While we studied abroad for a semester in London, a friend and I jokingly suggested, after realizing how many we had already visited, that we ought to plan our entire life’s bucket list around seeing every World Heritage Site on the planet… and then we actually looked at the World Heritage website and realized we did not have the time to see all of the sites in the United Kingdom, let alone the world. Even so, it gave me great satisfaction when a recent trip to Yogyakarta allowed me to add two more World Heritage sites to the small list of those I have been fortunate enough to visit: the Buddhist and Hindu temples Borobudur and Prambanan.
Borobudur and Prambanan are relics of a time before Indonesia was the Muslim-majority country it is today. The history of religion in Indonesia is every bit as fascinating as its current status. Following its animistic stage, Indonesia was predominantly Hindu and Buddhist, until traders introduced Islam in the 8th century. Islam gradually became the dominant religion in the western part of what is now Indonesia (Eastern Indonesia is actually
predominantly Protestant and Catholic), in what was probably one of the most peaceful religious transitions in history.
During some research I did for my Western Religions course as an undergraduate, I came across a book that suggested Indonesia, while technically still majority Hindu and Buddhist, was actually quite secular at the time, and therefore Islam filled the natural human need for belief for those who might have felt some lack. Islam blended with the religious cultures
that already existed on these scattered islands, and reminders of its time as a majority Hindu and Buddhist culture still remain all over Indonesia.
Candi Borobudur, or Borobudur Temple, perhaps a mere three hours outside of Yogya, in Magelang, is the largest Buddhist Temple in the world. It is supposed to be a ninth—some suggest eighth—century structure, making it the kind of old I can never really wrap my
head around. In the 14th century Borobudur sort of disappeared, known only by the locals, but in the early 1800s it was “rediscovered,” and has been one of Indonesia’s top tourist destinations, well, pretty much ever since.
Like so many ancient structures, Borobudur seems defined by rock, carvings, and stairs. Though there is a direct route strait up to the top of the temple, it is also possible to weave your way around the entirety of the structure, following the story of a prince as he achieves Nirvana on over 2,500 relief panels that decorate the interior walls of the temple. Acid rain and the general wear and tear that comes from being centuries old has damaged many of these incredible detailed panels, but somehow their impressiveness endures.
Perhaps the most memorable part of Borobudur is the over 500 Buddha statues which seem to cover every available surface. One of these Buddha statues is supposedly lucky, though I was unable to figure out which one would bring me good fortune. The seventy-two statues at the top of the temple sit within perforated bell-shaped structures called stupa, and they create a magical atmosphere that is only accentuated by the misty rain that accompanied my climb.
Buddhism is one of the major world religions that regrettably I know the least about, as the one religion course I was able to cram into my over-stuffed undergraduate schedule focused on the monotheistic religions of the world. Borobudur is a sacred place of which I cannot fully understand the religious significance, but by which I am completely capable of being impressed. I feel blessed by whatever gods inspired its creation to have been able to ascend this amazing and magical piece of history.
I was also able to explore a second well-known temple during my time in Yogyakarta. A short train ride from Yogya sits Candi Prambanan.
Prambanan is not the largest Hindu site in the world, but it is the largest in Indonesia, believed to have been built in the 8th century. It was essentially abandoned by the dawn of the 10th century, and an earthquake in the 16th century destroyed Prambanan almost in its entirety. Like its Buddhist cousin, Borobudur, it gained attention in the 1800s, but reconstruction did not truly begin until the early 1900s. Currently, much of the temple remains in haphazard piles of stones, awaiting the funds and energy needed to rebuild this incredible site.
What has been rebuilt, however, is absolutely gorgeous, and it only is made more incredible by the ruins surrounding it. Perhaps it is because I always fall in love with a work-in process—unfinished paintings, the outline of a poem—but I found Prambanan to be so much more incredible that Borobudur, even if it was physically less impressive. But that is just my personal preference.
There are six main temples in the center portion of Prambanan, all of which have been rebuilt. The three largest are dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma. Huge statues of these gods are in the center of each temple, and statues of lesser gods are tucked into smaller rooms around the edges. The three slightly smaller temples which sit across from these three are for the vahana (a kind of messenger, from my understanding) for each of these main gods: Nandi for Shiva, Garuda for Vishnu, and Hamza for Brahma. Of the three vahana, only Nandi remains: the statues for Garuda and Hamza were never found amongst the ruins.
