Garuda Pancasila, Indonesia’s coat of arms, hangs on a wall in almost every office, school and government institution in the country. As the national emblem, it is printed on every rupiah coin and banknote. It is a symbol whose elegant presence encapsulates our national identity and basic principles.
The origins of the Garuda Pancasila are deeply rooted in ancient mythology and history. But few Indonesians are aware of the story and philosophy behind it.
“I don’t know where it’s taken from,” said Nadia Darusman, 17, a high school student in Setiabudi, South Jakarta. “It’s something that’s always been there. I’ve never given it any thought.”
“Garuda was a mighty big bird,” said Anita Hilman, a 31-year-old senior graphic designer in Bandung. “Commander in chief Gajah Mada [of the 14th century Majapahit kingdom] rode on it.”
“It was Sukarno [Indonesia’s first president] who first came up with the national emblem,” said Paulus Lekenila, 39, a freelance IT specialist in Duren Sawit, East Jakarta. “I believe the Garuda is actually Indonesia’s indigenous bird, the Javan hawk-eagle.”
“It’s taken from a book written by Mpu Tantular [a philosopher of the Majapahit kingdom],” said Siti Darwis, 50, a housewife in Karet Belakang, South Jakarta. “I believe that’s why he’s called the Father of Pancasila.”
None of these people were entirely wrong. Although the values of Garuda Pancasila are taught in most schools and universities, little is publicly known of the emblem’s origins.
On the occasion of the 67th anniversary of Indonesia’s independence, the Jakarta Globe talked to several historians and reviewed archives to find out more about our national emblem.
“Garuda represents everything in Indonesia before and after our national independence,” historian J.J. Rizal said.
Garuda was established as Indonesia’s coat of arms by the 1945 Constitution, and subsequent decrees solidified that status.
“Garuda Pancasila became Indonesia’s coat of arms through a long and complicated process,” historian Anhar Gonggong said.
The process began in July 1945, shortly before Indonesia gained its independence.
Parada Harahap, a member of the Committee for Preparatory Works for Indonesian Independence (BPUPKI), suggested that the committee design a coat of arms for the nation-to-be. They decided to establish a special committee for that purpose.
In November 1945, they established Panitia Indonesia Raya (the Greater Indonesia Committee), helmed by Indonesia’s father of education, Ki Hajar Dewantara.
The committee was assigned to research archaic symbols etched on ancient temples and stone epigraphs to see whether any of them were suitable for the national emblem.
In 1947, then-Information Minister Priyono announced a national competition to design Indonesia’s coat of arms.
Hundreds of Indonesian artists and politicians submitted their sketches. Nevertheless, Hendro Wiyanto, the curator of the competition, thought most of them lacked the proper elements.
Finally, in 1950, the competition was won by Syarif Abdul Hamid Alkadrie, also known as Sultan Hamid II, from West Kalimantan. At that time, the sultan held the post of Menteri Negara Zonder Porto Folio (State Minister Without a Portfolio) in the first cabinet of the republic.
Some newspapers and magazines reported that his sketches portrayed a Garuda, an ancient mythical bird, with a human head and human hands holding a shield.
“I saw it [the sketch] once in a magazine in the 1970s,” historian and researcher Restu Gunawan said. “I don’t know where they took it from. I’ve never seen the drawing of Sultan Hamid II with my own eyes. I don’t know where it is now.
Restu is a researcher and historian at the Directorate General of Culture at the Education and Culture Ministry. He has conducted a number of studies on Garuda Pancasila and published them in national newspapers and magazines.
The mythical bird was found in stone etchings on several Hindu temples in Java, dated between the 6th and 16th centuries.
“There are stone etchings on the Sukuh Temple [in Central Java, 15th century] of Garuda Wisnu Kencana,” Restu said. “These etchings portray the god Vishnu riding on the Garuda.”
King Airlangga of the Kahuripan Kingdom [East Java and Bali, 11th century] also used a Garuda symbol on his royal stamp.
In these ancient portrayals, the Garuda was depicted with a half-human body, a human head and the wings of a gigantic bird.
“The Garuda has always been a symbol for supremacy,” Restu said.
Under the guidance of Ki Hajar Dewantara, the sultan perfected his design. The Garuda was redrawn and lost much of its mythical features. In his final design, the Garuda had a close resemblance to Javan hawk-eagles.
This drawing was presented to President Sukarno in February 1950. The president liked the design. But he suggested that a tuft of feathers be added to the eagle’s bald head as a crest.
The drawing was then taken to the Presidential Palace’s artist to be perfected.
A white ribbon with the words “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” (Unity in Diversity) was added to the drawing. The saying was taken from an ancient poem, “Kakawin Sutasoma,” written by Mpu Tantular, the Majapahit kingdom philosopher.
“The saying ‘Bhinneka Tunggal Ika’ became one of the most important elements in the symbol,” Rizal said. “It represents our dream to become one united nation, in spite of our different cultural backgrounds.”
The Garuda also lost its human hands in the final design. Now the shield that bears the five basic principles of the country, Pancasila, hangs on a chain from the Garuda’s neck. Its golden hue represents the glory of the nation.
The president established Garuda Pancasila as Indonesia’s coat of arms on Oct. 17, 1951.
The Garuda Pancasila, as we know it now, has 17 feathers on each wing, eight feathers on its tail and 45 feathers on its neck to represent Indonesia’s Independence Day on Aug. 17, 1945.
“To understand the history of Garuda Pancasila is to appreciate the long and arduous process of Indonesia’s independence,” Rizal said.
Rizal, 37, said he was concerned by the lack of knowledge most Indonesians had about Garuda Pancasila.
“Garuda Pancasila is the core of our national Constitution,” Rizal said. “Yet it’s become more like a perfumed dead body these days. It still smells good, yet [it’s] lifeless and no longer affects today’s world.”
“Almost everyone, including schoolchildren, no longer recognizes the fundamental ideals within the Garuda,” he said.
According to the historian, that loss can be blamed on an Indonesian political class that has manipulated and abused its powers.
“These [political] elites represent the nation,” he said. “Yet, they live far below the ideal standards of Garuda Pancasila. As the result, it lowers our pride in the national emblem.”
To restore a sense of pride in the national symbol, Rizal suggested that Garuda Pancasila be infused into Indonesians’ everyday lives.
“There’s the movie ‘Garuda di Dadaku’ [‘Garuda on My Chest,’ 2009],” he said. “We also have Garuda T-shirts selling in the markets now. I see them as positive efforts to revive the Garuda as a modern icon.”