Home » Practical Information » Indonesian Customs and Culture

Indonesian Arts and Crafts

One of the many pleasures of living in Indonesia is having the opportunity to learn about and collect Indonesian Balinese Masksarts and handicrafts. The diversity evident in Indonesia's 300 plus ethnic groups is reflected in the diversity of its art forms. Just as every ethnic group throughout the archipelago has its own language/dialect, cuisine, traditional dress and traditional homes and they have also developed their own textiles, ornaments, carvings and items for daily use and special celebrations. The rich cultural heritage of art and handicrafts is one of Indonesia's true national riches.

Indonesian art forms can include designs traced back to early animistic beliefs, ancestor worship, Hindu or Buddhist influenced motifs brought by Indian traders, Chinese or Islamic symbols and beliefs. Foreign influence on Indonesian art forms was brought about by centuries of exposure to other cultures through trade. Immigrants from China, India, the Arab world and later Europe traveled to the archipelago in search of the unique spices grown in Indonesia. These traders settled and brought with them rich artistic traditions which influenced the development of local art.

Making of BatikToday we can see highly developed art forms wherever these artisans had patrons in centuries past. One of the places where this is perhaps most evident is in Yogyakarta where the Sultan's family has supported batik, silver, wayang and other artisans for generations. With this patronage the art forms flourished, resulting in a rich variety of art forms today.

The rich artistic traditions of Bali, where traditionally each person must develop skills in a particular art form - be it dance, music, or visual arts has lead to the creation of a vibrant artistic community. Foreign artists have been drawn to Bali for centuries due to this unique cultural synergy.

Handicrafts also developed from the usage of every day household items which were decorated and used for ceremonial purposes. Witness the wide variety of uses of natural woods, fibers, bamboo, rattan and grasses. Natural and chemical dyes, beads and other natural ornamentation are used to decorate these items, many of which have developed over time into distinctive art forms.

Many expats take advantage of the opportunity of living in Indonesia to learn more about its culture, or to begin a Wayang Kulit Puppeteercollection of art objects or handicrafts that they enjoy. We go through early days of explorations, through the thrills of discovery and learning, to hunting down particular items you want and acquiring true finds.

Often expats are able to acquire things in Indonesia that they wouldn't have been able to afford at home where import duties and retail mark-ups make the prices skyrocket. In addition, the purchase of various handicrafts is often associated with special memories ... wonderful memories of vacations, the tukang and the fun of searching for the right piece.

With the rupiah exchange rate so favorable against most foreign currencies - great bargains are to be found in Indonesia! Visit either Sarinah Jaya or Pasaraya in Jakarta for a good introduction to Indonesian handicrafts, though don't expect to find true antiques there. Then you'll know better what you may want to purchase on your travels through the archipelago.

Wooden PuppetsIf you develop a love for a particular item, seek out others who share your new hobby/collecting and learn the history of the items together. Expats who fall in love with a particular art form may even plan their travel through the archipelago around their special interest, tracking down and viewing the making of the items in their places of origin.

One of the most popular organizations in Jakarta for those who are interested in learning more about Indonesian culture is the Indonesian Heritage Society. Amateurs become experts through research using their extensive library and participation in study groups. Study groups are formed dependent on the interest of the members and in recent years have included: textiles, ceramics, wayang, batik and others.

Museums in Jakarta and in other major cities display priceless artifacts from Indonesia's vibrant history. Join a tour at the National Museum, visit the Textile or Keris museum and you will quickly discover the rich cultural heritage of Indonesian art. While at the Museum Nasional, pick up a copy of the National Museum Guidebook, published by the Indonesian Heritage Society for an excellent introduction to the collection.

Provincial specialties

A few months after beginning your exploration of the various Indonesian art forms, certain provinces will soon take on character all their own through the art forms you association with them ... Javanese batik, Balinese carvings, Kalimantan baby bak, Malukan pearls, Bugis silk sarong, Lombok pottery, Dayak blow guns, Sumba ikat and more. Your travels throughout Indonesia will be enriched by your exposure to the development of different art forms in each province.


Indonesian art forms are rich in symbolism. The mythical naga or dragon; the mamuli pendant - symbol of fertility from Sumba, the tree of life, the mythological beast Garuda (also a national symbol found on the Panca SilaGaruda Carvingsymbol), all have special meanings in Indonesian traditions, myths and beliefs. Exploring the origins of these designs and what they mean is fascinating.