At Borobudur I was pretty much left up to my own devices, guided only by the Lonely Planet guidebook that is my constant travel companion and the little online research I had done prior to my trip to Yogyakarta. At Prambanan, however, we were given one of the best tours I have ever experienced from two local college students, who were giving tours free of charge as part of their training. They were well-informed, humorous, and downright adorable. When
they asked us to write our commentary after the fact, I gave the warmest review I’ve ever written, and it was completely deserved.
Historical tourist sites are my greatest guilty pleasure, and my time in Yogyakarta was
full of them. Standing in the shadow of a structure that has withstood time probably longer than my family name makes me feel small and insignificant in the most wonderful way; and here, where sometimes this small-town farm girl is treated like a queen, a moment of
blissful inconsequence is precisely what I needed.
 I do not boast to be an historian, and so while I do feel somewhat guilty that I cannot seem to track down the name of said book—because I remember it as being excellent and everyone should read it—I’m going to forego any kind of citation and hope you’ll go off and do some of your own research and not rely entirely on me.
A wrinkled ibu sells traditional sate to a group of teenagers taking selfies on their smart phones. A young woman leaves the traditional market, her bags full of batik, and crosses the street to one of the city’s several malls to finish her shopping. A horse-drawn cart, its bells twinkling, gives way to a sepeda motor, as young boys in ripped jeans and tee shirts carry wayang kulit (shadow puppets) into a building to prepare for that night’s performance.
Yogyakarta (sometimes spelled Jogjakarta) is often referred to as the center of Javanese culture, and it is a city rich in traditions and history. At the same time, it is a growing, modern university city. This dichotomy can be seen everywhere, and it was a constant source of interest for me during my recent, too-brief visit.
Yogya, as the city is often fondly called, has a remarkable history. There were once many kingdoms which dotted the landscape of Java, but the only place which still clings to some remnants of that era is Yogyakarta. During Dutch colonialism, the sultan refused to submit to the invaders, choosing instead to lock himself within the compound of his kratan (palace). The Dutch dared not touch him, as the Javanese in the area looked to him almost as a god, and this allowed Yogyakarta to become an important place of refuge for Indonesia rebels during their fight for independence from the Netherlands. In fact, it even acted as a temporary capital for the nation throughout the struggle, from 1946 until 1948. Even though it is no longer the capital, kota (city) Yogyakarta and the surrounding areas have become a special provinsi (province), and they are still, in some ways, ruled by their sultan.
I was only in Yogyakarta for a few days, and as I also took advantage of my time there to visit the nearby temples of Borobudur and Prambanan (to which I will be dedicating an entire blog), I was not able to explore all of the historical sites for which the city is so famous. I did do a fair amount of wandering up and down Jalan Malioboro, which is the center of the tourist section of town. I admired the sculptures that were in abundance along the sidewalks; I was overwhelmed by the crowds in Pasar Beringharjo; and I stood outside of the gates of the kraton itself, though I did not enter the actual complex. It was the sort of fly-by tourism I generally do not enjoy, but I made the most of the time I had.
An historical site I actually did spend some time exploring was the Water Palace. Children play, musicians sing, and couples pose for wedding photographs in the echoing halls that belong to the same complex where the king’s concubines once bathed. The ruins are sprinkled along a fairly large part of the city. One portion of it has been restored, and requires an entrance fee (I shamelessly ignored this part), but much of it is simply tucked in between homes and businesses. The purpose of some of the ruins is not fully understood, but there is an underground mosque that I now consider one of the most interesting pieces of architecture I have ever come across. We went to the Water Castle mostly on an impulse, but I could not be more glad that we did.
If there was one part of being in Yogyakarta I really, truly enjoyed, it was the overwhelming presence of batik. Batik is a fabric-dying method which originated on Java; in fact, the word batik comes from Javanese, and literally means “painted.” The beautiful colors and patterns are made by tracing wax onto the fabric, then submersing the fabric into various dyes, and repeating the process as many times as is needed to create some of the most beautiful patterns I have ever seen. The markets in Yogya were overflowing with batik, and everywhere I saw cloth hanging out to dry, already gorgeous in its unfinished state.
