About one and a half years ago, we were all shocked into disbelief as the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic, and life as we knew it was abruptly turned upside down. In the ensuing months, we adopted new habits so that we could at least live our lives as close to “normal” as possible. We wear masks, wash our hands more frequently, bring hand sanitizer everywhere, keep a safe distance from others, and take other precautions. For those of us who love to travel, we try to adapt to the new reality by visiting more local places, nearby cities, and the great outdoors right in our doorstep that we have long ignored. And for those of us who love to travel and blog, the pandemic has also forced us to dig into our memory and look for old photos from past travels which, for one reason or another, have never been published.
I myself use these crazy times we’re currently going through to visit my hometown more often, and thanks to the multiple visits I did last year, my appreciation for the city where I was born has grown considerably. However, unlike many of you who have been exploring city parks, forests, hills, mountains, as well as lakes near where you live, I have yet to check out the many options for outdoor adventure around Jakarta – waterfalls, volcanoes, and small tropical islands to name a few. What I have been doing instead is looking up photos stored in my hard drive, not only to relive the good memories, but also to see if there are images whose stories I have yet to tell.
Then I came across a few photos I took in Yogyakarta back in 2015 when James and I were traveling for six months across Southeast and South Asia to retrace some of the old spice routes that connected places across the Indian Ocean. I took most of these previously-forgotten shots from some museums in the city, and now I’ll let them take the much-deserved spotlight.
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Located inside the Borobudur temple complex just outside Yogyakarta is the Samudra Raksa Museum where a life-size replica of a ship depicted on some of the eighth-century Buddhist shrine’s relief panels is housed. People living in the Indonesian islands have a long history of maritime exploration, not only around Southeast Asia, but also across the Indian Ocean all the way to Madagascar. Genetic, linguistic, and archaeological research led to the conclusion that seafarers from the southeastern part of Borneo might have been the first modern human settlers of the world’s fourth largest island – a relatively unknown place which was made famous by the 2005 animation movie titled the island-nation’s namesake. However, one of the most perplexing questions was how could the shipbuilding skills of these people and the technology they mastered back then bring a large number of humans through perilous voyages across the world’s third largest ocean to arrive safely on an island off the coast of southeastern Africa?
That was what the centerpiece of the Samudra Raksa Museum’s collection – the reconstructed Borobudur ship – sought to answer. It took six months to finish the double outrigger sail ship, painstakingly built using eighth-century technology. And on August 15, 2003, it embarked on an expedition from Jakarta to the Seychelles, then onwards to the eastern coast of Madagascar. Two months later, it arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, before continuing its journey all the way to Accra, Ghana on the west coast of the continent. In total it took the ship around seven months to complete all four legs of the voyage, a success that was highly celebrated in Indonesia for it proved that it was indeed possible to sail from Southeast Asia to Africa using only outrigger boats. In 2005 – a year after the completion of the expedition – this replica of the Borobudur ship found a new home in an airy hall of the newly-built Samudra Raksa Museum, just a few hundred meters north of the magnificent ancient temple.
At the heart of Yogyakarta, the Sonobudoyo Museum houses cultural and historical items that are smaller in size but greater in variety than those of the Samudra Raksa Museum. Often cited as having one of the largest collections of artifacts in Indonesia – only Jakarta’s National Museum has more – Sonobudoyo’s history dates back to the Dutch colonial era. In 1919, Java Instituut was founded to promote the conservation of the cultures of Java, Madura, Bali and Lombok. Then in 1924, the institute decided that a museum was needed to further support its effort to create an inventory of cultures from the four islands. Eventually, in 1934 construction began and the museum was inaugurated a year later.
While its collection is massive, there were some pieces I found most intriguing on my visit six years ago. The section chronicling Java’s transformation from prehistoric times, to centuries of Hindu/Buddhist domination, Islamic proselytization, and the introduction of Christianity has interesting items one might never expect to see. Apart from statuettes conceived when the ancient Javanese were still an animistic society, idols from the Hindu/Buddhist pantheon discovered all over Java also call this museum home. But what caught my attention the most was the fact that in addition to different forms of Shiva, Vishnu and Ganesha displayed in this decades-old institution, there was also a small idol of Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice who, despite her roots in animistic Java, is depicted in a similar manner as a Hindu/Buddhist deity.
