India and Indonesia, maritime neighbors and strategic partners, have civilizational links spanning over two thousand years. Both countries have very good relations with huge potential to grow even further in the coming years.
Both are democratic countries with pluralistic societies where different religions, ethnic groups, and cultures co-exist in harmony. Since their respective freedom struggles against colonial masters in the 1940s, India and Indonesia have helped each other and remain close friends.
“Relations between India and Indonesia stand strong during both good and difficult times. In 2018, when Indonesia was affected by an earthquake, we immediately started operation Samudra Maitri,” ANI news agency quoted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as saying while addressing a gathering of Indian Diaspora living in Indonesia and Friends of India in Indonesia in Bali on Nov. 15, 2022.
“That year, when I came to Jakarta, I had said that India and Indonesia may be 90 nautical miles apart, but in reality, we are not 90 nautical miles apart but 90 nautical miles close,” Modi further said.
PM Modi mentioned Odisha’s Bali Jatra, a maritime journey from Odisha to Bali in the past and an annual trade and commerce fair on the banks of the Mahanadi River in Cuttack to commemorate the rich maritime history of the state.
“When people of Indonesia see photos of this year’s Bali Jatra on the Internet, they’ll be proud and happy. Due to issues arising from COVID, hurdles have cropped up. After several years, Bali Jatra Mahotsav is being celebrated on a grand scale with mass participation in Odisha,” said PM Modi.
Indonesia’s status as a Muslim-majority country has not prevented it from embracing the Ramayana in unique ways — every interpretation deserves careful study and analysis. Performers of the famous Ramayana ballet at the Prambanan Temple in Central Java are all Muslims.
The Indian Epics —Ramayana and Mahabarata — play an important role in Indonesian culture and history and are popular amongst Indonesians to this day.
Prambanan is one of the largest temple complexes in Southeast Asia which has various kinds of statues and reliefs. This temple is in Prambanan Village, close to Yogyakarta, in Klaten regency, Central Java.
It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991 and is the second biggest Hindu temple in Southeast Asia after the Angkor Vat temple in Cambodia. It is also known as Rara Jonggrang or Lara Jonggrang.
The temple, which was dedicated to Lord Shiva, was built around 856 A.D. by King Rakai Pikatan from the Sanjaya dynasty of the Medang Kingdom in Central Java. However, it was not completed during his period but rather in 856 A.D. by his successor, King Loka Pala.
Prambanan has many reliefs telling various stories and symbols. The story of Rama and Sinta is one that is depicted. There are others as well, such as the mystical Garuda, a human-bird hybrid. Garuda is the national symbol of Indonesia.
There are three main temples – Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva – in the Prambanan temple complex, which symbolizes Trimurti in the Hindu belief.
Each temple faces east and is adjacent to the accompanying temple facing west. Nandini for Shiva, Swan for Brahma, and Garuda for Vishnu. In addition, there are 2 flank temples, 4 kelir temples, and 4 corner temples. Meanwhile, the second courtyard has 224 temples. The main temples in the Prambanan complex reach up to 47 meters, 5 meters higher than the Borobodur Buddhist temple in Yogyakarta.
Indonesia’s fascination towards the Ramayana is nothing new. The country has taken inspiration from both Sage Valmiki’s Ramayana and Tamil poet Kamban’s Ramayana and thus, the Ramayana remains in the imagination and cultural milieu of the country.
Other Hindu temples can also be found on Java, Sumatra, Kalimantan, and Bali. Bali is the only Hindu-majority island in Indonesia. Numerous inscriptions in Sanskrit (Pallava script) have been found in various locations in Indonesia. One can visit the National Museum in Jakarta to find amazing archaeological evidence of Indonesia’s history. In front of the Museum, there is a magnificent statue of Arjuna’s chariot.
During the 3rd–16th century, numerous Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms existed throughout Indonesia. To this day, Indonesia uses many Sanskrit expressions, and Hindu names from Ramayana and Mahabarata are very common throughout the country. Indonesia’s state ideology, Pancasila (Five Principles), state motto, Bhinneka Tinggal Ika (Unity in Divesity), and the Indonesian Navy’s slogan, Jalasveva Jayamahai (On the Sea, We are Glorious), are some Sanskrit expressions found in Indonesia.
Bollywood movies and Indian yoga are also quite popular in Indonesia.
Cultural admiration is not one-sided, however. Indians also relate closely to Indonesian culture, including Hindu Balinese culture. During his visit to Java and Bali in 1927, Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore was so enamoured by Bali, he said “Wherever I go on the island, I see God”.
In 1950, Indian Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru praised Bali as the “Morning of the World”.
Nehru and Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, worked together to organize the famous 1955 Bandung Asian-African Conference, which led to the establishment of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1961.
In 1991, India adopted its “Look East Policy” to engage more with Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia. Under the dynamic Prime Minister Modi, India adopted its “Act East Policy” in 2014 to enhance further India’s ties with Southeast Asian countries.
Relations between India and Indonesia reached their peak in 2018 when Modi visited Indonesia. Both President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Modi flew kites in the National Monument (Monas) square in a personal affection between the two leaders. Many important agreements were signed to improve relations.
In 2016, Jokowi visited India to boost bilateral relations between the two countries. He also visited India in January 2018 to attend the India-ASEAN Summit.
Economic relations between India and Indonesia have been growing by leaps and bounds. Indonesia has risen to become India’s second-largest trading partner in the ASEAN region after Singapore. India-Indonesia bilateral trade has increased from $6.9 billion in 2007 to $21.01 billion in 2021.
With $17.93 billion worth of exports to India during the first nine months of this year, it has become Indonesia’s fourth largest export destination in the world. Total bilateral trade during the first nine months of this year reached a record $25.46 billion.
India is Indonesia’s largest buyer of crude palm oil as well as a major importer of coal, minerals, rubber, pulp and paper, and hydrocarbon reserves. Indonesia buys refined petroleum products, maize, commercial vehicles, telecommunications equipment, oil seeds, animal feed, cotton, steel products, and plastics from India. India also exports pharmaceuticals and formulations in bulk to Indonesia.
Indian cumulative direct foreign direct investments reached more than $20 billion. In the future, more Indian investments will come to Indonesia.
Both countries have set a trade target of $50 billion by 2025. Given the booming ties, including economic ties, this target can easily be achieved.
In the defense sector, both countries have been working closely. The Samudra Shakti, a bilateral maritime exercise, and Garuda Shakti, a joint military exercise, are organized every year. Indonesia has significantly stepped up naval cooperation with India, including joint exercises and port visits by warships, as part of Jakarta’s focus on maritime security across the Indian Ocean.
What is now needed is a futuristic strategic dimension to cement these soft power relations into civilizational pillars.
The people-to-people contacts between India and Indonesia must be enhanced. Indian tourists can visit beautiful Indonesia to see the cultural and historic Hindu-Buddhistic remnants.
In 2019, around 657,000 Indian tourists visited Indonesia. This figure may be doubled in the coming years given the potential of Indonesian tourism.
Indian tourists will feel at home when they visit Indonesia.
On Nov. 16, Jokowi officially handed over the G20 presidency to Modi. India will be the G20 presidency in 2023. Jokowi said that Indonesia fully supports India’s G20 presidency.
Ties between India and Indonesia are currently booming, and they may reach new strategic heights in the coming years.
Veeramalla Anjaiah is a Jakarta-based senior journalist and the author of the book “Azerbaijan Seen from Indonesia”.