Unearthing Central Java

Writer Samantha Coomber | January 9, 2018

Set in the middle of Java Island within the Indonesian archipelago, Central Java ranks as one of Indonesia’s richest artistic and cultural regions and the nation’s most important historical epicentre – the domain of Java’s first major Indianised civilisation, mighty ancient kingdoms and Islamic Sultanates. In bucolic fertile landscapes dominated by soaring volcanic peaks, today’s Central Java has inherited ancient wonders and royal dynasties.   

Provincial capital, Semarang, is located along on the northern coast; however, as a business-focused, sprawling port city, tourists rarely come here. Those who do are rewarded with a historic Old Town, replete with Dutch colonial-era architecture and vibrant Chinese quarter reflecting its status as a significant trading hub since the 16th century and a melting pot of merchant cultures. Further west, a mini-archipelago of tropical islands plus remote Dieng Plateau, where several Hindu temples and stone structures of great archaeological relevance are some of Java’s oldest.

TALE OF TWO CITIES

The region’s most compelling hubs are Yogyakarta and Solo, spaced 60km apart further south. There’s always been an intense cultural rivalry between these two ancient royal cities – ironically, both related, their 18th-century Sultanate kingdoms descendants of Java’s mighty Mataram dynasty. Steeped in rich cultural heritage, Yogyakarta and Solo (AKA Surakarta) vie for recognition as the ‘Cradle of Central Javanese Culture’ in their own charming ways, both especially for their performing arts and music rituals, including Gamelan and shadow puppetry and batik fabric, synonymous with Central Java culture – centuries-old legacies of both royal courts. Classic forms of dance, poetry, theatre and music are widely practised and performed at city venues, including the royal palaces, and taught at renowned performing arts academies.

The more conservative, under-the-radar Solo plays second fiddle to Yogyakarta, Indonesia’s second most-visited destination, but less developed with a slower pace and traditional character intact, this refined yet amiable city is also a must-see. Although with fewer tourist attractions, Solo offers year-round cultural festivals, royal court performing arts regarded as Java’s most sophisticated and batik craftsmanship – an integral part of Solo’s daily life, economy and cultural identity. And Solo boasts two palaces: Keraton Surakarta, Central Java’s original Sultan founded in 1745 and Pura Mangkunegaran, established a decade later by a rebel prince.  Solo’s current royal households exercise symbolic power only, residing in private palace quarters; both palaces – along with Yogyakarta’s – are worth visiting.

Located south-west, Yogyakarta is contrastingly the larger metropolitan area, regarded as Java’s main cultural, intellectual and artistic centre, with a huge student population, vibrant modern arts and culinary scene, shopping hotspots and historical sites. ‘Yogya’s’ main drawcard however is the magnificent Kraton, the Sultan of Yogyakarta’s palace and city’s cultural and political heart, established in 1755 following a Solo royal split. The Sultan still resides in the innermost ornate quarters of this walled ‘city within a city’ and rules as appointed Governor over Indonesia’s sole, traditional Sultanate system, the semi-autonomous Yogyakarta Special Region.

LIVING BREATHING HISTORY

Yogyakarta is additionally gateway to Indonesia’s two most important ancient wonders and UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Borobudur and Prambahan. Just 40km westwards, Borobudur rests amidst the Kedu Plains, ‘The Garden of Java’ a peaceful valley ringed by Sumbing, Sundoro, Merbabu and Merapi volcanic mounts and hugely significant in Central Java’s momentous history, home to around 2,000 temples and archaeological sites, dating from the eighth century.

One of the best preserved, Borobudur, happens to be the world’s largest Buddhist temple, one of its greatest Buddhist monuments and  important pilgrimage site. Buried for centuries under ash from catastrophic volcanic eruptions, unearthed and restored, ninth-century Borobudur is an iconic historical symbol for Indonesia, and its most-visited attraction. Built to resemble a pyramid-shaped mandala, visitors ascend a series of square terraces and circular terraces ringed with 72 stupas, before reaching the top central one. Borobudur is best experienced at dawn, the most spiritually charged time with magical sunrises over volcanic panoramas.   

Several kilometres eastwards of Yogyakarta, Prambanan Plains was an important religious, political and urban territory in ancient times, boasting Indonesia’s densest concentration of temples and archaeological sites, originating from the eighth to tenth centuries. Around 500 or so – many in ruins but some authentically restored – are contained within vast, Prambanan Archaeological Park and its four mini-temple compounds.

The best-known, Prambanan, is the largest Hindu temple complex outside India; amongst its numerous shrines and temples, the most revered and instantly recognisable are six, jagged-shaped, intricately detailed temples, with three magnificent towering temples dedicated to Hindu divinities, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. On full moon nights, spellbinding Ramayana Ballet – combining gamelan music, dance and drama – is performed on an open-air stage.      

Central Java’s mountainous topography makes for a popular hiking destination, especially, Borobudur’s Menoreh Hills, Mount Merbabu and sacred Mount Merapi, one of Indonesia’s most active volcanoes and eerily omnipresent across the region.  Climbers can scale Merapi’s steep flanks rising to 3,000 metres, reaching the summit for another extraordinary sunrise experience.

Central Java ranks as one of Indonesia’s richest artistic and cultural regions and the nation’s most important historical epicentre