Java and Yogyakarta

National Museum of IndonesiaSet your sights on Java

Travel & Leisure (New York) January 1992

From the air, Yogyakarta, more commonly referred to as Yogya (said “Jogja”, like “jogging”), a sprawl of a hundred thousand terracotta roofs an hour’s flight east from the Indonesian capital Jakarta, doesn’t look like Java’s spiritual epicentre. On the ground, such a role looks even less likely: streets of shabby two-storey buildings shout gold, stationery and spectacles, and a constant melee of motorcycles, ‘becaks’ (pedicabs), taxis, mini-buses, pony-carts, and bicycles (to note just the mechanical component of the din) threatens thought, let alone contemplation. But a spiritual centre it is, and contemplation quickly becomes unavoidable.

As 1991 saw Iraq hammered and communism hurled unconsious from the ring, might some spiritual contemplation on another great, but little known, culture might do us good? I reckon that we are in danger of a permanent sniffy complacency, backed by sniffy stay-at-home paranoia, that we – and only we – have got it right. 1992 might just be the year to venture a long way away, and Java is about as far as you can get from the ‘The West’, both geographically and culturally.

Bali (Java’s immediate neighbour east) is well known of course, best perhaps for being spoiled. This is not completely the case yet, but serves as a good reason for looking elsewhere. Java, 600 miles long and between 50 and 100 miles wide, with a population of 110 million squeezed between 60 high volcanoes is bigger, wilder and far more satisfying.

Central Java, the same size roughly as New York State, is the heartland of this island. Uncounted civilizations have been born and transmuted here. The famously gentle Hinduism of Bali, for example, landed here first from India and then drifted east. The skull of ‘Java Man’ was first pulled from the earth at Sangiran, just 40 miles north-east of Yogya (administratively a ‘Special Region’, but effectively the provincial capital); and few cannot have heard of the world’s largest Buddhist monument at Borobudur.

For two years I lived on the hot flat north coast of Java in Jakarta’s melting-pot. I travelled extensively around the 4,000-mile Indonesian archipelago and touched on a few of its 13,677 islands and 336 different ethnic groups. Wherever I went though, I always longed for Central Java.


First, it’s an ancient place with a great riddle written in stone that no one yet has solved. Fifty miles north-west of Yogya, at Dieng, a cluster of tiny Hindu temples, dated precisely to AD809, squat on a cold, wet and high plateau. Borobodur, a mere 30 miles south-east, can be only 50 years younger and it’s Buddhist. East 10 miles again and perhaps only 50 years younger once again, is the Hindu Prambanan temple complex, which stood as the tallest structure on the island for a millenium. Yet shortly after it was completed, the civilization that had dedicated such enormous labour, upped sticks and moved 150 miles east.

Secondly, the inhabitants constitute one of the most dense and intriguing patterns of humanity in the world. Great tides of migration and invasion have constantly washed through Java. The first to leave traces were Burmese bronze-workers (the Dong Son culture) sometime in the first millennium before Christ. Then came Chinese, Indians and Arabs, followed by Portuguese, English and most recently, in Shakespeare’s time, the Dutch. Yet the Javanese lack no sense of their own cultural identity.

Thirdly, it’s beautiful. The viridian paddy- fields and ever-present mauve volcanic cones are easily confused with the painted backdrop at the start of a happy movie. Alfred Russel Wallace, perhaps the most distinguished naturalist ever, and no man to wax lyrical, was actually driven to cliche by Java, pronouncing it “The very garden of the east”.

As an Englishman, perhaps I feel particularly at home. I adore the precise etiquette, prescribed grace and gentle obfuscations of the people. I can think of no other races who say “yes” so easily when they mean “no”, who lapse into such absurd cheerfulness when presented with discomfort, and who hide so readily in chilly politeness when angry.

But I can remember also feeling like a Star Trek explorer on an alien planet having accepted nothing more than a wedding invitation. It wasn’t just my dark suit in the ocean of batik, this is a very foreign world: truth is variable, time moves differently, and a popular spiritual life has an unusual intricacy and depth. It’s a good place to learn and feel humble, which is why I go back.

