The Empire

The Ruler

The State

Ranges of Authority

Administrative Authority

Armed Authority

Religious Authority









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The System


Even when from the first centuries after the introduction of Buddhism in Indonesia there are only a few data about the heraldic system used available, it may be taken for granted that it was adapted from hindu-buddhist sources and introduced in the time of the hindu buddhist kingdoms in Java of the sixth and eight centuries.

The use of the buddhist heraldic system was continued in the Majapahit era but largely abandoned when Islam was introduced in the 16th century. It was maintained by Majapahit refugees in Bali and was still alive when Bali was subjected by the Dutch in 1908. 

The buddhist heraldic system in itself had its roots in ancient Mesopotamia from where it was dispersed, to the west as well to the east on the waves of Hellenistic expansion.


The Indonesian heraldic system can be summarized as the Surya-Naga-Garuda system as the empire was symbolized by a sun (Surya), the ruler by a snake (Naga) and the state by a bird-man (Garuda).

At the level of the ranges of authority we meet the lotus, the conch and the club, symbolizing administrative authority, religious authority and armed authority.


A. The Empire


As in many other cultures the empire is symbolized by the sun. In Egypt and China the sun was depicted as a red disc. In ancient Mesopotamia a sun was depicted as a disc with eight or more pointed rays. Later versions have different shapes, sometimes it is a golden disc and sometimes it has innumerable short rays.

In the case of Indonesia it is a sun with pointed rays with the geniuses of the eight celestial directions in between. Also we may see a sun radiant as a badge on the crowns of  rulers or officials. In the case of the Javanese kings the sun of the early kingdoms is depicted as a (flaming) halo around the head of the ruler.


The illustration in  the head of this essay shows ‘Surya Majapahit’ or ‘The Sun of Majapahit’. It is an emblem common found in temples and ruins dating from the Majapahit era. The sun disk is stylized with carved rays of light; surrounded by eight Lokapala gods, the eight Hindu gods that guarded eight cardinal points of the universe. (Coll. National Museum, Jakarta)


B. The Ruler

Ruler in dhyana-mudra attitude, pajong, sun and lotus, and between two lions.

Batang, Yogyakarta, 8th-9th century National Museum Jakarta, inv. 5556.


The ruler may be represented by his imago, that is his portrait when carrying the parafernalia of his office. These parafernalia are borrowed from the Hindu-god Vishnu of which many Javanese rulers considered themselves to be a incarnation. As such the ruler is standing or sitting in a buddhist attitude, his head crowned and surrounded by a halo and carrying in his hands a lotus, a conch and a club symbolizing the ranges of authority.

To this symbols sometimes a pajong (umbrella) is added, a symbol of rank originating in Assyrian Mesopotamia and also adopted as one of the royal symbols of rank in ancient India.


The emblem of the ruler is a snake or naga. This emblem is of Egyptian and/or Chinese origin. In Egypt it is known from the time of the 1st Dynasty (3100-2905 B.C.). In China it is known from the 7th millennium B.C. but was replaced by a dragon (itself of Mesopotamian origin) during the Han Dynasty (207 B.C.- 9 A.D.). Some Indian dynasties had a snake as their emblem still in the 19th century.


As far as we know, the snake occurred in Indonesia in the era of the Hindu-empires as a royal emblem and thus was of Indian and not of Chinese origin.


C. The State


According to Hindu and Buddhist iconography the state could be symbolized by a cakra or Wheel of Law. This has the form of a compass rose and is a representation of heaven. Initially it was a symbol of sovereignty but later came to symbolize Buddhist doctrine.

In the Indonesian context the Wheel of Law seems to have been abandoned quite soon as there are only a few examples known.












Cakra with spear head. Selumbung, Blitar, East Java, 13th-14th century. H. 30 cm Æ 16 cm.

 National Museum Djakarta, inv. 5961.


Statuette of a garuda. Central Java,  8th c. A.D. (National Museum, Jakarta)


Instead, the State came to be symbolized by a Garuda who, being a servant of Vishnu, and as such a messenger of Heaven, represented the heavenly mandate. In that case, the state is not supposed to be a function of the ruler but of heaven.


