Beyond this second square is a third square where religious ceremonies were held.  It is thought that in this area there were buildings for priests and pilgrims, but since those structures would have been built out of wood, none have survived.  You can see a diagram of the main compound and the surrounding smaller temples in the diagram below.

Diagram from here.
There's also an interesting local legend about the construction of Prambanan.  According to the story, a prince named Bandung Bondowoso fell madly in love with a princess named Roro Jonggrang.  Prince Bandung wanted to marry Roro, but she refused because Bandung had killed her father.  Prince Bandung was insistent, though, and wouldn't take "no" for an answer.  Roro told Bandung that she'd marry him if he could construct a temple with 1000 statues in a single night.  Bandung accepted the challenge and went to work, summoning spirits to help him with the project.  As the night wore on Roro noticed that Bandung was close to finishing the task while morning wasn't approaching fast enough, and so she asked all the villagers to start fires to fool the roosters into thinking it was dawn.  Her plan worked; the roosters crowed and Prince Bandung was thwarted just as he finished the 999th statue.  Enraged and feeling jilted, he called upon evil spirits to curse poor Roro.  She was turned to stone and the legend has it that she's the 1000th statue; according to the story she's the Durga statue in the main Shiva temple.

Like Borobudur, Prambanan has a series of story-telling reliefs, but in this case they illustrate scenes from the Ramayana rather than the life of Guatama Buddha.  As I've mentioned in previous posts, the Ramayana epic is really important in the Hindu religion, and you can find versions of the story all across Southeast Asia.  The epic narrates how Prince Rama's wife, Siti, is kidnapped by the evil goblin king and spirited away to the island of Langka.  The story unfolds as Rama enlists the aid of divine friends, including the great white monkey king Hanuman, who has an impressive array of superpowers.  It's an interesting story to read, and it will help you understand Prambanan (as well as ceremonies still performed in Bali) a bit better.  Another attraction of Pramabanan is the Ramayana ballet, which is performed most nights.  The performance is a shortened version of the Ramayana and uses modern interpretive dance to tell the story.  It's fun to watch, and is really nice visually as they use pyrotechnics and use a dramatically-illuminated Prambanan as the backdrop.  They also have a buffet dinner that you can pay extra for.

One of the temple compounds to the north
of the main compound
It's easy to get to Prambanan from Jogja; you can hire a cab for about US$5 from the city center, but it's difficult to get a cab coming back.  You can also ride the crowded TransJogja busway to Prambanan and cross the busy street to get to the site.  Sometimes it's hard to get on the bus in the middle of the route because they are too full, but it's easy to get on at Prambanan because it's the terminus of the line.   My suggestion then is to take a taxi to the monument (unless you have your own transportation) and then take the busway back.  It costs US$13/7 (adults/kids) to get in, but if you have a kitas you can get in at the local rate.  If you are in the area you should definitely visit Prambanan; it's something you won't forget.


(1) The name "Prambanan" comes from a nearby village.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Wayang Kulit: An Introduction to Javanese Shadow Puppets

Wayang Kulit is the name given to a variety of Indonesian traditional drama utilizing shadow puppets (1).  Wayang kulit shows are popular across Java and Bali and have been performed for at least the past 800 years.  The puppets for wayang kulit are traditionally made out of buffalo hide, hence the name "wayang kulit" (kulit means "skin"; wayang is a derivation of the word for "shadow").  Shadows from the puppets are cast onto a backlit linen screen; the light is traditionally provided by a special oil lamp which creates a sepia-type of effect but electric lights are now commonly used as well.  Different figures are represented by different puppets; a normal "village set" has about 100 different puppets, and some "palace sets" have upwards of 500 puppets.  Wayang kulit performances are staged for some religious events, but they also are parts of some celebrations and fairs.  Some wayang kulit shows can last all night long, but you can usually find a performance that lasts around two hours.  It's a good opportunity to catch up on some sleep or play with the lesser-used functions and modes of the digital SLR camera you paid too much money for (2).

An array of puppets at a performance
Most shadow puppet shows are based on either the Maharabata or the Ramayana, two ancient Hindu epics originating in India, but sometimes Javanese shows are performed as well.  Puppets come in many different sizes, ranging from small animals to giant deities and monsters (raksasa: literally "giant").  The stylized puppets are carefully designed to provide symbolic information about the characters, and most people in Indonesia can recognize the most popular characters by sight.   Different shaped eyes and noses convey character traits; for instance, narrow eyes indicate nobility or refinement, whereas a downturned head indicates humbleness.  More aggressive characters are generally bigger and are painted with shades of red, with larger noses and eyes.  In the picture to the right of this paragraph you can see an array of puppets at a performance; all puppets are carefully painted even though you just see the shadow.  The display of the puppets is part of the show.  