Not too far from Jalan Malioboro was a small batik art shop, where artists employ the traditional fabric dying technique to create masterpieces in both traditional and very modern styles, and which quickly became one of my favorite parts of my visit. We were able to watch the process of the dying up close, and the friendly manager of the place happily babbled about the different methods various batik artists prefer, and showed us the difference between natural and chemical dyes. Seeing surrealist-style artwork created by a very traditional dying technique was a perfect representation, in my mind, of the way in which Yogyakarta, and Indonesia as a whole, is constantly trying to balance traditions and modernity, and creating the greatest beauty out of the mess that invariably results.
Because I explored Yogya with the help of one of my fellow ETAs, who is currently placed there, I was able to enjoy tiny places off the beaten track, and explore parts of Yogya’s culture which I never would have found, or expected to find, on my own. She knew all the best little cafes and warungs, and introduced me to the incredible but also potentially problematic Yogya reggae scene. The opportunity to see Yogya through the filter of her experiences, having lived and worked there for seven months, rather than through pages of a guidebook, was more than I deserved.
With one foot planted firmly in the past, and the other searching for stability in the present, Yogyakarta is dancing its way into the future to a re-mix of Bob Marley and gamelon, with the a sort of grace and energy that is seems only it can. I cannot boast to understand this place, having only visited for a short time, but I cannot but be thankful that I was given the opportunity to pass through.
I want to begin this post by pointing out that I am not an expert in either religious studies or Indonesian history and culture. Though I had developed a limited understanding of religion in Indonesia prior to arriving here, and though I have sought to further that understanding through continued reading and asking as many questions as I have deemed polite, I still feel as though I have barely scratched the surface of this dense and multifaceted topic. What I present here should not be treated as gospel truth: it is merely a collection of personal observations I have made during my time here, intermittently accompanied by more technical, “factual” context where I have deemed necessary. The greatest hope I can cherish for this blog post is that it may inspire some to delve more deeply into the topic of religion in Indonesia, one which I promise will not fail to captivate.
Agama (religion) in Indonesia is fascinating and complex. Indonesia officially recognizes only six religions (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism), and in theory all citizens prescribe to one of these religions. Semi-officially, they must do so in order to receive an identification card (in reality, I have heard that people will switch this religion readily in order to get married to someone of another religion, sometimes without actually changing their belief system, and I have even heard that it is possible to leave that part blank, though I have not yet met anyone personally who has chosen to do so). Even to register the Nokia mobile phone with which AMINEF provided all of the ETAs, I had to choose one of the six religions.
In reality, there is a presence—if small—of other religious thought in Indonesia, though it is difficult to ascertain the exact nature of how they operate within the Indonesian context. For example, there is a very small Jewish population in Indonesia—which has suffered various degrees of anti-Semitism, depending upon the time period and location—but it is unclear as to the exact size of this population, since Judaism is not officially recognized. And while religiosity does differ from person to person, and I’m sure that some Indonesians harbor beliefs which lean towards atheism or agnosticism, I have yet to meet any who openly identify as such.
Because while Indonesians are more-or-less accepting of different religions, there is a certain expectation here that everyone is a believer in something. I am asked which religion I belong to every bit as casually as I am asked my name and where I am from, and I doubt it crosses anyone’s mind that I might not belong to any religion. Religion is a give-in here.
Religion is also exceedingly more present in Indonesia than it is in America. We pray at the beginning and the end of every school day, even though we are not an explicitly religious institution (there is no separation of church and state here). No hope or wish can be expressed without someone breathing a gentle “Amin” (Amen) or “I’ll pray for you”, and nothing good can occur without a joyfully expressed “Alhamdulillah”. The United States is not devoid of explicit expressions of faith, but I feel I can say with some conviction that they are not nearly as prominent as they are here. Religion has infiltrated every aspect of life here, it seems, which is possibly why I have given it so much careful thought over these past seven months or so.