My first objective on a recent trip was to locate Mitch Epstein, whose photographs you see on these pages. Having agreed on a hotel in Yogya and armed with knowledge that he had just flown halfway round the world, it wasn’t a hard task in the middle of a hot afternoon. I looked first – and successfully – by the pool. Over fried noodles and a reasonably dry local soda known as ‘Green Sands’, I told him much of the above. He spoke of his connections with India and we quickly agreed that the comments of the Bengali poet Tagore on Java were apt: ‘I see India everywhere, but do not recognize it’.

At dusk we stepped out onto the town’s main street, Jalan Malioboro, named – for no good reason I can find – after the British Duke of Marlborough, and headed towards the ‘kraton’, the royal palace. My first impression was of small, slender, black-haired people everywhere. Then came the smells of food cooking on every corner and the excitement of unimaginable fruits and fabrics piled everywhere. Pavement artists and street musicians wandered between low tables set for dinner in the arcades and a troupe of university students prepared the props for a horse-trance dance. Exotic was the only word: even the cigarettes oozed a sweet spicey smell.

At the bottom of the street, we passed through two broad gates set in thick white walls and then crossed an empty square nearly half a mile wide. Behind iron railings stood the home of the sultan and around us were the dwellings of his 25,000 relatives.

This complex is the ultimate focus of Java and all things Javanese. The sultan, 45 years old, a business-man and a member of parliament is also a hereditary pope-king. For the Javanese he is the source of all the energy of the cosmos. Thus the palace is not just a complex of buildings, it’s the navel of the world.

We turned and looked back across the square straight up Jalan Malioboro, which we now realized didn’t just form a ceremonial approach to the palace, but also linked it with distant cone of Merapi – Fire Mountain – the volcano we could just see in the moonlight on the horizon.

By day, the mysticism of the ‘kraton’ actually thickens. The architecture doesn’t impose, it’s a horizontal rather than vertical experience, 20 minutes’ brisk walk from north to south through linked courtyards; but everything is pregnant with meaning. Nine doors represent the nine human orifices. The sand on the floor is the beach of the Godess, Nyai Loro Kidul. Three-tiered roofs mirror three layers of heaven. Four teak pillars stand as the four elements. And there’s Dutch cast-iron, Venetian chandeliers and hundreds of waist-high Chinese urns for the more materially minded. The place has life too: 1,500 guards and officials in uniform brown and white sarongs, pert caps and neat blue-striped jackets ensure that.

All this, and more, is patiently explained by individual English-speaking guides (I’ve heard fluent German, French, Dutch, Japanese and Thai from them as well) who ask politely for hats to be removed and press everyone to conclude their visit in the ninth Sultan’s museum, a charming almost shrine-like place of kitchen equipment, photographic year-books, jazzy uniforms, well-used bathroom scales, a neat little Browning pistol and much more. The importance and popularity of the man and the office was demonstrated in 1988 when a million people showed up for his funeral.

My guide needed little encouragement to gossip: the Sultan was in Jakarta on business, his eldest daughter heading for Santa Barbara in the fall; and she showed real concern over the impending complications of succession with four daughters and no sons.

This active court provokes almost weekly festivals and celebrations. In June I stumbled into a procession of some six hundred cheerful uniforms bearing flags, spears, rifles, pipes, gongs and drums. The climax had the Sultan’s proxy – his brother, ceremonially accompanied by a dwarf, dispatching symbolic gifts the size of small cars into a crowd of – I guess – 50,000. It also encourages a rich cultural life: in just three days we effortlessly took in two classical dance troupes, a lavish dance drama, two shadow puppet shows and an exquisite gamelan orchestra recital. The latter is second in size only to a full symphony orchestra and thick books have been written about its theory and practice. “The sound of moonlight” is the most popular description of the music, and the other arts are no less rich or evocative.

The climate of patronage created by the ‘kraton’ has led to the formation locally of ASRI, ‘the’ school of fine arts; ASTI, ‘the’ dance academy; a world-renowned Batik Research Centre; Gajah Mada university – Indonesian Ivy league – and more. They are all active and go out of their way to welcome visitors.

Craftsmanship has been similarly boosted. We browsed filigree silver jewelry in the Kota Gede suburb and leather belts bags and clothes in Jalan Kauman. Batik, the most famous craft product of the area, posed a problem: there are at least 600 workshops in Yogya. We only had time to wander the small and varied stalls around Taman Sari and visit a couple of the grand, family-owned shops in Jalan Tirtodipuran. Mitch found the government-sponsored crafts centre opposite the Ambarrukmo hotel a good place to start in this plethora; and there are a half-dozen prowlable antique shops adjacent.

