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Sundanese Culture


1.  Language

Tanah Sunda has its own language called basa Sunda (Sundanese language). Sundanese language is spoken by approximately 27 million people. Current / modern Sundanese language has different layers starting from the most formal usage to the everyday "loma/lancaran"  and the informal or harsh usages with different vocabularies consecutively. Parahyangan area (South-eastern of Sunda land), use all of the layers. However, in the mountainous regions and most of Banten (western part of Sunda land), the loma version is the most dominant.

It is unclear what language was used by local population in the era of Tarumanagara kingdom, one of the oldest kingdoms of Indonesia. The language is probably what developed into ancient Sundanese languages. In the era of Pajajaran kingdom, Sundanese used ancient Sundanese language. The language can be traced back to manuscript of Bujangga Manik, one of Pajajaran's princes, telling the names of places he passed in his way  returning from Bali island and eastern Java island. The manuscript is maintained in Bodleian Library of Oxford (England). A part of the manuscript tells when he went forward the gate of Pajajaran capital city, as the following:

120. Balayar satengah bulan. Ba(???)at aing di Kalapa. Ngaraning Ameng Layaran. Undur aing ti parahu.
125. Sadatang ka pabeyan. Ku ngaing geus kaleumpangan. Ngalalar ka Mandiracan. Datang ka Ancol Tamiang. Ngalalar aing ka Samprok.
130. Sacunduk ka leuweung langong. Meuntas aing di Cipanas. Ngalalar ka Suka Kandang. Ku ngaing geus kaleumpangan. Meuntas aing di Cikencal.
135. Sacunduk aing ka luwuk, meuntas aing di Ciluwer. Sacunduk ka Peuteuy Kuru. Ngalalar ka Kandang Serang. Sacunduk aing ka Batur.
140.  Ku ngaing geus kaleumpangan, Meuntasing di Cihaliwung. Sacunduk ka Pakuen Tubuy. Ngalalar ka Pakeun Tayeum. Sacunduk ka Pakeun Teluk.
145.  Sadatang ka Pakancilan. Mukakeun panto kowari.

The translation of the script to modern Sundanese language and English are as follow:

Current / Modern Sundanese Language


120. Balayar satengah bulan. Badarat / hanjat aing di Kalapa. Ngaran aing Amen Layaran. Undur aing ti parahu. After sailing for half a month, I landed in Kalapa. My name is Ameng Layaran. And I left the boat.


Sadatang ka Pabeyan, ku aing geus kaleumpangan. Ngalalar ka Mandi Rancan. Datang ka Ancol Tamiang. Ngalalar aing ka Samprok. When arrived at the custom, I passed through it. I moved across Mandi Rancan and came to Ancol Tamiang. And I crossed by Samprok,
130. Sacunduk ka leuweung gede. Meuntas aing di Cipanas. Ngalalar ka Suka Kandang. Ku aing geus kaleumpangan. Meuntas aing di Cikencal. When arrived at vast forest. I crossed Cipanas river, passed through Suka Kandang. After passed through it, I crossed by Cikencal.
135. Sacunduk aing ka Luwuk, meuntas aing di Ciluwer. Sacunduk ka Peuteuy Kuru. Ngalalar ka Kandang Serang. Sacunduk aing ka Batur. When I arrived in Luwuk, I crossed Ciluwer river. After coming to Peuteuy Kuru, I proceeded to Kandang Serang and arrived in Batur.
140.  Ku aing geus kaleumpangan, Meuntas aing di Cihaliwung. Sacunduk ka Pakuen Tubuy. Ngalalar ka Pakeun Tayeum. Sacunduk ka Pakeun Teluk. I crossed Cihaliwung river. After coming to Pakuen Tubuy, I proceeded to Pakuen Tayeum and came to Pakuen Teluk.
145.  Sadatang ka Pakancilan. Mukakeun panto kowari. When arrived in Pakancilan, I opened its gate.


It is clear from the translation that the ancient Sundanese language is close enough to current / modern Sundanese language, especially "loma/lancaran" version, in terms of vocabularies.

