Central Java is located not only in the heart of Java but is also more or less in the middle of Indonesia. Its central location has meant that it was shaped by influences from the outside. Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity all played a part in Central Java's evolution, as reflected by the region’s wonderful ancient cities and historical monuments—namely Borubudur and Prahmadana.
Central Java’s central location has also meant that its culture has radiated outward. Javanese culture has its origins in the city of Surakarta (better known as Solo) and Yogyakarta, both in Central Java. Descendants of the two royal families which ruled Java for centuries, still live in these two cities and are still considered the leaders of Javanese culture and traditions. And it is these Javanese, through conquest, coercion, and cooperation with their former Dutch rulers that created the nation of Indonesia. Most of the other islands have their own ethnic identity, but it is the Javanese who have the political power and Central Java is their homeland.
Central Java covers 33,800 square kilometers and is home to around 35 million people. It has some mountainous areas, some plateaus and some flat coastal plains and is dominated by volcanoes. Towering over the whole province is Mount Merapi, a very active volcano. The ash and lava from these volcanos has nourished soil fertile enough to support all those people.
Central Java is rich in culture and tradition and has a long and colorful history. Under the Syailendra and Old Mataram Kings in the 8th and 10th centuries early Javanese culture flourished. It was during this period that Borobudur temple was built. In the 10th century, Majapahit kingdom based in East Java began to gain dominance. After the fall of Majapahit, Demak in 15th century, an Islamic based kingdom, started to rise. A New Mataram kingdom appeared in the 16th century. Dutch arrived in area around the same time and began to colonize it. Even after Indonesia proclaimed its independence, the Dutch still tried to hold onto power in the region — in vain. Central Java became a province in Indonesia on July 4, 1950.
Central Java is mostly populated by Javanese as is East Java. West Java by contrast is inhabited mainly by Sundanese. Chinese, Arabian-Indonesian and Sundanese can also be found in Central Java. In Semarang for instance, try the lumpia, this spring roll is best served hot with a hot chili or sauce. Bandeng presto, made of milkfish, is delicious and nourishing. An extensive network of good roads and railways links major cities and towns. There are airports in Semarang and Solo and seaports in Tanjung Emas, north of Semarang and Cilacap provide, which has a a fine natural harbor. Buses and minibuses will take you most places you want to go..Tourism Office: Jl. Madukoro Blok BB/1D Semarang 50144, Tel. (024) 7608570-2, 7613180, 7613181, fax: (024) 7608573, Website: central-java-tourism.com
Java is the world's most populous island and the center of Indonesia culture, politics and economic life. Historical events that took place here shaped Indonesia as a whole. Outsiders still seek it out as the place to make one’s name and seek fame and fortune in the archipelago. It is an incredibly rich place, with a rich cultural traditions and places of extraordinary beauty that are not marred by island’s dense masses, noise and traffic. It is about a third the size of California but has more than three times the people.
Long and narrow and about the size of Alabama, Java covers 132,107 square kilometers (50,229 square miles) and extends about 1,100 kilometers (700 miles) from east to west and 30 to 200 kilometers (20 to 130 miles) from north to south. It is located between 6̊and 9̊south of the Equator, divided in East Java, Central Java and West Java and encompasses thin, fertile, densely populated coast plains and mountains and volcanos. They are a few remaining tracts of rain forest left but most of the land is cultivated, primarily for rice.. The climate is tropical. The wet season lasts from September to March and the dry season is from March to September. The mountains and plateaus are somewhat cooler than the lowlands.
Java is also one most geologically active places on earth. Of the 60 volcanos in Indonesia designated as dangerous enough to warrant having observation posts 30 are in Java. Smoke still emanates from 17 active volcanos on the island and Anuk Krakatau (son of Krakatau) about 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of Java. Some 20 peaks on Java rise above 10,000 feet, the highest being 12,060-foot Mount Semeru.
The volcanos have enriched Java with volcanic ash soil, which with the abundant rain found in most Java yields a wide variety of plant life and crops such as cloves, pepper, figs, jasmine and rattan palms. Wild animals found on Java include crocodiles, hornbills, eagles, cobras, pythons, leopards and wild pigs. Loss of habitat has led to the extinction of tigers and other animals on Java. Only a handful of Javanese rhinos remain.