Ranges of Authority


1.  Administrative Authority




Royal couple bearing a lotus.

Golden plaque, 9th century. Banyumas, Central Java. 20 Í 12,4 cm. National Museum Jakarta inv. A 29


Administrative authority is symbolized by a lotus. This can be carried in hand but it is also the seat of the ruler as can be seen in many royal portraits.


2.  Armed Authority






Crowned warior armed with a club (gada).

Candi Rejo, Central Java. 9th century.

H. 75 Í W. 35 cm

(National Museum, Jakarta, inv. 5515)



Armed authority is symbolized by a club. It is carried by Vishnu in one of his hands.

As the gada is clearly of Hindu origin, another symbol of armed authority is the vajra or thundebolt. This has come to Indonesia by way of tantrism.

The thunderbolt as a symbol of armed authority is of Mesopotamian origin.


In the range of armed authority there is a symbol of the army personalized by the god Mahakala or Boma who is depicted carrying a club. This God is the Hindu-buddhist version of the Hellenistic Medusa, Nike or Victoria (not of Mars).

Mahakala often is a guardian of a temple of Shiva, he himself being an aspect of this god.


The supreme commander is symbolized by the monstruous head of Kala / Boma, which finds its counterpart in the Hellenistic Gorgoneion but also in the dragon-heads of China and Indo-China. As an apotropaic symbol it is above the entrance of Buddhist temples as for example on the Borobudur.



Kala above the entrance of the Borobudur, ca. 800 A.D.


The monstruous head is between two sirens, personifications of the wandering souls of the deceased or killed on the battlefield.




On the executive level we find the lion (or tiger) as a symbol of the individual warrior or even of the warrior-caste (ksatrya).

In Hindu or Buddhist iconography this lion is very often winged but early examples show just a plain lion (as in Borobudur).

Lion.  Borobudur, Central Java. Ca. 800.

Pairs of such lions guard the four entrances of the Borobudur.[1]


3.  Religious  Authority



Conch on a plate used at religious ceremonies

Central Java 9th-10th century. Height of conch ca. 12,5 cm. National Museum Jakarta, inv. 8492.


Religious authority is symbolized by a conch.

A Śankha (conch-shell) is a special symbol of Vishnu. His conch is known as Pañ-chajanya, being made from the body of the demon Pañchajana. It is symbolic of the spoken word, a tradition originating in Vedic India. It is thought to make a frightening noise that terrifies the enemies of Vishnu. In sculptural representations, the conch appears plain or ornamental. In the latter case, its head is covered with a decorative metal cap, surmounted by a lion-head and having a cloth tied round it. Tassels of pearls may also hang from the sides.

Generally speaking the Śankha is the symbol of religious authority exercised by the word.






The pusaka were heirlooms containing magic power essential in pursuance of royal authority. Amongst them were a keris (dagger) and a lance which can be qualified to be the de facto royal arms. [2]




Three Majapahit lance-heads, 17th century.


The Tombaks (lances), which are qualified pusaka, have the symbols of the empire and the ruler, symbolized by the cakra and the snake on top. On the third is a cock which may have been the symbol of a kraton-official.[3]




The crowns we meet in the Indonesian archipelago are of a bewildering variety. For that reason a typology of Indonesian crowns is difficult to set up.

We may be sure that the oldest crowns were of the model common in early India and had a pagoda-like shape. A later and more local form was developed in the second century of the Majapahit era. In that time the crowns became the shape of a cap rising from a pointed diadem. This shape survived for centuries in the crowns of the Ramayana and Mahabarata heroes figuring in the wajang kulit and wajang golek.

A third typus seems to be the kuluk, a conical shaped headdress, which appeared in the sixteenth or seventeenth century and probably is a muslim invention. In some cases this kuluk is decorated with naga, or royal emblems, or with other ornaments.

