Who are the Kutai?

The Kutai people live spread out along the eastern coast of East Kalimantan. Tenggarong is the heart of their area. The sultan Mulawarman ruled from here as the capital of the Kutai kingdom, the oldest Hindu kingdom in Indonesia.

The Kutai live in various districts of the Kutai Tenggara regency. They also live in Tenggarong City and in the West Kutai regency. The Kutai language is part of the Malay language cluster.

What are their lives like?

The Kutai make their living as farmers, fishermen, and hunters. East Kalimantan is the richest province in Indonesia. Kutai Tenggara constitutes the richest regency in Indonesia. Therefore, the Kutai rarely leave their home area, having little economic reason to do so. Many Kutai people, however, do not prosper because of drastic imbalances in income.

Some inland Kutai still follow a traditional system of law. Traditional Kutai law provides for several key leaders: a village leader who conducts traditional ceremonies, a security chief, and a protector of inherited wealth. The government recognizes these leaders, calling them petinggi (“high ones”).

The city of Tenggarong used to be the center of the Kutai Kartanegara kingdom. It still has various historical and cultural sites, such as the Tenggarong palace.

In the past, the Kutai had a social system that included nobleman, ordinary people, and slaves. Today, respect is given to people based on their education and wealth, not their title.

The Kutai have a rich variety of traditional ceremonies. The Pesta Erau is one of the biggest ceremonies. It commemorates the founding of the city of Tenggarong. The party lasts five days and five nights. Many people come even from very remote villages and perform many different dances, such as the warrior dance and the gong dance. A dragon doll is thrown into the Mahakam River at the ceremony’s climax. This is a symbolic way of asking for blessings of wealth and prosperity from their ancestors.

What are their beliefs?

Generally, the Kutai are Muslims. However, in their daily life, they still worship spirits. Certain royal heirlooms are considered sacred, such as a gold crown decorated with jewels and a necklace with two mythical birds.

In the past, the Kutai were Hindu. They were called ‘Kaharingan.’ This has resulted in much mixing between the faiths of Islam and Hinduism.

What are their needs?

The Kutai need better transportation infrastructure so the remote villagers can take their crops and commodities to the market. At present, the main form of transportation is by sea and river. Land transportation is very difficult.

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