After a quarter century of monogamy with C, I decided to spice it up a bit and flirt with Java. Took a clean 10 day break from C and decided to immerse myself completely in Java. And I have lived to tell the tale and here is how it all went down. There isn't a single direct flight between India and Indonesia (Java is one of the 17,000 islands that make up this nation, in case your geography is poor enough to need this footnote). Which is a pity, considering the strong ties that have existed between the two lands for millennia, which is reflected in the closeness of its culture, religion, and even in the very names of the nations and its currencies. After somehow managing to evade the monsoon downpour of Mumbai and using Singapore as a stepping stone, we finally reached the capital city of Jakarta. We hit the road running, or rather crawling - the pace that the sweltering heat and the stifling traffic would allow - by visiting the top three monuments of the city: the National Monument, a 132 m tall obelisk in the middle of a gigantic square, the Istiqlal Mosque, the largest mosque in South East Asia and the St. Mary of the Assumption, the main cathedral of the nation. Somewhere in between, we were introduced to our primary diet for the entire trip - Nasi goreng, no telur, no daging, no ikan.
We started the next day with a forgettable breakfast and an unforgettable trip to the National Museum, the largest museum in all of South East Asia. Apart from the usual litany of Shailendra era sculptures, Wayang puppets and Ming pottery, the highlight was coming face to face with Prajnaparamita, the prettiest statue to have been sculpted on this side of the equator. Quixotic art at the National Gallery, more puppets at the Wayang Museum, more ceramics at the Keramic Museum and the colonial era furniture at the History Museum kept the rest of our day busy. What remains in our memory after the busy day is the photogenic Fatahillah Square whose south side is occupied by the majestic City Hall of Dutch Batavia (housing the said History Museum). The square itself is named after Fatahillah, the commander of the Sultanate of Demak who captured the port of Sunda Kelapa and founded the city of Jayakarta.
Indonesia is famous, or rather notorious, for its volcanoes. The country has more active volcanoes than any other nation on the planet. When one of them explodes, the planet loses a summer or two. Java has more than its fair share of volcanoes and the resulting rich volcanic soil has made the island the rice basket of the nation and the army of labourers who tend the fields during the on-season were kept busy on the off-season on the monumental construction projects that has resulted in the gigantic temples that dot the Central Javan plains. More on the temples later. Let's take care of the volcanoes first. A standard three day itinerary designed by a rank insomniac takes groggy tourists to two of the most famous (and the most accessible) of the Javan volcanoes. A 4 am start on day 1 to catch the 7 am direct to Surabaya followed by a day long drive (with the obligatory stop at the Madakaripura, the tallest of all Indonesian waterfalls, brings one to the foothills of Mount Bromo. A 3 am start the following morning followed by dizzying jeep ride up near vertical slopes brings one to the rim of the Bromo caldera to witness (arguably) the most breath-taking sunrises on the planet. Bromo is a somma volcano which, for the non-geologists, translates to a caldera filled with secondary cinder cones. The sight that unfolds in front of you when the sun rises over the caldera is an array of cinder cones, all peeping above a sea of milky white carpet of cloud, all spewing smoke, all glowing ethereal orange in the early morning sunlight. If what you see turns out less other-worldly than this description, then you have gone back to sleep and your dreams aren't keeping up with reality. Wake up and be amazed and remember to breathe. And the second day has just started. What's next is a long drive to Ijen past verdant rice fields with every possible shade of green that is allowed by the laws of physics.
If all this sounds impossible to be out-done, then Ijen would like to say: "hold my Javan coffee". Think 2 am start is early? How about starting the day (maybe night) at 1 am followed by a nausea inducing hour of driving followed by a two hour hike up a caldera? Think Bromo was breath-taking? How about literally not being able to breathe because you have to don gas masks to get past the burning Sulphur fumes? Think Bromo cinder cones were unearthly? How about witnessing Blue Lava, a phenomenon that occurs on only one other part of the planet? No, it is not blue coloured lava - earth has to be uninhabitably hot for that to happen - it is pressurised superheated Sulphur meeting the earth's atmosphere and spontaneously combusting with its characteristic blue flame. Although it resembles a hot lava flow, it is just Sulphur burning as it makes its way out of earth's mantle. I apologise for not having the capacity to describe this any better. You can read the Wikipedia page on Blue Lava, but it is even more drab and even less illuminating. You can go see it for yourself. But you would still not be able to believe what you witness. Let's just give up and move onto the temples.
