While Purwakarta’s 800,000 residents are predominantly Muslim, it has, like Bali, a reputation for being an inclusive and open society, accepting of other religions.

First-time visitors to Purwakarta, nestled between Jakarta and Bandung, may wonder if they have arrived in another Bali.

They are likely to notice eye- catching statues of deities and demigods from the Hindu-Buddhist era of 11th-century Java.

One of the largest is a 15m-long sculpture of the mythical archer Arjuna Wiwaha heading to battle on a horse carriage as depicted in the Mahabharata – which, along with the Ramayana, are the two major Sanskrit epics from ancient India.

The Arjuna Wiwaha statue stands prominently in the centre of the town’s business district, while a 4m-tall sculpture of Ghatotkacha, a ruler from the Mahabharata, stands outside the main train station.

While local nationalist heroes also feature among the town’s 25 large statues, such as a sculpture of Indonesia’s founding president Sukarno, it is the Mahabharata ones that really stand out.

The Mahabharata and Hindu elements in the design of the entrance arches at the town’s borders also remind visitors of Bali, home to Indonesia’s Hindu majority.

While Purwakarta’s 800,000 residents are predominantly Muslim, it has, like Bali, a reputation for being an inclusive and open society, accepting of other religions.

For instance, the strong Hindu influence is obvious among the ethnic majority Sundanese in Purwakarta, a regency in the West Java province. “Purva” means early in Sanskrit, and “karta'” means prosperous and flourishing in the old Javanese language.

SUPPORT FOR SUNDANESE CULTURE

If the awareness of our national identity declines, extremist ideologies from overseas can easily come in and dominate. Our traditions must be on top of our mind.

MR DEDI MULYADI, the regent of Purwakarta, who has been promoting Sundanese culture, which he says encourages diversity and tolerance.

Native to West Java and with an estimated population of 40 million, the Sundanese are the second-most populous Indonesian ethnic group, and their language is the second- most widely spoken in Indonesia, after Javanese.

Mr Dedi Mulyadi, who has led the town as regent since 2008, is Sundanese and was originally from Subang, West Java. He has been promoting Sundanese culture, which he says encourages diversity and tolerance, to both residents and visitors in Purwakarta since 2003, when he was deputy regent.

The 46-year-old believes places such as Purwakarta are important if Indonesia is to retain its diversity at a time when rising Islamism and the increasing influence of conservative clerics, who teach a less tolerant variation of Islam, threaten the country’s values of pluralism.

PRESSURE FROM RELIGIOUS CONSERVATIVES

The pressure from religious conservatives could not be more real these days, as seen in Jakarta where mass protests by groups like the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) led to the imprisonment of Chinese- Christian politician Basuki Tjahaja Purnama in May for blasphemy against Islam.

Last month, the local government in Tuban, a regency in East Java, about 595km away from Purwakarta, had to cover a 30m-tall sculpture of Chinese deity Guan Yu at a temple with a white cloth after Muslim conservatives wanted it torn down.

Mr Dedi said he, too, was confronted with a similar situation in February last year when a smaller statue of Arjuna Wiwaha was set on fire. The culprits were never caught, but the incident came after a fiery debate between the regent and a small group of men from the local branch of FPI, who claimed that the statue encouraged idol worship, considered a sin in Islam.

Mr Dedi not only stood his ground, but continued to promote Purwakarta’s diversity, using the statues as a sign of how different cultures and religions can coexist.

He said radical ideas from groups such as FPI must be fended off by reminding Indonesians of the state motto, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, which means “unity in diversity”.

“If the awareness of our national identity declines, extremist ideologies from overseas can easily come in and dominate,” he said. “Our traditions must be on top of our mind.”

PROMOTING TOLERANCE AND TOURISM

Political watchers such as Mr Ismail Hasani, who teaches state administrative law at Syarief Hidayatullah Islamic University in Jakarta, said Purwakarta is now an up-and-coming regency with Mr Dedi at the helm.

“The creativity of Dedi Mulyadi is above most other regents and mayors, in the context of appreciating the local culture and tourism promotion,” he added. “Others must follow in his footsteps.”

Two years ago, Mr Dedi was invited to address the United Nations’ International Young Leaders Assembly where he called for stronger moral and innovative leadership in the world. He stressed in his speech the need for broader cultural knowledge and acceptance.

Under Mr Dedi, Purwakarta received the Harmoni Award in February from the Religious Affairs Ministry as recognition for its religious tolerance and pluralism.

The accolade is proof that there are still communities across Indonesia that stand for religious and racial diversity, said observers, and Mr Dedi is a key advocate of that.

“One of the obligations of administrators of the state is to create an atmosphere of harmony and tolerance,” Mr Dedi had said after receiving the award. “But it is a risk when carrying out our duties, so in essence, we must be ready to be unpopular.”

His efforts have resulted in a Purwakarta where the local community is generally welcoming to minorities and visitors.

A WINDOW INTO THE SUNDANESE WAY OF LIFE

Today, the former industrial town has grown into an attractive tourist destination, gaining popularity in recent years as a cultural window into the Sundanese way of life.

Every Saturday, more than 20,000 tourists, mostly Indonesians, visit the town just to watch its newest attraction, the Sri Baduga Fountain Park light and music show, which opened this year.

Sri Baduga, better known as Prabu Siliwangi, was a king of the Hindu Sunda kingdom in West Java between 1482 and 1521.

Incidentally, one of Sri Baduga’s grandchildren, Sunan Gunungjati – whose mother married an Egyptian of Hashemite descent – would later become one of the earliest Muslim clerics in Indonesia to spread the word of Islam.

The 3ha park was created during the Dutch colonial era as a watering hole for a herd of now near-extinct Javanese rhinoceros. The fountain is in an artificial lake built in the park.

Visitors to the fountain alone have boosted the local street hawkers’ takings by more than twofold, said Ms Rina Sylvia, 40, who sells fried chicken rice and other local snacks.

She told The Straits Times that she liked how the town had changed over the past years, adding that the rise in tourist arrivals has increased the revenue of her shop, which is located on a main road.

“More people like to come and enjoy the Wayang Golek dance performance and music,” she said, referring to the traditional Sundanese puppetry. “We are Muslim but we are Sundanese, and we have a beautiful culture.”

Mr Dedi said Sundanese culture has, for ages, taught people to live in harmony despite their differences, he told The Straits Times.

But he is also aware that what works for Purwakarta and West Java may not work elsewhere. “Development in each of the regions across Indonesia must reflect the local culture so that each region has its own branding.”



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