Java’s productive soil has helped make it one of the densely populated places on earth. Over 60 percent of Indonesia's 270 million people live on Java, which occupies an area smaller than New York State and occupies only 6.9 percent of Indonesia (Java, Bali and Madura are home to nearly two thirds of the people). Some areas of Java have the highest rural densities in the world, with an average density of 1,600 people per square mile. Some areas it is much higher. Around the rural area of Modjokuto densities of 6,000 to 8,000 people per square miles have been recorded.
Because Java is so densely populated the rural areas have a urban quality to them.. Villages are often only a few hundred meters apart and usually no more than eight kilometers separates towns. The only cities with a true urban and industrial character are Jakarta, Surubaja and Semarang. Population growth combined with small and fragmented land holdings produce severe problems such as overcrowding and poverty.
The Javanese, Indonesia's largest ethnic group, make up 45 percent of the population of Indonesia. Five major languages are spoken in Java: 1 Javanese around Jakarta; 2) Indonesian in northwest and central Java; 3) Sundanese in southwest Java; 4) Madurese in northeast Java and nearby Madura island; and 5) Balinese in eastern Java and Bali. Each group has their culture and is regarded as an ethnic group.
Indonesia has traditionally been rule from Jakarta, which is located on Java. The Dutch had their headquarters there from 1611 to 1949. It also has become the center of Indonesia's industrial and economic boom. [Source: Kenneth MacLeish, National Geographic, January 1971]
Solo (65 kilometers northeast of Yogyakarta and 80 kilometers southeast of Semarang) and is connected to Jakarta and Surabaya by rail.) rivals Yogyakarta for the title of the most Javanese and culturally-rich city in Java. Home of the two royal houses, the Kratons and the Mangkunegrans which ruled Java surprisingly enough together, this city remains distinctively Central Javanese. The royal palaces are definitely worth visiting. Solo is one of the major centers of batik clothes. It is also known as the city that never sleeps. Vendors and food stalls are open 24 hours a day.
Solo (also known as Surakarta) is a medium-size city was founded in 1735 on a spot voices told sultan Pakubuwono II that Allah had decreed a great city. In 1745 the Mataram court was transferred here from Kotagede (now a district of Yogyakarta). For centuries its status was as high as that of Yogyakarta but during the independence struggle Yogyakarta emerged on top and remains in that position today. Solo has a reputation for being a hotbed for Muslim extremism. The Islamist the Al-Mukmim boarding school founded by Abu Bakar Bashir, an Islamist associated with many of the terrorist attacks in Indonesia including the Bali which left 202 people dead, is located here. In May 1998, there were two days of fierce rioting and looting here. In the 1960s many were killed in the crackdown on Communists.
Solo is home to about a half million people and is the trade center for the surrounding region that produces sugar, tobacco, and rice. The is well-known for its handicrafts, which include gold work and batik cloth; it also manufactures textiles, furniture, machinery, metal products, leather work, and cigarettes. As a cultural center is features quality gamelan music and wayang shadow puppet plays. There is a private university as well as an extension facility of the Islamic University of Indonesia that has a library and a museum.
King Sultan Pakubuwono XII is the last king of Solo. The descendant of a royal family that has lived in Solo since 1745, he was crowned in 1945 but served only one month. He inherited the thrones in the closing days of World War II but was unseated after Indonesia declared its independence. As of the late 1990s, Sultan Pakubuwono XII had closely cropped hair and liked to smoke menthol cigarettes. He had six wives and 37 children and occasionally presided over royal ceremonies and rituals. He preferred to spend his final days in a hotel coffee shop, where waitresses looked after him, rather the palace which he regarded as too secluded and ill kept.
Compared to Java’s other ‘court’ city, Yogyakarta, fewer travelers journey to Solo. While Solo is a densely populated city and many people live close together there are no high rise buildings, so this city has a community atmosphere that is difficult to find in any other city in Indonesia. The oldest part of Solo is centered around Kraton Sarakarta. Jl Slamet Riyadi is the main thoroughfare. Many hotels and restaurants are just off this tsreet. The train station is in the northern part of city about two kilometers from the city center. There is a good tourist office at Jl Slamet Riyadi 275.