I have identified as Katolik (Catholic) while I am in Indonesia. My connection to this religion is not completely false—my immediate family, and a good portion of my extended family, is composed of devoted Catholics—but the fact remains that I chose to never be confirmed and have not attended mass regularly since I graduated from high school. Consequently, I have avoided attending church while here: there is only so much hypocrisy I can tolerate in myself.
Curiosity does tend to get the better of me, however, and I found myself wondering how an Indonesian Catholic mass might compare to one in the United States. And so, on Easter Sunday, I accompanied a small group of my students to mass.
For the most part, the experience was very similar to those I had every summer Sunday for the first eighteen years of my life. The pews were uncomfortable; the ancient, clacking fans did almost nothing to chase away the stifling heat; and more than one of my students nodded off during some of the more monotonously delivered readings. The hymns were sung both beautifully and off-key, but always joyfully; the priest—an energetic man I couldn’t help but like, even if I did not understand most of what he said—began his homily with a hearty “SelamatPaskah!” (Happy Easter), and cracked jokes throughout, eliciting smiles and laughter from the entire congregation; and there was a general feeling of community which, while not limited to religious institutions, I have found is always present in such places. To be sure, the pure white lilies traditionally associated with Easter were of a more tropical nature, and people’s Sunday best seemed much more likely to consist of batik, but for the most part, the similarities seemed to considerably outweigh the differences.
That is not to say that more substantial differences did not exist. There were entire sections of the mass I did not recognize, and during some of the call-and-responses, I found that even the Indonesian I could understand did not quite translate to that with which I was more familiar, and which I habitually said, a small English whisper in a chorus of Indonesian. My Indonesian is not sufficient for me to fully understand or explain all of the differences, but this much is clear: it was not just a mass in Indonesian which I attended, but an Indonesian mass.
In some instances, it seemed the parts with which I was unfamiliar might be attributed to the congregation being generally more religious. The bowing and hand raising I have always seen described in the margins of the missal-ette (noticeably missing from the pews of the church I attended in Indonesia), but happily ignored by every Catholic I know, were well-known to even my students. In fact, my students used various hand gestures I generally associate with only the oldest members of the congregation: even most of those in my parents’ generation do not use them, and I know of none in my own who do. This strict adherence to the traditions of the Catholic Church would fit with my overall impression that religiosity is stronger in Indonesia than it is in the United States, but I cannot claim for certain that this is the case.
There was also substantially more singing. Even the early morning Sunday mass at Saint Bernard’s—which my parents prefer to frequent in part because it tends to include more singing than the other masses—could not compare to how much I heard echoing in this Indonesian church. This didn’t really surprise me: if there is anything I can say confidently about Indonesians, it is that they enjoy music to no end, and are generally much less hesitant to sing in public than most Americans. It is possible that the amount of singing I encountered was partially due to it being Easter Sunday, but even the holiday masses I have attended at home have never been so musical, and so I believe at least part of its presence was due to the culture. I felt it only appropriate, really, that the one time I entered an Indonesian church I encountered more singing than spoken word.
I also observed that the demographics of the congregation’s population were very different from what I am accustomed to seeing in Malang. There were significantly more people present who, from their darker skin and in some cases unique batik, I thought might possibly be from Papua or NTT (Nusa Tenggara Timor, or East Nusa Tenggara). Though I had not predicted this, it did not surprise me. Though when the overall population is considered, Indonesia is a majority-Muslim country, it is really western Indonesia which is predominately Muslim. Much of eastern Indonesia, especially including NTT and Papua, is actually predominately Kristen (Christian) and Katolik, and it is only because the population is so concentrated in the western part of Indonesia that it is the largest Muslim-majority country in the world. In Malang, I have met very few people, outside of my own scholarship students, who are from outside of Java, and to meet so many in one particular place of worship says much, I feel, about the incredible diversity across this archipelago, and the role religion plays in this diversity.
Still, there is no denying that in East Java, where I am placed, there is certainly a Muslim majority. Masjid-masjid (mosques) dot the landscape wherever I go, and I have come to understand time by the call to prayer. This is my first time living in a Muslim-majority culture, and I have gained so much from the experience. I have had the opportunity to attend Islamic holiday events such as Idul Adha, and have the traditions and stories explained to me by my ever-patient students. I have been blessed with the trust of students who have come to me for support and advice as they decide if they are ready to begin wearing the jilbab, or veil.
