From ancient temples built by genies to tailor-made herbal tonics, Jogjakarta in Central Java is teeming with fascinating attractions.
Words: Dina Zaman Photography: Adam Lee
If you’re looking for a weekend getaway with a spot of culture, then visit Jogjakarta or Jogja, as it is fondly known. This cradle of Javanese heritage offers history, spirituality and a thriving bohemian nightlife. Being new to this city, I took a friendly rickshaw cyclist up on his offer to be my guide on my jaunt through Jogja.
An Ancient Heritage
You simply cannot travel to Jogja and not visit the beautiful Kraton Sultan. Presided over by Sultan Hamengkubuwono X, the Jogjakarta kraton is a living museum where members of the Hamengkubuwono family – the ruling royal house of the Jogjakarta Sultanate – still reside.
When I dropped by the kraton or royal palace, I observed an entourage of servants carrying trays laden with food to be served to the royal family. As mysteriously as the royal attendants appeared, they soon disappeared into an out-of-bounds part of the palace. I was enthralled by this chance sighting. Watching the servants in their traditional garb – elegant batik sarongs and heirloom metal belts – provided a peek into the workings of the inner sanctum of the palace.
The kraton is a sprawling structure with traditional art performance spaces and gardens. Cultural performances such as wayang kulit (shadow puppet play), traditional court dances and gamelan performances are held here regularly. Just be mindful that locals are also fascinated by the royal household, so the venue can get pretty busy on weekends.
On Royal Grounds
Taman Sari is an absolute delight. This royal garden is set within the grounds of the kraton, and the moment you catch sight of the blue-tiled bathing pool in its centre, you’ll be transported to a time when royalty cavorted in its cool waters. Imagine beautiful princesses laughing afternoons away as they played in the pool.
Also known as Taman Sari Water Castle, it was built in the mid-18th century and constructed for multiple purposes. In the past, this was the spot where royalty met to discuss administrative matters concerning their province. As the garden matured and turned into a private paradise, the royals frequented it for quiet contemplation. It kept the worries of the world outside at bay and offered a safe haven.
But of course the main attraction here is still the bathing pools. It is believed that the sultans of the past would climb the tower beside the pool to watch concubines frolicking in the waters. When a sultan selected the lass he wanted to spend time with, he would throw a little pebble at her from the tower to indicate his preference.
Both the kraton and Taman Sari areas are surrounded by a community of batik makers, who are housed in dwellings that are easily missed if you’re not actively looking for them. But do visit and purchase batik from these artisans as they have been working the craft for many years. Not only does this support their industry, you’ll end up owning an authentic piece of art.
Outside the kraton is an open plot the size of a football field called Alun-Alun Kidul. Aligned directly with the main entrance of the palace are two banyan trees (pohon beringin). Legend has it that anyone hoping to enter the palace for an audience with the sultan was made to walk through a narrow passage between these trees, blindfolded. Only those with good intentions and virtuous hearts could walk a straight line while those with evil intent would veer off tangent. The mystical pull is apparently due to the gravitational forces that come from the precise alignment of the palace, trees and Mt Merapi in the distance. Locals still indulge in this Walk of the Virtuous but nowadays, lovebirds try walking a straight line under the pretext of being blessed with the love of their life if they successfully complete the task.
Located about 17 kilometres outside the city of Jogja is the Prambanan Complex, a UNESCO World Heritage site built in the 10th century. This complex consists of the Prambanan Temple (also called Loro Jonggrang), Sewu Temple, Bubrah Temple and Lumbung Temple. The main temples are dedicated to the Hindu Trinity – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva – with three smaller temples housing the deities’ personal animal rides (vahana) facing the main sanctum sanctorum. Walls are lavishly decorated with frescoes from the Ramayana. Visitors to Prambanan should also explore less visited sites within the complex; the west side, Sewu, hosts many Buddhist statues in various expressions and poses. This area is quieter and receives fewer visitors.
Shopping in Jogja can be quite thrilling, especially with markets like Beringharjo Market and Pasar Ngasem. If you go to Beringharjo early in the morning, you’ll encounter old women selling jamu (local herbal concoctions).
Some of these drinks are mixed on the spot once the traditional herbalists learn more about their patients’ ailments.
Apart from herbal concoctions, Beringharjo is a great place to stock up on local arts and crafts. A whole section of the market is dedicated to batik. The vendors here will gladly share their knowledge of this textile and the differences between Jogja, Solo and Perkalungan batik. The market is also renowned for antiques and there are lots of stalls offering snacks and drinks.
