The Heartland Story of Central Java

Borobudur Temple

Central Java is one of the 34 provinces that make up the Republic of Indonesia. It has an area of 34.503 square kilometres, which means that it larger than the Netherlands but smaller than Switzerland. It not only lies in the middle of the Island of Java, but can also be said to be in a position central to the entire country, with other islands of the great Indonesian archipelago stretching out to east and west of it, and more still to the north.

borobudur temple
borobudur temple, foto via

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On the south, however, there lies only the vast expense of the Indian Ocean, that is, the ocean of the Indies, or the Indonesian Ocean. Some miles offshore to the south, the ocean bed plunges down into the long and narrow Sunda Trench that reach a depth of 7.138 metres. In contrast, the sea lining to the north coast is shallow and silting up.

Central Java is a region of great geographical variety. There are chalk hills in the northeast, then come central highlands containing active volcanoes, the great Dieng Plateau and the 3428 metres height of Mt. Slamet, and there are the fertile lands of the Central Java plain, which, to an airborne view, looks like a sea of rice fields. Their villages resembling island of trees hiding the houses. There are more chalk hills to the south and, finally, 70 kilometres out in Java sea, there is the group of small islands called Karimunjawa, which form part of the Jepara regency.

Beaches on the south coast are often treacherous, because of the current produced by the juxtaposition of the Sunda Trench and the shelf rising from the ocean bed on which the southern island of Indonesia lie. On the other hand, the north coast is gradually growing outwards with the silt deposited from the rivers that flow from Java into the Java sea. As an example, the Mt. Muria peninsula. which is situated to the northeast of Semarang, was an Island at the beginning of the colonial era, as is attested by a Dutch picture of junks sailing there and by the swamps still to be found to the south of Kudus.

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There are more swamps in the southwest corner of the Province, these are related to the conditions around the “inland sea” of Segara Anakan, which is protected from ocean currents by the long island called Nusakambangan. Rawa Pening is a swamp of a different kind, for, situated in the middle of the Island to the south of Semarang, it receives the drainage from the surrounding hills.

Mt. Merapi, on the provincial border with Yogyakarta, is the country’s most active volcano. It is in almost constant eruption, but more damage is caused by the violent floods of waters, huge stones, and cold lava turned into mud, than by the outburst of ash and volcanic bomb. The crater stands at a height of around 2900 metres, higher or lower depending upon the current state of the accumulations around it.

The province lies between 109⁰34’ and 111⁰40’ east longitude and 6⁰22′ and 8⁰16′  south latitude. The greatest length is about 350 kilometres and the greatest width some 205, but these distance exclude the Karimunjawa Islands that lie almost 50 kilometres to the north of the Muria Peninsula in the Java Sea. In addition, the special territory of Yogyakarta, with the status of a province in its own right, forms an enclave within central java, shaped like a triangle, with its base on the south coast and its apex at Mt.Merapi.

Of the whole area of Central Java, only 4.6% lies at height of over 1ooo metres; 14.7% has an elevation between 500 – 1000 metres, 27.4% ranges from 100 to 500 metres, while the remaining 53.3% of the area lies between sea level and 100 metres.

Central Java is one of the homes of the Javanesse Civilization, undoubtedly one of the great distinctive cultures produced by the human race. The golden age of the civilization spanned from seven centuries, from some time in the eight when Dieng temples were the center of worship, to the fifteenth, when it began to break up, probably due to a combination of factors, of which the rise of Islam was certainly one.

Visible evidence of this civilization is still to be found, not only in the archaeological relics of the days of its grandeur, in the form of Hindu and Buddhist temples, but also in the arts, crafts and daily customs of the people today, modified, naturally, by the vicissitudes of time and the challenges of the modern world.

The people of the province are mainly Javanese, that is, they belong to the larger of the two ethnic cultural groups native to the Island. The population, however, is by no means entirely homogenous. Apart from the small group of European and Japanese residents, there are many Indonesian living in Central Java who come from other parts of the country, and there are also about three-quarters of a million people of Chinese origin, some of whom are the descendants of Chinese who settled in Indonesia centuries ago. Finally, a small part of the population is of Indian or Arab descent. All these different peoples have their own customs, their own languages, their own food, as can be seen from shoop signs reading “gudeg Yogya”, “Sate Madura”, “Masakan Padang”, “Tahu Pong Depok” and so forth.