It should be mentioned that these crowns were symbols of rank in that way that the wearing of a crown of a certain shape was the prerogative of the ruler. The crown was a part of the royal dress but a coronation was not the inauguration of a ruler in the western sense as this took place by acclamation, by enthronement, and the transfer of the imperial treasure, of which the pusaka were a part,  and by some ceremonies. [4]









  Examples of Indonesian Crowns  ˜

From left to right and from top to bottom:


1. Kediri 11th c.; 2. Majapahit, 15th c.; 3. Banten, 16th c.; 4. Gowa, 17th c.; 5. Mataram, 17th c.; 6. Banten, 18th c.; 7. Bima,  18th c.; 8. Kutai, 19th c. 9. Siak, 19th c. 10. Siak, 20th c.; 11. Solo, 20th c. 12. Yogya, 20th.c..




These symbols can be found in several combinations, the most extended combination being the effigy of Vishnu who carries a cakra and the symbols of authority in his four hands and sometimes is depicted riding a Garuda who is his exclusive vehicle.

His divinity is symbolized by his four arms which cannot be human. As a consequence a more-limbed statue never depicts a ruling prince.


Vishnu and Garuda

Gemuruh, near Banyu Kembar, Leksono, Wonosobo, Central Java, 9th century.  H. 34,5 Í  W. 16.6 cm

National Museum Jakarta, inv. A31 486a.


Crowned four-armed god, standing on a lotus, behind his head a sun, in his hands a cakra, a conch, a club and a jewel. At his right side a winged man holding a snake in his hands, a somewhat deviant form of a Garuda as he is depicted as an angel and not as a birdman. The confusion is understandable as both are servants of a divine being, the first a divine messenger (aggeloi) the second a divine vehicle.


This plaque is a display of the main symbols of the socio-political system.

On it may be the oldest picture of a naga symbolizing kingship.




Statuette of Vishnu riding a Garuda.  Java, ca. 1000 A.D. (National Museum, Jakarta)

Vishnu sits on a lotus is crowned and keeps a cakra and a conch in two of his hands. Behind him is a halo. The garuda has a sun radiant on his headdress and stands on two cobras. It is accepted that the group dates from the time of Airlangga, raja of Kahuripan († 1049).


In socio political terms this statuette would mean that kingship is subordinated to the state, itself a function of the divine ruler.


The ruler is a normal human being and thus cannot have more than four limbs. His imago shows him with two arms and legs and wearing the parafernalia of kingship, mainly an umbrella, a crown and royal dress.


On a more secular level the ruler is depicted carrying a sun or has a halo around his head. This makes the ruler “the ruler of the empire”. In western heraldic terms these are the imperial arms consisting of the arms of the empire and the arms of the ruler himself being his personal or family arms.


Sometimes Garuda is depicted carrying a snake or Naga in his beak. Translated into western heraldic terms this royal achievement consists of a symbol of the ruler (his imago) supported by a Garuda and symbolizes royal government.




Garuda carrying a (female?) ruler and a naga.

Probably from the time of Anusapati, 2nd king of Singasari  (1227-’48).

Candi Kidal, Rejokidal near Malang, East Java. 


The ruler is depicted in lalita asana and bhumi sparsa mudra attitude meaning that he is calling the earth as a witness in a languid relaxed sensual position. This attitude would fit a constitutional monarch very well.


In socio-political terms this garuda-ruler-kingship combination would mean that the state is a function of the human ruler and king.

This may be the oldest picture where Garuda carries a human ruler instead of  the divine ruler.


Another version of such an achievement is a Garuda carrying the imago of the ruler who has some of the symbols of authority in his hands. This combination should have the same meaning, the emblem carried in hand symbolizing the department of administrative-, religious- or armed forces affairs in plus.


As can be seen in some temples and the temple complex of Sukuh in particular, this symbolic system was in use in the Majapahit era. Two examples are known which seem to be a kind of exception on the rule. From the beginning of the 14th century a phoenix as a symbol of a Javanese ruler is documented by European sources. Another exception is a golden seal from about 1400, showing a senmurw or peacock-dragon. These two exceptions will be treated in the section about Majapahit.


