Ondel-Ondel : The Sad Fate of Indonesia’s Capital, Jakarta’s Icon

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Photo credit : Wikimedia Commons

Ondel-ondel is a word that refers to two things. The first one refers to a big puppet, although I prefer tocall it a costume, that is around 2-2.5 m tall and 0.8-1 M in diameter in bright color. The other one is folk performance of Betawi culture.

Betawi is a name of indigenous society and people in Jakarta, the Capital of Indonesia.

The existence has been recorded since long time ago. A British merchant named W. Scot wrote in his book about an appearance of a puppet called ondel-ondel in 1605, three centuries ago. Another record made by E.R. Scidmore in his book, “Java, The Garden of The East” tell the same appearance of a puppet dancing on streets in 19th century.

Historians recorded that in Betawi culture, ondel-ondel has been used for specific rituals to cast out evil spirit and protect the society. With the performance of ondel-ondel in one specific time, Betawi people believed that diseases or bad luck won’t come.

That is why the process of ondel-ondel making was also done with specific rituals as well. The maker provides 7 types of flower offering and also “sumsum” pcongee (marrow porridge) whlle they were carving woods to make the puppet. The intention for doing the rituals were to make sure that only good spirit resided in ondel-ondel.

When modernization reached Jakarta, the situation changed. Carvers abandoned the rituals. The role of ondel-ondel also shifted more to purely performance for money. People still invited ondel-ondel performers if they held wedding ceremony or other society events. The performance was more likely to entertain guests and spectators than doing rituals.

Considering ondel-ondel part in Betawi culture who once became the majority in Jakarta, the government has assigned  ondel-ondel as the icon of Indonesia’s Capital, Jakarta.

Their appearances can be found in many national festivals held in the city. Their name is written on Indonesian textbook of history and many others.


People change. World also changes.

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The above picture was taken not too long ago while I was walking down Wahid Hasyim Street, Central Jakarta, near train station.

An ondel-ondel, I am not sure if it is a male or female type, was dancing on the street with a woman holding an ex paint can and thrusting to everyone who walked on the street asking for coins or changes.

There is no festivals or events on the street. Nobody invites them to make a performance. They are just street performers trying to earn a living.

What saddening was.. nobody even put coins to the can. I often saw children gave some money to similar street performers wearing Naruto or Masha or other cartoon characters but that time no one gave some money to the ondel-ondel.

It seems, the cultural icon of Jakarta could not compete with their “colleagues” fromI oversea, even on their own land.

No wonder, many have written about miserable life of ondel-ondel performers all around Jakarta. They have been known to life in  poverty and often forced them to giving up “ondel-ondel” and looked for another job who could feed their family.

It is understandable about the fierce competition in modern world. Who is not strong will be eaten by the strong one? Who is not clever is a prey for a predator? Who is obsolete will be unwanted and gradually disappear?

However, ondel-ondel is not simply about a puppet and performance. It represents a symbol and icon of a society and culture, Betawi’s. The wood puppet also ia the remaining relic of the past life in Indonesia.

They should be treated better and supported well to enable them survive in this modern world.

Losing ondel-ondel is not replaceable by another modern with international taste cartoon characters. Naruto doesn’t dance like ondel-ondel, Masha, no matter how cute she is, doesn’t either. They don’t have something behind, history and Betawi’s people.

Unfortunately, it seems that Indonesians are losing ondel-ondel. The number of the puppet makers and performers have been decreasing year by year. It can be understood because who wants to rely on a profession that can not guarantee foods for their family. Neither do I.

Perhaps, one day, Indonesians can see ondel-ondel only from pictures inside history textbooks or know this traditional folk art from the speech of politicians when they talk about how noble Jakarta’s art in the past.

Such a bleak prediction.

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