The Far East in Words and Pictures
Indonesia is a country with many colourful ethnic groups and cultural expressions like dancing performances, musical festivals, sacrificial festivities, religious ceremonies and funeral rituals. Many centuries before the christian era various people left China for the southern regions. These people arrived in small boats at the shores of the large islands in western Indonesia. The original population merged with these migrants into a new people like the Bataks on Sumatra and the Torajas on Sulawesi. About five hundred years B.C. there was a second flux of migration with new people coming to Indonesia from the Chinese homeland. These new migrants introduced metal instruments like the gong which was an essential musical part of cultural and religious ceremonies. The migrants from China settled in villages consisting of large stilted houses for their family clans. The deceased were buried in constructions reminiscent of the migrant boats. These symbolic boats transported the souls of the dead to the old homeland. Priests sacrificed human lives to pacify the natural spirits for the well-being of the village community.
About the first century A.D. a new flux of migrants arrived in the Indonesian archipelago. They were sailors and merchants from Southeast India who settled along the shores of the large islands. Many among them were followers of hinduism inspired by the faith in a divine triad of the gods Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Guardian) and Shiva (the Destroyer). Others were followers of buddhism based on the teachings of Buddha. Their number and influence changed the the indigenous communities who transformed into an Indian style society. Elements in this proces of Indianisation were the introduction of new religious beliefs and the introduction of written language i.e. sanskrit script. Classic Indian literature like the story of Ramayana became common knowledge. The new migrants not only introduced cultural innovations to the old communities but social changes as well.
The new rulers established divine royalty considering themselves the personification of god in this world. Their subjects had a different social status. On one hand there was a small top of high caste people, on the other hand there was a vast majority of common people. The monarchs lived in kratons or palaces. These royal courts gave a new impulse to architecture, sculpture, literature, music, dance and other arts. In the course of centuries various royal families rose to power and gave a boost to cultural life. In central Java the buddhist Sailendras (Mountain Lords) commissioned the construction of the Borobudur complex about 825 A.D. After decennia the Sailendras in central Java were overthrown by hindu monarchs who built the Lara Jonggrang complex at Prembanan.
At the end of the sixteenth century the first Europeans came to the scene. The Dutch established an East Indian Company to safeguard their trade monopoly in spices and made contracts with local chiefs. Soon they built armed fortifications to protect their trade interests. In the end of the eighteenth century the East Indian Company went bankrupt. The Dutch government took over its possessions in the East Indies. This was the official start of Dutch colonial rule in the Indonesian archipelago. To consolidate their power and to maintain peace and order the Dutch established a large civil and military administration at a great expense. The population was forced to grow special crops as a tax payment for the colonial government. The presence of the Dutch led to political, social and cultural changes in the Indonesian archipelago.
Dutch rule originated a small elite of Dutch and Indo-Europeans who were ambiguous towards anything coming from Holland. A much larger group of Indo-Europeans was ambiguous towards the Dutch as well as the Indonesians. Then there were the Chinese and other Asians who were very different in social status. The Indonesians themselves were no homogeneous group either because of their different backgrounds. Nevertheless a self-conscious Indonesian elite emerged from the intellectuals of the upper and middle classes who wanted to end Dutch rule and endeavoured for independence. Soon after the second world war on 17 August 1945 a small group of intellectuals led by Soekarno and Hatta proclaimed independence. Later Soekarno was officially appointed the first president of the Indonesian Republic. He started the construction of a modern state union with a strong nationalist consciousness despite many ethnical and cultural varieties.
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Java is the most densely populated island in Indonesia. It has always been the most important island in the archipelago.Throughout the ages Java was the economic and administrative centre. Many inhabitants of the island are muslims. For pray meetings the men wear a chequered sarong (no batik) and a white shirt or jacket. On their heads they have a rectangular black velvet cap. The women are dressed in a white veil which leaves the face uncovered. Western Java is inhabited by the Sundanese, a community with its own language and culture. In early history the Sundanese people and their kings were converted to islam. In modern Sundanese society religion still has a prominent place. Almost all Sundanese are dedicated and devoted muslims. Central and eastern Java are inhabited by the Javanese who preserved many traditional and social customs. Their language for example is a traditional expression of social status. In fact each social group has its own vocabulary: the lower Javanese (ngoko) is used by a superior talking to his inferior, the higher Javanese (krama) is used by an inferior speaking to his superior, and then there is the middle Javanese (madiya).