Golden ring with double rayed sun charged with a Śanka

Central Java, 8th-9th century.


This is the combination of the symbol of the empire and the symbol of religious authority and for that reason the ring may have belonged to the High Priest of the (Mataram) Empire. [5]


The symbolic system of Islam


The symbolic system of Islam differs somewhat from this hindu-buddhist system.

Like in the older system the empire is usually symbolized by a sun, be it a disc or be it a disc radiant. The state in islamic symbolism however, is symbolized by a crescent and this is in contravention with the white moon in Chinese and Indian symbolism.

The crescent was invented in ancient Mesopotamia as a symbol of Ur. It was depicted as a disc in which a crescent was carved out. Sometimes it was combined with a sun radiant and in that case the crescent was surrounding the sun. For a long time the moon was depicted in the way of the symbol of Ur. In the Middle Ages the moon came to be depicted as a crescent without the disc. In this form it became the symbol of the islamic state.

As Islam is opposed to the depiction of living beings, the ruler in islam usually is not represented by his imago. Instead he is represented by his name and titles in calligraphic form, known as tughra. As a head of state he has a flag with one or more crescents.

For the same reason the army is not represented by a monstruous human or divine figure but by a sword, usually called the “sword of islam”. This can be depicted as a single edged sword but also as a two-pointed or double-bladed sword, commonly known as the dhu-l-fakr or Sword of Ali and going back to the cousin and son-in-law of Mohammed,  Ali († 661). A third possibility is swords in saltire, which may be a misunderstanding of a two-pointed sword. An early example of swords in saltire in Indonesia is on the flag of Bantam which shows two white swords in saltire on a yellow cloth.

As an exception the lion was often maintained in islamic Indonesia. This lion is in an even older tradition and goes back to the paternal uncle of Muhammad Hamza ibn ‘Abd-al Muttalib, a champion of early Islam who was called “The Lion of God”. More orthodox muslims depicted the “Lion of God” in calligraphic form  but others just depicted a plain lion.


Royal Banner of Cirebon, West Java.

18th century. 322 x 172 cm. Jakarta Textile Museum, Jakarta.


This flag shows the double-bladed sword of Ali and three lions in calligraphic script. In the margins is a sura from the Quran.


European Heraldry in Indonesia


In the sixteenth century European Heraldry was introduced by the Portuguese but, as the Portuguese were soon ousted by the Dutch, Dutch heraldry has had most influence in the archipelago.

European Heraldry is a system of institutional and personal emblems which has its origin in the corpus of emblems used in the armed forces. It is an individualistic system and not a classificatory system. A symbol for the empire, in fact the not longer existing Roman Empire is almost absent or exists in a cryptic form. For that reason the symbols of the European states and rulers are always the symbols of lower governmental bodies and subordinate rulers even when they were de facto sovereign. The body of emblems for these ‘subordinate’ states and rulers is quite extensive. At the end of the eighteenth century, with the introduction of the sovereignty of the people, the all-inclusive emblem or national emblem was introduced symbolizing all aspects of socio-political organization.

The most ancient European heraldic emblems in Indonesia are the emblems of the Dutch East India Company, its chambers and its officers. The emblems of the Dutch East India Company, (VOC) consisted of shields charged with a cypher or a ship.  Its chambers were symbolized by a like cypher and a coat of arms.

Some of the chief officers had a personal coat of arms and coats of arms of the Governors General are collected in a study published at the end of the 19th century [6]).

After the VOC era the colonial government was symbolized by the imperial and royal achievements of France and Great Britain and after the Dutch-British Treaty until independence by the achievement of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. For the colony itself no heraldic emblem was ever adopted.

The Indonesian princely achievements designed in the 18th and 19th century are of European heraldic design. Their nucleus is a coat of arms in the form of a European heraldic shield. Sometimes it is crowned and has supporters. A motto may be part of the achievement.

