The Hub of Java's Courtly Culture

Yogyakarta's rich traditions and vibrant art lure its young natives away from modern lives

DURING a trip to Europe, Harry Danel once toyed with the idea of leaving the cultural cocoon of the royal sultanate in Yogyakarta.

For generations, Mr. Danel's family has been part of the court or kraton culture, living with hundreds of other artisans in the walled city surrounding the ornate palace of sultans in this central Javanese city.

But ties of tradition and art overrode the lure of modern life, Danel says. Like scores of other young Javanese, he came back to pick up his work as a traditional wayang shadow puppeteer and batik designer in his parents' home not far from the palace where the current sultan, a businessman with a sense of duty, still lives.

``For years, the younger generation was not interested in this culture. But, starting 15 years ago, when kids could not get jobs in the city, they began to come back,'' says Danel, whose parents are distant relatives of the sultan and are entitled to stay in their house. ``If you have talent, you have to love the work because only the very well-known artists make any money at it.''

Despite years of Dutch colonial rule, an Indonesian revolution that stripped the sultans of their political powers, and rapid economic growth and modernization, Yogyakarta survives as the heart of the once courtly culture of Java.

The most populous and politically dominant island in the Indonesian archipelago, Java is home to a culture forged by ancient religions, an indigenous mysticism, linguistic etiquette, and a regal decorum that linger on in the minds of many Javanese. Nowhere is it more vigorous than in Yogyakarta.

``The culture of Yogyakarta stands out as the court civilization of the Javanese,'' writes Koentaraningrat, Indone- sia's preeminent scholar on the culture of Java. ``It boasts a four-century-old literary history and a sophisticated art of court dances and music and is characterized by a highly syncretistic religious life, combining elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.''

Java has played an extraordinary role in Indonesia, an ethnic patchwork of 185 million people. Major battles of the independence war against the Dutch and some of the most disastrous events of the abortive 1965 Communist coup took place here. Java's domination of Indonesian life triggered unsuccessful revolts in Sumatra and elsewhere, and its transmigration program to redistribute Java's overpopulation is resented as a systematic Javanese colonization of other islands.

Today, the Javanese world view continues to shape the future of Indonesia. To be Javanese is to be civilized, refined, reserved, and deferential to authority. Although Javanese are Muslims, like the majority of Indonesians, their religion is an accommodating mix of mysticism, Hinduism, and Islam, and incorporates beliefs in ghosts and magic concentrated in such symbols as the kris, the traditional Javanese dagger.

This Javanese perspective has influenced everything from education to politics and is said to reach into the highest levels in the country's shadowy corridors of power. Sukarno, Indonesia's flamboyant founding father, was believed to identify with Bima, the obstinate prince of the wayang puppet plays. Suharto, the strongman who has ruled the country since the bloody 1965 coup, is likened to Semar, the wayang clown-god who saves the day when others have failed. He is thought to make meditation pilgrimages to sacred caves in central Java.

Among the four royal Javanese cities associated with the rise and fall of ancient Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim kingdoms, Yogyakarta is the greatest. A city-state of about 3 million people, Yogya, as the city is called, has boomed into a modern metropolis and tourist center with some of Indonesia's greatest architectural treasures.

Northwest of the city, a small hill is topped by one of Buddhism's greatest relics in Southeast Asia, the pyramid of Borobudur. Built almost 1,200 years ago by one of Java's first ``Indianized'' dynasties, the temple was abandoned with the decline of Buddhism in Indonesia but later rescued from layers of volcanic ash and restored in the early 20th century. A $21 million restoration project launched by UNESCO a decade ago is now complete.

Scattered near the village of Prambanan closer to Yogya are the temples of Prambanan, a mix of Hindu and Buddhist art believed to have resulted from the alliance through marriage of Hindu and Buddhist dynasties 1,000 years ago.

Still, aside from the tourist bustle, Yogya moves at a more leisurely pace than many Indonesian cities and preserves traditional Javanese arts, classical dancing, gamelan music, various forms of wayang puppetry and batik as a living culture.

``We have symbolism in every motif of batik. Traditionally in Java, batik is not only to wear but to give meaning to our lives,'' says Sutadi, director of the Institute for Research and Development of Handicraft and Batik Industries. He explains that some traditional designs can be worn only by the sultan and his family. ``We wear one motif for happiness, and people still believe that if we wear this motif, we will be happy.''

At the royal palace, home to one of Indonesia's most influential sultanates for more than 200 years, Harjawijaja, one of 1,500 court retainers, informs visitors that the current sultan, Hamengku Buwono X, is in Australia. ``We feel happy when we work in the palace and are dedicated to the sultan,'' says the former farmer, dressed in a royal batik.

Although the other courts of central Java have lost their influence, the Yogya princes still get respect because they supported Indonesia's independence struggle in the 1940s and have helped many of the 25,000 people living within the walled city.

Once one of Indonesia's wealthiest men, the late father of the current sultan is revered as a freedom fighter against the Dutch and a reformer who abolished feudal social barriers between himself and the people.

Although his father had five wives and 22 children, the son is a modern sultan who has only one wife and five daughters. He runs a bank and a host of other businesses, heads the Yogyakarta Chamber of Commerce, and is not, local residents say, above going incognito to local hotels to play tennis with unsuspecting tourists.

That's a sign of the times, loyal subjects of the sultan admit, as modernization encroaches on Yogya's courtly culture. Palace guide Agus Sukirno has worked at the court for a half-century. And, though he's devoted to the sultan, he hopes his daughter will work elsewhere. ``The young generation is more progressive and clever,'' Mr. Sukirno says, showing visitors through the empty coronation hall where the current ruler was crowned five years ago. ``Their future is not in this palace.''

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