Cultural relics are fragile things. Even the most formidable ones, the temples and palaces and castles of the world, were most likely at one point or another in a state of disrepair; crumbling edifices robbed of their allure and lying on the brink of irrelevance. Nowhere was this fragility more evident than in Yogyakarta, the cultural heart of the Indonesian island of Java. Lying just outside its city limits is Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in world which, barely over a century ago, was buried under the jungle, vines and roots being the only things roaming its once revered corridors. Despite its past troubles though, Borobudur, and the other tangible aspects of our history and culture, are mostly restored now and kept up meticulously in the spirit of the modern tourism industry.
Inside the city limits of Jogja, the colloquial name for the city, where the more intangible aspects of the island’s culture – music, art and tradition – resided, a different story was playing out. For, while the maintenance of temples and the like rely on the services of bountiful and steady professions like construction workers and engineers, the arts require a much more specialized and often unrewarded profession, the artisan, to maintain their upkeep. As we experienced the making of the region’s famous shadow puppet and batik, a traditional style of clothing, and took in musical performances and puppet shows, we couldn’t help but notice that all of their purveyors were middle-aged or beyond. While we thoroughly enjoyed our experiences with the ancient art forms, we wondered what would happen to them within generations. Like languages without anyone left to speak them, would they simply just disappear?
To get around the city, we would use another cultural relic, this one unwavering in the face of time: public transportation. In Jogja, this came in the form of the endearing becak, a bicycle-powered rickshaw so omnipresent on the streets of the city that they could be found simply by opening one’s eyes and looking in any direction. For us, we didn’t even have to step foot outside of our hotel to spot one as two were parked just outside its front door.
Inside one of the becak’s colorful carriages, under the shade of a tattered awning hanging overhead, sat a gangly man lazily rifling through a newspaper. As we approached him to inquire about taking us around the city, he seemed almost hesitant to oblige, not wanting to abandon his relative comfort to peddle two strangers around the sweltering streets of the city. Over the course of the next several days, as he took us from site to site around Jogja, we would learn his name, Adi, as well as other various tidbits about his life and personality. For example, he was a father of two, had learned his impressive level of English simply by listening to client’s conversations and communicating with them what he could, and had witnessed the eruption of a nearby volcano in 2010, the accounts of which he told with such a casual nonchalance that you could have mistaken his tone for describing the process of drying paint. He would also end up being one of the most genuinely kind people we would come across for the entirety of our time in Indonesia, which made us quite happy to have him as our guide.
For our first two days in Jogja, the services of Adi and his becak would only be needed to take us to nearby bus stops where we would take various buses to the nearby ruins of Borobudur and Prambanan. For our third day in the city, Adi took us to see two of the region’s other claims to fame: the processes behind making batik, a kind of dyed fabric, and wayang, or shadow puppets.
To understand the cultural importance of batik to Indonesia and especially the island of Java, one has to look no further than the fact that the country has an airline named after it, Batik Air, a National Batik Day, and its own version of casual Friday in which workers are encouraged to wear batik to work. After witnessing the process of batik making at a small factory near our hotel and seeing the end result, it was easy to see why it had such fanfare.
While the free tour was enjoyable, the free part of it weighed heavily on our minds throughout and our worst nightmares came to fruition as the tour ended in a gift shop where every glance of our eye was pounced upon by a slew of shop assistants who assured us with suspicious frequency that whatever item we had happened to take an interest in was handmade by the artisans we had just seen on our tour. While we were no batik experts, we were fairly certain that the multitude of shirts and tapestries were not made in house as the shop reeked of mass-production, an idea furthered by the fact that every item in it was encased in plastic and had dozens of identical replicas. Before starting the tour, Adi had warned us not to buy anything, advice we had no problem heeding.
From one process to another, our next stop was to see how the wayang was made. Much like the batik factory, we were issued a guide upon arriving who explained each step in the making of the shadow puppets.
As we watched the various artisans meticulously and flawlessly perform the intricate tasks behind the making of each puppet, we were reminded by our guide that he too was an artist. While some of the others used paintbrushes and chisels as their tools, he wielded his mouth, which he used masterfully to create a kind of verbal art that we found just as fascinating as the making of the wayang.
Our last stop of the day was Taman Sari, a once sprawling palace complex used for relaxation and retreat by the Javanese sultans in the 18th century. There, we braved the debilitating heat to explore one of the only remaining parts of the original structure: the baths. Once used as a place for the sultan to observe concubines before choosing one as his companion for the day, the grounds were now filled with revelers of a different kind, tourists. As we walked around the compound, we found ourselves staring longingly at the baths, whose cool waters and bubbling fountains served as a different kind of temptation: an escape from the midday sun that, unlike the concubines, would remain forbidden.
The next day, our last in Jogja, would be highlighted by our trip to the Kraton Palace. While the palace itself wasn’t very impressive, the cultural performances put on there were. Not having been able to see a wayang performance the night before due to it being a national holiday, we were pleased to find that the show being put on at the palace that day was a puppet show. Sadly, it wouldn’t feature the shadow puppets we were so hoping to see in action, but another kind endemic to the island, the wooden puppet.
As we watched the telling of the Ramayana story, our inability to understand the words being spoken in no way diminished our enjoyment of the show. Colorful beings danced and floated effortlessly on the stage to the beat of the smooth and sure voice of the dalang. Behind the scenes, a gamelan orchestra played a hypnotically soothing melody that made us wonder how anyone could possibly stay awake for an eight hour show, let alone one that took place overnight.
Because Javanese puppet shows, both shadow and wooden, can be enjoyed from either in front of the stage or behind it, we decided to go behind the dalang to see the source of the music. There, an ensemble of musicians gently tapped away at their instruments which seemed far too large to be making such a gentle sound. The hands making that sound, which, as frequently as the music allowed, would replace the grip of their mallets with that of a cigarette, were noticeably aged. As we trailed the plumes of smoke up to the faces of the musicians, many of them looked as if this was more of a retirement gig than a career which made us wonder anew what the culture of Jogja would look like in another decade or two. Sure the palace would still be standing, as would the other structures we had seen, but would music still be filling its halls and puppets still dancing to the enjoyment of others?
It was with great relief then that, while writing this blog, we discovered that UNESCO, which famously designates certain tangible sites like temples as integral parts of culture, began designating the intangible aspects of it as well. They did so out of a fear that things like batik making and wayang shows could very well disappear as the world became more and more globalized, social structures changed, and younger generations began seeking careers outside that of the unstable one of artisan. To get designated, a country must provide a detailed plan of how they will preserve the art form they want to protect and, in return, get funding and support from UNESCO. For a city as rich with culture as Jogja, it was reassuring to know that both the tangible and intangible aspects of its heritage would continue to be interwoven into the fabric of the city for generations to come.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
What we cannot faithfully communicate,
Art alludes to what words elude.
in art, as in speech,
it still may not convey
You must search for the meaning,
Take the wayang.
Every inch is a symbol.
Each burst of color
is a burst of meaning,
about the nature of humans.
Yet, it hides
behind a screen.
Displaying its truth