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Do You Know the Story Behind Jakarta’s Ondel-ondel?

EXPLORE JAKARTA | 5 June 2020

A pair of ondel-ondel or large puppet figures are commonly seen roaming the streets of Jakarta, be it around office buildings, bus stops or traffic lights. They will almost always be found on significant festivals celebrating the city, or other big public events. But, why are these festive figures actually kind of scary? Well, this has to do with its history. 

Believe it or not, ondel-ondel have existed since 1602. They are ancestral symbols said to look after the community, or society at large. According to the old Betawi people, these giant puppets functioned as instruments for a kind of 'exorcism', repelling spirits said to cause disturbances. 

The construction of the ondel-ondel is therefore not arbitraty, it is actually ritualistic - or at least it used to be! These century old figures are made of woven bamboo, towering 2,5 metres high and about 80 centimetres in diameter. The makers themselves had to perform certain rituals throughout the process of the construction, such as presenting offerings like frankincense and seven kinds of flower. Only by doing this will the creation of these multicoloured marionettes run smoothly; but more importantly, these rituals make sure the ondel themselves are possessed by evil spirits! Could that explain why some of the ones we see today can look a little bit frightening?

Similar to Bali's ogoh-ogoh that come out on the eve of Nyepi Day of Silence, the ondel-ondel would be paraded around the village to shoo the negative forces away.

Ondel-ondel are always the shame shape, but the patterns and colours used to decorate them are diverse - the colour of their faces however should indicate which is male and which is female. The male ondel-ondel has red face as a symbol of evil, whereas the female version has a white face as a symbol of good strength.

From 1966 to 1977, the function of ondel-ondel was changed by Ali Sadikin, the first Governor of Jakarta. Their use was thus changed as a symbol of Jakarta, the Betawi doll, and since then there has been no more traditions or ritual of parading around the villages, instead it is used as a lively celebration. Today we'll find them welcoming guests of honour, at a procession for a circumcision ceremony and of course at some local weddings.