Indonesia Diaries: Yogyakarta – A Confluence of Cultures and Customs

Yogyakarta (pronounced Jogjakarta, abbreviated Jogja) is a city in Central Java with a rich heritage and history. The cultural cradle of Indonesia where Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim influences combine and coexist, Jogja is known for the famous Prambanan and Borobudur temples but there is also much more to explore in this diverse town. One thing to note about these temples and structures is that the steps are large and climbing them requires a significant amount of strength; it is important to take breaks and make the journey up slowly. Without further ado, here are the top attractions I checked out during my time in Jogja.

  1. Prambanan Temple

Built in the 9th century, Prambanan Temple is a multi-structure compound consisting of temples devoted to Hinduism’s Trimurti – Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva – and their vahanas or vehicles – Hamsa, Garuda, and Nandi, respectively. Unlike most parts of the world where there are no places of worship for Brahma, Prambanan has a special place dedicated to this Creator. Unfortunately, the Hamsa and Garuda statues are missing so these temples are empty, which is surprising considering Garuda is the national emblem of Indonesia.

2.  Ratu Boko

A set of archaeological ruins near Prambanan, Ratu Boko is a great place to see Jogja’s sunset. Atop a hill, there are remains of a well that was used by Hindus and Buddhists back in the 8th and 9th centuries. Legend has it that they considered it very lucky, hence the name “Amerta Mantana” (amerta as in amritam, which means nectar in Sanskrit).

Sunset at Ratu Boko

Sunset at Ratu Boko

3.  Mount Merapi

The most active volcano in all of Indonesia, Mount Merapi is about an hour from Jogja by road. There are various options to explore the volcano and the surrounding area. For hikers and trekkers, there are hiking tours up the volcano that begin around 2am and arrive at the top of the mountain in time to catch a beautiful sunrise. A milder option is the Lava Tour, in which you ride in a jeep with a driver to see the villages that were destroyed by Merapi’s 2010 eruption, emergency bunker for protection, and a museum showcasing objects from homes affected by the volcanic eruptions. Fair warning: the jeep ride is bumpy and not for the light-hearted. Unfortunately, it was raining when we went so the views of the volcano weren’t great and the jeep ride was even more of an adventure. But if you’re into geology and nature, definitely don’t miss Mount Merapi! To get good views of the volcano, it is best to go early in the morning before clouds cover the top of the mountain.

4.  Borobudur Temple

UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the biggest Buddhist temples in Indonesia, Borobudur Temple is a 9-level structure with over 500 Buddha statues. Utilizing a combination of square and circular architecture, the bottom three levels of the temple represent the world of desire, the middle three the sphere of name and form, and the top three the world of formlessness. Each Buddha statue shows him holding a different mudra or hand gesture, representing various Buddhist values, including peace and liberation. Despite being hit by earthquakes and bombings, Borobudur Temple has remained mostly intact, just like Buddha remained unaffected by society.

5.  Batik Factory

Batik is the original textile of Indonesia and each island has its own style of Batik. In Yogyakarta, all Batik is handmade and we had the opportunity to visit a Batik processing factory, where we learned about the different stages of making it. Batik production involves tracing the design, going over it with multiple layers of wax, dyeing the cloth, removing the wax, and drying the final product. It takes about 2-3 weeks to produce one garment of Batik.

6.  Ramayana Ballet

If you’re coming to Yogyakarta, definitely try to catch a Ramayana Ballet performance near Prambanan Temple. During the dry season (May thru October), the play is held every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evening at 7:30pm in the outdoor theatre with the Prambanan Temple backdrop, but since we went during monsoon, it was inside the Trimurti Theatre. The play showcased various episodes from the Javanese Ramayana, from Rama and Sita (pronounced and written Shinta) getting married to her kidnapping to their reunion at the end. The production value of this show is extremely high and naturally so because the artists have been performing it for over 30 years! The highlights of the play were Ravana’s expressions, the fight scenes and stunts (which were totally real and very well-executed), and the use of the entire stage with entrances and exits from all sides. It was also useful that they provided captions on both sides of the stage to guide audience members through the story. Needless to say, this is a show not to miss when in Jogja!

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7.  Sultan Palace

Very few people know that Yogyakarta is still ruled by a Sultan, who serves as the governor of the province. Thus, his palace, situated in the middle of the Yogyakarta town, is open to visitors. Every Sunday from 11am to noon, in the main open square inside the palace, many students of Javanese traditional dance use the space to practice with live gamelan music. It was such a treat to catch a glimpse of their practice session and was reminiscent of the Kalakshetra outdoor atmosphere in Chennai. In general, it might be good to go with a guide inside the palace, as he informed us about various fun facts and gave us a bit of history about the current and previous Sultans.

And now for a fun (slightly Bollywood-related) incident that happened while visiting Borobudur:

When we went to Borobudur, there were many children on field trips from school who were also visiting the temple that day. As we were taking a pradakshina or walking around the structure, a bunch of kids randomly walked to my dad and asked if they could take a picture with him. My mom and I were confused and thought it a bit weird that these kids wanted to take pictures with a stranger, but we hypothesized that perhaps these children had mistaken my father for a famous Bollywood actor so we let him live in the illusion that he thought he was famous. Then they came to me and asked to take pictures with me so I too assumed they had mistaken me for some Bollywood actress and consented for the photos. Afterwards, all the kids came to us with their teacher and introduced themselves as students of an English course in a Central Javanese school. They asked us various questions about Indonesian food, the environment, and (of course) Shah Rukh Khan and other celebs. We came to the realization that these children were probably given an assignment to talk with foreigners at Borobudur to improve their English speaking skills. Whether we were famous or simply an assignment in the kids’ minds, mingling with them and learning more about Indonesia was an unforgettable encounter!



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