Malabar is a mountain area in the western part of Java with vast tea plantations established by Dutch planters in previous centuries. In the beginning the Dutch government forced them to grow coffee. Later they started growing tea which was a much more suitable and lucrative business. One of these planters was Johannes Bosscha, a progressive Dutchman, who intended not only to to expand his company but also to educate the local people. With his financial aid houses were built for the workers and a school for their children. He built a nearby observatory to promote science. The villa of Johannes Bosscha was not destroyed in the turmoil during the period of decolonisation. The workers’ houses were also preserved for later generations. They are silent witnesses of a colonial period which many Indonesians try hard to forget.
Borobudur is an old temple complex in central Java near Yogyakarta. It was built in the 9th century. In origin it is a buddhist stupa: square basement, round body and slim top. The sanctuary is built around a hill and has no entrance. The basement has five square terraced stores receding from down under to up above. The walls of each terrace are fully covered with two horizontal rows of stone reliefs. Above the fifth square terrace there are three circular terraces in receding stores. Stupas on the border of each round terrace contain a meditating buddha. The central top is a giant stupa with a short peak. The walls of each rectangular terrace have niches at a regular distance with a meditating buddha in it. All buddhas on the same side of the monument have the same hand position or mudra. The upper reliefs on the inner side of the gallery walls depict various legends. The upper reliefs of the first gallery for example show the life of buddha up to the moment of his enlightenment when he starts to preach. The lower reliefs of the first gallery depict jataka’s, educating stories about benefactions of buddha in his previous lives, and awadana’s, educating stories about benefactions of other saints. The reliefs on the walls of other galleries relate of other buddhist legends.
The symbolism of the Borobudur is one of the religious pilgrim walking clockwise along the reliefs in the galleries. On the first stages his pilgrimage is still in the material world of transition. Enlightened by the buddhist legends the pilgrim reaches the higher circular levels where the material world makes way for the spiritual world of eternity. This is the heavenly world of concentration and meditation. The galleries are reached by climbing a steep stairway in the middle of each side of the Borobudur. At the end of each stairway one turns to the right and passes a small gate decorated with a kala or monster head.
Another famous temple complex not far from Yogyakarta is Lara Jonggrang or Prembanan after the name of a nearby village. The restoration of the monument is in an advanced stage and the main temple dedicated to Siwa is resurrected. Some other temples on both sides, dedicated to Wisnu and Brahma, are resurrected as well. On the inner side of the gallery near the temples of Siwa and Brahma realistic reliefs depict episodes from the famous hindu epic Ramayana. In the temple complex Siwa was worshipped as Batara Guru (highest teacher) accompanied by his spouse Durga with eight arms (the Javanese call her Lara Jonggrang ) and their son Ganesha with the head of an elephant. Other gods worshipped in the complex are Brahma with three heads, Wisnu and the bull Nandi, the carriage for Siwa.
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In the past hinduism was an influential religion in several pricipalities of Java. But its influence diminished over the ages. On the contrary in Bali hinduism is still present everywhere. Ordinary life in Bali is impregnated by the Agama Hindu Bali religion. This religion is based on a mixture of hindu and buddhist elements and old indigenous elements. The statues in temples and courtyards, along the roads and in the countryside suggest that there are many gods to worship and revere. In fact all these gods are manifestations of trimurti, the tripple unity of Brahma the creator,Wisnu the conservator and Siwa the destroyer. In the Agama Hindu Bali religion a dualist philosophy has developed with opposites like heaven and earth, gods and demons,sun and moon, good and bad. These opposites are complements, i.e. one cannot exist without the other. For this reason it is important to pursue harmony. This harmony can be reached by sacrifices and offerings. In Bali the gods are associated with the sun and the mountains. They are present everywhere, but their residence is in the highest mountains on the island. Every now and then the gods descend their residence to look after the people’s welfare. To appease the gods as well as the demons, the people bring a small sacrifice every day. Not only in the temples and in the courtyards, but also along the roads and roadcrossings, in the countryside, near bridges, on cars and everywhere else where people fear the wrath of gods and demons.