Sights in Solo
Sights in Solo city include a Dutch fort, built in 1799 to resemble a Dutch town; and the walled palace of the sultan that is almost a city in itself. The two-century-old palace of King Pakubuwono in the Kraton has a beautiful art gallery and a collection of ancient Javanese weapons and royal heirlooms. Some of the buildings have European-style ornamentation. Some have been rebuilt after a large fire in 1985. Most are off limits to tourists. Many say its fun to ride a pushcart along the maze of white palace walls or take a becak ride through the old city.
The Mesjid Ageng or Grand Mosque is a magnificently large mosque in a unique design that blends Middle East and traditional Javanese architecture. Originally built in 1750, the mosque has become bigger and more majestic as Sunans have made their own additions and renovations over the years. This remains a place of active worship and is still used for royal ceremonies and festivals such as the Sekaten. Visitors are welcome outside of prayer times but are required to dress respectfully, remove their shoes, and wash before entering.
For visitors traveling with children, take in the fun and excitement of the Sriwedari Amusement Park with rides and entertainment sure to impress the young ones. The onsite theatre puts on nightly cultural shows including wayang kulit (shadow puppet performance) and wayang orang (live theatre).
Other sights include the Radya Pustaka Museum, with gamelans, jeweled kris daggers and puppets; the markets of Pasar, Kiwe, Pasar Triwindi and Pasar Gede; and Javanese-style Grand Mosque. The cultural offerings of Solo are arguably better than that of Yogyakarta There are about a dozen theaters, auditoriums and other venues that host puppet, dance, and gamelan performances. Gamelan performances in Solo are held at Mankunagaran Palace (and dance rehearsals) on Wednesday mornings; Sriwedair Amusement Park (with wyang ornag performances) in the evening; STSI (Sekolah Tinggo Seni Indonesia) and the Academy of Performing Arts.
Palaces of Solo
Solo has two palaces: 1) the Palace of the Sunan of Surakarta ; and 2) the Palace of Prince of Mangkunegara. The Palace of the Sunan of Surakarta — also called the Kraton Surakarta or Kasunanan — was built in 1745 and is a must see for any visitor to Solo. As you enter the grounds you will be immediately transported to a place where tradition governs daily life. While most of the woodwork in the keraton of Yogya is colored green, the dominating color in the court of Solo is sky blue. This is a unique cultural attraction not to be missed.
Visitors to the palace are requested to wear a samir or red and gold ribbon around their neck as a mark of respect. Walking through the palace, stop and look at the huge mirror whose inscription invites the visitor to examine their soul before being received by the King. You will see areas such as the keputren — an area reserved for the Sunan’s (Kings) daughters and wives where the only man permitted to enter is the Sunan himself. Unfortunately a fire in 1985 has meant that some sections of the palace have been rebuilt. A new pavilion now stands following ancient descriptions, dominated by bold red and gold colors.
The Mangkunegaran palace or Pura Mangkunegaran is the other royal palace of Solo. Set within lush gardens and European fountains, this palace was founded by a dissident prince, who in the 18th century, was awarded a portion of the Sunan’s (King’s) fiefdom to ensure he remained loyal to the Sunan. To symbolize the junior rank of the Mangkunegaran, the palace is set south of the Kasunanan palace.
The Mangkunegaran Palace (in the northern part of Solo) is regarded as exquisite representation of Javanese valor and determination against injustice, oppression and colonialism as well as being a fine piece of architecture. The palace is known as puri or pura (pronounced as “puro” in Javanese) and not the usual Javanese term “kraton” for a palace, since politically it was the palace not that of the ruling house, but of an independent kadipaten or district. Therefore, it bears slightly different characteristics compared to other Javanese palaces. Mangkunegaran is mainly distinguished by the absence of a public square with the classic pair of Banyan trees as typically found in Javanese main cities.
The royal residence of Prince Mangkunegara is in Puri Mangkunegara. Many say it is better than the Kraton Surakarta. It has lovely Javanese style architecture and an interesting collection of maskss and wayang orang costumes, images from the Japanese zodiac, gold-plated dresses used by royal dancers and a gold penis cover for the king and gold genital cover for the queen. Two sets of Javanese gamelans, musical instruments which are large enough to fill several rooms, perform on Wednesdays. Bird fly in and out of the rooms.