The war between good and evil, ancient stories of love and warfare, nature and the heavens - all have special meanings to Indonesians throughout the archipelago. Gods, demons and knights abound in Balinese carvings and in other areas where Hindu influence predominated at some point in history. Plants, animals (mythological and real) and geometric forms are also widely used and represent specific meanings in particular art forms.

Motifs drawn from nature - leaves, flowers, mountains, water, clouds, animals often represent religious or mystical symbols related to early forms of animism, then later to Hinduism. Islamic prohibitions against showing the human figure or other living creatures stagnated the development of many art forms in areas where Islam was strong.

Certain motifs were favored and even restricted to the royal families, especially in batik designs for the Surakarta and Yogyakarta royal families (one of which is called the broken keris). These symbols depicted simple, natural Parang Batik designobjects that were important to the lives of Javanese, such as the leaves of the aren palm or the fruit from the kapok tree. Traditional colors of navy blue, cream, brown and black used in batik have given way to a myriad of colors utilizing modern imported dyes.

Handicrafts and art objects range from every day items which are unique to Indonesia, to one-of-a-kind collector's items, with a very wide range in between. What you will buy and/or collect depends of course on what you like. To introduce you briefly to the wide range of items available we've covered some of the more popular below:


The diversity in Indonesian textile forms is astounding and is yet another representation of its rich cultural Sample of Batikheritage. Indonesian textiles include hand drawn and stamped batik, the design of which takes months to create; double weave ikat from the islands of Nusa Tenggara, ship cloth from Lampung, silk Bugis sarong from Sulawesi, gold-painted Balinese prada fabric; shimmering kain songket from Palembang utilizing silver and gold metallic threads weft in woven cotton or silk ikat; and Tapis weavings from Lampung.

Weavings from the 27 provinces utilize different materials, methods, colors and designs. Primarily formed on back looms, weeks or months are spent creating intricate designs for everyday use or ceremonial wear. These weavings are primarily known by the different techniques that are used to create the distinctive designs.

The symbolism of the various ethnic groups is evident in the variety of textiles. Color, shapes and their arrangements all have special meanings. Certain designs can only be worn by women or men, or only by the Ikat Textilemembers of the royal family or nobility.

Special textiles are worn or exchanged in life cycle or rights of passage ceremonies celebrating birth, circumcision, puberty, marriage, childbearing and death. Textiles play an important role in many traditional events and ceremonies.

Written records dating to the fourteenth century document the importance of textiles in the social and religious lives of Indonesians. The highly distinctive traditional dress, or pakaian adat, best shows the diversity of uses of textiles throughout the archipelago. The even more elaborate bridal dress displays the best of each province's textile and ornamental jewelry traditions.

Wayang -- Puppets

Puppets have been used for centuries in Indonesia to tell the stories of the ancient epics, the Ramayana and the Wayng KulitMahabarata, as well as ancient myths. Modern stories also utilize this ancient art form for contemporary audiences.

Puppets fall into two major classifications - wayang kulit - the leather or shadow puppet of Central Java, and wayang golek - wooden puppets of West Java. There are several varieties of wooden puppets. Some expats enjoy collecting the same character by various artisans, or all the characters in a scene or story, or just characters that strike their fancy. Good guys, bad guys, gods, demons, nobles, giants, clowns, princes and princesses and monkeys ... all can be found in traditional puppet forms.

Less commonly seen are the Wayang Klitik, a flat wooden puppet. Links to sites with information on wayang

Traditional Toys and Games

The congklak, or dakon board game was brought to Indonesia by Indian or Arab traders centuries ago. Made Congklak Boardfrom plastic or wood, or highly carved by court artisans, this game has been played in Indonesia for centuries. Examples of early congklak board can be found in the National Museum.

Traditional toys can be found throughout the archipelago and forays into the provinces will undoubtedly turn up many simple toys made by villagers for their children. These can be purchased at local pasar, roadside stands or near popular tourist destinations.


Ceramics made their way to Indonesia over centuries of trade with China dating back to 205 BC. Ceramic items range from everyday common vessels and plates, to fine ceramic pieces that became heirlooms passed down fromBlue Ceramic Vasegeneration to generation.

