An angry mountain evokes memories
Mt. Merapi in central Indonesia is making news - news of the ghastly kind. Recurrent outbursts in the past two weeks have wreaked much havoc. It is reported to be the worst episode in 100 years for the Holy Volacano. Reading reports of this disaster is distressing , all the more because one has seen that mountain in happier times.
Though it is the most active volacano in the region, on both the occassions that I saw Gunung Merapi, it was beautiful, benign, bathed in picture-postcard loveliness. This was years ago.
Merapi is the most sacred site for Buddhists who consider the "self-ignited" fire from it the holiest , to be used in rituals in the viharas spread around Central Java. The name Merapi is a combo of two Javanese words : Meru ( holy mountain)+ Api ( Fire).
The first time I saw it, was during my visit to Yogyakarta , an elegant Sultanate that lies some 30 kms. from the mountain .
The Yogyakarta Sultanate, considered one part of the holy trio that protects the Javanese people ( the other two being Mt. Merapi and Nyi Roro Kidul, the Spirit Queen of the Southern Ocean ), routinely offers appeasements in the form of elaborate rituals to keep Mt. Merapi in good spirits. And inspite of the many eruptions, people continue to live by its slopes because they consider the super-fertile, lava-enriched soil here the boon of the Hyang ( Spirit) of Merapi. Even though they dread the deadly "Lahars " ( mudflows). Such faith and reverence is inexplicable, but touching indeed.
(Above : Entrance to the Kraton in Jogja)
Our visit was to see the historic site of the mighty Mataram Dynasty that ruled Java in the 16th Century. In 1755, the empire was divided into two principalities , Yogyakarta and Surakarta, with their own lines of Sultans .
Yogyakarta :commonly called Jogja, is the Center of Javanese Culture and Fine Arts. Its Universities are also highly respected. ( BTW, there's one called "Sanata Dharma University"here. It is a Jesuit Instituition !)
It was very interesting to learn about the Javanese language, considered a Classical Language. Traditionally , a lot of attention goes into the kind of speech and body language used in social intercourse. One had to be very sure about the other's station in society and family before opening one's mouth because Javanese language has a rigid system of "speaking up" and "speaking down". The three "registers" are Ngoko ( informal), Madya ( polite) and Krama ( formal). Getting to the point right away in a conversation is considered very ,very crass ! Prolonged beating about the bush is the mark of high refinement ! It is good manners to make prolific use of Honorifics ( for others) and humilifics(for self) - I was reminded of our Lucknowi traditions ! The Javanese script ( Hanacaraka) is derived from the Brahmi of ancient India .
The Palace ( Kraton of Yogyakarta) is a fine specimen of local architecture, but very simple and minimalist in decoration. It is spacious, airy and flooded with natural light. One part of the kraton is converted into a museum showcasing collections and personal effects of the various kings. The high ceilings in the halls have beautifully arranged wooden beams and carved panels. People still adore the idea of Monarchy and the Royal Family ( The Hamengkubuwonos) is greatly respected even today.
( Picture below : A Gazebo in the garden.)
Jogja is a quaint city with old world bird markets, colonial (Dutch) Buildings, horse carriages, traditional wayang theatres alongside modernities like rapid transport lines and MacDonalds.
(Above : The Royal Bath in Jogja)
Surakarta , also called Solo, ( 35 km. from Jogja) is famous for the biggest textile market in the whole region - "Pasar Klewer". The Batiks found here are amazing. And Pasar Triwindu is the place to go for sourcing antiques.
The Kraton ( palace) of Solo sultans ( The Pakubuwonos) is similar to but smaller than the palace of Jogja.
In modern history, Solo played an active part during the freedom movement and also fostered the illfated Communist Movement that sought to overthrow feudalism.
(Above : Entrance to Kraton of Solo)
A graveyard called Imogiri ( corruption of Himagiri ) ,built in the 17th. century and renovated periodically, lies close to the twin cities and was specially constructed for the sultans of both principalities to rest in peace. Designed to look like a hill, with steps leading to a park-like plaza that holds the graves , it has a split-meru entrance, and a pinnacle , Prabayasa, that looks like a temple spire. Though this is a graveyard, people come here for both pilgrimage and picnic !
Jogja and Solo are known for :
1. Javanese classical music . Above : The Gamelan Orchestra.
2. Classical Dances. There are three types : Tari Serimpi ( mystical court dances), Tari Rakhyat ( for Public) and Tari Bedoyo ( Sacred dances). Above : A Serimpi number, but performed for public now !
3. Traditional Ballet (of Mahabharata and Ramayana stories). In picture above, episode of Subhadra's death ; open air performance.
4. Batik cloth in organic dyes. Above : Artisan in a batik workshop.
5. And Puppet Theatre. Varieties being, the Shadow Puppet Plays using leather cut outs. And Wooden Puppets manipulated with sticks( pictures below)
PS :Indian expats in the country relate Solo with a variety of fragrant rice - very similar to Basmati !
Portrait of The Sultan and his wife.