HE'S pointing with his thumb. Dressed in royal sarong and batik court turban, the sultan's Abi Dalem (aide) directs us to our seats. Whether within the stately palace of Yogyakarta or amid a frenzied street market, Indonesians still point with their right thumb resting on clenched fist.
It's a small thing, perhaps, but indicative of how Javanese customs blend with Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions and percolate up through centuries of foreign overlays.
Nationhood came only 50 years ago, after Japanese occupation in World War II. Before the Japanese, the Dutch ruled for 350 years. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the religion of Islam, brought by traders, was adopted by Indonesians. The Muslims swept away centuries of Buddhism and its predecessor, Hinduism. Hindu teachings came from India sometime before the third century, largely usurping the local animist beliefs.
But go 42 kilometers (26 miles) northwest of Yogya (pronounced Jog-jah) in central Java. There, a small stone-gray mountain rises above the lush rice paddy and coconut palm landscape. Bracketed on one side by the jagged Menoreh range, Borobudur stands as the world's biggest Buddhist temple. It's considered on a par with Cambodia's Angkor Wat and Burma's Pagan monuments.
Borobudur surpasses in scale and artistic endeavor any Hindu temple in India. This representation of the cosmic ``Mt. Meru'' linking earth to heaven is studded with more than 450 serenely staring Buddha statues.
The five-story pyramid contains 1,500 stone reliefs providing a pictorial journey of the Buddhist path to nirvana or enlightenment. Carved by Javanese craftsmen 12 centuries ago, figures in some reliefs can be seen pointing - with their thumbs.
``Pointing with the index finger is a terrible thing to do. It means death or violence. People used their thumb for polite pointing and it's still the same today,'' notes Jan Fontein, curator of the exhibition of ancient Indonesian sculpture sponsored by Mobil Indonesia, which opens at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in July.
The evidence of the past goes beyond finger pointing. Built about 50 years after Borobudur and not far away is the stunning Hindu temple Prambanan. Fifty meters (164 feet) high, for centuries it was the tallest building in Java. Not only is the one-up-manship response typical of the times, says Dr. Fontein, the proximity of these two (and other Buddhist and Hindu temples in Java) is considered indicative of remarkable coexistence and Indonesian religious tolerance.
Frequently, temples contain a blend of the two religions. For example, at Borobudur, in a striking departure from Buddhist tradition, one of the reliefs depicts Shiva among the guiding gurus. In Hindu, Shiva is the most powerful of the three main divinities.
At Prambanan, reliefs carved out of volcanic stone contain Javanese versions of the Indian epics ``Ramayana'' and ``Mahabharata'' - rough equivalents of the Greek ``Iliad'' and ``Odyssey.'' The adventures of good characters conquering evil in these tales are woven into the fabric of today's Indonesian social mores.
``The fact that many parts of Indonesia have been converted to Islam does not mean the old traditions are entirely cut off,'' says Fontein. ``You have only to go to any village in Bali or to any wayang [shadow puppet] performance in Java to see that is a living reality. Conflicts in society are interpreted in terms of the ancient stories.''
Indeed, if you flick past the 24-hour CNN news channel on the hotel television, you may spot cartoon characters from the ``Ramayana'' and ``Mahabharata'' spreading information about government programs on birth control, health procedures, and other public issues.
Today's Indonesian names and nicknames harken back to the epic characters too. For example, just as in Christian society one finds a ``Doubting Thomas,'' in Indonesia a self-confident, spiritually minded man might be likened to the good warrior, ``Prince Arjuna.'' A faithful brother would be tagged, ``Laksamana.'' A greedy loser might be dubbed, ``Rawana,'' after the demon prince who carries off Rama's faithful wife, Sita.
Back at the kraton in Yogya, we watch a special performance of the sultan's own dancers. Two episodes from the Indian-Javanese epics are included. In exquisite gold, black, and red traditional costumes, they glide across the marble floor in slow-motion, in precise puppet fashion.
The atonal percussion gamelan orchestra creates a mesmeric atmosphere altered only slightly by the shrill cries of bats chasing mosquitoes somewhere in the falling darkness.
The prince's young children play patty-cake games just off stage. The aging concubines of the last sultan (largely an honorary title now) sit cross-legged and stare from the shadows. When the last dance ends, and gratitude is conveyed, the smiling Abi Dalem politely shows the way out with a short, pudgy digit.
Monitor writer David Scott recently traveled throughout Indonesia with other journalists and is reporting on his trip in a six-part series that appears weekly.
1. March 22: Impressions of the capital, Jakarta 2. March 29: Demise of the person-powered `becak' taxi 3. April 5: Haggling for wares in an open-air market 4. Today: Why Indonesians point with their thumbs 5. A visit with artist Kartika Affandi Koberl 6. Bali, a bit of heaven on earth