Pasar Ngasem, on the edge of Taman Sari, is dedicated to the sale of birds. Walking though this market, I felt as though I was being serenaded by a colourful orchestra. Though not the best spot to visit if you’re an animal lover (birds being caged in tight quarters and all that), the market is an interesting slice of life with traders hawking their wares and eager customers bargaining for the best deals. This market is apparently as old as the palace, as traders have long been known to set up shop around the perimeters of the kraton.
In the city, Jalan Malioboro is a long strip of shops, hotels and restaurants all crammed into one tiny area. Not for the fainthearted, it can be pretty chaotic but there’s no denying its exuberance. Traders hawk their wares nonstop as becak or rickshaw cyclists pester you with offers to take you places.
Malioboro is cheap, and the shops are spilling with hagglers. From books to batik and jamu, it offers a whirlwind shopping adventure. To make your visit even more exciting, opt for an andong or horse cart ride around the city.
Food, Glorious Food!
If you’re a foodie who’s keen on sampling Jogja’s delicacies, you must try the city’s famous gudeg. This dish of young jackfruit cooked with coconut milk, palm sugar, herbs and spices, is served with white rice, boiled eggs and tempeh (fermented soybean cakes). The mixture of .avours imparts a strange and sweet taste. It may be rather unusual but eat it you must if you are to say that you’ve ‘tasted’ Yogja!
To dine out local style, visit Jogja’s lesehan, which are essentially street-side stalls that offer communal dining. Here, you sit cross-legged on a mat and eat a variety of meat, .sh and vegetable dishes, which are brought to your dining area. Some stalls also serve up popular Indonesian dishes like bakso (noodles and meatballs), gado-gado (vegetable salad with peanut sauce dressing) and Nasi Padang (rice and dishes from Sumatra). Dining kerbside with the locals is a fantastic way to get a feel for the city. The crowds here are usually friendly and hungry, and as Jogja is a university town, you’ll quickly make friends with young and outgoing students.
When travellers visit heritage sites, they are regaled with myths and legend, but often nothing really substantial. Additionally, tourists end up visiting only popular sites like Prambanan and Borobudur, missing many fascinating and actively-functioning temples, shrines and spiritual centres. The new trend in Jogja is spiritual tourism, and this fad is attracting niche groups of travellers such as anthropologists, sociologists and esoteric practitioners. Many visit Jogja to participate in activities organised by establishments such as Javanese Wisdom and Healing (http://javanesewisdomandhealing.wordpress.com) fronted by Belgian anthropologist, Patrick Vanhoebruck. This company brings small groups of visitors to local villages to observe and participate in rituals and healing sessions.
Some of the courses offered include Javanese massage and acupressure techniques (pijet), traditional plant-based herbal remedies (jamu) and supernatural power exercises (tenaga dalam). The ancient Javanese religion called Agama Kejawengan still thrives in Central Java, and Jogjakarta offers great opportunities to learn more about this unique belief system.
Mlangi Village, located west of Jogjakarta, is the spiritual home of holy man Kyai Nur Iman. In the village, the Jami’ Mlangi mosque houses the tomb of the said holy man. This village is known as a site for Islamic teaching, and in the past, many travellers sought the counsel of the then-living Kyai. Every year, on the 15th Syura of the Javanese calendar and prior to the holy month of Ramadan, the faithful throng the tomb.
Legend Of Loro Jonggrang
According to Javanese folklore, King Boko died while battling Prince Bandung Bondowoso, leaving behind a beautiful daughter, Princess Loro Jonggrang. When the victorious prince meets the princess, he insists upon marrying her, but Loro Jonggrang sets a condition for their union – that he build 1,000 temples before sunrise.With the help of genies to do his bidding, the prince completes 999 temples, and sets about building the last one. Loro Jonggrang quickly lights a fire in the east and orders her servants to pound rice. Fooled into thinking it is dawn, roosters in the village begin to crow and the genies flee, leaving the last temple incomplete. Furious at the princess’ deception, the prince curses Loro Jonggrang, turning her into a stone statue thus completing the 1,000th temple.
- At hotels and restaurants, look for Jogja Ad, a free newspaper which advertises all the goings-on in the city.
- Go to www.yogyes.com and www.jogjatrip.com for tips on attractions and places to visit in Yogya.
- Use Google Maps on your Smartphone to gauge the distance and fare for cabs. For instance, from Jalan Prawirotaman to Malioboro, a becak ride should not cost more than IDR20,000.
Jogja Or Yogya?
You will see both versions used interchangeably but the pronounciation is generally Jogja with a ‘j’.