YOGYAKARTA – Must See Highlights

Special places in a very special city that you should be sure to explore

Yogyakarta exudes energy from a rich tradition of more than 1300 years of culture, history, empires, dynasties, conflicts, rebellions and spectacular achievements.

Many consider this vibrant city in central Java to be the intellectual, artistic and cultural capital of Indonesia.

It’s a centre of classical Javanese fine arts and culture including dance, batik textiles, drama, literaturemusicpoetry, silver crafts, wood and stone carving, visual arts, and wayang (shadow) puppetry.

More recently it has even become famous for its colorful street art (that stuff we once called graffiti), encouraged by local authorities.

All of this, along with its famous monumental historical structures like the ancient Borobudur and Prambanan temple complexes, have made it Indonesia’s second most visited city, after only Bali.

Jogja, as local refer to it, also has a large Indonesian and international student population in schools, universities and informal learning venues.

A striking and colorful example Yogyakarta street art

Visitors come from around the world to study Indonesian language and culture and to learn traditional arts and crafts skills.

And Yogyakarta’s people are among Indonesia’s best educated with the highest incomes and the longest life expectancy.

The famous and magnificent religious monuments Borobudur (left) and Prambanan are MUST SEE attractions for Yogyakarta visitors

The product of 1,300 years of empires and cultures

From the 8th to the 10th Century the Yogyakarta region was part of the Ancient Mataram Kingdom whose dynasties built the famous Borobudur and Prambanan Buddhist and Hindu temples.

These iconic monuments, located just 50 kilometres apart, suggest that refined and sophisticated Javanese Hindu-Buddhist cultures lived here in largely peaceful co-existence for three centuries. Both are MUST SEE attractions and you can see and read more about them by clicking these links – Prambanan Complex and Borobudur Temple.

The Mataram king moved his people to East Java after a big eruption of the nearby Mt Merapi volcano and a power struggle with the Srivijaya Kingdom from Sumatra. Then, from around 1300 until the early 16th century the Majahapit Empire held sway.

From the end of the 16th century the Islamic Mataram Sultanate took over and at its zenith became the greatest kingdom in Java, extending its influence over Central Java, East Java, and half of West Java.

The Yogyakarta Sultanate come into being in1755 under the royal house of Sultan Hamengkubuwono 1, the ancestor of the Sultan today.

And YES! This is the ONLY city or region in Indonesia still actively ruled by an hereditary Sultan – it is uniquely “royal”.

The Government of the newly independent Indonesian nation made this concession in 1950 in recognition of the then Sultan’s strong support for the nationalist cause during the campaign for independence from the Dutch. All other sultanates were incorporated into the new Indonesian nation.

Yogyakarta functioned as the capital of the newly declared independent Indonesia from 1946 until 1948 when the Dutch mounted a counter offensive against the independence movement, captured key leaders and briefly resumed control.

Sultan and Governor Hamengku Buwono X

The Dutch finally quit all of Indonesia from June 1949 and the capital moved back to Jakarta.

We spend three nights and two days exploring some of the echoes of Yogyakarta’s historical legacy. It is central to Indonesian tradition but barely known to most Western visitors.

And we explore the city’s present-day arts, crafts, food and lifestyle scenes. Prepare to be amazed!

Ornate timber work, carving and decorations in the main pavilion of the Sultan’s Palace

The Royal compound that's the heart and soul of the city

We begin with a visit to the Keraton, the Sultan’s Palace. Compared with European palaces, this building and its compound are modest. But some of the Javanese decorative detail is beautiful and the mystical status of the Palace and its pavilions compensate for the lack of grandeur.

The Keraton is a piece of living history and tradition. The finishing details, the decorative trees in the grounds and the pavilions have mystical meaning within the Javanese world view.  Our guides relate the stories.

The Keraton is at the centrepoint of an axis from the peak of the Mt Merapi volcano to a point on the Indian Ocean shore said to be the abode of Kanjeng Ratu Loro Kidul, the Queen of the South Seas. According to legend, she is the mystical consort of the Sultan. One palace entrance faces directly to the volcano and a second to the ocean.

A traditional Gamelan orchestra is a fixture at the – pic www.blangkon-java.blogspot.com

The Keraton compound is still the home of the Sultan today and is used for important ceremonial functions. It is open to the public from 9am until 12 noon daily.

There is a modest museum and there are daily performances of Javanese art forms. We try to attend on a Saturday and If we are lucky, we may well see a performance of traditional Javanese leather puppets during our visit.

Like the Sultan, the positions of the palace guards and attendants around the pavilions and compound also are hereditary.