Modern reproductions of these antiques abound ... so take the time to learn the difference between a genuine antique and a modern reproduction. The Ceramic Museum in Jakarta, ceramic study groups at the Indonesian Heritage Society and a wealth of books on Ceramics will help introduce you to this fascinating ancient art form.

More affordable, and yet just as beautiful is jewelry made from antique ceramic shards discovered in port cities throughout the archipelago. While formerly these broken dishes served as ballast in ships from China, modern artisans have turned these broken ceramic pieces into beautiful jewelry and other useful items.

Contemporary ceramic design can be found in a wide range of useful household items. Lombok pottery in particular is popular with expats. The intricate terra-cotta pottery made in the village of Kasongan near Yogyakarta is also a favorite of many.

Natural fibers and materials

A wide range of items, both useful and decorative are made from natural fibers such as pandanus, rattan, bamboo and grasses. Rice spoons, bowls, containers, woven mats, baskets, lamp shades, boxes, natural paper products and a multitude of other items are made from natural fibers in Indonesia.

Bamboo, while exotic in the west, is one of the most practical natural plants. The uses of bamboo in Indonesia are Natural Fiber Productsnumerous and Indonesians utilize bamboo extensively for a variety of items including baskets, winnows, cups, buckets, furniture and woven walls in traditional homes. The fine strands used for fans, purses, bags, hats, baskets and other items. Larger, thick strips are used for flower baskets, walls and other items. While bamboo was originally used for practical items around the house, these have been further developed into new items which sell well as souvenirs.

Bone, rubber, coconut shell, fibers, horn and other natural materials are used in many folk handicrafts from blow pipes, figurines, bags, storage items, painted umbrellas, and even ships made entirely from cloves.


Shells are used by Indonesian artisans to create a wide variety of useful items, wind chimes and jewelry. The waters surrounding the over 17,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago have given forth an abundance of aquatic splendor. Exotic shells can be purchased for small sums of money. However, be cautious in your purchases as many species are over-harvested and their extinction is only a matter of time. In particular, avoid purchasing the Nautilus and giant clam, protected species which are already endangered.


One of the richest art forms in Indonesia reflects the Indonesian woman's desire to ornament her traditional dress, which wouldn't be complete without various items of traditional jewelry. Ornamentation used with traditional dress is rich in symbolism and design. From modern designs in 22 karat gold, to intricate filigree silver jewelry from Yogyakarta, using precious and semi-precious stones, or modern plastic, wood or ceramic ... there are many designs, materials and price ranges to choose from. Many expats indulge their love of a particular type of jewelry ... buying opals or silver jewelry until they've built up quite impressive collections.

Antique jewelry (both authentic and reproductions) is a favorite of expats. Antique trade beads, or their reproductions, are very popular.

Mabe pearls are a favorite with expats in Jakarta. You can purchase the loose pearls and have them set in your own gold or silver design at your favorite jewelers. Pearl farms harvest huge quantities of mabe and fresh water pearls in Lampung, Maluku and Sulawesi.

A trip to the gem markets of Jakarta or Kalimantan is a fun adventure and provides an introduction to the variety of gemstones available in Indonesia. These include diamonds, South Sea pearls, opal, sapphire, amethyst and banded agates. Beware that many stones are actually manufactured ... what is termed masakan in Indonesia. The karat content of gold can often misrepresented and gemstones could be fake. Depend on a trusted jeweler or shop with knowledgeable friends.

Antique Furniture

Beautiful Dutch colonial and other antique furniture from the 18th and 19th centuries is popular with expats, Wooden Carved rocking chairincluding Balinese opium beds, rice storage units, old cupboards, Javanese carved wall panels, doors and unique tables. These pieces may need restoration or may have already be refinished or reconditioned by the shops.

Many shops cater to the expats love of antiques and sell authentic antiques or reproductions. Widely available too are new designs of furniture, utilizing old wood. The advantage of old wood is that it is less likely to split when you bring it back to a dry climate, as the wood has been seasoned for decades. Much 'antique' furniture available is actually new furniture that has been left in the sun and rain for months to . age. the furniture. Be careful to purchase from a trustworthy dealer if you want to be sure you are getting authentic antiques.

Wood Carvings

3 D Wooden CarvingWooden carving traditions and skills can be found throughout the Indonesian archipelago, with the most famous being from Bali, Central Java, Madura, Sumatra and Papua. Different areas developed very different traditions so that many items are immediately identifiable as being created by particular ethnic groups. Most popular with expats are Javanese and Balinese wooden image carvings, Jepara lattice-like three-dimensional reliefs and Irianese primitive carvings.