I never leave town without sarongs, batik for women, a simple check for men, and local coffee and tea. I find the prices of cotton knickers and T-shirts for kids irresistable (three for a dollar and a dollar each respectively). I often have picture frames carved and constructed to my own specifications for $5 a metre at the Godod Gallery (Jalan Ngasem 103), forever resisting the temptation presented there by a small collection of 1950’s German motorcyles. I once researched fabrics, dyes, tools and styles for a week – squirming through acres of kitsch – and then bought a batik painting of miraculous skill. I’m chasing essential oils now; but on my last visit a 60 kg painted wooden tiger ($80) nearly got me.

You have to bargain hard for everything; you’re considered arrogant and dull (as well as a fool) if you don’t. As a rule of thumb, start at a quarter and settle at a half. Never try to understand the Indonesian logic of supply and demand, but play on it. I always shop as the shutters come down in the morning: it’s considered a good omen to start the day with a sale, so prices are lower.

After four days, shopped, cultured and entertained to our eyebrows, we pressed out north from Yogya by car into cool hills and a world of a hundred shades of green. In small villages frangipani, hibiscus and bougainvillea exploded across the road and every free hand waved. Higher still, stands of teak gave way to skiing pines, winks as well as smiles, and frivolous pony rides.

It was Merapi, the volcano we had seen on our first night with our backs to the sultan’s palace, that drew us. First we circled it, hanging out of the windows like children on a coastal drive, awestruck by its grey smouldering tip. Later we dropped into four-wheel drive and hauled up a gouged twisted track on its flanks. Stopping at a bamboo-filled gorge, we turned to look back.

At our feet, rich terraces of tobacco, tea and coffee stepped down the hill. Neat plots of carrots, cabbages and peas were spaced by clove and banana trees. More distant, a wooden village sprawled along a quiet road. The silver bubble topping its mosque gleamed, but it was perched on a stepped Hindu roof – a perfect example of architectural syncretism. The music echoing up was no less scrambled: we heard China, Arabia and India all in one song.

News of our presence spead quickly and we rapidly attracted a small crowd of elegant and friendly people: children with infectious smiles, shy women with slung brass pots, barefoot but with gold in their ears and men, some in trousers, some in sarongs, with great baskets of vegetables and logs. “Where are you from? Where are you going? How old are you?” The chat starts: a ritual of instant acceptance.

As the sky dipped from mauve to deepest purple, the mosque wailed and the spirits thickened. According to one informant (who went by the name of Superman and was later to earn it guiding us up the mountain), there were ‘memedis’ (frighteners), ‘lelebuts’ (ethereal ones) and ‘tujuls’ (spirit children) all present, but the ‘demits’ and ‘danjangs’ – the spirits of place and peace – were thicker. They stayed with us on the night climb: we didn’t slip on the razor scree; the tumbling car-sized boulder missed.

Atop MerapiBefore dawn it is cold atop Merapi, but the echoing ground is hot. In the dark, the crater glows like a barbecue impossible to scale. Dawn brings blasted monochrome greys, sulphureous yellows and greens, and a view as if from an aeroplane. But no machine throws a perfect triangular shadow to the horizon, pointing at the setting moon. Eight other cones were visible, stepping more than a hundred miles along the island, but this was more than a landscape, it was the power of creation given form.

Dazed, we slipped and slid back down the mountain and drove north for an hour to Bandungan. We took a marble-bathroomed cottage at the Rawa Pening hotel, an unreconstructed 1930’s Dutch mansion, and were amused rather than distressed by the leatherette chairs, fluorescent lights and scant hot water. The next day we walked out on butterfly-dressed paths among wild roses, blackberry bushes and sulphurous streams to the high and quiet Songo temple complex nearby.

Inside these tiny and dense 8th century shrines, I reached out to touch four cold walls with my finger-tips. Outside, in bright sunlight, I placed my palms flat on the ancient stones and gazed at the jagged smoking horizon. Who were these people? What did they know? What were their hopes?