Dalang as the center of attention
The guy that moves the puppets around is called the Dalang (2).  The position of dalang is highly respected amongst wayang kulit officienados.  Dalangs are masters of a variety of skills; they don't just move the puppets but they also tell the story using different voices and tones for the different characters.  The dalang has to be able to do several things at once; all the sites and sounds, including the rapping percussive cadences that symbolize movement or serve as dramatic punctuation come from him.   In addition to this they sing and conduct the gamelan orchestra that accompanies the performance.  Apart from the performance itself the dalang often creates new shows, makes his/her own puppets, serves as an informal teacher in the community.  In many cases the dalang will invent new stories or characters to satirize current events or create a modern-day fable that viewers can relate to.

Rama and Siti puppets in the famous "smell
my finger, Rama" scene
As I mentioned above, the puppets are made from leather and are quite intricate and creative.  In Jogja there is a whole cottage industry involved in producing and selling these puppets, and they've long been a favorite souvenir for tourists.  If you'd like to visit a shop to see how they are made and browse the wares there are lots of them in the Taman Sari area near the Kraton. The puppets are chiseled with very fine tools.  In some cases individual craftsmen make the puppets, but in some workshops teams of skilled workers work on several puppets at the same time.  Depending on the quality of the puppet, the process can take from a few hours to several weeks.

As I mentioned previously, many performances are based on the Ramayana and Maharabata, but there are local adaptations as well.  Javanese shows often feature moral lessons or comic relief provided by a family of "clown" puppets:  Semar (the father), Gareng (the oldest son), Petruk (middle son), and Bagong (the youngest son).  In the two movies below you can see a couple of short scenes from a shadow puppet performance.  In the first one the puppets are arguing about something; in the second they proceed to mix it up.  While I was filming my camera kept going in and out of focus, but I think that adds a bit to the artistic effect.  Aside from this the dalang often takes the puppets in and out of focus to give the impression of movement.

Wayang Kulit shows are a good place to hear the cacophonous gamelan orchestra as well.  I'll write a post in the future about Gamelan, but this musical ensemble consisting of gongs, xylophones, stringed instruments, and woodwinds is an ever-present part of Javanese and Balinese cultural events.  The Gamelan is also pretty divisive; some people love it and some people hate it (I personally fall into the "like" category).  In the movie below you can see the "behind the scenes" view of what goes on at a shadow-puppet performance.  Many people prefer to sit and watch from this angle; though it's interesting you don't get the full effect of the performance.  This particular show was staged for tourists, and to tell you the truth I don't think anyone realized how you're supposed to watch the show until I walked around to the "front" to see the shadows.  At first I was sitting all alone, but then little by little the rest of the audience joined me.  So rule number one for watching shadow puppets: if you aren't watching the shadows you aren't watching the right thing.

If you happen to be in Yogyakarta and would like to take in a wayang kulit show, you can see one at the Sono Budoyo museum just inside the Kraton.  It is across the street to the north from the Alun-Alun Utara (the northern park).  They have performances there just about every night starting at 8pm.  The show lasts around two hours and costs Rp20,000 for adults, Rp10,000 for kids.  You'll need to pay an additional Rp3,000 for your camera.


(1)  Other types of theater include Wanag Klitik, in which two dimensional wooden puppets are used, and Wayang Golek, which uses three dimensional wooden puppets.

(2)  If you take enough pictures, surely you'll eventually get a winner...

(3)  The term "dalang" in Indonesian also has the same connotations as "puppet master" in English; figuratively the dalang is the mastermind or the guy that pulls the strings.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Greatest Show On Earth

The other day as I was walking around Jogja I stumbled upon a carnival set up on the grounds of the Alun-Alun Utara in the Kraton.  Now, in this blog I've described a lot of neat things about Indonesia, but when you come here you should exert all possible effort to visit one of the travelling carnivals.  If you see one, stop the car, bus, ojek, or whatever, because it's definitely not to be missed.  There's noise and lights and loads of people, and you'll see such amazing disregard for even the most basic safety precautions that you'll think you're in some sort of post-apocalyptic Thunderdome  An Indonesian travelling carnival is definitely something to see before you die, and who knows, you may even die AT the carnival! What could possibly be more thrilling?  

There are all sorts of neat rides at the fair, and most of them look like they've been assembled by a remedial shop class.  In the picture to the right you can see the hot-air balloon ride for kiddies.  I like to think of this one as a kind of population control.  In the video below this paragraph you can also see a sort of first generation tilt-o-whirl.  Passengers on this ride climb to the benches with a ladder supported by two of the carnies.  There are no safety belts or anything to prevent you from falling off...the only thing between you and a broken leg is centrifugal force.  To make the ride bob up and down the carnies actually hang from the benches like monkeys.  I didn't see anyone fall off or get bonked on the head, but I have to believe it happens with regularity.  Fortunately for the sake of fun Indonesians aren't as litigious as Americans.

