Why Burung Garuda as National Symbol?


My whole confidence, courage and passion collapse upon learning that Burung Garuda was just…a myth. What could be worse than figuring out that this majestic national symbol is a mere drawing and name on a stone, done hundreds of years ago? Not to mention that plenty of Indonesians weren’t Hindus and Buddhists who might not grow up with a story of Garuda. The critical question arises – how could we then relate to this ancient symbol that unites the nation? More intriguingly, why was this Hindu-Buddhist inspired myth chosen as the national symbol?

In 1949, Sultan Hamid II was assigned to lead a group whose specific task is to design the nation’s symbol. Hamid II was the fourth Pontianak Sultan who spent much of his life in Netherlands. His pursuit for military led to extraordinary achievements; one of them was a special assignment to accompany Queen Wilhemina from Netherlands. He was initially reluctant to join politics in Indonesia, though eventually he was appointed by Soekarno to be one of the Generals. One of his main tasks was to lead the discussion surrounding the design proposal for Indonesia’s national emblem. Ki Hajar Dewantara and Moh. Hatta were also part of this group.

The team came up with two design proposals: one by Sultan Hamid and the other by Moh. Yamin. Hamid came up with a design of Garuda – then still a half-human and half-bird image, while Moh. Yamin came up with a design of a sun. Moh. Yamin’s idea was soon rejected for being too similar to Japan’s flag.

Sultan Hamid, Hatta, and Soekarno then revised it several times, which includes adding the crown (so it doesn’t look like USA’s symbol bald eagle). The final draft design was then presented publicly at Hotel des Indes in 1951. This 2-year design planning culminated when the design was finalized by Istana Merdeka’s painter, Dullah.

From then on we have a Garuda symbol: the infamous Pancasila symbols, a scroll written “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika”, and 17 feathers on each wing, 8 feathers on the tail, 19 feathers below the shield, and 45 feathers on the neck with a bird that strikes more like an eagle that we all can recognize, than a Garuda depicted in many ancient texts.

In Hindu tales, Garuda is a human-bird demi-God who was later chosen to become the ride for Wisnu, the Gods of Life. According to the great epic Mahabrata, Garuda appeared as an inferno who readily consumed the world and defeat all the gods. But its strength was ‘controlled’ upon being Wisnus’s ride and ‘second-hand’.

As Wisnu’s ‘second-hand’, some truths of the world was revealed to Garuda in the book Garuda Puran, a sort of ‘Bible’ that details the Cosmogenesis of humans and the Universe, Hindu calendar and its astronomical basis, humans’ rites of passage, sins and their specific hell, essential features of Hindu temple, among many others.

In Indonesia, the only King of Kahuripan Kingdom in Java, Airlangga, was often linked to Garuda. Airlangga was believed to be the reincarnation of Wisnu, just like Arjuna. Thus, in one of the relics, Airlangga was depicted as Wisnu, sitting on Garuda. Airlangga was also said to be one of the most tolerant King, uniting different beliefs that were flourishing in Kahuripan at that time.

So why was Garuda chosen as the symbol of our nation when at that time, the majority of Indonesians were Muslims and the Kingdoms of Hindu and Buddha had long gone, except for the relics and tales that had gently sweep unto local traditions, especially those of Javanese?

Garuda was indeed a symbol of strength, courage, loyalty, trustworthiness, transformation, and passion. But primarily, it acts as a symbol of acknowledgment that our culture, arts, religion, and civilization began in the Hindu-Buddhism era. This era was also called endearingly as the “Classical Era” by Soeharto, implying that this era provides the basis for an entire age and culture that grows on top of that.

The cultivation of land and trades among the islands that begun in this Hindu-Buddhism era opened up a whole new conversation surrounding economics, politics, belief system, values, belonging, and identities.

Our ‘Indonesian’ identity doesn’t start on Independence Day, but it goes way far back to the era that concretely and magnificently brought us together and taught us to defend, protect, and cultivate our land and make it prosperous. This identity evolves as the civilization grows, but the essence remains.

This archipelago has given us wild seeds of diversity that had shown their colors since its very first years, with all its glory and intolerance. Bhinneka Tunggal Ika was probably the concept that keeps us all together throughout all sorts of turmoil for centuries, whispered to Empu Tantular like a sacred elixir that can unite us all.

Complement this with the tale of how Empu Tantular united Hindus and Buddhas who were in conflictthe ‘original’ Pancasila, then end with a controversial case of Sultan Hamid – the lead designer of Garuda Pancasila and why he was removed from our history books for decades. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s