Java (Indonesian: Jawa) is an island of Indonesia. With a population of 136 million, it is the world’s most populous island, and one of the most densely populated regions in the world. It is home to 60% of Indonesia’s population. The Indonesian capital city, Jakarta, is in west Java. Much of Indonesian history took place on Java; it was the center of powerful Hindu-Buddhist empires, Islamic sultanates, the core of the colonial Dutch East Indies, and was at the center of Indonesia’s campaign for independence. The island dominates Indonesian social, political and economic life.
Formed mostly as the result of volcanic events, Java is the 13th largest island in the world and the fifth largest island in Indonesia. A chain of volcanic mountains forms an east-west spine along the island. It has three main languages, though Javanese is dominant and is the native language of 60 million people in Indonesia, most of whom live on Java. Most residents are bilingual, with Indonesian as their first or second language. While the majority of the people of Java are Muslim, Java has a diverse mixture of religious beliefs, ethnicities and cultures.
The island is divided into four provinces, West Java, Central Java, East Java, and Banten, and two special districts, Jakarta and Yogyakarta.
The origins of the name ‘Java’ are not clear. One possibility is that the island was named after the jáwa-wut plant, which was said to be common in the island during the time, and that prior to Indianization the island had different names. There are other possible sources: the word jaú and its variations mean “beyond” or “distant”. And, in Sanskrit yava means barley, a plant for which the island was famous. “Yawadvipa” is mentioned in India’s earliest epic, the Ramayana. Sugriva, the chief of Rama’s army dispatched his men to Yawadvipa, the island of Java, in search of Sita. It was hence referred to in Indian, specifically Tamil literature by the Sanskrit name “yāvaka dvīpa” (dvīpa = island). Another source states that the “Java” word is derived from a Proto-Austronesian root word, meaning ‘home’.
Fossilised remains of Homo erectus, popularly known as the “Java Man”, dating back 1.7 million years were found along the banks of the Bengawan Solo River.
The island’s exceptional fertility and rainfall allowed the development of wet-field rice cultivation, which required sophisticated levels of cooperation between villages. Out of these village alliances, small kingdoms developed. The chain of volcanic mountains and associated highlands running the length of Java kept its interior regions and peoples separate and relatively isolated. Before the advent of Islamic states and European colonialism, the rivers provided the main means of communication, although Java’s many rivers are mostly short. Only the Brantas and Sala rivers could provide long-distance communication, and thus their valleys supported the centres of major kingdoms. A system of roads, permanent bridges and toll gates is thought to have been established in Java by at least the mid-seventeenth century. Local powers could disrupt the routes as could the wet season and road use was highly dependent on constant maintenance. Subsequently, communication between Java’s population was difficult.
The Taruma and Sunda kingdoms of western Java appeared in the fourth and seventh centuries respectively. However, the first major principality was the Medang Kingdom which was founded in central Java at the beginning of the eight century. Medang’s religion centred on the Hindu god Shiva, and the kingdom produced some of Java’s earliest Hindu temples on the Dieng Plateau. Around 8th century the Sailendra dynasty rose in Kedu Plain and become the patron of Mahayana Buddhism. This ancient kingdom built monuments such as 9th century Borobudur and Prambanan in central Java.
The 9th century Borobudur buddhist stupa in Central Java.
Around 10th century the center of power shifted from central to eastern Java. The eastern Javanese kingdoms of Kediri, Singhasari and Majapahit were mainly dependent on rice agriculture, yet also pursued trade within the Indonesian archipelago with China and India.
Majapahit was established by Wijaya and by the end of the reign of Hayam Wuruk (r. 1350-89) it claimed sovereignty over the entire Indonesian archipelago, although control was likely limited to Java, Bali and Madura. Hayam Wuruk’s prime minster, Gajah Mada, led many of the kingdom’s territorial conquests. Previous Javanese kingdoms had their power based in agriculture, however, Majapahit took control of ports and shipping lanes and became Java’s first commercial empire. With the death of Hayam Wuruk and the coming of Islam to Indonesia, Majapahit went into decline.
By the end of the 16th century, Islam, through conversion firstly amongst the island’s elite, had surpassed Hinduism and Buddhism as the dominant religion in Java. During this era, the Islamic kingdoms of Demak, Cirebon, and Banten were ascendant. The Mataram Sultanate became the dominant power of central and eastern Java at the end of the 16th century. The principalities of Surabaya and Cirebon were eventually subjugated such that only Mataram and Banten were left to face the Dutch in the 17th century.
Java’s contact with the European colonial powers began in 1522 with a treaty between the Sunda kingdom and the Portugese in Malacca. After its failure the Portugese presence was confined to Malacca, and to the eastern islands. In 1596, a four-ship expedition led by Cornelis de Houtman was the first Dutch contact with Indonesia. By the end of the 18th century the Dutch had extended their influence over the sultanates of the interior (see Dutch East Indies). While the Javanese were great warriors, internal conflict prevented them forming effective alliances against the Dutch. Remnants of the Mataram survived as the Surakarta (Solo) and Yogyakarta principalities. Javanese kings claimed to rule with divine authority and the Dutch helped them to preserve remnants of a Javanese aristocracy by confirming them as regents or district officials within the colonial administration.
Java major role during early part of colonial period is as producer of rice. In spice producing islands like Banda, rice was regularly imported from Java, to supply the deficiency in means of subsistence. 
In 1815, there may have been 5 million people in Java. In the second half of the eighteenth century, population spurts began in districts along the north-central coast of Java, and in the nineteenth century population grew rapidly across the island. Factors for the great population growth include the impact of Dutch colonial rule including the imposed end to civil war in Java, the increase in the area under rice cultivation, and the introduction of food plants such as casava and maize which could sustain populations that could not afford rice. Others attribute the growth to the taxation burdens and increased expansion of employment under the Cultivation System to which couples responded by having more children in the hope of increasing their families’ ability to pay tax and buy goods. Cholera claimed 100,000 lives in Java in 1820.
The advent of trucks and railways where there had previously only been buffalo and carts, telegraph systems, and more coordinated distribution systems under the colonial government all contributed to famine elimination in Java, and in turn, population growth. There were no significant famines in Java from the 1840s through to the Japanese occupation in the 1940s. Ethnological factors are also thought to have contributed to the increase in population. In Java, there was no absolute preference for boy babies which was significant in Java where agriculture depends on the labour of both men and women. Furthermore, the age of first marriage dropped during the nineteenth century thus increasing a women’s child bearing years.
Indonesian nationalism first took hold in Java in the early twentieth century (see Indonesian National Awakening), and the struggle to secure the country’s independence following World War II was centred in Java. The abortive coup and the subsequent violent anti-communist purge in 1965/66 largely took place in Java. The island has dominated Indonesian social, political and economic life, which has been the source of resentment. In 1998, preceding the fall of Suharto’s 32-year presidency, large riots targeted the Chinese Indonesians in another series of pogroms.