To the right you can see a picture of the train that makes a circuit around the fair.  The train is one of the many mobile hazards you'll have to be on the lookout for, but constant vigilance is part of the experience.  In the background there's one of the several Ferris wheels.  After a few minutes of internal conflict I mustered up the courage to take a ride.  I don't think I am exaggerating when I say that this was among the most harrowing experiences of my life.  I couldn't wait to get down (I actually had the ride operator stop the wheel so I could get off), but it was thoroughly worth it because of the spirituality inherent in contemplating your life each time the wheel made a rotation.  The creaking will turn you to Jesus.  I included the picture below to give you an idea of the structural condition of the Ferris Wheel.  Note that the floor joints are rusting and look as though they could give way at any moment.  This is what makes it so much fun.  FUN!

The biggest attraction for me, though, is the motorcycles-in-the-big-barrel show.  I don't know what the Indonesian word for this is, but I first saw the big barrel on my initial journey to Indonesia in 2005.  I was staying at a small town near Leuser National Park in northern Sumatra when I chanced upon a small-scale travelling carnival.  I marveled at the pictures of motorcycle daredevils painted on the side of the barrel and realized that finally I had come home.  At that time it was still daytime and the carnival hadn't started, so the show wasn't being staged, and I was sadly left to imagine what sorts of two-wheeled wonders would take place in the big barrel.  I vowed that I would not rest until I had a chance to actually witness the show, and I'm pleased to say that last night, after almost 8 years, I finally got a chance to fulfill my dream.

The show starts when the barker sells enough tickets (usually 15 or so).  While you're waiting the riders will gun the engines of their bikes to attract attention, and so it can be pretty loud.  I'd even recommend that you bring earplugs if you can remember them.  As the show starts the bikers ascend the walls, circling opposite one another.  I was a little disappointed because one of the riders stopped after just a few seconds, leaving only one rider and dramatically reducing the chances for a catastrophic event.  But it was still really bitchin'; the riders have their bikes rigged with a sort of cruise control so they have both hands free.  After riding up to the top of the barrel to collect 1,000 and 5,000 rupiah notes from the crowd the rider did a number of tricks, including standing on the bike, riding with no hands, riding blindfolded, etc.  The sound is deafening, but the coolest thing is knowing that any slip or miscalculation on the part of the driver, or any mechanical failure (which is not too hard to imagine here) could send the motorcycle right into the audience!  Below you can see a short movie of the action.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Revisiting Borobudur

When I first started writing this blog one of my first posts was about Borobudur, an incredible Buddhist monument located about 90 minutes away from Jogjakarta in Central Java.  Yesterday I went again to the 1200-year-old monument, and so I thought it would be a good idea to expand on my first post.  Yesterday was my forth or fifth trip to Borobudur, but this time was different: I brought a book and hired a guide.  I had always wanted to go through the galleries of Borobudur to understand the stories that are illustrated on the hundreds of stone reliefs that line the walls (1).  Though it would take days to really examine and interpret every relief, the couple of hours I spent reading while browsing really enhanced my appreciation of the structure.

The Pilgrims' Path

It is thought that Borobudur functioned mainly as a sort of teaching tool for people on the path to spiritual enlightenment.  People seeking enlightenment would have arrived with a familiarity with certain Buddhist texts which described the life and times of various key figures in Buddhism.  The pilgrims would then walk clockwise around the monument ten times (a total of around 5 kilometers) viewing the different series of reliefs along the walls.  Familiarity with the texts would have helped the viewers contextualize the highly symbolic scenes depicted in the relief.  Unfortunately most of the old Javanese Buddhist texts have been lost (2), and so some of the reliefs remain undeciphered.   Over the years scholars have made connections between some of the reliefs and surviving texts.  The first "aha moment" came in 1885 when S.F. Oldenburg, a Russian scholar, figured out that some of the reliefs on the lowest exposed level correspond to a collection of stories called the Jatakamala.  Over the next 40 years or so other scholars made further connections.

One interesting fact that I learned from my book is that there is a whole series of more than 160 reliefs that are hidden.  Originally these scenes were exposed and would've been the first ones pilgrims viewed when they came to the monument.  The panels, known collectively as the Mahakarmavibhangga, are intended to show people rewards for specific good behaviors and punishments for specific bad behaviors.  As the monument got bigger during later stages of construction, though, the weight proved too much for the foundation and it collapsed in some places.  To solve this problem the early engineers added a broad promenade of stones around the whole base of the monument, which unfortunately covered up the lower reliefs.  These were only discovered in 1885, and at that time they were all uncovered, photographed, and covered back up.  No one living has ever seen these reliefs.  Fortunately, though, during restoration the construction crews left one corner exposed so visitors can get the idea of what Borobudur looked like before modifications.  There's a picture to the right so you can see 4 of the reliefs along with a cutaway of the promenade.

