Java is the political, geographic and economic center of the Indonesian archipelago. It’s a relatively small island, (approximately the same size as England) but has a population of 112 million, accounting for 55% of the country’s total population. The island is long and narrow, with a string of volcanic mountains punctuating its spine. It was on Java that the Hindu-Buddhist empires reached their zenith, producing architectural wonders such as Borobudur and Prambanan. When Islam came to the island in the 15th century, it absorbed rather than erased local cultures, leaving Java with a mish-mash of historic influences and religions. A strong consciousness of ancient religious and mystical thought carries over into present-day Java, providing a bulwark against wholesale modernization.
Much of the young republic’s history was hacked out of Javanese soil – including the major independence battles, the emergence of the two strongest political parties and the pro-democracy protests and riots which led to the recent downfall of Suharto. Today the island plays an extraordinarily dominant role in Indonesia. To a large extent, the rebellions of the Sumatrans, Minahasans and Ambonese in the 1950s and 1960s were rebellions against Javanese domination of the archipelago.
The island is certainly the most developed in the Indonesian archipelago, but despite its political and economic primacy it is still struggling with the twin demons of overpopulation and poverty. We only visited Yogyakarta but everywhere we went we were confronted by a society in transition – one which is keen to embrace the benefits of modernity and reform but determined not to lose its heritage in the process. Thus fast-food joints, shopping malls, satellite TV and the other material accouterments of the West live cheek by jowl with a vibrant traditional culture centered not on the individual, but around the family, the village and religious piety.
Yogyakarta or ‘Yogya’ is easily the most popular city in Indonesia. It’s a cultural and intellectual center, crammed with prestigious universities and academies, and its influence far outweighs its size. Sure it has noisy and chaotic traffic like any Javanese city, but just a short stroll away from the main streets are the kampungs (food stalls) where life is still unhurried. Despite its veneer of modernity and westernisation, the city clings strongly to its traditional values and philosophies. Traditional performing arts (Ramayana Ballet, gamelan performances etc) can be seen at the Yogyakarta Craft Center and the Agastya Art Institute. It is also a major craft center, especially for batik. The walled-in kraton compound, in the city center, is a city within a city. The kraton is home to 25,000 people and includes the sultan’s huge palace, the Taman Sari (also known as the water castle or fragrant garden), a bird market and several craft industries. There are several worthwhile museums in the city, including the Sono-Budoyo Museum and Benteng Vredeburg. The suburb of Kota Gede has been famous since the 1930s as the center of Yogya’s silver industry, and is still a great place to wander around and watch the silversmiths at work.
Borobudur Temple is one of the greatest Buddhist relics in South-East Asia and is Indonesia’s most famous attraction. Rulers of the Sailendra dynasty built the colossal pyramid of Borobudur between 750 and 850 AD, but very little else is known about the site’s early history except that a huge workforce must have been harnessed to shift and carve the 60,000 cu m (196,800 cu ft) of stone used in its construction. With the decline of Buddhism and the shift of power to East Java, Borobudur was soon abandoned and for centuries lay hidden under layers of volcanic ash. It was only in 1815 that the site was cleared and the technical skill and imagination of the builders was revealed. A mammoth US$21-million restoration program undertaken between 1973 and 1984 returned much of the complex to its former glory. The Mendut and Pawon temples nearby are important parts of the complex, though easily overlooked by visitors to the main site. Borobudur is 40km (25mi) north-west of Yogya.
The Hindu temple, Prambanan (also known as Lorojonggrang Temple ) is located at Bokoharjo Village, Prambanan, east of Yogya. The exact date of when the Lorojonggrang Temple was built was still in argument. There are two differing opinions regarding who built the Temple. One opinion stated that there was only one, dynasty, Cailendra Dynasty, before Lorojonggrang Temple was built. The second opinion stated that there were two dynasties, Cailendra and Sanjaya Dynasty. Cailendra Dynasty occupied the southern part of Central Java, whereas Sanjaya Dynasty occupied the northern part. Buddhist temples were found mostly in the Southern part of Central Java, and that the Ciwa Temples (Hindu) were found in Northern part of Central Java.