The Heartland Story of Central Java

Borobudur Temple

Central Java is one of the 38 provinces that comprise the Republic of Indonesia. Covering an area of 34,503 square kilometers, it’s larger than the Netherlands but smaller than Switzerland. Not only does it occupy a central position on the island of Java, but it also holds a central role in the entire country. The vast Indonesian archipelago extends to the east and west of Central Java, with more islands to the north. To the south, it borders the expansive Indian Ocean, known as the Indian Ocean of the Indies or the Indonesian Ocean. Some miles offshore to the south, the ocean floor descends into the long and narrow Sunda Trench, reaching a depth of 7,138 meters. In contrast, the sea along the north coast is shallow and gradually filling up.

borobudur temple
borobudur temple, foto via

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Central Java is a region of diverse geography. It features chalk hills in the northeast, central highlands with active volcanoes, the remarkable Dieng Plateau, the 3,428-meter-high Mt. Slamet, and the fertile lands of the Central Java plain, resembling a sea of rice fields when viewed from the air, dotted with villages hidden amid trees. There are more chalk hills in the south, and about 70 kilometers out in the Java Sea, you’ll find the Karimunjawa Islands, part of the Jepara regency.

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The beaches on the south coast can be treacherous due to the currents created by the proximity of the Sunda Trench and the underwater shelf upon which the southern Indonesian islands rest. In contrast, the north coast is slowly expanding due to the silt deposited by the rivers flowing from Java into the Java Sea. For instance, the Mt. Muria peninsula, located northeast of Semarang, was once an island during the colonial era, as evidenced by Dutch pictures of sailing junks and the swamps still found to the south of Kudus.

In the southwest corner of the province, there are more swamps, associated with the conditions around the “inland sea” of Segara Anakan, protected from ocean currents by the long island of Nusakambangan. Rawa Pening is another type of swamp, situated in the heart of the island, to the south of Semarang, receiving drainage from the surrounding hills.

Mt. Merapi, on the provincial border with Yogyakarta, is the country’s most active volcano. It experiences almost constant eruptions, with more damage caused by violent floods, massive stones, and cold lava turned into mud, rather than by ash and volcanic bombs. The crater stands at a height of approximately 2,900 meters, its elevation fluctuating depending on the accumulations around it.

The province is situated between 109⁰34′ and 111⁰40′ east longitude and 6⁰22′ and 8⁰16′ south latitude. It spans about 350 kilometers in length and 205 kilometers in width, excluding the Karimunjawa Islands, located nearly 50 kilometers to the north of the Muria Peninsula in the Java Sea. Additionally, the special territory of Yogyakarta, functioning as an independent province, forms an enclave within Central Java, shaped like a triangle, with its base on the south coast and its apex at Mt. Merapi.

In Central Java, only 4.6% of the land lies at elevations of over 1,000 meters, while 14.7% has elevations between 500 and 1,000 meters. Another 27.4% ranges from 100 to 500 meters, and the remaining 53.3% of the area lies between sea level and 100 meters.

Central Java holds a significant place in Javanese civilization, one of the remarkable cultural legacies of the human race. This civilization’s golden age spanned seven centuries, from the eighth century when Dieng temples were centers of worship to the fifteenth when it began to wane, partly due to the rise of Islam. The traces of this civilization persist not only in archaeological relics such as Hindu and Buddhist temples but also in the arts, crafts, and daily customs of the people, adapted over time to the challenges of the modern world.

The population of the province is predominantly Javanese, representing the larger of the two ethnic and cultural groups native to the island. However, it’s not a completely homogeneous population. Besides a small European and Japanese community, many Indonesians from other parts of the country reside in Central Java. Additionally, there are approximately three-quarters of a million people of Chinese descent, some of whom are descendants of Chinese settlers in Indonesia from centuries ago. A small segment of the population has Indian or Arab heritage. Each of these diverse groups has its own customs, languages, and culinary traditions, as evidenced by shop signs advertising “gudeg Yogya,” “Sate Madura,” “Masakan Padang,” “Tahu Pong Depok,” and more.

While the residents may speak their respective mother tongues, Javanese is the most commonly heard language in Central Java. Those who have attended school also speak the national language, Indonesian. English serves as the first foreign language in the country, and foreign visitors may find Indonesian companions eager to practice their English skills. Among the older generation, Dutch-speaking individuals can still be found, and a few are fluent in Asian and other European languages.

Historical records from China indicate that Chinese merchants were present in Indonesia from the early years of the fifth century. The sage Fa Hsien, for instance, passed through Indonesia in 404 AD on his way back to China from a pilgrimage to Buddhist holy places in India and Ceylon. However, he lamented the “heresies” he encountered in his beloved faith in Indonesia and sailed from Indonesia on a vessel carrying Chinese merchants and their goods. It’s reasonable to assume that trade with China had been established long before this, and some Chinese may have already settled in Indonesia.

Indonesia’s history, especially Central Java’s, is filled with enigmas. Little is known about the country during the early years of the Christian era due to the lack of Indonesian records from that time. Writing materials in those days primarily consisted of leaves, which are not very durable. Written records from later centuries often revolve around semi-legendary events, panegyrics of great rulers, advice on daily living, and recipes for herbal medicines. The values and perspectives of the Old Javanese people and their ancestors differed from modern times, let alone those of the Western world in the twentieth century. Matters like the rise and fall of kingdoms and the lives of ordinary people were not deemed essential for recording. Stone inscriptions documented what were considered historic events, but these inscriptions are scarce, especially for the fifth century, which is the earliest period documented. Nevertheless, ongoing discoveries may shed more light on pre-colonial history.