Sultans, roses, concubines and a 250-year-old royal pool

We travel to the nearby Teman Sari Water Palace and the adjacent Underground Mosque. They are what remnants of a once splendid garden complex of 59 buildings and pavilions surrounded by pools, extensive grounds and 18 water gardens and lakes fed from springs.

The Yogyakarta royals of 250 years ago came here to rest, meditate, work, pray, frolic and hide. Enough of the complex is left for us to appreciate and imagine the splendor of that bygone era.

A British invasion of Central Java and Yogyakarta saw much of the complex destroyed in 1812 and more damage came during the Java War of 1825 to 1830 between the Dutch Colonial Administration and Yogyakarta-based rebel forces (which also killed an estimated 200,000 people, including 8,000 Dutch soldiers).

The royals stopped using the complex after an earthquake in 1867 destroyed several remaining buildings and drained the water features. Squatters moved into and around the ruins of the deserted pavilions and, over the generations, filled-in empty pools and lakebeds.

Today, nearly 3,000 residents live in the area around the Taman Sari Water Palace in a settlement called Kampung Taman. The community is known for batik and traditional painting and craft traditions. 

Ornate entrance to the Taman Sari water palace

The heritage value of the Water Palace complex was recognized from the early 1970s when restoration efforts began, but so far only the main bathing complex has been substantially restored.

Legend has it that the Water Palace pool was designed for the princesses, wives, concubines and other ladies of the court to bathe and for the Sultan to relax and “hunt” for partners.

As the story goes, the Sultan would throw a rose from the high tower on the southern side of the pool and the young lady who caught it would be chosen.

Legend also has it that at one time a tunnel was driven from the Underground Mosque all the way to the ocean to serve as an escape route in the event of an attack. If so – given time, earthquakes and neglect – it no longer exists. But lesser tunnels certainly were built from and beneath the complex to serve as hiding places.

Our guides tell more of the fascinating stories from the past of this very interesting relic.

Silver choker with jasper – www.jotarofootsteps.blogspot.com
Yogyakarta silversmiths – www.jotarofootsteps.blogspot.com

Close-up looks at traditional silver art and batik fabrics

Creating beautiful arts and crafts is embedded in the psyche of Yogyakarta. Many of the beautiful paintings, batik fabric designs, wood and lava stone carvings, and intricate silver pieces on the gift and souvenir shelves of Bali, Jakarta and other Indonesian cities come from here.

We visit communities where some of these art and craft works are created so you can see the artisans using traditional hand-made methods.

Jogja and particularly the township of Kota Gede is famous for its silver crafts. We see silversmiths designing, melting, casting, soldering, shaping and polishing intricate pieces while guides and staff explain the processes. The artisans are accustomed to visitors and usually are happy to answer questions as they work

Beautiful silverwork pieces and jewelry will be on display and for sale at much lower prices than you would pay at home (and can be easy items to carry if you are looking for gifts for friends or family). But you should not feel pressured to buy.

Kota Gede is a quiet area with a laid back and artistic ambiance. Apart from the many silver outlets it’s worth pausing to take in the traditional houses, the narrow alleys, the restaurants, the market and the Mosque with the large and very old banyan tree out front, perhaps with people praying beneath it. There is also a chocolate factory, a much more recent addition.

Traditional batik – wax, dyes and a steady hand
Traditional methods for creating Intricate batik fabric

Colorful and intricate batik fabric is another celebrated hallmark craft of Indonesia and Yogyakarta is where some of the most beautiful work is produced.

Today much batik fabric, even quality product, is mass-produced using mechanical silk screen techniques.

But we visit a batik home industry workshop where the traditional methods of design creation, color mixing, wax layering and hand dying are still used. The process is fascinating, and many visitors come to Yogyakarta to take courses in this absorbing craft art.

Indonesians are rightly proud of their batik heritage – tailored batik shirts and flowing long dresses of fabrics with batik designs are de rigueur for formal occasions.

At government offices, banks and many other businesses and institutions throughout Indonesia it’s customary for staff to wear batik on Fridays, and for hundreds of years Javanese commoners and royalty alike wore a batik kain panjang, a cloth wrapped around the body like a sarong, as their everyday garb.

More useful and interesting information

This is barely the beginning of what to see and experience in and around Yogyakarta – there’s just so much more to see. It’s why we spend three nights here. For more descriptions and images click the links below.

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Head and should Douglas Cole - founder
Douglas Cole

Doug is a former journalist and broadcaster who lived and travelled in Indonesia and Southeast Asia from 2002 to 2018. He returned to Indonesia in mid-2022 after being stranded in Australia by COVID border closures. He is completing a book under the working title ‘INDONESIA – Safely, Easily, and in Comfort.’

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