A Balinese temple has two or three courtyards with bales (open pavillions), shrines, socles and merus. Merus are high slim buildings with a roof composed of ever smaller stacked roofs. The number of roofs indicates the status of the deity for which the meru is designated: eleven roofs are for Siwa, the highest god, living on the flanks of mountain Gunung Agung. The merus for Brahma and for Wisnu have nine roofs. On the temple complex there are no pictures of the revered gods. The gods are invisible and can only be represented in a symbolic way. A split gate , the candi bentar, marks the entrance of a temple complex. Through this gate one enters the first courtyard or jaban. Soon appears a second gate the paduraksa. Usually this gate fas the finest decorations. On both sides it is flanked by stone rakasa, demonic figures repulsing evil powers. Behind the gate there is a stone wall, aling-aling, which stops the evil powers in their attempt to raid the temple when the gate is open. The first courtyard is for the preparations of the ceremony. The second courtyard is the sanctuary with altars and shrines where the gods reside after desending from the mountain tops.
In Mengwi is the official temple of Pura Taman Ayun, the second largest temple complex in Bali. The temple was built in 1634 and is dedicated to the ancestors of the monarchs reigning over Mengwi until 1892. The complex is surrounded by a canal and connected to a pond with lotus flowers. In front of the temple is the wantilan, a ringside for cockfightings. In the courtyard are countless merus, high slim buildings with stacked roofs, for the gods when they descend to earth. In the eastern part is an altar for the Mengwi monarchs who are still revered.
In Tanah Lot a temple is built on a rock in the sea and connected to the shore by a small piece of land or beach. Only at low tide the small sanctuary is open for prayer and sacrifice. A theatre near the temple stages kecak song and dance performances. Theme of each performance is a part of the Ramayana legend. The legend is about Rama prince of Ayodia. On request of his wicked stepmother Rama is exiled by his father. He has to stay in the forest for fourteen years living in poverty. His brother Laksamana is his companion. So is his loving and faithful wife Shinta who is kidnapped by Rahwana. After fourteen years full of adventures, after saving his wife Shinta, Rama returns in triumph to Ayodia together with his brother. The kecak was in origin a choir of men sitting in concentric circles around an oil-lamp doing in trance the backing vocals for a dance. It is called monkey dance because the performance ends with a fight between the monkey army of Rama and the demon army of Rahwana. The men sing by reprisal the words “tchak”or “kecak” which have no meaning; hence the Balinese name of Tchak of Kecak. Later a story was added to make the performance more interesting.
The most sacred temple complex of Bali is in Besakih on the slopes of the mountain Gunung Agung. Inscriptions in the year 1007 made notice of this temple. Since the 15th century the temple has been a leading religious institution. The complex has three large temples dedicated to Wisnu, Siwa and Brahma, each one on a terrace above the other. In times of important ceremonies the three main altars are dressed with coloured drapes: on the left black for Wisnu, in the middle white for Siwa and on the right red for Brahma. These three large temples are in the centre of eighteen smaller temples for various castes and for various directions in Bali. The Balinese bring a visit to this temple at least once each year as a kind of pilgrimage. Once in a hundred years is the Eka Dasa Rudra, a ceremony meant to restore harmony in the universe. The ceremony is very expensive and takes a long time of preparation. All priests in Bali are required to cooperate, to prepare precious offerings and to sacrifice many animals. The festivities last for three months.
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Sumatra has various ethnic groups with their own cultures manifest in architecture, language, dress, dance and music. The Bataks live in the interior of northern Sumatra. Up until the beginning of the last century they lived in isolation. Attempts to convert the Bataks to islam did not succeed. Missionaries trying to convert them to christianity were more successful. Because of their isolation the Bataks preserved their original culture for a long time.
Some Bataks still stick to their traditional religion based upon the reverence of their ancestors and the belief in gods, ghosts and the supernatural. These supernatural beings are present in nature like water, air, trees, stones, rivers, mountains and lakes. Their supreme deity is Ompu Tuan Jadi na Bolon, also called Debata. This god rules the universe consisting of three worlds: the upperworld of the gods, the medial world of mankind and the underworld of ghosts and demons. A datu maintains the equilibrium between these worlds by performing rituals and sacrificial offerings. The datu is not merely a priest, he is a witchdoctor and astrologer as well. Elements in Batak religion and language indicate a very old origin influenced by hinduism. The title of Batak monarchs for example began with the word singa (lion) and the sculptured heads on both sides of a traditional house also are called Singa or Gajah Dompak, names of hindu origin.
