Central Java

Yogyakarta (pronounced Joe – g – jah – kar – tah) is the cultural capital of the island of Java, Indonesia’s most important and populous island.  A little over 500 thousand of the island’s 120 million people live here and they are fiercely proud of their unique customs, art, and language.

Jogja, as the locals call it, wasn’t on our radar until the day before we arrived, but as soon as we stepped off the train we knew that this unexpected stop had a lot in store for us.  The city launched an outright assault on our senses.  Becak drivers shouted, art galleries flung every color, the smell of exotic meats filled the air, the heat beat down, and the taste of Javanese life filled our every breath.  At first it was overwhelming but as we adjusted it became addicting.

Batik is the local art of waxing and dying fabric. The artist applies wax to cotton or silk to block each color of dye, then uses hot water or gasoline to remove the wax, then reapplies a new wax pattern for the next color, and on and on it goes.  Jogja is the beating heart of this art form and every other storefront is a gallery displaying the artist’s most brilliant and complex work.  We had been warned about various schemes to get tourists into galleries for the hard sell. I even reminded Val before we got off the train… but just 3 hours after arriving we walked out of a gallery with 5 neatly folded Batik “paintings” and 2 very anorexic wallets.  The upside is that we got a very cool demonstration of how Batik is made, and we absolutely loved what we bought – so we beamed all the way to our far away, but thankfully very cheap, room.

Despite our splurge we immediately re-focused on our two original goals in Jogja – Borobudur and Prambanan.  Borobudur is an 1100 year old Budhist stupa, the largest in the world.  It was ‘discovered’ in the late 1800’s obscured under volcanic ash from nearby Mt. Merapi.   Excavation finished in the 20’s and it has become one of the biggest tourist draws in SE Asia.  We were lucky to find the temple mostly empty the day we visited.  We marveled at the 1400 panels (about 6 x 9 ft each) of intricately carved Budhist lore as we circled around the 3 square and 4 round levels.  It’s difficult to explain the majesty of this place so I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Next was Prambanan, an equally impressive Hindu temple built 100 years before Borubudur.  Sadly an earthquake in 2006 severely caused severe damage, so 4 of the 7 major structures were caged in scaffolding, but the overall impression wasn’t lost on us.  The separate structures rise out of the ground like ancient sky scrapers – the tallest almost 200 ft.  Each temple is devoted to a Hindu deity.  The vertical architecture of the Hindu shrines sharply contrasts the bulky mass of Borobudur. Strangely though, the highlight of our day at Prambanan came from the nearby but much smaller Candi Sewu.

Despite being a Bhudist temple Candi Sewu features many Hindu statues and images – a symbol of religious harmony literally set in stone.  We found the temple totally empty, but a lone Indonesian archeologist was working and excitedly gave us a detailed tour explaining the meaning and significance of the temple and his work.  He even prayed for us in the Central Chamber.  Transcending the regular tourist shutter frenzy and privately observing the power and devotion of such a sacred monument was a beautiful and humbling experience.

In all we spent 4 days in Jogja, visiting temples, supporting local artists, awkwardly walking through the royal palace, straining the muscles of Becak drivers (bicycle taxis), and even enjoying a crab dinner – but whispers from the East bid us to stay no longer…

  • Share post

Scott Dusek is a writer and photography originally from Seattle, Washingon.