Java – Indonesia’s heartland

By Nigel Wright [email protected]

Nigel Wright and his wife Sue moved to Portugal five years ago and live in the countryside near Paderne with their three dogs. They lived and worked in the Far and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s and although now retired, still continue to travel as much possible and enjoy new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening, photography and petanque.

The fertile island of Java was the home of one of man’s earliest ancestors. The world’s first Homo Erectus or “Java Man” fossils were discovered here, a lush tropical paradise with rich volcanic soils generously watered by the annual monsoon rains.

The ideal agricultural and climactic conditions have ensured that Java has always been well populated and it now has more than 130 million people – a population density at least double that of any other similar area on the planet. Over a thousand years ago, the island was home to great Hindu and Buddhist civilisations, resulting in the construction of some remarkable temple complexes.

Distinct Islamic traditions developed from the 14th century onwards and Islam is still the majority religion within Indonesia. Intervention by the Portuguese, English and Dutch followed later as they competed for the lucrative spice trade, particularly mace, cloves and nutmeg.

Yogyakarta – Cultural capital

An elegant lady.
An elegant lady.

During a fascinating journey across Java, we reached the island’s cultural capital, Yogyakarta. This busy city is Java’s foremost tourist destination and a sophisticated centre for the performing arts with palaces, temples and museums.

We visited the royal Kraton, an old palace complex which is a city within a city, housing not just the Sultan and his family, but thousands of supportive workers – musicians, batik textile makers, domestic servants and guards. We saw the throne room, pleasure gardens, performance pavilions and shady courtyards.

Here we found welcome rest from the fierce tropical sun before enjoying a wonderful concert of Gamelan music and a traditional shadow puppet performance.

Gamelan music, which has been described as “The Sound of Moonlight” is gentle on the ear, pure, mysterious and one of the world’s most sophisticated musical arts. Most of the instruments are percussive – metallophones (a type of xylophone) made from brass, bronze or iron, together with gongs and drums.

Orchestras can have as many as 40 members and the music, which also accompanies traditional dance, drama and shadow puppet shows, is played throughout Indonesia. We became enchanted by Gamelan’s rhythmic, melodic patterns and liquid tones.

The beloved shadow puppets (Wayang Kulit) are made from leather and demonstrations of this amazing dramatic art form are justifiably on every tourist itinerary. Within one of the beautiful pavilions of the Kraton, the skilful puppeteers gave us a convincing and magical performance of part of the ancient Indian epic, the Ramayana.


A benign Mount Merapi.
A benign Mount Merapi.

Central Java’s chief tourist attraction is the Borobodur Temple. This magnificent structure is the world’s largest Buddhist shrine, and stands serenely on a hilltop overlooking lush green fields, just 40km north of Yogyakarta. It is more than a thousand years old and was rediscovered in 1814 under centuries of volcanic debris by Stamford Raffles, then English Lieutenant-governor and founder of Singapore.

Restoration of the temple to its former glory took more than 150 years and was finally completed by UNESCO in 1983. It is now a World Heritage Site and consists of an enormous terraced pyramid of decorated hewn volcanic rock. Buddhist ritual demands that all pilgrims circle clockwise around the multiple terraces, whose thousands of beautiful carvings depict the many lives of the Buddha and give a detailed insight into everyday life in ninth century Java.

A full circumambulation of the galleries involves a six-kilometre walk! However, we cheated a little and took a short cut to reach the wide-open top terrace with its 72 perforated stupas, each concealing a meditating Buddha. Like millions before us, we then reached through the stone cowl of a stupa to touch one of these figures for good luck.

Above us, in the brilliant sunlight was the large central stupa, representing enlightenment and concealing two small, sealed chambers containing nothing – a void. Before leaving, we examined some of the intricate carvings, full of admiration at the skill of the craftsmen who created this monument to Buddha. Finally, we sat and enjoyed the superb view, with nearby Mount Merapi, Java’s most dangerous volcano, looming large on the horizon.


Borobodur Summit Stupas.
Borobodur Summit Stupas.

We visited a second World Heritage site, the Hindu temple of Prambanan, built in the 10th century by the Mataram kingdom, a mighty empire then covering a large part of Indonesia. It too was destroyed by the ravages of time and its restoration was only completed in 1953.

Prambanan is a place of superb symmetry, timeless beauty and said to surpass many Indian Hindu temples. As you approach through the outer wall, which is just a jumble of stone blocks, the eight shrines rise up in front of you, looking weirdly futuristic. All the central edifices have been restored and the three main structures are dedicated to the Hindu ‘trinity’ of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

The latter is the most graceful and the tallest of the three, rising to 47m, with the tall figure of Shiva himself in the centre. Around its base there is fantastic sculptural detail with endearing animals playing amongst the trees of life. As we circulated around the Brahma temple balustrade, we became engrossed in more of the complex tale of the Ramayana told in intricate carved relief.

These carvings are the most sophisticated visual art of their age and the free-flowing movements in each panel were filled with immense detail. The motifs included birds raiding a granary, intimate kitchen scenes and monkeys in fruit trees.

Mount Merapi’s awesome power

Kraton Palace pavilion (with Indonesian Garruda Bird).
Kraton Palace pavilion (with Indonesian Garruda Bird).

Immense geological forces originally toppled both these magnificent temples and the main cause of the destruction was Mount Merapi. In order to reap the ample agricultural benefits of the rich volcanic soil in its vicinity, many people risk living and working on this volcano’s dangerous slopes. Our guide told us that despite early-warning systems, many people die in the volcano’s frequent eruptions.

In the last few weeks, the western world has seen on television just how deadly this volcano can be. The recent eruptions have ejected millions of tonnes of ash over a wide area of central Java.

More than 250 people have died and 300,000 people have been displaced. Once again, Borobodur has become a volcano victim, blanketed in a thick layer of acidic ash, which is threatening to damage the temple’s structure. It is presently closed to the public.

Most tourists who visit Indonesia fly directly to Bali and then just enjoy the splendours of that beautiful island before returning home. However, Indonesia has much more to offer and once Merapi has calmed down, entertaining excursions to the Yogyakarta region of Java will again be available from Bali.

Such a trip will provide a deep insight into the country’s fascinating history, archaeology and artistic culture. It is also the very best place to watch an epic tale of Javanese folklore unfold through an enchanting traditional dance performance accompanied by gentle Gamelan music – the “Sound of Moonlight”.