Even amongst wooden carvings from a particular province, differences in design, style and subject matter are easily evidenced after some study. Irianese tribes such as the Asmat, Dani, and Komoro have very distinctive styles of carvings of totem poles, weapons, figures and utensils.

Whimsical, brightly colored modern carvings are produced primarily in Bali. And the popularity of these pieces has Modern Wood Carvings from Baliinfluenced the wooden carving traditions of other regions as well.

Used in prehistoric times in burials, the use of ancient spirit masks have given way to masks used in many traditional dances. These highly stylized masks, topeng, depict the various characters in the story told by the dance. Masks enable the performers to assume new identities and depict a variety of characters from demons to animals, princes or gods. Amongst the most famous masks used in dance are the Rangda and Barong masks from Bali. In this traditional dance, performed often for tourists, the interaction of Rangda, representing evil, and the Barong, representing good, restores the harmony between the good and evil in life.

While masks for sale in stores are primarily from Central Java and Bali, masks from other ethnic groups were used widely in the past to communicate with ancestors, for blessings for harvests, protection from evil spirits, to acquire new personalities or great powers.

Wooden MaskFragrant sandalwood from the Nusa Tenggara is available in carvings, medicine, incense, cosmetics, prayer beads and useful items such as pens and fans. It is usually stored in a special glass cabinet in stores and a stroll past the cabinet will quickly acquaint you with the exotic fragrance of this special wood.

Woods used in carving include ebony, teak, mahogany, ironwood, sandalwood and other lesser known indigenous woods. The price may often be related to the type of wood used, as harder woods are more difficult to carve. Since many are concerned by the cutting of tropical hard wood forests, many wood items are made from teak trees which are cultivated on plantations. Look for the labeling designated the item as utilizing plantation-grown teak.

Stone Carvings

Volcanic rock are carved to create statues depicting characters from ancient Indonesian myths and epics. These Stone Carvingare predominantly found in Yogyakarta and Bali where stone carving traditions date back over 900 years and were highly developed during the construction of major temples in these areas.

Bangka Tin

Pewter items are made with tin from the island of Bangka. Favorites with expats are the angels in varying sizes, candlesticks, picture frames, and Christmas tree ornaments. Engravings of Bangka tin items are often presented by various expat groups to their members in recognition of various achievements.

Shops specializing in Bangka pewter items can be found in Jakarta on Jl. Paletahan. These shops offer significant discounts. Displays of Bangka tin items can also be found in the major arts and handicrafts centers in Jakarta and in other popular tourist destinations.


Bali PaintingPainting as an art form was really developed in the 19th and 20th century and includes batik paintings, the highly stylized paintings of Bali which depict village and traditional life as well as modern oils and acrylics. Famous Indonesian painters such as Raden Saleh, command high prices on the international market and at auctions in Singapore and Jakarta.

Musical Instruments

Along with the other arts forms that developed in great diversity across the archipelago, cultural diversity also lead to the development of different musical traditions, thus different instruments. Angklung from West Java, Gamelan from Yogyakarta or Bali, flutes and gongs from West Java are favorite collectibles of expats. Gamelan links and Expat Community group in Jakarta where you can learn Gamelan


While non-Islamic art forms abound due to the rich Buddhist/Hindu traditions dating back for centuries, Islamic calligraphy has developed in various art forms as well. These include embroidery, wood carvings, ceramics, paintings, and the beautiful gold embroidered Tapis cloth of Lampung.

Keris dagger


The ancient Keris is a favorite of expats, as well as bone blow pipes from Kalimantan, swords and daggers. Bowsand arrows and spears from Papua are also popular.

Batik copper stamps

Used in the cap production of batik, these copper stamps are collected by expats. Special designs can be made at the Cap Man in Jakarta where cap are worked into drawers and furniture as well as lazy susans, coasters or trivets.

Whatever your tastes and pleasures, you will soon enjoy the exploration of the various Indonesian art forms and enjoy collecting a few for yourself.

Mini glossary
kerajinan: handicrafts
kesenian: art
kenang-kenangan: something to remember your travels by
cinderamata: souvenir
oleh-oleh: something you bring back from your travels as a gift for family or friends.

Other articles on Arts and Handicrafts