In another part of the museum, a number of blencong (highly-decorated oil lamps) find their place amid a plethora of tools and instruments a dalang (puppeteer) needs to hold a wayang kulit – Javanese shadow puppet – performance. While this kind of lamp has no genie in it, it is by no means less fascinating for it’s one of the cultural objects from the Hindu/Buddhist period that survive to this day, centuries after most of Java converted to Islam. Wayang kulit itself, despite its Hindu origin, was used by Java’s Muslim saints – most notably Sunan Kalijaga – to spread the teachings of Islam to the local populace in a peaceful way. When Christianity was introduced to Java as a direct result of European colonization, wayang kulit was also used by Christian missionaries to teach the gospels in a manner the locals wouldn’t find too foreign. At Sonobudoyo Museum, wayang kulit created based on characters from the Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana are under the same roof with those inspired by the Bible. From Dewi Sri, to blencong and wayang kulit, this is yet another example of Javanese culture’s plasticity in absorbing new influences without completely abandoning old ones, as I have mentioned earlier in a post on a church in Yogyakarta.
While both the Samudra Raksa and the Sonobudoyo museums have invaluable artifacts, they are in one way or another managed by the government – the former is part of a state-owned enterprise which runs the Borobudur and Prambanan temple compounds, while the latter is directly under the provincial government of Yogyakarta. And as far as government-owned museums go, lack of funding and unnecessary bureaucracy often place a great burden on the day-to-day operations of such institutions, which usually results in a lack of appeal in the eyes of the younger generation. And that’s what our next museum tries to address.
Ullen Sentalu Museum is a private museum situated on the slopes of Mount Merapi – Java’s most active volcano – to the north of Yogyakarta. Inaugurated in 1997, what has now become one of the region’s most reputable cultural institutions was envisaged by its founders as a place to promote Javanese intangible heritage to the young and a general audience who were otherwise more familiar with pop culture. Amassing collections from the Vorstenlanden – four Javanese monarchies that once formed the united Islamic Mataram dynasty – the museum showcases the rich, delicate and complicated world of Javanese culture in a relatively more engaging way. Apart from its private ownership, what’s also different about this place compared to the other two I’ve mentioned earlier is its prohibition on taking photos within the premises, except at an open-air space where an enlarged, slanted replica of a relief panel from Borobudur stands at one end. The unusual angle is purportedly intentional to subtly criticize young Javanese for their lack of interest in their own cultural heritage (I myself am gradually learning more of the culture of my ancestors only as I get older).
Another private museum we visited in 2015 was the Affandi Museum, which looked more like an art gallery showcasing the eponymous artist’s works who happened to be one of Indonesia’s most celebrated expressionists. The self-taught painter who had shown deep interest in drawing since he was young, started out as a naturalist. But over the years, he then gradually developed his distinct style of expressionism where he would squeeze paint tubes directly onto a canvas and used his fingers as a brush. His unique character and eccentric technique helped him gain prominence not only in Indonesia, but also abroad, as his works found their way to exhibition halls in India, Europe and the US, among other places. Meanwhile back in Indonesia, his humble abode in Yogyakarta was slowly transformed into what is now a museum with an architectural design that is a rather unusual – just like the artist himself.
The last stop in our museum-hopping trip across this province was the Mount Merapi Museum with its arresting appearance from the outside and the magnificent volcano after which the museum was named in the background – only if conditions are clear enough for you to see it. But when you go inside, you’ll know immediately that it’s another place managed by the government. It was obvious that it was struggling a little with its upkeep: there were holes in some parts of the ceiling and a few interactive exhibits appeared to have been out of order for quite some time. However, this museum did provide us with a lot of information about Merapi’s past eruptions from scientific perspective, its impact on the local population, and necessary risk mitigation to anticipate future eruptions. This museum is a reminder of volcanoes’ duality: their destructive power wipes out everything in their path, but once the inferno has passed, a fresh new layer of soil will allow plants to regrow and the land is kept perennially fertile by these titans.
Back in the city, after absorbing all the new knowledge we’d learned from visiting those museums, we found ourselves in the dimly lit Alun-Alun Kidul – one of Yogyakarta’s two main public squares. That night, it became a playground for residents and tourists alike, and the existence of brightly-lit odong-odong only added to the merry atmosphere. Families and friends would rent the motorless vehicles and hit the pedal to drive it around the main street that encircles the square in a relaxed and steady pace. Although we didn’t try it ourselves, I imagine it to be a nice way for people to unwind from the day’s stress and forget about the constant danger posed by a nearby volcano. It was just another uneventful night in this city at the heart of Java, so steeped in rich history and culture that I always find myself returning here again and again.