Life is not a YouTube travel video. We couldn't just cut to the temples. In real life, we had to be driven all day, eat three nasi-gorengs, suffer through a memory card full of Sanu-da and Udit-da flops (how I wish India stopped its culture export in the 19th c) all while planning the best route to get through the bucket list of monuments we collected during our pre-departure research. Thanks to the geography, we had to do the monuments in the reverse chronological order. In the early 13th century one small time kingdom called Singhasari popped up in East Java. They would have gone unnoticed if not for the Great Khan noticing them. No, not Shah Rukh, not Salman, the other Khan - Kublai. He sent emissaries demanding submission which the Singhasari had the temerity to turn down. The recent Mongol reversals in Japan and Vietnam had given them the cockiness. But by the time Kublai could amass a navy, the Singhasari was toppled and absorbed by the even smaller Kediri kingdom. One Radan Wijaya, the son-in-law of Kertanagara, the last Singhasari king, used the now confused and jobless Mongol army to oust the Kediri and installed himself as the next king of the region. He founded the next dynasty which grew into the famous Majapahit Empire, the last of the great Hindu empires of Indonesia. We toured the remnants of these two kingdoms in Malang (the capital of Singhasari) and Trowulan (the capital of Majapahit) and saw the earliest examples of the famed split-gateway and the paduraksha architecture, styles that was born in Trowulan and carried to Bali - when the Mataram Sultanate took over Java, Majapahit rulers ran away to Bali taking their religion and architecture along with them.
The night was spent at Surakarta, Solo for short. In 1757, in order to better control the "East Indies", the Dutch split the Mataram Sultanate into two - popularly referred by the names of their capitals: Surakarta and Yogyakarta. Over the years, Surakarta has grown into the Batik capital of the world. Batik, a technique of wax-resist dyeing, was born in Java and was perfected under the Surakarta Sultanate. It is no wonder that the world's best Batik museum, the House of Danar Hadi is located here in Surakarta. Thankfully, it was one of the few that remained open long enough for us to visit before we called it a night. The following morning, after a quick peep into the Mangkunegaran, the erstwhile palace of Surakarta Sultans, we headed to Prambanan.
The plains of Prambanan in central Java is home to an astonishing collection of stone temples, all built on astronomical scale, all dating from the 8th and the 9th centuries AD. During this era, Java was ruled by one Mataram Kingdom (yes, same name as, but no relation to the later Sultanate) and the power seemed to have fluctuated between two dynasties - Buddhist Shailendras and the Hindu Sanjayas. Depending on which of them held the upper hand, temples of that religion was constructed and patronised. The grandest of the lot is the set of three temples called as the Prambanan Temples dedicated to the Hindu trinity of Siva, Vishnu and Brahma. It was built as an answer to Borobudur (will make its grand appearance towards the end of the write-up) by Rakai Pitakan, the Hindu son-in-law of Samaratungga, the Buddhist king who built Borobudur. We spent the entire day temple hopping in Prambanan: starting in the shadows of the towering Prambanan spires, being amazed at the well proportioned Bubrah, trying to re-create the postcard images of Sewu flanked by its potbellied dwarapalas, staring at the intriguing Kala faces of Kalasan, arguing endlessly which of the two Plaosan is prettier and lunching with a view at the hill-top fortress of Ratu Boko.
The following day was spent checking out the sights of the other Sultanate that the Dutch carved out of Mataram - Yogyakarta. We started at the well-laid out little museum of Sono Budoyo and ended the day at the well-maintained Dutch era fort of Vredeburg. But bulk of the day was spent at the two Sultanate sites - at the Kraton and at the Taman Sari, both built in the 1750s. The former is the royal palace and the residence of the current Sultan and the latter is a sprawling royal garden of which only the erstwhile baths is open to the public. The palace was the most impressive marrying the open pavilion layout of the tropics with the lavish ostentatious décor of Europe, with the famed Golden Pavilion as the highlight. The baths of Taman Sari could have been better if we could shoo away the crowd photo-bombing our insta-perfect shots. Talking of Insta-shots, there is one place that has been tailor made for it - Pinus Pengger. An hour from Yogyakarta and up in the pine forest, someone decided to build some tacky platforms overhanging the valley below. It makes great Instagram backdrops. The average age of the crowd was 18 - it was 15 before we entered and we quickly learnt why our combined Instagram followers are less then the tenth of our age. After an hour of trying and failing the imitation game, we declared sour grapes and went to the final destination of the trip - Borobudur.
If you have to pick the single greatest highlight of Indonesia - it is not Bali, it is not the volcanoes, it is not the grand temples of Prambanan. It is Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple on the planet. It is constructed in the form of a giant Buddhist mandala, the full scale can only be appreciated in an aerial view. The base is a square of length 118 m and receding array of terraces exploding with bas reliefs and sculptures culminates in a crescendo of giant perforated stupas on the top. 72 in number, each of these stupas houses a giant seated Buddha statue. It is still a mystery how they managed to cover these statues with the stupas. Unfortunately for us the top was off-limits when we visited so we could not take the famed sunrise picture of the stupa-sea of Borobudur. I tried to compensate by climbing the nearby tree and shoot with my bazooka-zoom. It didn't turn out great. Will have to flick one from the internet and post it as my own.
After half a dozen more Nasi gorengs, three legged flight, nine baggage screenings, an early morning ghat drive in pouring monsoons, I was back in my bedroom and fixing bugs in C. In February, no tourist could enter Indonesia, in May, you needed RTPCR and a quarantine, in August we could complete an epic trip with the only things we could complain about were the heat, the scaffolding and the number of Nasi gorengs. I wish everything in life progresses this well and this fast.
Click here for more photos from the cities of Java.
Click here for more photos from the heritage sites of Java.
Click here for more photos from the Javan volcanic region.