We are Javanese first and everything else after that!” our guide proudly told us as she led us to the Javanese cottage where my husband and I would be staying in Yogyakarta. We were in Indonesia for a week and were all set to explore this region in Central Java. Stepping into the house with a black-oxide floor and a thatched roof replete with wooden beds covered by mosquito nets, Java did not seem all that different from rural India. Yet, we soon realised that the sort of religious harmony that exists here is something that our country is yet to achieve. And everything we saw during the course of our travels only reinforced that.
Flourishing under the shadow of the active volcano Mount Merapi, Yogyakarta or Yogya, is what many would call Indonesia’s soul, the culture capital of sorts. We had six days and therefore no time to waste. Determined to experience the town as the locals did, we set out on a walking tour with our guide. Before starting the actual tour though, we spent an agonising ten minutes attempting to cross the road while Yogyakarta’s manic and trademark traffic rushed on. That adventure behind us, we followed our guide into an alley that turned out to be a peaceful residential colony. We walked past grandparents sunning themselves in their patios as their toddler grandchildren stumbled and crawled away. Our guide had a smile and a greeting for every person we met. They returned the greeting, not only to her but also to us, teaching us that a smile goes a long way in these parts. We made our way to the Alun-Alun or the South Square and then walked down a cobblestone path, to the back door of the Kraton or the Sultan’s palace. This was not our destination for the day though. We walked on to a small shack just beyond the back gate. There, hanging from the walls and casually left on a worktable were the famed Indonesian puppets in various stages of formation. As we looked at the Krishnas and Hanumans and other characters of the great epics, the puppet maker told us that his family had been creating them for seven generations. With the white paint coming from the crushed horns of the Caribou and the black from the volcanic ashes of Mount Merapi, a ‘Walang Kulit’ puppet as they are called is all Yogya.
As is the Kraton, that we visited the next day, armed with the mandatory palace guide who dutifully pointed out the artefacts and the Sultan’s family tree. Yet what caught my eye were the ‘offerings’ that the Sultan had left at odd corners of the vast palace. Freshly plucked flowers placed on a cut banana leaf were something I would have expected in a Hindu temple, but certainly not in a Muslim ruler’s residence.
A stroll through Yogya’s traditional bird market later, we were ready for the sights that travellers come to Yogya for. The temples of yore! Ever ready to take us to our destination, our guide and her friend revved up their bikes and whisked us away to the ninth century Prambanan temple complex. Standing proudly erect, apparently unaware of the small town that grew around it, we caught our first glimpses of Prambanan while waiting for the signal at the junction.
The temple complex was badly damaged by the May 2006 earthquake that affected Yogyakarta severely. Though the site got a lot of immediate attention due to its status as Indonesia’s largest Hindu temple and a UNESCO world heritage site, today a lot of the smaller complexes are nothing more than a pile of ancient debris. Rising above the calamity though, is Candi Sewu the 8th-century Buddhist temple that is within the complex grounds. Despite the yellow lines that warn the tourist of the ongoing restoration, the stone monument is still stunning.
As the sun started to make it’s descent we made our way through manicured lawns to the central shrines that are dedicated to the Trimurti or the Creator, Destroyer and the Preserver trio from Hindu mythology. The Vishnu and Brahma shrines flank the Shiva shrine on either side. Covered from the top to the bottom with intricate relief work, the Prambanan complex is awe-inspiring, as the busloads of school children swarming the area would testify. The sight of the three central spires bathed in the fiery rays of the setting sun is one that will be etched in our memory forever.
The next day we drove through congested highways that were lined by paddy fields and streams to Borobudur, home to the world’s largest Buddhist monument. We were told that the best time to view it was at sunrise. And so we spent the rest of the day gorging on scrumptious Javanese street food. From Ayam Goreng Kalasan and delicious Padang food, it took a superhuman effort to tear ourselves away from the eateries and head to our hotel. After all, we had a sunrise tryst with destiny to wake up to.
At 4.30 in the morning, we were herded along with a handful of tourists to the base of the massive monument that rises to a height of 400 feet. Armed with flashlights, we stumbled up the narrow stone stairs and thresholds to the top and found ourselves nooks to view the sunrise from. As the sun’s rays cut through the pitch-black night, we feasted our eyes on what Borbudur was famous for — the perforated stupas. As Borobudur awoke, we peered into the one of the stupas only to gaze upon one of the 504 statues of Buddha on Borobudur. Making our way down, taking our time through each level that told the story of the pilgrim’s ascent to heaven we were overwhelmed at the artistry of those ancient creators.
Finally with a deep sigh of farewell, it was time to head home. But not without a Batik painting ensconced safely in my bag as a piece of Yogyakarta that would always remain with us.
Getting there: One can get into Yogyakarta via air, bus or train. There are plenty of low cost flight options from Jakarta. If you have the time, you can also take the train down or even rent a car. The travel time ranges from eight to ten hours.
Accommodation: Yogyakarta offers a wide range of accommodation from expensive hotels to home stay options.
Food: There is a wide range of food available in Yogya. From cafés to roadside stalls, you can afford to get adventurous here without worrying about either your stomach or the price. Remember to carry your Indonesian phrase book though as not all menu’s are in English.
Season: The best time to visit Yogyakarta is from the end of April to October, which is the dry season.