We moved on to Semarang, again an hour north by road, to observe the tepid northern sea that had carried the Chinese, Arab and Indian immigrants (and their foods and religions) here. In the port, wooden boats unchanged by centuries still work and around it, the town seethes: paint, tyres and cement, and a thousand other industries and advertisments.

The cacophany fades at the Patra Jasa Hotel in the leafy suburbs. As the receptionist led to the bar, the doormen unloaded and parked our car. I’ve never known it slicker.

By now we were already running out of time and still had several obligatory stops to make. It would take a busy month to do Central Java justice. Top of our list was Borobudur, the Cosmic Mountain of the Perfect Buddhas. It’s of a similar scale to Notre Dame or Angor Wat, but pre-dates both by at least two centuries. We drove back fast across the island to climb its ten stone terraces decked with three miles of mystic bas-reliefs and touch the highest bell-shaped stupa: heaven and the end of all suffering. In the hot crowds, an illustrated book by a hotel pool seemed a more practical heaven, but on the ground there is an inescapable infinity to Borobudur; an architecture of the universe, or even the mind.

Still moving fast we skirted Yogya and struck east. Prambanan temple, just ten miles out of town, is hot competition for Borobodur at the top of the must-see list. It’s more a matter of taste than significance: whilst Borobudur squats, like a stone jelly, the three main temples at Prambanan soar like rockets on a launch pad; a discovery of verticality.

Two hundred and forty-four minor temples originally stood in same central complex and at least a dozen lesser complexes dot the surrounding area. Spend a week here cycling on bumpy tracks and still not see half of it.

From May to October, on the nights of the full moon, the Hindu Ramayana epic is staged here in the open air with the floodlit temples as a backdrop. We went prepared to be bored, but emerged entranced and with all emotions tested.

The next day, another short spurt eastwards took us to Surakarta, also known as Solo, the original capital of the Javanese kingdom. But having demonstrated little heroism in the bloody four-year war of independence between 1946 and 1950, and neglected in the seventies and early eighties, the influence of its court has waned. The town has all the culture of Yogya, but accessibility is not its strong point.

The antiques market at Pasar Triwindu is, however, and there’s Pasar Klewer as well, Indonesia’s largest fabric market. Big notes were exchanged for goods at both and then we moved on to Solo’s ‘kraton’, restored after a fire in 1985. The guides lacked the enthusiasm of Yogya’s though: life is so sublime here it almost vanishes. An alternative is Mangkunegaran Palace, the prince’s home.

Forty gilt chandeliers hang in the teak reception room and a small museum has a nice line in silver chastity belts and gold ceremonial daggers, but the real attraction (quite attainable, but not loudly advertised) is to wander the private quarters arranged around a series of bird-filled gardens. Framed magazine-profiles with pictures of the Prince and his motor-cycle hang on the walls, and nannies gossip in still corners. On one broad verandah, a male figure slumbered in front of a Clark Gable video. Was it the Prince? I thought it vulgar to ask, so didn’t.

Tiny Sukuh temple, an hour from Solo, high on Mount Lawu on the eastern fringe of central Java, throws up more important questions. But there was no one there to ask. It’s little known and except for the trimmed grass, almost a discovery.

Sukuh is like no other temple in Java and twists the already complicated progression of the island’s people from animism to Hinduism to Buddhism and back to Hinduism again. An inscription on the entrance archway depicts a man being swallowed by a giant at the same arch. The Javanese assign numerals to each of these elements: arch – 9, giant – 5, swallowing – 3 and human – 1, so the Javanese year of 1359 or AD1437 is denoted, some 500 years later than Borobudur and Prambanan. Yet the temple is a rough-hewn stepped pyramid with nothing of the finesse of Borobudur and Prambanan resembling more a Mayan or Aztec construction. Furthermore it is decorated with explicit erotic carvings.

Some argue that Sukuh is a reversion to an aboriginal animism – a fertility cult no less – in the confused period when Islam was seeping inland from the north coast. But we arrived early enough to see a white-robed Hindu priest blessing a tray of food and then placing rose petals and scraps of wrapped rice in the main shrine.

Later, we sat on the floor of the Sultan’s pavilion nearby, open to all 364 days of the year, and looked back over our route through the mountains. Unbidden, two quiet children from a nearby house presented us with tea and coffee. Hang curtains for private afternoons and I could stay here for ever, learning and wondering.

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