The Hindu temples on the Dieng Plateau in Central Java suggest the existence of a significant Hindu kingdom in the eighth century. Judging by the taste and beauty of the surviving stone remnants, this kingdom must have had art and culture comparable to, if not exceeding, that of Europe during the Dark Ages.

It’s believed that the builders of Dieng came from the Old Mataram Kingdom, for which the earliest stone inscriptions date back to the eighth century. One inscribed stone, dating to 732 AD, indicates the long-standing presence of the Hindu religion. This stone was found in the Village of Canggal in the Sleman area, and the inscription, written in Sanskrit using Pallava characters from southern India, proclaims the establishment of a new House of Sanjaya.

Prominent rulers of this early dynasty include Sanjaya and Rakai Panamkaran. A monument erected by Rakai Sanjaya pays homage to Shiva. Rakai Pikatan and his queen Pramadha Wardhani constructed the Plaosan temple near Prambanan, reflecting syncretism in religious beliefs as Hinduism harmoniously blended with Buddhism.

This coexistence of Hinduism and Buddhism is in stark contrast to the conflicts they experienced in their Indian homeland, and it persisted for an extended period. Central Java boasts Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist monument, and Prambanan, a grand Hindu complex that may have been a religious college, constructed within the same 75-year period around 800 AD, separated by less than 40 kilometers.

The Shailendras, known as the “Kings of the Mountains,” are an intriguing mystery in Indonesian history. They appear to have succeeded the rulers of Old Mataram, yet Mataram resurfaced after their rule. Perhaps they also ruled in Sumatra, potentially before their presence in Java. Another mystery surrounds why they ceased their reign.

A historical puzzle pertains to the shift of power to the east in Java during the early tenth century, moving to Medang, Kediri, Singhasari, and eventually the Majapahit Empire. Some speculate that extensive temple construction must have strained the economy, leading people to flee the rule of the Shailendras. Others believe that a violent eruption of Mt. Merapi, raining down fire from the heavens and burying miles of surrounding land, played a role. Another theory suggests that an outbreak of plague forced both rulers and the populace to start anew, hundreds of miles from their homes. The actual reason may be a combination of these factors, and it remains an enigma.

After several centuries of being partially or wholly ruled by successive East Java leaders, Islamic kingdoms started to erode the dominance of Hinduistic East Java when the Majapahit Empire disintegrated.

A tombstone from Aceh in North Sumatra attests to the presence of Islam in Indonesia in the eleventh century, indicating even earlier contact, considering Indonesia’s trade relations with the Middle East. However, Muslim kingdoms in Java didn’t emerge until a century later. In 1500, Raden Patah established the Sultanate of Demak in a town situated 26 kilometers east of Semarang. In the turbulent period that followed, Demak maintained dominance for about fifty years, despite constant rivalries and internal strife.

In 1582, Sutawijaya became the first king of the Islamic Kingdom of Mataram, headquartered in Kota Gede, Yogyakarta. It’s possible that the rulers of this Muslim Mataram dynasty were direct descendants of the kings who once ruled the Hindu Kingdom of Mataram. Alternatively, they may have adopted the prestigious name for their new house. Regardless, Muslim Mataram soon extended its influence over Central and East Java.

However, it was too late historically. The Portuguese had already set foot in Indonesia after Vasco da Gama’s arrival in India in 1498. They established spice-trade monopolies in the Moluccas in northeastern Indonesia by the time the Spaniards arrived in Magellan’s ships in 1521. Portugal, Spain, Britain, France, and the Netherlands were all navigating the seas, engaging in warfare, capturing each other’s trading posts, and pursuing conquests in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Among these, the Spice Trade held particular significance – including pepper from Sumatra and Banten, as well as cloves, nutmeg, and mace from the Moluccas in Indonesia.

The first Dutch commercial fleet arrived in Banten, West Java, in 1596. They soon established trading posts and sought spice monopolies for the Dutch East Indies Trading Company, known as the “VOC.” In 1602, the Dutch ousted the British from Jayakarta, renaming it “Batavia” when they built a fortress there. This threatened Indonesian trade freedom from their posts in Banda and Makassar.

Sultan Agung, the sovereign of Central Java who ruled Muslim Mataram from 1613 until his death in 1645, besieged the fortress town of Batavia and laid siege to it for nearly two years. However, his supply lines were too extended, diseases, possibly cholera, took a toll on his troops, and the Dutch possessed superior cannons, forcing him to withdraw. He refused to engage with the Dutch, and only subsequent rulers became more amenable to their desires.

Gradually, the Dutch expanded their economic and political influence. By supporting one prince against another, they ensured that more rulers would comply with their wishes. In 1775, they divided the Kingdom of Mataram into a “Kasunanan,” ruled by the Susuhunans in Surakarta, and a “Kasultanan,” governed by the Sultans in Yogyakarta. These two kingdoms in Central Java, already reduced in size from the days of Sultan Agung, were subdivided further. Part of the Kasunanan in Surakarta became the Mangkunegaran, and part of the Kasultanan in Yogyakarta became the Paku Alaman. Throughout the colonial era, the rulers of these Central Java kingdoms continued to wield administrative powers, as the Dutch favored indirect rule.

When independence was declared in 1945, and the Republic of Indonesia was established on August 17, that year, the Sultan of Yogyakarta promptly acknowledged the independent state’s authority. His territory served as the capital of the Republic from 1946 to 1950. Yogyakarta, an enclave in Central Java, continues to enjoy provincial status, with the Sultan as its head, although daily administration is managed by his colleague, the Pakualam, who serves as Deputy Head of Yogyakarta, encompassing the former territories of both the Kasultanan and the Paku Alaman.

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JC. Princen

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