The achievements were usually adopted when a special agreement of the ruler with the Dutch government in Batavia was entered into. Such an agreement usually implied a protectorate, the Dutch Government being responsible for the external relations and defense. Many princes of these selfgoverning states have adopted an achievement western style. The most important of them were the sultans of Surakarta and Yogyakarta but there were also princes on Sumatera and Kalimantan bearing coats of arms.


Heraldic emblems for the lesser (colonial) governmental bodies were only introduced reluctantly. For a long time the coat of arms of Batavia was the only one in the colony (1619). Later the arms of Makassar (1667 or 1708), Semarang (29.V.1827) and Soerabaja (30 VI 1920) were added. By Ordonnantie of 7 September 1928 (Ind Stb. n°  394) the lesser governmental bodies (provinces, regencies and communities) were compelled to depose their existing coats of arms at the Governor General’s or could apply for the grant of a coat of arms to him.  



Ordonnantie van 7 September 1928 (Staatsblad No. 394).




De Gouverneur-Generaal van Nederlandsch-Indië;

Allen, die deze zullen zien of hooren lezen, salut!

doet te weten:


         Dat Hij, het bekomen van wapens door openbare gemeenschappen, ingesteld op den voet van het zesde en twaalfde hoofdstuk der Wet op de Staatsinrichting van Nederlandsch-Indië, aan algemeene regelen willende binden;

         Den Raad van Nederlandsch-Indië gehoord en in overeenstemming met den Volksraad;

         Heeft goedgevonden en verstaan:


Artikel I.


         1. Openbare gemeenschappen ingesteld op den voet van het zesde en twaalfde hoofdstuk der Wet op de Staatsinrichting van Nederlandsch-Indië mogen, behoudens het bepaalde in artikel V, geen wapen voeren zonder toestemming van den Gouverneur-Generaal.

         2. Indien de Gouverneur-Generaal Zijne toestemming weigert, geschiedt dit bij een met redenen omkleed besluit.


Artikel II.


         1. De in het 1ste lid van het vorige artikel genoemde openbare gemeenschappen, welke een wapen wenschen te bekomen of het te zien gewijzigd, zullen zich daartoe door tusschenkomst van den Directeur van Binnenlandsch Bestuur tot den Gouverneur-Generaal hebben te wenden, zulks onder overlegging in tweevoud van eene beschrijving en eene teekening in kleuren van het verlangde wapen en van eene uiteenzetting van de overwegingen op grond waarvan dat wapen of de wijziging daarvan wordt gewenscht.

         2. Eveneens zal in geval van vereeniging van openbare gemeenschappen als het in het 1ste lid van artikel I bedoeld, de nieuwe gemeenschap zich ter bekoming van  een wapen of ter bevestiging van het wapen van de vroegere gemeenschap, waaraan de nieuwe haar naam ontleent, op voormelde wijze tot den Gouverneur-Generaal moeten wenden.


Artikel III.


         Bij inwilliging van een verzoek als bedoeld in de artikelen II en V, zendt de Directeur van Binnenlandsch Bestuur een der exemplaren van de beschrijving en van de teekening van het desbetreffende wapen aan den Lands-archivaris, die van al deze wapens een register houdt.


Artikel IV.


         Alle kosten, zoo van vervaardiging als anderszins op het uit te reiken wapendiploma vallende, komen ten laste van dse verzoekende gemeenschap volgens regelen door den Gouverneur-Generaal te stellen.


Artikel V.


         De in het 1ste lid van artikel I genoemde openbare gemeenschappen, welke op het oogenblik van inwerkingtreding dezer ordonnantie reeds een wapen voeren, zullen zich binnen drie maanden na den dag van inwerkingtreding op de in artikel II voorgeschreven wijze tot den Gouverneur-Generaal moeten wenden met het verzoek om in het gebruik daarvan te worden bevestigd. Bij afwijzing van zoodanig verzoek, is het bepaalde bij het tweede lid van artikel I van toepassing.

         En opdat niemand hiervan onwetendhgeid voorwende, zal deze in het Staatsblad van Nederlandsch-Indië worden geplaatst.