Perhaps the greatest lesson I have learned from this experience is that of the powerful dichotomy between local and global perceptions and privileges, especially as it relates to Islam. There is no denying that my Moslim students benefit from being in the majority here, from the ease in which they are able to attend their place of worship, to their security in knowing that most of their peers will understand their religious tradition. My Christian and Catholic students must travel the half hour into the center of Malang in order to worship, and my few Hindu students have on occasion expressed to me that it is sometimes frustrating how little their classmates know about their religious practices. It seems, then, that my Muslim students are at a distinct advantage, at least in East Java.
But my students are not separate from how the larger Muslim community is treated on a more global scale, and this complicates their experience. Many of my students have turned to the internet to help them practice their English, through chat rooms and e-mail pen pals. Some them have told me stories of how people have accused them of being members of ISIS, or various terrorist organizations. One of my girls became visibly upset as she told me how a pen pal of hers, whom she really liked and hoped to someday meet in person, had sent her an e-mail after learning she was a Moslima, and asked her, “Why are your people killing us?” She tried to explain that it was not, in fact, her people who were committing violent crimes, and that she in no way condoned their actions, as “that is not Islam.” Eventually, she had to terminate all contact with her pen-pal, as her voice was not respected.
My Muslim students, many of whom aspire to study abroad in Europe and North America, often ask me various questions about whether or not they would be able to find a place in Western society: “Miss, can I find Halal food in America?” “Miss, are there many mosques in America?” “Miss, will people stare at me if I wear jilbab?” The shootings in Chapel Hill led some of my students to go so far as to ask me if they would be safe if they were to study in the United States. I try to answer them as honestly as I can, acknowledging that there is very present prejudice against Muslims in many Western places, including the United States, while also ensuring them that there are allies everywhere, and that they should always be able to find someone to help them.
Living here has, in some ways, changed how I think about my responsibility within the religious tolerance of my own country. As my students express their various curiosities and concerns, I find myself thinking about how little most Americans know about Islam, and how strong Islamophobia is throughout the country. Many people—both from my small home town and from the supposedly-educated university city where I attend college—when they learned where I would be going after graduation, asked me why I would ever choose to live in a Muslim-majority country. Then, I was frustrated by their responses, and tried to politely contradict them. Now, when I read articles about anti-Muslim acts and statements, I see the smiling faces of my Muslim students, some of the sweetest and most intelligent young people I know, it is hard for me to control my fury. Then, it was an objective recognition that the way many in the United States treat Muslims is wrong. Now, it is personal. I am still unsure how to react to this new passion for religious tolerance, and for now I am merely seeking to educate myself more fully, but I do know I must continue to consider my own personal responsibility, and how my experience in Indonesia will play a role in that.
In truth, perhaps the only statement I can make confidently about all I have touched upon in this post is that I am unsure about everything, and still learning. Quite frankly, I could probably make that statement about everything I have sought to comprehend in this incredible, baffling place. I have decided to label this post as “Part I,” because this is a topic, amongst many others, which I will continue to explore when I return to Indonesia this fall, and will probably, quite honestly, study for the rest of my life. Even then, I don’t know that I will be able to come to any real conclusions, and will simply continue to find joy in the wonderment and confusion that comes from trying to understand the world I live in.
 Much of the contextual information I provide here stems from what I learned prior to arrival. I was fortunate enough to take a World Religions course during my senior year, and I focused on religion, specifically Islam, in Indonesia for my individual research project. Regretfully, the entirety of my work for that class was lost to the capriciousness of computer memory, and I am unable to provide the reading list for that project, interesting and informative though it was.
 As I acknowledged before, anti-Semitism does have a fairly strong presence in Indonesia, and various other inequalities and prejudices exist as well. I am in no way qualified to pass any kind of judgement on the quality of religious tolerance in Indonesia, though I have sought to understand it, in part through comparison of what I know of the religious tolerance in my own country. Although they do function in different ways, I have come to see Indonesia’s purported religious tolerance in the same way I see the United States’: technically, it exists, and there are many individuals and organizations which put this idea into practice in wonderful ways, but it is also undermined by both outright and unintended prejudice (which are equally dangerous, in my mind), on both an individual and systematic level.