After the pilgrims walked around the lower level, they would move up to the next level and walk around the monument again, slowly viewing the reliefs as they went along.  On the first exposed level there are four sets of reliefs, so pilgrims would walk around this level a total of four times before moving on to the next higher level.  The second, third, and fourth exposed levels each have two sets of reliefs, so the pilgrim would circumambulate (walk around) each of these two times.  To complete the entire circuit a pilgrim would make a total of ten trips (3).

The Reliefs
Balustrade (outer wall) and inside gallery reliefs from the first level.
There are several sets of reliefs at Borobudur.  Below is a short description of each of the sets of reliefs and where you will find them.  In order to view the reliefs in order, climb the eastern staircase to the first level.  If you want to follow the path of the pilgrims you will start with the lower carving on the outside wall (usually called the balustrade).  Then on your second circuit follow the carvings above this one.  After that start on the lower set of reliefs on the inside wall, and on the fourth and final circuit of the lowest level follow the uppermost reliefs on the inside wall.  On the next level up, start with the outside wall and then move to the inside wall.  

  • Mahakarmavibhangga:  These are the hidden reliefs that are described above
  • Guardian figures:  These are on the outside of the first level's outer wall.  You can see a portion of them in the picture above.
  • Jatakas:  These start with the lower series of reliefs on the outside wall on the first level.  Jatakas ("birth stories") are stories about the previous lives of the Buddha and include stories about when he was incarnated both as people and animals.  Many of these are fables which illustrated the importance of some virtue.
  • Jatakamala and other Jatakas:  Upper set of reliefs on the outside wall of the first level.  The Jatakamala is a specific set of Jatakas.  
  • Manohara and other Avadanas:  These begin with the lower level of reliefs on the inside wall of the first level.  An Avadana ("Heroic Deeds") is a story about the previous life of an important Buddhist saint.  There are many of these, and Manohara is just one but it's described in detail with 20 relief panels here.  It's quite an interesting story.  Several other Avadanas are depicted with 2-4 panels until you get to the story of King Rudrayana, which covers 22 panels.  
  • Lalitavistara:  This is the upper line of reliefs on the inside wall of the first level.  The Lalitavistara ("The Unfolding of the Play") describes the life of Guatama Buddha with a total of 120 panels covering the life of the Buddha up until the time that he delivered the First Sermon.
  • Jatakas and Avadanas:  These are located on the outside wall of the second level
  • Gandavyuha part one: Located along the inside wall of the second level.  The Gandavyuha ("The Structure of the World Compared to a Bubble") is the story of a young man named Sudhana and his journeys in search of wisdom.  In all 460 panels are devoted to this story on several levels of the monument.  These reliefs are more esoteric than those on lower levels, and it is thought that they weren't meant for all pilgrims, because not everyone would be able to grasp the meaning of these lessons.  
  • Gandavyuha part two: Located on the outside wall of the third level.
  • Gandavyuha part three: Located on the inside wall of the third level.
  • Gandavyuha part four:  Located along the outside wall of the fourth level.
  • Gandavyuha part five:  Located along the inside wall of the fourth level.  

Go To Borobudur

Two reliefs from main gallery of the first exposed level
You can get to Borobudur in about an hour and a half from Jogja, depending on the traffic.  Make sure you take an umbrella, because it rains frequently there (though if you forget you can buy or rent one there).  It currently costs US$15 for foreigners to get in (US$7 for children), but if you have a KITAS you can get in for the local rate of Rp30,000.  At a minimum you'll spend 2 hours there, but you could easily spend the whole day.  I would highly recommend hiring a guide at the entrance; there is an association of guides coordinated by a central authority.  The guides come from the surrounding area, and if my guide is any indication, they know what they are talking about.  The fixed price for the guide is Rp75,000 for an hour and a half, which is well worth it.  I also found that reading a bit before hand really enhanced my experience this time around.  I took my book with me and had people following me while I read the descriptions of the stories depicted in the reliefs.


(1)  There are 1460 reliefs in all.

(2)  Although it is accepted that Javanese and Sumatran (Muaro Jambi) centers of Buddhism had extensive libraries, texts were written on things like palm leaves that deteriorate over time, so nothing is left.

(3)  Ten represents the number of steps of development through which a bodhisattva must pass to become a Buddha.


Miksic, John, and Marcello and Anita Tranchini.  1991.  Borobudur: Golden Tales of the Buddhas.  Periplus: Singapore.  158pp.