Indonesian Culture & History: 10 Interesting Things to Do in Java

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When many people think of Indonesia, they think of Bali, which is loaded with some of my favorite travel memories. Indonesia is so much more than the mystery and beauty of Bali however and Java is rich historically and culturally. A few highlights:

Borobudur Monument:

A massive Buddhist monument in central JavaIndonesia, 26 miles northwest of Yogyakarta, it combines the symbolic forms of the stupa (a Buddhist commemorative mound usually containing holy relics), the temple mountain (based on Mount Meru of Hindu mythology), and the mandala (a mystic Buddhist symbol of the universe, combining the square as earth and the circle as heaven). The style of Borobudur was influenced by Indian Gupta and post-Gupta art. The monument was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991.

Borobudur was constructed between about 778 and 850 ce, under the Shailendra dynasty. It was buried under volcanic ash from about 1000 and overgrown with vegetation until discovered by the English lieutenant governor Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1814. A team of Dutch archaeologists restored the site in 1907–11. A second restoration was completed by 1983.

Borobudur: sculptures [Credit: © simon gurney/Fotolia]Built with about 2,000,000 cubic feet (56,600 cubic metres) of gray volcanic stone, Borobudur encloses a small hill and is shaped like a stepped pyramid with three major levels—a square base, a middle level of five square terraces, and an upper level of three circular terraces—totaling, in effect, nine lesser sections (the number nine is mystic in Buddhism). The centre, 115 feet (35 metres) above the base, consists of a large individual stupa.

Each of the monument’s three main levels represents a stage on the way to the bodhisattva ideal of enlightenment; symbolizing this spiritual journey, a pilgrim begins at the eastern stairway and walks clockwise around each of the monument’s nine levels before reaching the top. At the lowest level, which is partially hidden, are hundreds of reliefs of earthly desires, illustrating kama-dhatu (“the realm of feeling”), the lowest sphere of the Mahayana Buddhist universe.















On the next level, a series of reliefs depict rupa-dhatu (the middle sphere and “the realm of form”) through events in the life of the Gautama Buddha and scenes from the Jatakas (stories of his previous lives).

The upper level illustrates arupa-dhatu, “the realm of formlessness,” or detachment from the physical world; there is little decoration, but lining the terraces are 72 bell-shaped stupas, many still containing a statue of the Buddha, partly visible through the perforated stonework. During the Waicak ceremony, which occurs once a year during a full moon, thousands of saffron-robed Buddhist monks walk in solemn procession to Borobudur to commemorate the Buddha’s birth, death, and enlightenment.

Taman Impian Jaya Ancol:

Along the bay front, between Kota and Tanjung Priok, the people’s ‘Dreamland’ is built on land reclaimed in 1962. This 300-hectare, landscaped recreation park, providing non-stop entertainment, has hotels, theatres and a variety of sporting and leisure facilities including bowling. It’s easily the city’s best entertainment for kids in the city. Taman Impian Jaya Ancol’s prime attractions include Pasar Seni (Art Market), and Seaworld.

Taman Fatahillah:

The old town of Batavia, now known as Kota, was once the hub of Dutch colonial Indonesia. Much of the one-time grandeur has now rotted, crumbled or been bulldozed away, but Taman Fatahillah, Kota’s central cobblestone square, is still reminiscent of the area’s heyday. To reach Taman Fatahillah, you can either take the Korridor I bus from Blok M or Jl Thamrin to Kota train station and walk, or take a city train from Gondangdia, near Jl Jaksa, to the train station. A taxi will cost around 15,R from Jl Thamrin.

Benteng Vredeburg:

On the opposite side of Jl A Yani, is the Benteng Vredeburg, a Dutch-era fort that’s been converted into a museum. It houses dioramas showing the history of the independence movement in Yogyakarta. The architecture is worth a look, but the dioramas are designed for Indonesian patriots.

Museum Nasional:

Museum Nasional, built in 1862, is the best of its kind in Indonesia and one of the finest in Southeast Asia. It has an enormous collection of cultural objects of the various ethnic groups around the country – costumes, musical instruments, model houses and so on – and numerous fine bronzes from the Hindu-Javanese period, as well as many interesting stone pieces salvaged from the Central Javanese and other temples. There’s also a superb display of Chinese ceramics dating back to the Han dynasty (300 BC to AD 220), which was almost entirely amassed in Indonesia. Just outside the museum is a bronze elephant that was presented by the Kin.

Museum Bahari:

Near the entrance to Sunda Kelapa, several old VOC warehouses (dating back to 1652) have been converted into the Museum Bahari. This is a good place to learn about the city’s maritime history, and though the wonderful old buildings (some renovated) are echoingly empty there are some good information panels (in English and Bahasa Indonesia). Under the heavy wooden beams of the vast old storage premises are various random exhibits: a sextant (used for astronomical navigation), various traditional boats from around Indonesia, the shell of a giant clam, plenty of pickled fish and a lighthouse lamp or two. The sentry posts outside are part of the old city wall.


Sangiran is an important archaeological excavation site, where some of the best examples of fossil skulls of prehistoric ‘Java Man’ Pithecanthropus erectus were unearthed by a Dutch professor in 1936. Sangiran has a small museum with a few skulls (one of Homo erectus), various pig and hippopotamus teeth, and fossil exhibits, including huge mammoth tusks.

Souvenir stalls outside sell bones, ‘mammoth tusks’ carved from stone and other dubious fossil junk. Guides will also offer to take you to the area where shells and other fossils have been found in the crumbling slopes of the hill.

Ragunan Zoo in Jakarta:

Jakarta’s Ragunan Zoo is 16km south of Jakarta’s city centre in the Pasar Minggu area. As home to 4000 animals, this large zoo has a good collection of Indonesian wildlife including Komodo dragons. It’s not world class (some of the enclosures are depressingly small), but this is by far the best zoo in Indonesia, and its new primate enclosure, featuring orang-utans and gorillas, is a highlight.

Museum Wayang in Jakarta:

This puppet museum has one of the best collections of wayang puppets in Java and its dusty cabinets are full of a multitude of characters. The collection includes puppets from not only Indonesia but also China, Vietnam, India, Cambodia and Europe, and masks used by dancers. There are free wayang performances on Sunday at 10am.

Sunda Kelapa:

A kilometre north of Taman Fatahillah, the old port of Sunda Kelapa in Jakarta, is full of magnificent Makassar schooners (pinisi). The dock scene here has barely changed for centuries, and porters unload cargo from these sailing ships by hand and trolley. Sadly, the port itself is rundown and its waters grotesquely polluted these days.

Photo credit: Buddha statue on the upper terrace of Borobudur Stupa, Java, Indonesia. Photo 2:  Borobudur temple, Java, Indonesia. Borobudur’s main stairway.


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