At the end of Dutch rule the following governmental bodies had a coat of arms:



West Java; Midden Java (1940)


Garoet (Preanger); Pandéglang (Bantam); Tjiandoer (Preanger)

Local Districts

Ressort Minahassa


Amboina; Bandoeng; Batavia; Blitar; Buitenzorg; Cheribon; Madioen; Magelang; Makassar; Malang; Manado; Medan; Modjokerto; Padang; Palembang; Pasoeroean; Pekalongan; Pema-tangsiantar; Salatiga; Semarang; Soekaboemi; Soerabaja; Tegal. [7]


After the Proclamation of Independence on 17 August 1945 deliberations were started about a national emblem for the new Republic. After all, no decisions were made for the next four five years.

In the time between the Proclamation of Independence and the recognition by the Dutch Government of the United States of Indonesia on 28 December 1949, a few national emblems were adopted by the federal states. These were:


Negara Pasoen­dan (1948)  

Negara Sumatera Timur (20 December 1949).

Indonesia Timur (31 March 1950)  

Republik Maluku Selatan (July 1950)

Daerah Istimewa Kalimantan Barat

Federasi Kesultanan Kalimantan Timur.


The other federal states have not had the opportunity, as far as known, to adopt a flag or national emblem.


These emblems disappeared after the declaration of the Republic on 17 August 1950


A national achievement for the United States of Indonesia was adopted on 12 Februari 1950 but changed on 17 August of the same year for the Republic. It was designed under the supervision of Sultan Hamid II Alkadrie of Pontianak with the cooperation of the Dutch heraldist Dirk Rühl.


After Independence


Not long after this the adaptation or change of the coats of arms from colonial times was started. The first community which changed its coat of arms was Jakarta, former Batavia, which changed its coat of arms in October 1951. Certainly on purpose, the design of these arms and emblems was usually contradicting the rules developed in European heraldry.

New emblems were adopted for the provinces of the Republic beginning at the end of the fifties or the beginning of the sixties of the 20th century.

A charge appearing in many of these emblems is a garland. This garland most of the time consists of a branch of cotton and an ear of rice together symbolizing prosperity and the date 17 August 1945. This garland surrounds a main emblem, in such a way that an emblem in a  kind of soviet-style, in which the garland is a characteristic element, is created. [8] Contrary to the sovjet emblems however, the composition is often  placed on a large shield.

As the garland was also around princely Javanese achievements and reminds us also of the garland around the sword in the arms of Batavia, a rather confusing design is the result, combining ancient colonial and princeley, and modern socialist elements.


In this work the blasoning describes the main emblem, surrounded by a garland. The large shield on which this emblem is displayed is always called an embassy-shield.



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© Hubert de Vries 2010.09.30

Updated 2010-10-31

[1] ) Borobudur, Kunst en religie in het oude Java. Amsterdam, 1977.

[2] ) The pusaka of Majapahit consisted of the keris kjai Belabar, the lance kjai Baru, the jacket kjai Gundil and the cymbal kjai Bitjak. Graaf, H.J. de: Over de Kroon van Madja-Pait. In: Bijdragen tot de Taal- Land- en Volkenkunde van Nederlandsch-Indië. 1947-’48 p. 581.

[3] ) Ibbitson, Helen: Court Arts of Indonesia, New York 1989. No.s 11, 13, 14.

[4] ) Graaf, H.J. de: op.cit. pp. 573-603

[5] ) Ibbitson, Helen, op cit. No 60. Samuel Eilenberg - Jonathan Rosen Collection. This śanka-sun symbol may be compared with the Christian haloed disc charged with a latin cross.

[6] ) Rhede van der Kloot, M.A. van: De Goeverneurs-Generaal en Commissarissen Generaal van Nederlandsch Indië 1610-1883. ‘s Gravenhage, 1891.

[7] ) Rühl, Dirk: Nederlandsch-Indische Gemeentewapens. Geschiedenis. Legenden en Besluiten. 1933.  

[8] ) The garland is of ancient Roman origin