In spite of the fact that everyone speaks their own mother tongue so that Javanese is the language most often heard in Central Java, everyone who has been to school also speaks the national language, Indonesian, as well. English is the first foreign language of the country, and the foreign visitor will often find that their Indonesian travelling companion are pleased to have an opportunity to practice their English. Amoongst the older generation, Dutch-speaking people still to be found, whilst small number are fluent in Asian and other European languages.

We know from Chinese historical records that there were merchants from China present in Indonesia from the first years of the fifth century. The sage Fa Hsien awaited the turn of the monsoon in Indonesia in 404 AD, when he was returning to China from a pilgrimage to the holy places of Buddhism in India and Ceylon. He complained of the “heresies he found in his beloved faith in Indonesia, and he sailed from Indonesia, as he arrived, in a vessel carrying Chinese merchants and their wares. It is reasonable to suppose that such trade had been long established then, and that some Chinese had already settled here.

There are many enigmas in Indonesia’s history, some of which concern Central Java. Not much is known about the country in the early years of the Christian era, since no Indonesian records of this time have been found so far. Writing materials in those days material were the leaves have been found so far, and that is not a very durable material. Written record from later centuries are apt to consist of reports of semi legendary happenings, of Panegyrics of great rulers, of advice about how to live or of recipes for herbal medicines and the like, The scale of values of the Old Javanese and his earlier ancestors was a different one than that of modern times in Indonesia, let alone than that of the Western world in the twentieth century. It seems that the ups and downs of kingdoms, the ins and outs in the lives of ordinary people were not regarded as matters that needed recording. Stone incription record what were considered to be historic occasions, but they are not very numerous and are very scarce in the fifth century, which is the time accredited to the earliest of them. Nevertheless, discoveries are constantly being made, and it is still possible that we will learn a great deal more about pre-colonial history.

The Hindu temples to be seen on the Dieng Plateau in Central Java point to the existence of a Hindu kingdom of some consequence in the eighth century. To judge from the taste and beauty of the stone remains, this kingdom must have had an art and culture more than the equal of what was to be found in Europe in those days, for this was the time of Europe’s Dark Ages.

We believe that the builders of Dieng came from the Kingdom of Old Mataram, the earliest stone inscription about which comes from the eighth century. An inscribed stone bearing a date that can be equated with 732 AD indicates that the Hindu religion had long been known. This stone was found in the Village of Canggal, in the Sleman area of what is now inscription, which is written in Sanscrit using the Pallawa characters that came from southern India, proclaims the founding of a new House of Sanjaya.

Leading rulers of the early years of this dynasty Sanjaya and Rakai Panamkaran. A monument put up by Rakai Sanjaya does homage to Shiva. Rakai Pikatan and his queen Pramadha Wardhani built the temple of Plaosan, near Prambanan, which clearly displays elements of syncretism in religious beliefs, with Hinduism combining in an harmonious whole with Buddhism.

The harmony between these two religion is in marked contrast to the conflict that attended their meeting in their Indian homeland, and it is evident that this harmony continued for a long time. Borobudur, the largest Buddhist edifice in the world and Prambanan, a great Hindu group that was possibly the home of a religious college, were built in Central Java less than 40 kilometres apart, within the same 75-years period around 800 AD.

Borobudur was built by the Shailendras, the “Kings of the Mountains”, who are one of the mysteries of Indonesian history. They sheem to have superceded the rulers of Old Mataram, yet Mataram appears once more after they have gone. Perhaps they also reigned in Sumatra, possibly before they appeared in Java. Another enigma about them is why they ceased ruling.

There is also historical puzzle as to why, early in the tenth century, the centre of power in Java removed to the east, to Medang, Kediri, Singhasari and finally to the empire of Majapahit.  Some people say that all that temple building must have beggared the people’s economy, so that they fled from the rule of the Shailendras. Others say the reason was a violent eruption of Mt Merapi that rained down fire from heaven on the unfortunate population and buried miles of the surrounding country as well as the great temples in ashes and cinders. Yet other people postulate an outbreak of plague ruler and ruled alike fled, to begin life a new hundreds of miles from their homes. It may indeed have been a combination of all these factor, we still do not know.