A traditional calendar with good and bad signs determines the social relations in a Batak community. People live according to regulations and only by offering sacrifices they have some influence on their fate and destination. On the day of the scorpion they are not allowed to organize a celebration as the scorpion is sure to catch the organizer with its pincers (pincers of scorpion), only those born on scorpion days may do so (scorpion’s belly). Not even on the following day it is allowed to undertake anything (scorpion’s tail). On another day they are destined to be idle. All efforts will be in vain on this day. Therefore they should not give their daughter in marriage nor allow their son to marry on this day. They should even refrain giving or receiving anything even merchandise. The day of the hooked clock is a favourable day. On this day they should accept everything, gold or other merchandise. However, they should not lend anything, for, as they will keep what they receive on this day, they will lose what is lent. Another day is destined to wave or carrier away. On this day they are not allowed to inaugurate a house, in whatever point of the compass it may be situated, at the risk of being carried away as corpses. On the fish day they have to fry fish for their guests to eat. If they offer them meat they will have to face the ill-effects of their deed, for their cattle will be killed in great numbers. This day “likes” settlements and gifts if people should mourn the loss of a relative on this day. This is also an appropriate day for rendering harmless a curse by means of a sacrifice. On the day of the fruit it is a good thing for them to marry, to receive cattle (i.e. as a weddinggift, as payment of a debt, etc.) or sow rice. Another day is favourable of incompleteness. Anything done on this day should only be done incompletely. Completion will only be possible if they offer a sacrifice.
In the past the Bataks were fighting each other in many conflicts and they had to anticipate a hostile attack at any time. Because of their continous struggles they built their villages in inaccessible places. In mountaineous areas they surrounded their villages by a stone wall of 2 and 3 metres high. In the plains they surrounded their villages by a thick and high bamboo hedge with a small entrance which could be closed and barricaded. This huta or traditional walled village is exhibited in the open air museum of Simanindo. The axial length of a traditional village is pointed from east to west. In the centre at the south side of each village is a rumah bolon, the large house of the local monarch. On both sides there are other houses, bagas or rumah, and at the north side there are ricestores or sopo. Their stooping facade turned to the village square is typical for Batak architecture. The richly ornamented houses are built on poles and a narrow stairway leads to the entrance. The facade of each house is decorated with traditional religious symbols: singa, buffalo, buffalo horns, lizards and female breasts. The fine curves of the wooden carvings are painted in red, black and white. The roofs are covered by black ijuk fibres of the palmtree. Since the Second World War the roofs are made of rusty iron plates making a poor impression. The outside of the houses is no longer decorated showing plain wood.
The village square is used for ceremonies and festivals. The open air museum in Simanindo presents a demonstration twice a day. These demonstrations give an impression of traditional dance and music at several occasions. The gondang orchestra of drums, gongs and flutes, is sitting in the gallery of the largest house. In the tot-tor sacrificial dance the datu or priest leads a buffalo to the village square. He binds the animal meant as a sacrifice to a stake decorated with branches of a waringin tree. In real adat festivals the buffalo is killed after a series of ritual dances around the stake. When the women dance they move their arms and hands in a strait style and they slightly bend their knees to the rhytm. They dance on the spot and virtuously keep their eyes on the ground. An acme of each demonstration is the dance of Si Gale Gale, a wooden puppet which moves by pulling some strings. In the past this puppet danced at the funeral of a person who had no children to look after the peace of soul after his death. The puppet is a surrogate son who by his dance brings rest and satisfaction to the soul of the deceased. It is believed that the first Si Gale Gale puppet was made for a king with many daughters and just one son. The son was a good dancer with a frail health who died at young age. The king was in so much pain and sorrow that the people from his village made a wooden puppet who looked just like his son. As the king saw him dancing he found comfort.