Current / modern Sundanese has different layers due to the influence of the Javanese culture during the coming wave of Javanese culture spread out by Javanese kingdoms (Demak kingdom and Islamic Mataram kingdom). 



2.  Writing

The earliest known writing in Sunda dates from the 4th century AD, in the era of Tarumanagara kingdom, at which time Sanskrit language was written with the Pallava alphabet. The writing can be found in stone inscriptions. One of these inscriptions was discovered at Batu Tumbuh village in present-day Tugu subdistrict in North Jakarta. The inscription praises Purnawarman as a great and powerful king.

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Batu Tumbuk village inscription

Other monuments at Bogor's Ciaruteun, and Kebon Kopi are also written in Pallava alphabet and praise Purnawarman as a great and powerful king.

Eight-ton Ciaruteun inscription stone

Kebon Kopi inscription stone

Pallava alphabet was used untill the 7th century.

By the 16th  century, the ancient Sunda alphabet, which were developed from Pallava, was used. Insription stone of Astana Gede Kawali from Sunda Galuh kingdom era is written in ancient Sunda alphabet.

The 16th century brought two great turning points in the history of Sunda: the rapid spread of Islam starting from the port cities on the north coast, and the arrival of the Dutch just before 1600, following the earlier voyages of the Portuguese and Spanish.

The Javanese alphabet, also known as cacarakan, and Arabic alphabet were used to write Sundanese with the coming wave of Islam spread out by Javanese kingdoms to Cirebon kingdom (in the 16th century) and Priangan (in the 17th century).

In 1596 four Dutch vessels arrived in Banten after a stormy voyage around Cape of Good Hope, thus ushering in 350 years of Dutch hegemony. Six years after their arrival, the East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC) was founded in order to create a spice monopoly, which benefited Dutch traders to the detriment of local producers. Sundanese uses latin alphabet since it is introduced by Dutch colonialist in the 19th century.

After being forgotten for centuries, today ancient Sundanese alphabet is used under Latin alphabet for writing  names of many streets in Tasik Malaya city. The purpose of using ancient Sundanese alphabet is to maintain cultural heritage.



3.  Arts

Wayang goleks (wooden puppets) are used by the Sundanese to tell the epic play "Mahabarata" and various other morality type plays.

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Accompanying "The Mahabarata" is an orchestra called gamelan. The gamelan uses a five note scale as opposed to the seven-note western scale.

The musical arts of Sunda, which is an expression of the emotions of Sundanese culture, include some of the most beautiful sounds in the world. The "tembang sunda" with the kacapi (zither) and either suling (bamboo flute) or vocal accompaniment, and also the degung with its gamelan provide moments of rare musical beauty.

The Sundanese are also known for musical instruments called angklungs, which consist of a frame upon which hang several different lengths of hollow bamboo. Angklungs are played like handbells, with each instrument played to a different note.

Other cultural heritage of Sundanese are:

Dances :

ketuk tilu, tari merak (dance "peacock"), jaipongan (popular Sundanese social dance), tari topeng (mask dance), sisingaan, etc.

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Tari Merak


Sundanese Pupuh (Sundanese poetic meters):

Pupuh specify the number of lines in each verse as well as the ending syllables of each line

Pantun Sunda :

Pantun Sunda is a genre of Sundanese oral narative performance in which a solo storyteller recounts the glory of past kingdoms and the exploits of heroic figures.

Calung :

Calung is a humorous performance in which a group of 4 - 6 people led by a leader performing humorous conversation and in certain periods conducting musical performance using some peaces of angklung instruments with funy lyrics.

Sisindiran :

Sisindiran is an oral performance in which two groups of people reciprocally conducting humorous questions and answers performance using poetic meters; one group asks a question and the other group answers it (and the answer may include a question for the opposite group).

Tarling (guitar and flute music typical to Cirebon)

Sandiwara (opera)

Traditional humorous story: "Kabayan, the innocent man"