The Story Behind Indonesia’s Independence Day Traditional Games

Since Indonesia’s first President Sukarno read the text of proclamation on the 17th of August 1945, this date has been set as Indonesia’s Independence Day. Apart from official ceremonies, Indonesia usually holds several traditional games. These games are not only mean to be fun but also reflect Indonesia’s history and values.

Panjat Pinang (Climbing Greasy Pole of Pinang Tree)

Three Indonesian Men climbing a long pole. At the top of the of the pole are various items, including a bicycle
Participants struggle to reach the top of the tree during panjat pinang game
Source: Klikdokter

This game needs an arecea tree trunk that has been smeared with oil to be played. At the top of the arecea tree trunk, there will be various kinds of prizes that can be grabbed by participants. To reach the top, participants need to carry each other up the slippery tree trunk. Those who can reach the top are entitled to take all prizes, such as food, clothes, bicycles, and even electronic devices. Yet, did you know that this traditional game has existed since the Dutch colonial era in Indonesia and is known as “klimmast”, which means ‘climbing a pole’?

Historically, the game was held every 31st of August to celebrate Queen Wilhemina’s birthday. Apart from this occasion, panjat pinang was also usually done when Dutch people had important or ceremonial events. Unlike today, the prizes that were fought over by participants were in the form of staple foods, such as rice, sugar, and flour. The poor condition of Indonesian people under Dutch occupation (1800-1942) made them enthusiastic participants in the competition. They were even willing to get dirty and fall down many times while Dutch people spectated.

These days, it is getting harder to find games of panjat pinang as it is considered a legacy of colonialism and too dangerous for participants. Apart from that, the high price of an arecea tree and its long growing period are also factors that have made this competition a rare occurrence.

Makan Kerupuk (Cracker Eating)

Both men and women participate in makan kerupuk
Source: Sindonews

The cracker eating competition is a game that is mostly held during every celebration of Indonesia’s Independence Day. Besides being simple and fun, this game is also safe and is played by both children and adults. Historically, this game was inseparable from the Indonesian fighters who lived in poverty and could only consume crackers, in the midst of the struggle against colonialism. Thus, makan kerupuk is actually aimed to remind and respect the struggle of Indonesian heroes. This game has become a symbol of unity, nationalism, and also gratitude to God for all sustenance given, including the independence that has been obtained.

Balap Karung (Sack Race)

A lot of fun shown by Indonesians during balap karung game
Source: mubaonline

This traditional game is usually held in the field and is played by people of all ages. The rule is quite easy: getting into the sack and then running or jumping to reach the finish line.

The sack race began when Indonesians were forced to use gunny sacks as clothes. Besides the economic factor, the Japanese government, which occupied Indonesia from 1942 to 1945, deliberately hampered the distribution of clothing materials. After independence, Indonesian people expressed their pique by trampling on the gunny sack and expressing their freedom from colonialism.

Tarik Tambang (The Pulling Rope Game/ Tug of War)

Participants struggle to maintain their position in a tarik tambang game
Source: mubaonline

Tug of war is also a popular traditional game played during the celebration of Indonesia’s Independence Day. This game is not only played by adults, but is also often played by children. This game involves two groups competing for strength to pull a rope. The winner is the group who successfully pulls the opponent across their line.

This game is quite popular across the world and even became a competitive sport during the 1900 Olympics until the 1920 Olympics. This popularity of this game seems inseparable from the fact that several versions of it have appeared across history. The Tang Dynasty book, The Notes of Feng, states that tug of war or “hook pulling” was used by the military commander of the State of Chu to train soldiers during the 8th – 5th Centuries BC before they turned it into a game under Emperor Xuanzong. Another version, which comes from archaeological evidence from India, shows that tug of war was known to Indian society in the 12th century. Meanwhile, the story in Indonesia begin when Indonesian worker under Dutch colonialism had  no entertainment, so they created a game with a rope which known as tarik tambang.

These Independence Day traditional games remind us of the dark memories of colonialism. These are not only games, but also a reflection of Indonesian values that always try to be preserved, such as togetherness, struggle, cooperation, as well as a symbol to commemorate Indonesian heroes in fighting for independence.


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