Shopping in Solo
The major markets are Pasar Klewer, Pasar Triwindi and Pasar Gede. Pasar Depok is Solo’s bird market. On sale here are parrots, chickens, doves, canaries, song birds and occasionally an owl or an eagle. Pasar Kleweris the biggest textile market in Java. It attracts people from all over the island and is a hive of activity. Many stall holders are from Arab and Muslim Indian descent giving the market a multi-cultural atmosphere. Shoppers go down aisle after aisle of tiny stalls piled high with with woven and printed cotton, linens, synthetics, and silks — most of them in batik prints.
Pasar Triwindu is a small yet chaotic flea market where, if you’re willing to search, shoppers can find pretty much anything and everything as long as it’s used or old. From old masks, wayangs, musical instruments and coins, this is a market filled with endless curiosities. Even if you’re not in the market for something, it’s worth a look to come here and browse at the collection of oddities on sale.
The central market of Solo is Pasar Gede, located in the Chinese district. Every day villagers pour in from the countryside to sell their produce here. Everything from vegetables, fruits, rice, coffee, dried fish, clothes and manufactured good is on sale here. This is a hot, crowded and cramped market where you will need to have your wits about you and your bargaining skills ready to get the best buys.
Accommodation and Getting to and Around Solo
While Solo is not as established as a tourist destination as Yogyakarta, there are a wide range of accommodation options available. A number of major hotel chains have establishments here including the Novotel and the Ibis. The Indah Palace hotel is a three star hotel located close to many of the landmarks in the city. A number of tour operators run tours which include visits to Solo and the surrounding area. These include Yogya tours, JavaAdventure, Jogjakarta Tour, Java Overland Tours
The handiest way to get around Solo is by becak. The compact size of the city means walking is an option however the streets are crowded and noisy and not well paved. Bicycles are a good option for those who are willing to brave the traffic and can be rented from tourist offices in town. For a more traditional experience, try renting a horse drawn carriage. Taxis are available though they can be difficult to find away from the main tourist areas. Rental cars and cars with drivers are available and can be organized through some of the bigger hotels in Solo.
Solo has a large airport, the Surakarta - Adi Sumarmo Wiryokusumo International Airport, which has daily flights to most major cities in Indonesia. International flights also fly from here to Malaysia and Singapore. AirAisa flies from Kuala Lumpur to Solo and SilkAir from Singapore. Domestic airlines that fly in and out of Solo include Garuda Indonesia, Lion Air, and Sriwijaya Air. The train goes regularly between Solo and Jakarta and the trip takes between 11-12 hours. The train continues to Surabaya. Night buses travel from Jakarta to Solo and take around 12 hours. From Yogya, you can travel to Solo by express minibus which takes around one hour. The cheaper but more crowded public buses also travel by this route.
Solo hosts an array of eateries which sell all kinds of Javanese food. Warungs here are open almost 24 hours so no matter what the time, you’ll never go hungry in Solo. Some popular dishes in Solo include: Ayam bakar — Barbequed chicken served with lalapan or raw vegetables; Pecel Cold cooked vegetables over rice with a spicy peanut sauce; and Kelapa muda utuh, a whole young coconut served with a straw, which makes a refreshing drink.
Gunung Lawu (near Solo) is a 3265-meter-high volcano and one of the holiest mountains in Java A number of Hindu temples were built on its slopes. It is still regularly visited by pilgrims and can be climbed. Tawangmangu (30 kilometers from Solo) is a hill station located at an elevation of 1,000 meters. A little further away is the Sukuh Temple which has stone carvings of Hindu origin and an ancient stepped pyramid which is reminiscent of Mayan temples in Latin America.