 Though phrases like Alhamdulillah come from Arabic, and other ETAs have been told they cannot say such things unless they are Muslim, in my experience here even the Christian teachers use them. I cannot say which opinion regarding their use is more prominent, and can only appreciate the difference as yet another example of the diversity present in Indonesia.
 This is not to say that I do not have the utmost respect for religions and those who practice them. I have sought to learn more about various religions in our world both formally and informally, and for the most part I find religion to be quite beautiful. I have merely decided that practicing a religion is not for me personally, and while I have not felt comfortable with the idea of talking about that here, I do not want to pretend to be especially religious either.
 My students, some of whom are themselves from these areas, were able to confirm this some cases, as they knew those particular members. However, I cannot confirm that all those I saw are originally from outside Java, and it is quite possible that they were born and raised in Malang. As I did not speak with most of these individuals, I do not know.
 Traditionally, once a woman dons the jilbab, or veil, she must continue to wear it in public for the rest of her life. In practice, I have met many Muslim women who started wearing the veil, and then chose to remove it later in life, as well as others who work in religious institutions and wear their veilto work, but not in other public spaces. I have not personally observed any difference in piety between those who wear the veiland those who do not, but there are some who believe that wearing the veilmakes one a better Muslim. It is easy, then, for me to see why this is such a difficult decision for my girls to make. I have one student who stopped wearing the veil, after having worn it since elementary school, and I have another who started wearing it for the first time, even though her mother insisted she would look more beautiful without it. The careful consideration they give to this decision is a testament to their maturity, and the wisdom they already possess, and I am honored that they have confided in me throughout the process.
Recently, after two weeks of feeling unwell, I paid a visit to a rumah sakit (hospital) with one of my co-teachers. After a round of conversations with both doktor and perawat (nurse), as well as few tests, it seemed I had a visitor. Typhoid.
Typhoid is a rather unpleasant sort of fellow, who takes great pleasure in vexing his hosts. He takes a considerable amount of energy to entertain, and he often left me lying, listless, barely able to re-read my favourite novels, for hours after catering to his various ill-tempered moods. He also forces a drastic change in his host’s diet. He refuses to dine on any food which is cooked in grease, or is spicy or sour. If you know anything about the fare in Indonesia, you know this is an exceedingly difficult demand to meet. And he has the terrible habit of failing to see when he has outstayed his welcome. Even after I began to play host to various antibiotics and other gastric obat (medicine), and was entirely overwhelmed by guests, he insisted on lingering.
The worst part of Typhoid’s stay was that, so long as I was playing host to him, I could not enter the classroom. The doktor recommended we take our repose together for a fortnight, and I was not permitted to teach while we were doing so. But though I was all politeness at the first, I am, at heart, a stubborn farm girl in no way averse to rudely giving someone the boot if need be. I bitterly followed every one of the doctor’s orders—resting with the same dedication and stubbornness with which I had initially refused a doctor’s assistance—and I had a clean bill of health after a little over a week, considerably sooner than anyone anticipated.
Still, though Typhoid has officially vacated my residence, the damage he did while he was here remains. After teaching a mere three classes—and three of my easiest classes, at that—I stumbled back into my bed for an afternoon nap that was far longer than it had any right to be. It will be some time before I am myself again, but am certain that I will be the same Miss Grace I was before he so rudely entered my life.
 Which, due to its being a private hospital, resembled a hotel more than a hospital. (At least in my eyes it did—I’ve, thankfully, had very little experience with hospitals to date.) If you are looking for the true Indonesian hospital visit, you shall not find it here. I have yet to learn what a more ordinary hospital is like here, and I’ll be quite satisfied if I never do.
 I know what you’re thinking: why did it take me two weeks to go to the hospital? In my defense, while I did have all the symptoms of Typhoid, I never had any of them at the same time. So I thought I was playing host to various illness, one after the other, when in fact it turns out it was all one monster the entire time. I won’t pretend the fact that I am more than a little keras kepala (stubborn, or quite literally hard- headed) didn’t play a role in my trying to fight the illness myself for so long, but had my Typhoid actually acted like Typhoid, I promise I would have gone to the doctor much sooner.