Closing Indonesia's cultural gaps with a simple wedding

It doesn't take a village to get married, say more couples who are eschewing elaborate customs - and the involvement of all their relatives.

As separatism and ethnic conflicts challenge Indonesia like never before, its young people are finding a new way to bring the nation's hundreds of cultures together: by tying the knot.

Marriage here has usually meant opulent ceremonies following the traditional ways, or adat, of a couple's family. But with cultural intermarriage soaring in urban centers, a stripped-down ceremony is coming into vogue for the middle class.

At the heart of the trend is the desire to emphasize "Indonesian-ness" over cultural differences. "We're seeing more of this," says Samuel Wattimena, a fashion designer who doubles as Jakarta's leading wedding maven. "People want something modern."

Traditionalists, of course, are alarmed by these modern weddings, especially since they're defined by what they're not. Rituals are replaced by a sparse exchange of vows, usually Islamic, in front of a packed room with hundreds of guests - many only distantly connected to the couple.

Islamic preachers who specialize in weddings usually preside over prayers and vows of loyalty on a specially built bower bedecked with orchids and jasmine. Then it's on to an aspect of global wedding culture: A hot buffet, without the Swedish meatballs.

Simplicity is part of the appeal. No surprise if you consider what some Indonesian brides go through. "A wad of betel leaves, chicken eggs buried in front of the inner room … a bottle of oil and half a bottle of water mixed together to be impervious to black magic…" are among the items on a turn-of-the-century Javanese wedding to-do list cited by anthropologist John Pemberton in his book "On The Subject of 'Java.' " Mr. Pemberton dryly notes the list goes on for two pages.

Ika Ardina says she was filled with joy when her boyfriend, Affan Heyder, proposed. But the joy rapidly drained out of her as she realized the daunting logistical challenges ahead. Her father is from West Sumatra's lush Minang district while her mother is from the Central Java city of Yogyakarta. It didn't help that Mr. Heyder is descended from Arab settlers. The fact that everyone is a Muslim hardly mattered. A showdown loomed.

Though both sides of her family have lived in Jakarta for a generation, there are strong links to their ancestral homes. Most Indonesians remain members of virtual villages kept alive by mail and phone, and infrequent visits "home."

The now-scattered elders of the Minang village would have to be gathered and consulted, a drawn-out process that emphasizes the village pecking order. Javanese relatives would immerse Ardina in a 40-day round of ceremony and ritual purification. She sidestepped both and carefully picked out a culturally-neutral kebaya - the formal blouse worn throughout Indonesia - for her wedding attire.

"At first I didn't want either tradition because it was such a hassle," she says. "But then as I thought about it, yes, I wanted a wedding where everybody could feel they belonged. This is Indonesia. Everyone should be comfortable - not stiff and out of place because of some ritual they don't understand."

Breaking with tradition came at a price. She and her parents conspired to keep the wedding a secret from relatives until a week before. Otherwise "the pressure would have been overwhelming," Ardina explains. On the big day, her Javanese relations attended but scolded her mother. Her father's family stayed away.

Another recent bride, Lisa Waradya, is from the Bugis, a seafaring race of traders and fishermen from south Sulawesi. Piratical forays by the Bugis 300 years ago created the European boogeyman myth.

She opted for a modern Indonesian wedding, despite pressure from her family to hold a traditional ceremony complete with the uncomfortable wedding gown that Bugis brides dismiss as the baju bodoh - stupid dress. "There was a lot of screaming, but my family gave in," she says.

Though Ms. Waradya's reasons had more to do with style and ease than nationalism, she says she never considered the Western-style white gown in fashion among the nation's rich. "I'm not a Westerner. I wanted an Indonesian wedding."

Indonesia's melange of cultures is both a strength and an Achilles' heel. The vast island chain - its breadth is roughly equal to the distance from New York to Los Angeles - was racked by rebellions after independence at the end of World War II.

Minorities feared the emerging nation provided cover for creeping Javanese imperialism that would completely overtake ethnic minorities. Today, Java is home to more than half of Indonesia's 210 million people.

The great success of Sukarno, the first president, was his ability to forge a national identity and convince the country's so-called "Outer Islands" that there was something in Indonesia for them.

The early republic avoided the talk of assimilation that would have made minorities nervous. Indonesia's motto is "Unity in Diversity," a completely different answer to the challenge of diversity than America's "E Pluribus Unum" - From Many One. The national language is Bahasa Indonesia, an Esperanto-like compromise that is almost no one's first language.

The deep and abiding sense of a national culture created then remains, and is the best hope Indonesia has of weathering its current storm. "The sense of nationalism that was forged in the independence struggle appears to be intact," says Harold Crouch, an Indonesian political-affairs expert from the Australian National University in Canberra.

Still, it's a constant struggle. Many Indonesians return to their tribal identifications when hit by the strains of a rapidly changing world. Under Suharto, who pushed Sukarno from power in 1965, that feeling of national inclusion was weakened. Mr. Suharto centralized power and wealth. Where Sukarno was a populist, the aloof Suharto saw himself as a Javanese king. His "New Order" regime used lavish weddings in the style of the Javanese court to cement their link to the monarchs of Java's imagined past.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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