The garment of the dancers is traditional dress: a dark blue or dark red sarong with small strips and motifs under their blouse. The most important piece of dress is the slendang or shoulder cloth, which all Bataks, men as well as women, wear. Nowadays most Bataks wear modern Indonesian clothing. The women wear a batik sarong and a blouse or gown with flower motifs, the men wear trousers and a shirt with short or long sleeves, sometimes they wear a jacket. At festivities they always wear a slendang on top.
Pematang Purba is a an open air museum with a magnificent rumah bolon, once a residence for the king of the Simalungun Bataks. The large house and the adjacent harem was restored in the late twentieth century. A small stairway leads to the entrance. The floor is made of old teak shelfs with a dark patina. The dark inside reveals several cooking and sleeping places. A large wooden coffin was meant to retain the deceased monarch when his son and successor was not yet grown-up. Until that moment the body stayed in the house. The complex comprises rice stores, a meeting house and a royal cemetary. The last monarch died in 1948 and left behind twelve wifes. That is why some burial monuments are from the sixties and seventies in the twentieth century. The epitaph “requiescat in pace” clearly indicate that they were christians.
Ambarita is a little huta or enclosed village on the northeast coast of Samosir island in Lake Toba. The traditional village is an open air museum with several old houses built by Toba Bataks. The village is famous for its megaliths: stone tables and seats of at least threehundred years old. The local monarchs held court in this village where they brought their enemies and criminals to justice. When a person was sentenced to death, he was decapitated and his head was put on a stone table. Later his head was thrown into the deep water of lake Toba.
Balige is a Batak village to the south of Lake Toba, approximately one hour away from Parapat. The village is well known for its rumah or traditional houses and its fine cloths. The village is situated in an area populated by muslim Bataks. The outside of some houses in the village is no longer decorated.
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The unique culture of the Torajas is based upon an agelong tradition. The Torajas are an ethnic community of approximately 350.000 people in the interior of south and central Sulawesi. They live dispersed in little villages throughout the steep and sloping mountain area. The villages are conspicuous because of the traditional houses with large roofs. These houses or tongkonan stand close to each other. The normal houses are dispersed in the environment. Each village has cultivated land, waste land and two festival grounds. One of these festival grounds, the rante patunuan, is for the rituals of the west (funerals). The other, the rante kala’paran, is for the rituals of the east concerning life, people, animals and crops.
The traditional houses or tongkonan are built on poles. They are the most important buildings in each village. Their history unites many families because the tongkonan were constructed by their common ancestors. All family assets are kept in the tongkonan. The facade of each tongkonan is turned to the north. The major family ceremonies are held in the tongkonan. But not every family has a tongkonan. In the past the Toraja society was divided in three ranks: nobles, free men and slaves. Only nobles and their family members were allowed to keep a tongkonan. The tongkonan of the most important families have a “navel” post, a wooden post in the middle of the house, to support the floor girder in the axial length of the house. Various motifs in the wood encarvings on the outside of the tongkonan indicate the rank of each family. There are more than twohundred different motifs and each motif has its own symbolic meaning. Most common motifs are the head of a buffalo, the basket, leafs of the sirih plant, cock feathers, the sun and the seacrab. Conspicuous in Toraja architecture is the large roof of each tongkonan. It resembles a boat with curved stern and prow placed on top of a house on poles. The roof is covered with pieces of sliced bamboo stuck together by rotan. A stairway at the front leads to the entrance of the house, which is divided in three compartments: a front compartment, a central compartment with kitchen and a sleeping compartment. Nowadays the cooking compartment is located in a separate building next to the tongkonan. A tongkonan does not lodge the whole extended family, but just a nuclear family of four to twelve people.
Opposite each tongkonan is a ricestore, a smaller replica of the tongkonan house. The architecture of the ricestore is different from the traditional house in one essential aspect. The poles of the ricestore are circular, whereas the poles of the house are square. There is a practical reason for this difference: to prevent mice from eating the rice supplies in the store, the circular poles are made of slippery wood. Mice, rats and other rodents cannot climb up the poles. A floor underneath the store serves as a sitting or sleeping place for visitors during a ceremony. It is also in use as a working place.
