A man with wrinkled arms clutches the handle of a copper plate, dips one side into a plate of burning wax, and turns to the piece of white cloth laid out before him. With time-honored precision, he precariously stamps the hot wax onto the cloth and then carefully lifts it, leaving flowers in golden strands in its wake.
The man does the silent ritual again, and again, until no part of the cloth is unadorned with curling golden strands — the first step in the ancient Indonesian art of batik.
I am at the back of a shop called Raradjonggrang at the heart of Yogyakarta, or Jogja, in the island of Java, Indonesia. All around me are local batik artisans, working in absorbed silence on cloths at varying stages of completion. A single piece of batik, I have learned earlier, takes two to three months to complete — a long, tedious, and intricate process of wax resist dyeing.
Batik-making is believed to be native to the island of Java, with some of the earliest forms of floral-patterned garments found to have been used by the ancient kingdom’s royals.
And Yogyakarta’s royalty goes back a long way; so ingrained is it that today, Yogyakarta remains the only Indonesian region governed by a monarch.
By all means, Yogyakarta’s old and rich history reveals itself at the heart of its capital — a busy network of roads with a heady mix of Javanese, Dutch colonial, and modern influences, from its architecture to the sheer amount of traditional becaks (the local version of the pedicab) and motorcycles making their way left and right. Hidden behind thick walls are ancient palaces and gardens, side by side with some of Indonesia’s most renowned universities. Yogyakarta is a lot of things: seat of royalty, hub of art and culture, and center of education.
Like the complex web of its batik patterns, modern-day Yogyakarta wears, thrives on, and evolves with these influences. And like the present-day batik worn by everyone in the region, from all walks of life, Yogyakarta is not some artifact locked up in glass and ogled at; it is a fine piece of art that is also worn, tasted, touched, and walked on.
Yogyakarta is an art that is experienced.
Walking through Yogyakarta: Kraton and Taman Sari
Like all walk-throughs, our journey around Yogyakarta starts at the center, the Kraton—the palace of the Sultan, who is also the governor of Yogyakarta.
We arrive in Jogja on a hot, sunny day, and the palace complex is full of tourists.
But being expansive and breezy, the Kraton is a surprisingly welcoming, if fascinating, break from the impregnable, imposing palatial structure I have been expecting. Different houses — one for tea, another for music, and another still for dining — are spread out in a vast, leafy area that makes it look like a friendly estate rather than an abandoned, and yet lavish, piece of architecture that has not seen a single living soul in recent memory. The Palace of Yogyakarta, as it is formally called, is also the residence of the current monarch, Sultan Hamengku Buwono X.
The complex, which is over two centuries old, was built following ancient beliefs, each of the elements, including the trees, so placed according to certain Javanese symbolisms: for instance, the Palace of Yogyakarta, which symbolizes the universal element of earth, stands between Mt. Merapi (the element of fire) and the Indian Ocean (the element of water).
All around the palace grounds are barefoot palace guards dressed in their traditional sarong, each of them bearing the Javanese kris, an important part of Javanese heritage, which the United Nations has recognized as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Tangible Heritage of Humanity. We also spot the Sultan’s collection of gamelans, used for performances scheduled regularly on the palace grounds. We walk further from one door to the next and see ceramic artifacts, photographs of past monarchs as well as their personal effects, all housed in individual buildings accordingly.
We exit the palace, and after a short drive, arrive at the hallowed and mystical walls of a former pleasure garden.
The Taman Sari, or water castle, is an expansive network of tunnels, artificial lakes, and bathing pools as large as basketball courts. One of these pools is said to have been reserved only for women. The complex also houses rooms for the royal family, shielded well from the outside by thick and high walls. The Taman Sari was completed in 1758, damaged by an earthquake in the late 1800s, and is now beautifully restored in warm hues that could only add to the place’s mystical character. But only tourists walk along the Taman Sari today, giving us a glimpse of the royal lifestyle of old.
From the palace and the Taman Sari, Yogyakarta’s ancient past spreads out and disperses into a dizzying network of alleys and colonial buildings.
Taking home Yogyakarta: Jalan Malioboro
From the batik workshop at Raradjonggrang, where we see firsthand how the intricate batik patterns go from blank canvas to the shelves and racks of batik clothing, pillow cases, table covers, and scarves, we proceed to Jalan Malioboro, the hub of local shopping in Yogyakarta. We pass by an endless maze of becaks and motorcycles again, as well as a crowd of buses and cars zipping past. It is a city alright, and a busy one at that.
Jalan Malioboro hosts a slew of souvenir shops, including the Beringharjo market—said to be one of the best places to get batik products. There is also Mirota Batik, an air-conditioned, three-level shopping complex filled to the brim with both tourists and items for sale. For something that looks so clinical, the shop has an astounding collection of handcrafted art pieces for sale, from miniature silver becaks to various wooden carvings, paintings of both local life and modern culture, as well as antique typewriters, tea sets, and telephones. I also spotted some very well made wooden and woven home pieces bearing Javanese patterns.
The whole street of Malioboro, it seems, is devoted to satisfying the tourist’s penchant for bringing pieces of Java home. It does this very well, I think, as I spot shopper after shopper carrying bags of what I am sure are piles and piles of batik, and maybe a couple of wooden spoons.
Tasting Yogyakarta: Gudeg and other things
When it comes to satisfying the palate, Yogyakarta delivers well, from its offering of local favorites to Western food served in restaurants done in tasteful Javanese interiors.
My first taste of Yogyakarta is through a filling plate of Gudeg Yogya—unripe jackfruit boiled for several hours in palm sugar and coconut milk, sitting on a bed of rice and salted egg, served on banana leaves. A traditional Javanese breakfast, the gudeg is a rich mix of sweet and salty, usually eaten with crisp fish crackers and an extra-sweet serving of tea.
I also find the ice cendol camcao, or iced rice flour jelly in coconut milk, a refreshing dessert, especially after visiting the Palace of Yogyakarta and Taman Sari, both of which are nearby.
It is also fitting that my last taste of Yogyakarta before leaving for the airport after a day of sightseeing is at Gadjah Wong, a restaurant set in a lush garden studded with by pavilions. We feast on Bitterballen—meat ball snack, a souvenir of Dutch days, I suppose—as well as pan-fried king mackerel, grilled lamb chops, and beef sirloin steak. Gadjah Wong’s homemade ginger and cinnamon ice cream is divine.
It is with a heavy stomach and an even heavier heart that we rush to the airport at the end of that day for our flight out. For a moment, the prospect of missing our flight seems to take shape, as we are running a wee bit later than expected. It is with a tinge of guilt that I welcome this prospect, however briefly, for this may mean another day to stay in Jogja, perhaps on its streets or its outskirts, where gargantuan temples and active volcanoes are surely waiting. But as fate would have it, we pull over the departure area just in time, and last see Jogja’s glittering golden lights from thousands of feet up.