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  • Nabil Alghifari

Ondel-Ondel, Betawi’s Sacred Great Puppet

Updated: Jul 21, 2023


Jakarta, known as an enormous modern city and the capital of Indonesia, was a port city named Sunda Kalapa until 1527. Fatahillah, a Demak Sultanate emissary from Arabia, named the city "Jayakarta" after he successfully managed to seize Sunda Kalapa from the Portuguese on June 22, 1527, which became the birth day of Jakarta. The city began its development in 1621 and was named Batavia by the Vereenigde Oost-indische Compagnie (VOC), or East-Indies Company, a Dutch trade company that ruled Batavia. Batavia has become a meeting place for ethnic groups from various parts of the archipelago, which has contributed to influencing the growth of the city, both in the precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial eras. Jakarta developed from interactions between various ethnic cultures in the archipelago region and the world’s cultures, namely India, China, Europe, and Islamic culture. Betawi culture was formed after cultural interactions between those ethnicities and evolved from the influence of local beliefs and habits.

Ondel-ondel is one of the city’s icons; it’s a large puppet folk figure of Betawi. Nowadays, it's used as an icon for livening up festivals, usually performed in pairs. Traditionally, the figure was called barongan, derived from a spirit that came from the animistic Austronesian culture before the influence of Hinduism arrived in the archipelago. The puppet was performed around villages to protect the people from calamity, representing the ancestors that provide their protection from evil. Therefore, the puppet was recorded to have frightening facial features such as large fangs and menacing eyes, similar to Barong or Rangda from Bali. Before a performance, the performers usually do sacred rituals like burning kemenyan (a type of Incense), kembang tujuh rupa, and preparing rice porridge as their offering. The ritual is a familiar one for Indonesian folks to honor their ancestors, so their ancestors could give their power to the ondel-ondel to protect and cleanse their village. After the ritual, a performer enters the hollow body of the puppet to wander around the village. Usually the performers ask bystanders for marijuana or opium. When opium and marijuana were banned in The East Indies, people would ask for cigars instead of opium or marijuana.

Nowadays, the figure is not a protective spirit figure anymore. Its function has shifted since Indonesian independence as an entertainment icon in Jakarta. The frightening visual elements were removed by Ali Sadikin, the Governor of Jakarta, in 1966–1977. Ali then made a more friendly-looking puppet to be used as the icon of Jakarta. The male puppet of ondel-ondel now appears in bright red paint with tiny fangs, and the female is painted pale white. Those changes were made for a more friendly-looking but slightly frightening look to maintain its history. In Senen, Central Jakarta, there is a community that still maintains the ondel-ondel culture; they sometimes do some rituals as their ancestors did in the past before the performance of ondel-ondel. The function of the puppet has shifted to a more ‘non-sacred’ icon nowadays, as we can still see ondel-ondel puppets roaming and busking around the city accompanied by gambang kromong music.

The above article was written by a guest contributor.

About the Contributor

Nabil Alghifari recently graduated from Udayana University, majoring in archaeology.

During his pastime in Jakarta post-graduation, he started wandering around the city, learning more about the culture and history of his birthplace as a Betawi.

Nabil also enjoys reading Indonesian and European literature, having read some that are related to local history and culture.

You can find him on social media at @effervescccent on Instagram!


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