44. Stepping Back: Yogyakarta

The author reflects on his long-ago visit to central Java, especially the great religious monuments of Borobudur and Prambanan and the vibrant culture.

Volcanic Mount Merapi rises behind the city of Yogyakarta, Java. (iStock photo by Dialga 109)

My whirlwind romance with the isle of Bali had come to an end not with heartbreak, but with love and respect. My first Asian mistress had given me everything I could handle, kissed me gently goodbye, and told me to come back and see her again when I was a little older.

So in August 1976, I took the ferry from Gilmanuk, in west Bali, to Banyuwangi, in east Java, and continued by whistlestop train for who-knows-how-many hours to Yogyakarta.

Travelers know this Indonesian city of a few hundred thousand people as “Jogja.” It’s an oasis of sanity on an island that is the most densely populated on earth, a cultural capital that sits roughly midway between industrial Surabaya and teeming, bureaucratic Jakarta, the national capital.

My interest in Asian religions had drawn me to Yogyakarta. Although Indonesia has been a nation of Islam for at least six centuries, that creed was preceded in the island archipelago first by Hinduism, then by Buddhism. Both faiths left important monuments within an easy day’s jog from Jogja. Both have been designated by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) as World Heritage Sites.

After decades of restoration, ancient ruins still surround the Prambanan Temple. (iStock photo by Sadagus)

Hindu Prambanan

Prambanan is nearer and slightly more ancient. Built in the Eighth Century, this Hindu temple — the second largest in Southeast Asia — offers praise to the supreme trinity of Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer).

At the time of my long-ago visit, much of the temple compound was in disarray. Shiva had visited in the guise of a major earthquake in the 16th century, destroying 240 structures and leading to its abandonment as a center of worship. Not until the 1930s did restoration begin with Dutch East Indies archeologists, and in 1953, under the new Indonesian government, reconstruction of the great Shiva temple was completed.

In 1976, this was still the only major renewal. I came to understand Shiva not as a primal element to be feared, but as a power to be respected. Just as a farmer burns his field to enable new growth, Shiva makes way for a new era. Tall and pointed, 47 meters (154 feet) high, the temple towered above an arena of brick and rock scattered for acres in all directions. Since that time, I understand, Prambanan has been reborn; it is considered a masterpiece of ancient Hindu art and architecture. Reconstruction of the Brahma temple was completed in 1987, the Vishnu temple in 1991. Work on smaller temples continues today, and full-moon dance performances are popular among tourists.

Nine stacked platforms comprise Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple. (iStock photo by Pawopa3336)

Buddhist Borobudur

I saved my visit to grand Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple, for another day. A World Heritage Site of similar stature to Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Bagan complex in Myanmar, it was being restored in the mid-‘70s with UNESCO assistance. Ninth-century Borobudur had not suffered the level of earthquake damage as had Prambanan; although it had been similarly abandoned for centuries, restoration work directed by British and Dutch had begun as early as 1814.

What I remember best about Bo-RO-boo-door were the 72 bell-shaped stupas, each concealing a statue of the Buddha, that surrounded its central dome … and the spherical trail that led me to the three levels of Buddhist cosmology: the worlds of desire, form and formlessness.

This was a personal pilgrimage toward achieving nirvana. The temple is designed with six stacked square platforms, each smaller than the next, and three more stacked circular platforms topped by the innermost dome. Thousands of bas-relief panels and more than 500 Buddha icons directed me on my way through a series of corridors and stairways to my ultimate destination.

Whether from Borobudur or Prambanan, it’s impossible to miss Mount Merapi, volcanic smoke oozing from its pores. Indonesia’s most active hot spot (merapi means “mountain of fire”) has periodically erupted for centuries, most recently in 2018. Seeking a haven for reflection, I found a wooded spot with a view of the summit, but my solitude lasted only until local youths surrounded this odd foreigner to discover why he might possible choose to be alone! Such is life on the most crowded island on earth.

An intricate Javanese batik design (Freepik photo by Ginanperdano)

Batik and Wayang

Back in the city, I dabbled in the arts. I ran into my American friend Bert, with whom I had biked and hiked in Bali, in the Beringharjo market. He had befriended a Javanese batik artist named Haryono. It didn’t take much convincing for him to talk me into joining him to learn the process, paying Haryono a modest sum for lessons and taking home our very own designs.

Batik is a wax-and-dye process on cloth (typically cotton) fabric. Beginning with a template of popular patterns, Haryono demonstrated use of a canting, a spouted tool, to apply wax to the fabric as he drew lines and dots. He imprinted broader motifs with a copper stamp. Once the dye-resistant wax was applied, he soaked the fabric in dye before removing the wax with boiling water. Multiple colors could be added by drying the fabric and repeating the process.

Needless to say, my creations weren’t impressive. I came away with a simple Buddha batik. But I purchased Haryono’s striking image of Arjuna, Rama’s heroic archer and charioteer from the Ramayana epic, to remind me of what a real artist could do. Even for a backpacker, a piece of folded cloth is not a heavyweight luggage addition.

I wished that I had learned more about wayang kulit, the traditional shadow puppetry of Java and Bali. Wayang is Javanese for “shadow,” kulit for “leather.” I beheld a traditional street performance one night, the puppets rear-projected on a linen screen before a light, the good-versus-evil narrative dictated by the puppetmaster as gamelan musicians played the live soundtrack.

Some years later, I was able to purchase a set of the flat puppets. They remain among my most valued travel souvenirs, made from water-buffalo hide and horn, elaborately painted to represent a cast of well-known mythological figures. I have them lovingly stored in an insect-proof rosewood chest.

Wayang kulit puppets are made from water-buffalo hide and horns. (iStock photo by JokoSL)

About Yogya

Yogyakarta has a history of more than 1,000 years. It is built around the Kraton, the palace of the sultan — as it is the only city in Indonesia still ruled by a sultan. There are plenty of old buildings and monuments, including a museum in the sultan’s palace. Renowned as a center for culture and education, Yogya also is home to Gadjah Mada University, the country’s largest.

In a string of open-air cafes on Malioboro Street, I became enamored with ayam goreng. This chicken dish is stewed in coriander, garlic and coconut milk, then deep-fried until it is crispy. I learned to like it with sweet-and-savory gudeg, made with unripe jackfruit, boiled for several hours with palm sugar and coconut milk, and wedang uwuh, a hot clove drink.

More significantly, I met Claude Rémy. “Alors, monsieur,” he approached me during one midday meal. “Have you ever, comment veut dire, experienced being hungry, but not wanting to eat? Or of wanting to eat, but not being hungry?”

I invited him to join me and my ayam goreng, and left it to him whether to eat or not. At 22, Claude was a couple of years younger than me; he was taking the long road home to his Vosges Mountains ski village after finishing his military hitch on the French Pacific island of New Caledonia.

Five months later, I would be waiting tables and teaching the occasional novice ski lesson in La Bresse, France — thanks to my acquaintance with Claude (who, for many years now, has been the general manager of a major hotel in beautiful Gérardmer.) But that’s another story.

A traditional Yogyakarta feast can mean a lot more food than just fried chicken. (iStock photo by MielPhoto)
The Buddhist stupas of Borobudur frame Mount Merapi at sunrise. (iStock photo by pigprox)


Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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