Sangiran: Home of Java Man
Sangiran (16 kilometers from Solo) is near where the skull of "Java Man" was found. A small museum is dedicated to the ancient fossil. The story of Java Man begins over a century ago. In 1890, when Eugene Dubois, a Dutch military physician and paleontologist discovered a fossilized primate jawbone at Trinil further east down the Solo river. This jawbone possessed distinctly human characteristics. Dubois was convinced that this was Darwin’s “missing link” in the evolution of man but lacked the evidence to prove his theory. Nearly 50 years later, Berlin-born paleontologist G H R von Koenigswald, unearthed the fossilized ‘Java Man’, homo erectus jawbone in Sangiran, which has been dated to be 1.8 million years old and is regarded as one of the most important fossils ever found..
It’s believed that Java man probably made his home in caves or in open camps and it’s likely that he was the first hominin that used fire. He also used stone axes and hand-adzes, most of which were discovered by the Baksoka River near Pacitan.The Sangiran area is rich in fossils of all types.
According to UNESCO: “Sangiran is one of the key sites for the understanding of human evolution. It illustrates the development of Homo sapiens sapiens from the Lower Pleistocene to the present through the outstanding fossil and artefactual material that it has produced. The archaeological site of Sangiran is situated 15 kilometers east of Solo. The geological stratigraphy of the Sangiran area covers 2 million years, from the late Pliocene to the recent periods. The Lower and Middle Pleistocene Ievels have produced considerable fossil and artefactual material. Fifty early human fossils (Pithecanthropus erectus/Homo erectus ) have been found, representing 50 percent of all the known hominid fossils in the world, together with numerous animal and floral fossils such as rhinoceros, elephant ivory, buffalo horn, deer horn and many others.
“Palaeolithic stone tools (Sangiran flakes) found at Ngebung include flakes, choppers and cleavers in chalcedony and jasper and, more recently, bone tools. The site has also produced Neolithic axes. This evidence indicates that hominids have inhabited the area for at Ieast 1.5 million years. The Palaeolithic tools can be dated to around 800,000 BP, and the sequence of cultural material from this period through to the Neolithic illustrates continuous evolution of man in relation to the ecosystem over a long period.
“The geology of the Sangiran Early Man Site is sedimentary in origin, beginning with the late Pliocene. It was deformed into a domed anticline by diaper intrusion. The summit was subsequently eroded by river action, turning it into a recessed, reversed dome. Early hominid fossils occur in successive formations, starting with the Pucangang (0.5-1.5 million years BP), but more particularly in the Kabuh (0.25-0.5 million years BP) and Notopuro (11,000-250,000 years BP). Nowadays, it is an unfertile hill and the region is now entirely devoted to peasant agriculture.
“Ever since von Koenigswald found flake tools in the Ngebung village in 1934, the site has made an immense contribution to the study of evolution over the past million years by illustrating the evolution of Homo erectus . Homo erectus is important to the study of the early history of mankind before the emergence of the modern Homo sapiens . Fossils of Homo erectus have been found from time to time in a site covering 8 kilometers by 7 kilometers since 1936 to the present day.
“Not only has the Sangiran site contributed to the understanding of the family tree of mankind, it has also thrown much light the evolution of culture, of animals, and of the ancient environment. Large quantities of human and animal fossils, along with Palaeolithic tools, have been found on the Sangiran site in a geological-stratigraphical series that has been laid down continuously for more than 2 million years.”
Things to See in Sangiran
Because of its proximity to the city of Solo, taxis or cars may be rented in Solo for the drive to the Sangiran museum. Buses also run from Solo to Sangiran. Today locals are eager to sell fossils, mostly of seashells. Though some of the fossils may be genuine, collecting and selling fossils is illegal so some of the residents have turned to making replicas for a living.
At the museum, learn about how prehistoric men might have lived millennia ago. The fossil shells and animal bones which are on display here range between 1.2 million and 500,000 years old. Also on display is an enormous 4-meter tusks from a stegodon which is estimated to have measured a staggering 11 meters from head to tail! At the Sangiran museum you can see replicas of the original Java man fossils and learn just how homo erectus was different from modern man.
Around 5 kilometers west of the museum stands a three-storey viewing tower where you can see around the Sangiran valley. You can also a visit the 48 archaeological site. Located by the Bengawan Solo river at the foot of Mt. Lawu, this site is rich in prehistoric fossils, which often lie exposed in the fields after heavy storms.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Indonesia Tourism website ( indonesia.travel ), Indonesia government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Updated in August 2020