The Toraja consider death the most important moment of their life, the liberation of their soul from the material world. A festival makes it possible for the soul to leave for puya, the land of souls. Their funeral ritual, part of the rituals of the east, is strictly separated from everything else concerning life and its spheres. Rice is related to life and relatives of the deceased are not allowed to eat rice in the mourning period. All their lifetime the Torajas save money to give their parents and other relatives an excellent funeral festival. This is so important for them that they consider large financial debts in order to organize a festival. The funeral festival of a high ranking person can cost many thousands of pounds and can last for many days. Sometimes the festival is divided in two periods to save money for the second part which may take place weeks, months or even years later.
The first part of the funeral festival takes place in the tongkonan and is not open for tourists. When a person has died his body is cleansed, his intestines are emptied and his corpse is injected with formaline. He is neatly dressed , wrapped in drapes and covered by expensive tissues. The mourners recite elegies and prayers and bring the deceased with his head turned to the west into the tongkonan. In this period they do not speak of the “deceased” but of the “sick”. When enough money has been saved it is time for the second part of the festival. The relatives start building festival stands for their guests. They figure out how many buffalos and pigs will be sacrificed, how many people will be invited, how many dancers and servants will attend the festival and so on. When the second part begins the deceased is placed in the central compartment of the tongkonan with his head turned to the south. From this moment on he is considered actually dead and “deceased”. Women start an elegy and men butcher a buffalo in the courtyard. Next day the visitors arrive, sometimes thousands of them: members of the family, friends, acquaintances, officials, etcetera. They bring gifts like pigs, buffalos, firewood, palmwine and money. The most important visitors are offered sirih by eight or twelve girls in traditional dress carrying a golden knife or kris and a kandaure or bead adornment. At the end of the first day it is time for buffalo and cock fights. The next day the deceased is “aroused”, a ritual which means that the festival is resumed. The priest sings funeral songs and members of the family lament. The corpse is taken to the floor underneath a ricestore in front of the a tau-tau, a wooden statue of the deceased. Then the corpse is taken to a stretcher shaped like a ricestore and a procession starts to move towards the festival ground. On arrival the sacrificial buffalos (sometimes more than fifty!) are shown to the guests and then butchered. Thereafter the deceased is transported to a tomb in the rocks next to his ancestors. The position of the tomb depends on the status of the deceased in his lifetime. The wooden statue or tau-tau is placed near the other wooden statues of the family in the rocks. From this moment on the deceased will guard his descendants.
The second part of the funeral festival is open to tourists. The guests gather near the festival ground. Then a girl in traditional dress escorts them to the ground. They pass the stretcher with the coffin of the deceased. On arrival the girl offers them a place to stay. The best places in the central part of the ground are for the local gentry. From here they can see the reception stand. Above the stand is a portrait of the deceased. Nearby is the tau tau or wooden statue of the deceased under an umbrella to protect him against the sun. On their way to the reception stand the guests pass the statue and bring him their honours for a last time. A priest in white dress performs a ritual dance to expel the bad spirits. Next servants offer the guests drinks like palmwine and dodol or fruit juice. During the festival many animals are butchered and consumed.
Many villages in Tana Toraja or the land of Torajas still have a traditional kind of architecture. A nice village to visit is Marante with traditional tongkonan houses and rock tombs. The village of Nanggala has nice ricestores. In Palawa traditional tongkonan houses and rice stores are built on a platform. The village has a circle of ritual stones as well. Batutumongga has a big circle of 56 large erect stones or megaliths. In this village the deceased members of a family are buried in separate rock tombs. Memorial stones or menhirs were constructed in remembrance of the deceased . In the land of Torajas magnificent rock tombs and tau-tau statues are to be found in Lemo. In Tampang Allo one can see “hanging tombs” with decomposing coffins and ornaments. In nearby Kambira is a tree for the burial of deceased babies, i.e. sucklings without any teeth. In the past the little corpses were placed into holes cut out of the stem. This custom is no longer in use.
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Diverse “De Kecak dans of de apen dans”, leaflet Arena Serba Guna “Wantilan Surya Chandra”
Diverse “The 30 days and the 12 months”, leaflet museum village Ambarita
Diverse “Traditionele Batak dansen”, leaflet museum Huta Bolon Simanindo
Martyr, Debbie “Indonesië, thuis in elk land”, edition in the Reiskompas series of travel guides
Wassing, R.S. en Wassing-Visser, R. “Indonesië”, edition in the Dominicus series of travel guides
Megaliths in Batutumongga.