Sunday, January 24, 2010

Yourney to Yogyakarta

At last, the long-awaited trip to Yogya! Yogyakarta, pronounced Jogjakarta, is Java Island's cultural center. It is still the seat of a traditional sultanate, and maintains an ancient Javanese culture alongside the steady modernization that homogenizes Indonesian cities. Alison and I took a 7-hour "eksekutif" overnight train from Jakarta. The executive AC made the train so cold that sleeping was virtually impossible. Shaking off drowsiness, I got a real pick-me-up seeing a young Indonesian man wearing what can only be described as high heels:

The most-visited tourist attraction in Indonesia is a large Buddhist temple outside Yogya called Borobodur. Built around 800-900, it is considered one of the world's great cultural accomplishments. We had a becak (bicycle taxi) to take us to the temple:

...Wait a second! I guess this is a smaller side feature. The big show:

My favorite thing about Borobodur was the relief carvings, which depict various scenes from the ancient Javan society that created this temple. I felt transported to a romantic storybook jungle kingdom:

There are hundreds and hundreds of these carvings depicting elephants, large boats at sea, bows and arrows, grovelling peasants and decorated dignitaries, etc. etc.


The highest level has a bunch of bell-shaped things called stupas, and an incredible view of the valley and Gunung Merapi:


Here's the temple in all its massive glory:

Later that night we went to see the famed Ramayana Ballet, an old story of Rama and Cinta with familiar elements of a classic: gaudy costuming, massive eye makeup, badass villians, likeable minor characters, victory in serious doubt, and a white monkey who scaled buildings and did flips like Jackie Chan. All to the nonstop tunes of a nasty gamelan (Javan traditional-instrument orchestra).

Here's Rama's brother, one of the likable minor characters:

Lady in distress Cinta, trapped in a spell:

The white monkey was all movement and fury:

The show was first-rate entertainment in an outdoor venue. We even got pics with the stars after the show:


I mentioned the becak (pronounced BAY CHOCK) before. The bicycle taxi "driver" sits behind the passengers, who sit in an open little carriage with an open view of the road ahead. Here's the view from a becak driving through Yogya. As you can imagine, it's a little exhilarating sharing the road with real cars when you're in one of these things:

On the way to the Ramayana ballet the night before, we befriended our driver, a man named Dodot (short for Widodot and pronounced WEE-DOE-DOE). He took us everywhere in Yogya the next day, showing us all the sights and waiting for us to check them out. We never had to find or bargain another ride, and he had constant business for the day. It's tourist dry season in Yogya, so I guess it was good timing for us. And he was a really nice guy, knowledgeable, born in Yogya.

First we went to the kraton, or the sultan's inner compound. It houses stages for wayang kulit (puppet shows) like the one below, little museums, and servant's compounds for the thousands of families who have worked for the sultanate for generations. The wayang kulit has gamelan accompaniment like the Ramayana ballet had, and they use hundreds of puppets in each show:


Each of those puppets is painstakingly crafted in a 3,500 year old tradition from water buffalo skin. The man below gave a wonderful explanation of the whole process. It starts from the absurdly durable (a puppet normally lasts for 100 years of performances) dried skin:

Then the first artist makes a drawing, an outline of the puppet figure. Then the sketch is realized by breaking the skin hammer-wedge style. A huge variety of these pencil-like metal tools give the artist the ability for big-picture and detail work:


After the skin is crafted (and if a mistake is made, they start over from the beginning - the puppets must be perfect), another artist paints the puppet. The paints are all-natural for lasting color and as they were traditionally made. In fact, the man who described the process claimed he was the 10th generation of his family to work for the sultanate making the puppets. He made a point of emphasizing the long history of Javan puppetmaking, which predates both Hinduism and Islam in Java. The colors of the paints have an animist-based lore about them. Red is energy, blue and green connect with nature, gold is honesty, etc. Here's a detail shot:

The puppets are extremely tough. You can bend them and twist them and move them about - very functional. Here's a puppet from the sea:

With backlighting, you can see the intricate pattern made by the first artist in the skin. This is what you would see in the wayang kulit show:

We also got to see some batik paintings. Batik is a process of dying cloth layer by layer using wax to save a desired negative pattern from the dye. The paintings are presentations of the cloth in a frame, beautiful and durable (and really cheap here):

I was offered 280,000rp ($30) for the painting below:


After the kraton we visited Yogya's famous "bird market," which was as wild as you might imagine an Indonesian animal market to be. Large containers held the food for various lizards, birds, small mammals, and others:



Here are some of the wild creatures:


These guys were like little alligator-lizard hybrids:


They had cats and even dogs:

This was one of the wilder reptilian/amphibian sections:


Alison and Dodot, who joined us walking around the market:

...I think I can count the number of owls I have seen on one hand. This guy was sleepy:

Next up was the water castle, the sultan's personal pool-party playground. Here he entertains himself and his 35 wives (150 children...):

We got to see a backroom of Yogya's famous silvercrafting:

The becak!

Another must-see feature near Yogya is an ancient Hindu structure, the Prambenan Temple. This five-towered structure was beautiful, eye-popping like Borobodur. But the reliefs weren't as cool:


All in all, a wonderful trip and a special city. I was thoroughly charmed by Javanese culture, especially at Borobodur, the Ramayana ballet, in the puppetmaking, batik painting, and the gamelans.

1 comment:

  1. Great post and beautiful pictures! We missed the puppet making probably because they were off'ing cows that weekend. You guys did a lot in a few days : ) Glad you enjoyed it!

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