There is so much history in Yogyakarta. Once center of the Mataram Sultanate, a thriving Buddhist-Hindu cultural center, and once a wartime capital of Indonesia. Now it is still a specially recognized region with its own Sultan as its head of state and is still a beautiful mixing pot of culture. I’ve always liked coming to Yogya, but the only downside is that so does everybody else along. As one of the top tourism destination in Indonesia, visitors flock here in droves every year, especially during the holidays.
After finding out that I had some free time to fly out to Yogya just in time for Waisak, I booked a flight out of Jakarta to come out and see the festivities. Staying just for a couple nights to get some sightseeing in on my own. Waisak (or also known as Vesak in other areas) celebrates the enlightenment of Buddha Gautama, the founding holy figure of the religion. Many different Buddhist denomination celebrates this, but there isn’t a single internationally recognized date; so each country or region would celebrate it in their own way. In Yogyakarta, particularly, it is celebrated at the Borobudur temple where hundreds of pilgrims would spend a whole day and night praying or listening to sermons. In the past few years, the event climaxes with releasing hundreds of lanterns to the sky. And it is open for the public, as long as you’re willing to tolerate the line and pay the entrance ticket.
View of Borobudur lit up for the festivities, the actual temple was gated off from visitors during the duration of the festival
I will be honest, as beautiful as the actual lantern release, the event itself is quite chaotic as it’s now very popular amongst tourists and photographers alike. Unless you have special press passes (which I later found out that you can purchase even if you’re not really a photojournalist), you’re relegated to crowding around the little hill where the lanterns are released from… along with a couple hundred other photographers and tourists. And you really only get a few seconds to shoot rapidly before the lanterns are released to the sky.
Monks light up the small candles that will be used for the lanterns. The fire comes from a torch that have been lit up at the nearby Merapi volcano and brought over as part of the processions.
But the lantern release actually goes on throughout the night and into early morning, if you are willing to stay up you might be able to avoid the crowd. Photography-wise, I wasn’t enjoying it. But I was still glad to be there and be able to witness it. As somebody who feels foreign in his own homeland, I’m trying to make an effort to explore and understand more about the country I was born in.
And seeing the glowing lanterns float up towards the full moon was just fantastic.
Candi Ijo & Kotagede
Waking up the next day, I had arranged for a car and driver for the day to take me around a few sites hoping for a more leisurely pace to the day. We started off heading east of the city towards the mountains. After a quick stop at Breksi Cliffs, an old limestone mining quarry turned tourist trap, we stopped by Candi Ijo (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ijo_Temple). Built around the 10th-11th century Mataram Kingdom era, this is one of the smaller Hindu temples that is spread across this region.
The main building of Candi Ijo, built around the 10th-11th century.
Perched on a hill, it does offer a beautiful vantage view of the area. On a clear day, you’d be able to see the Merapi volcano north of the city. The sun was shining much too bright at the time however, so I tried to get some contrasty black and white photo of the temple complex.
Afterwards, we headed down towards Kotagede. A small area within Yogyakarta that used to be the social center of the Mataram kingdom, and where the centuries old royal cemetery resides. To enter the cemetery, you have to dress up in the local sarong, shirt, and headdress. And you also have to be barefooted, no shoes or sandals allowed. Also… no photography inside.
The cemetery complex contains various mausoleums and burial stones of the royal family and possibly royal adjudants. Inside the walled complex is a housed area, where the tombs of the founder of Muslim Mataram Sultanate is laid to rest along with his extended families. I came in with an elderly gentleman who came to pay respect and send prayers to the olden royal family. I knelt down to pay my own respect as I watched him light up incense and spread a flower “sesajen” (offering). I knew that I’m essentially inside a mausoleum, but within the dimly lit room and with the rays of light peeking in from the roof, it feels more like a hallowed ground.
Entrance to the royal cemetery
Coming out of the main building, I chatted with Siho who was my guide for the visit. He pointed out some interesting facts about the cemetery and stories from the old kingdom. He also made me aware that the cemetery is going to be closed early to visitors today, because the Sultan of Solo (younger brother of the Sultan of Yogyakarta) is coming to visit later that afternoon.
So I made my way around the complex and towards the open air baths, where pilgrims could wash themselves before or after visiting the tombs. I saw an older man sitting down cross against the wall, he called unto me and told me to come and relax for a bit. So I laid my backpack down and crouched right next to him as he shared… let’s say some more mystical stories about the cemetery and its inhabitants. But it wasn’t in a scary campfire ghost story kind of way, it’s more in the way he feels spiritually linked to the place. I’m reminded that in Indonesia, this kind of mix of mysticism and religion still prevails, even in large developed cities like Yogya.
After thanking him for his hospitality and really wonderful company, I left the temple to connect with a fellow traveler from Malaysia that I had been hanging out with at Borobudur the night before. (Check out her IG feed for her really awesome write-ups from her week long visit here).
We headed back out east to Prambanan temple, a Hindu counterpart to Borobudur’s Buddhist heritage. Built in the 9th century, this sprawling temple complex was dedicated to the Trimurti, or the holy Hindu trinity if you will of God as the creator (Brahma), preserver (Vishnu), and destroyer (Shiva) as represented by the three main buildings at the center of the complex.
The central building in Prambanan, representing Brahma the creator.
It really is a majestic architecture, with intricate carvings, stairways, and statues. What we can see now is only partially restored from what the whole area might’ve looked like a millennia ago. A faded reminder of a once sprawling and thriving kingdom in the region.
Local folklore tells that the origins of this massive temple complex is a tale of war, love, magic, and betrayal. A mythical giant and prince had defeated his neighboring kingdom, but fell in love with its princess, Roro Jonggrang. As he asked for her hand in marriage (after killing her father in battle), she responded that he must first fulfill an impossible quest, to build one-thousand temples overnight before the sun rises. The giant summons demons from the underground and quickly built 999 temples in matter of hours. But the sly princess ordered her handmaidens to start a huge fire in the east, and begin pounding rice which traditionally signals dawn, to trick the giant to thinking that he has failed. Heartbroken after finding out about the princess’ trickery, the giant prince turned her into stone which now resides in the main chamber of the last temple, thus fulfilling his quest.
Even now locals still intimately calls Prambanan as Temple of Roro Jonggrang in her honor. The folklore also serves as an origin story to the other dozens of temples within the vicinity of Yogya. But unfortunately, I don’t have enough time to see them all.
We ended up at Candi Boko, just 15 minute drive away up the hill from Prambanan, to catch the sunset. Sitting on a small mountain, this temple is extremely popular with visitors especially for sunsets. I didn’t even bother trying to take a photo because it was so crowded. So I settled on the grass as the sky dims into dusk and a little cool summer breeze blows by. We can see the sun sets over the hill, as night comes to Yogyakarta, this beautiful little country within a country.