After four to five hundred years when the lands of Central Java were subjected, in whole or in part, by a succession of east java rulers, islamic kingdoms began to erode the domination of hinduistic East Java in the stormy period when the Majapahit Empire disintegrated

A tombstone from Aceh in North Sumatra shows the presence of Islam in Indonesia in the eleventh century, and we can suppose an earlier aquaintance yet, because Indonesia had trading partners in the Middle East in those days. But Muslim kingdoms in Java are a century. Raden Patah established the Sultanate of Demak in 1500 at the town situated 26 kilometres to the east of Semarang. In the disturbed time that followed, Demak ruled for about half a century, remaining dominant in the face of constant pressure from rivals and of strife amongst its own following.

In 1582, Sutawijaya became the first king of the Islamic Kingdom of Mataram, the capital of which was situated at Kota Gede in Yogyakarta. Possibly, the rulers of this Mataram were linear descendants of the kings who ruled the earlier Hindu kingdom of the same name. But it is possible that the illustrious name was taken Over to grace a new house. Whichever it was, Muslim Mataram was soon able to gain mastery over both Central and East Java.

Unfortunately, this was historically too late. The Portuguese entered Indonesia following Vasco da Gama’s arrival in India in 1498. They had spice-trade monopolies in the Moluccas in north-east Indonesia by the time when the Spaniards arrived there in Magellan’s ships in 1521. Portugal, Spain, Britain, France and Hollande – all were then roving the seas, warring with each other, capturing each other’s trade depots, for this was the era of the great conquests made by Europe in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Of all the prizes to be won, none was so much fought over, none so renowned in song as the Spice Trade – the pepper from Sumatra and Banten, the cloves and the nutmeg and the mace from the Moluccas in Indonesia.

The first Dutch commercial fleet arrived in Banten, west Java in 1596. Soon after, they were ready to set up trading post and to seek spice monopolies for the Dutch East Indies Trading Company, the “VOC’. In 1602, the Dutch evicted the British from Jayakarta, which they re-named “Batavia” when they put up a fortress there, and began to threathen the freedom of Indonesian trade with their post in Banda and Makassar.

Sultan Agung, the Central Java sovereign who ruled Muslim Mataram from 1613 to his death in 1645, attacked the fortress town of Batavia and laid seige to it for almost two years. But his line of supply was too long, disease – possbly  cholera – decimated his troops, and beside, the Dutch had cannon as he had not, and he was forced to withdraw. But he refused to deal with the Dutch and it was only more rulers would be amenable to their wishes.

Thereafter, the Dutch were able gradually to expand their economic and political power. Bit at a time, backing one prince against another, the Dutch ensured that more rulers would be amenable to their wishes.

In 1775, the Dutch were able to divide the Kingdom of Mataram into a “Kasunanan”, which was ruled from Surakarta by the Susuhunans, and a “Kasultanan, ruled from Yoqyakarta by the Sultans. These two Central Java kingdoms. heir realms already much reduced from that of Sultang Agung’s day, were divided yet again. Part of the Kasunanan in Surakarta became the Mangkunegaran and part of the Kasultanan in Yogyakarta became the Paku Alaman. Throughout the colonial period, the rulers of these Central Java kingdoms continued to exercise administrative powers, for the Dutch preferred a system of indirect rule.

At first, the actual power of the Dutch was felt by the people mainly in the spice gardens, the indigo plantations, in the making of roads and the building of forts and residences, and, later, on the estates when tea, coffee, sugar and
rubber were introduced in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But twentieth century dawned, the peoples of Asia arose to assert their rightlul dignity, and Indonesians began their struggle for independence.
When at last independence was proclaimed in 1945 and the republic of Indonesia  was set up on 17 August that year, the Sultan of Yogyakarta immediately declared himself subservient to the independent state. His territory became the capital of the Republic from 1946 to 1950. It is in recognition of this historic role that Yogyakarta, the enclave in Central Java, is still accorded the status of a province. Its Sultan is still its head, but the daily task of administration are conducted by his colleasgue, the Pakualam, who has become Deputy Head of a Yogyakarta that incorporates the former territories of both the Kasultanan and the Pakualaman.


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JC. Princen

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