Yogyakarta… where the heart is
Written by and photography by Mark Parren Taylor
On a lush plain studded with thousand-year-old monuments and overshadowed by dormant and smoking volcanos, Yogyakarta retains an easy-going air that welcomes all-comers. With Qatar Airways flying to Jakarta daily, the time is right to explore Java’s cultural roots.
Mr Budi kneels down and scoops a handful of stones. “The lava makes more than 70 different colours,” my guide says as he looks at the pebbles and pumice. “Pinks and coffees, creams, and greys.”
We’re high up Mount Merapi and the air is noticeably thinner – but the volcano soars much higher, reaching for the sun. It can, after all, breathe fire. But today, Merapi’s slopes are calm and lush, and the view surprisingly clear. From here we can look south across Yogyakarta, sprawled at the foot of the volcano, and then another 25 kilometres to the Indian Ocean.
Yogya, as it is known, is a pleasant, relaxed place that’s twinned with Japan’s Kyoto, and Vietnam’s Hue – so it comes as no surprise that it too was once a capital and remains the treasury of traditions and culture that it originally nurtured. Its streets are busy with swarming mopeds, schoolkids snacking on banana leaf-wrapped ‘cat rice’, and shops selling embroidered jilbab and heavy-duty paddy hats. The townsfolk are a down-to-earth crowd: welcoming, smiling, curious. And they call Merapi ‘Grandfather’. But it’s a fickle grandfather, despite a spiritual connection with them all, and with the very heart of Yogya.
At its heart – and indeed the heart of Javan culture – is Kraton, the palace. Sultan Hamengkubuwono X’s private quarters aside, its many halls and courtyards are open to visitors. They house exhibits exploring Javan culture – from batik to kris (daggers) – while an orchestra plays classical gamelan music in a pavilion close to the entrance, sometimes accompanying dancers or puppeteers. On Tuesdays there are jemparingan (or seated archery) demonstrations and occasionally sightseers might come across a file of sarong-wrapped attendants as they perform the stately tea preparation ceremony.
Cultural heritage echoes from Kraton like the soulful resonance of a bronze gong. Immediately surrounding the palace, a walled enclave (that’s home to some 20,000 citizens) contains the Taman Sari or Water Castle – once a royal pleasure ground of pools and fountains – and the Sumur Gumuling catacombs. The Sultan’s brother Prince Joyokusumo lives nearby and his house’s restaurant (Jl. Rotowijayan) prepares celebratory Javanese cuisine including the rice-and-cracker dish nasi blawong that traditionally is eaten on the anniversary of the Sultan’s coronation – the day when offerings are made to appease Merapi.
Other notable Yogya dishes include gudeg, a day-long-stewed curry of jackfruit, coconut, and spices available at Gudeg Yu Djum (Jl. Kaliurang), and mie jawa noodles with water spinach and chilli. It’s popular at Bakmi Kadin (Jl. Bintaran Kulon), where they cook over charcoal that glows like molten lava.
Downtown Malioboro Road is a hotspot for cafés, stalls and shops – and in the evening little pop-up lesehan set out short-legged tables on picnic blankets so that diners can watch the world go by while sampling delicious local cooking. Many of the stallholders head to Kotagede’s market for supplies – it’s a good spot to pick up fruit and a reviving glass of secang bark tea. Kotagede was the first capital of the Mataram Sultanate at the turn of the 16th century and it retains an old world charm with traditional Javanese dwellings squeezed around remnants of the 400-year-old palace, mosque, and city walls.
In fact, this region has been a seat of power for millennia. Hinduism was strong in Java for almost a thousand years, and at its height the impressive temples at nearby Prambanan were built. About a half of a century earlier, in 842, Buddhists completed perhaps their greatest south-east Asian monument, Borobudur, which occupies a spot northwest of Yogya. Both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
These two cultures lived side by side for centuries, and still today their influences are inescapable. They had a mutual understanding that was applauded in a famed 14th century poem, a line of which is now Indonesia’s motto. Bhinneka Tunggal Ika – ‘different parts of the same whole’.
So much that originated here in Yogyakarta remains an intrinsic part of the everyday lives of people across this vast nation. A multi-hued society of many ‘different parts’... like the multi-hued stones that make up the fertile slopes of mighty Merapi.
Where & when
Jl. Rotowijayan 1, Yogyakarta 55133
Magelang, Jawa Tengah
By the numbers
The number of carved panels decorating Borobudur that illustrate Buddhist teachings and Javan daily life in the 9th century.
The number of temples, or candi, that originally formed the Prambanan Hindu temple complex... today just eight main temples, eight small shrines and two pervara temples remain.
The flight time in minutes between Yogyakarta and the capital, Jakarta.
Of all the styles of puppet theatre in Java, Wayang Kulit is the most admired. It translates as ‘skin theatre’ but is more commonly known as ‘shadow puppetry’. It uses an ensemble of leather puppets that have been finely shaped and pierced so that they cast intricate shadows on a backlit cotton screen. The puppet master – dalang – operates dozens of puppet characters to which he gives voices while narrating an epic story. The dalang’s skill is to make each performance lively, compelling, and timely – by including witty references to local and national events. On the second Saturday of the month, an all-night Sasono Hinggil Wayang Kulit show (on Alun-alun Selatan, the grassy square south of Kraton) draws an enthusiastic audience... but come prepared, as it starts at 9pm and ends after 5am!