Over 100 million people live here on an island the size of England, which means that the population density (800 per sq km/2,000 per sq mile) is at least double that of any other are of comparable extent on the planet.
Beyond sheer weight of numbers, however, the Javanese also posses a rich historical record and a unique cultural heritage, Java’s dance and dramatic traditions, wayang puppets, gamelan music and batik textiles are famous the world over, as are her ancient temples and elegant palaces.
The island’s physical beauty is ;ess widely renowned, perhaps, but no less captivating. From the tropical rainforests of Ujung Kulon, to the alpine meadows of Mt. Gede Pangrango, to the black sand dunes of Parangtritis and the unforgettable moonscapes of Mt. Bromo – Java has a private place for almost everyone.
The Garden of The East: Since ancient times, Java has been known as a lush island paradise. Rich volcanic soils, watered by the yearly monsoonal rains and baked by the equatorial sun, produce what must once have been (before man felled it) the world’s most luxuriant tropical rainforest – a trangle of exotic flowers, palms, fruits, ferns, lianas, epiphytes and towering hardwood tress.
For thousands of years, this was the land of the rhinoceros (badak), the Javan tiger, the wild ox (banteng), the mousedeer (kancil) and the Javan gibbon, which together with numerous palm civets, flying foxes, coconut squirrels, monitor lizards, crocodiles, phytons, hornbills, kingfishers, egrets, terns, starlings and peacoks, still inhabit the island’s few remaining jungle refuges. The great naturalist Alferd Russel Wallace was so struck by the abundance and dizzying diversity of floral and faunal types on Java, that the proclaimed it, “that noble and fertile island – the very Garden of the East.”
Physically, Java is distinguished by her many volcanos, and indeed volcanoes are such a dominant feature of the Javan Landscape that one of the island’s 121 cones is nearly always within view – its weathered, blue grey outline rising majestically sjyward, commonly to a height of 3,000 to 4,000 metres (10,000 to 13,000 feet): Approximately 30 of these behemoths are still active, and in several parts of the island they produce cauldrons of bubbling mud (solfataras), vented jets of gas (fumaroles) and hot sulphur springs. Every few years, a subterranean convulsion produces massive eruptions of ash and lava, unleashing poisonous gases, clouds of scoreching dust (ladoes) and avalanches of boiling mud (lahars) which wipe out entires villages, sometimes killing hundreds and rendering thousands homeless.
Yet despite their awesome destructiveness volcanic eruptions are in fact the ultimate source of Java’s legendary fecundity. Fow while volcanic ejecta in many parts of the world is acidic, here it is chemically basic, rich in soluble plant nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, nitrogen and phosphorus.
Thus the thousands of tons of ash periodically spewn into the atmosphere and onto the surrounding countryside with such devastating results, are actually a blessing in disguise. Where the ash settles, or is lates transported by the vigorous action of monsoonal rains, the soils are fertilized to an extraodinary degree.
Geologically, the island and her volcanoes are exceptionally young. They began to form only 2 to 3 million years ago (Upper Plioncene/Lower Pleistocene times), as result of tectonic pressures along a major fault between two rigid plates of the earth’s crust. Soft sedimentary rocks resting over the fault were folded and uplifted, so that the island’s basic structure consists of two almost parallel lengthwise folds, seperated by a deep medical through which is narrow in the west and broadens to the east, eventually submerging in the Straits of Madura.
It is through this medial through that most of Java’s volcanoes have thrust upwards, erecting a lofty array of praks and sculpting the lowlands generally with deposite of igneous material. In the west, closely packed festoons of volcanoes have created a tangle of uplands and two large basins (Bandung and Garut), that remained relatively isolated from the rest of the island until Dutch raods and railways opened them for cultivation in the 19th century.
In the central and eastern regions, the greater width of the through and the 30 to 50 km (20 to 30 miles) spacing of the major volcanic clusters produced interstitial valleys, which have hosted, since very early times, one of the great civilizations of humankind. These valleys are separated from the north coast by the folded Kendeng range, and from the Indian Ocean by a band of elevated limestone plateau, but internal communication among them is not seriously hindered and today each has developed large urban centres (Yogyakarta, Surakarta, Madiun, Kediri and Malang).
Given the ideal agricultural and climatic conditions found on the island, it is now surprise that Java has been populated and cultivated for centuries. After all, this is where the world’s first Homo erectus or “Java Man” fossils were discovered. (See “Pre History”.) What is remarkable, however, is the enermous population that it now supports. This is a fairly recent phenomenon, largely the result of 19th century Dutch colonial policies.
Around 1800, it is estimated that Java had about 3,5 million inhabitants – a figure kept low by frequent wars and famines, but one which had nevertheless remained relatively stable since the time of the great Hindeu – Budha empires a millennium earlier. Wet rice cultivation has always, of course, formed the basis for Javanese civilization, and as long as the population was still fairly small and only the choicest land was tilled, the Javanese were able to produce vast surpluses.
The earlies rulers of Java based their power upon the resources which surplus rice afforded, provisioning armies of warriors and laboures to do their bidding. Later, with the general increase in world commerce during Hindu and Islamic times, surplus rice was shipped overseas and traded, often passing through several hands, but always bringing a wealth of precious metals, gems, textiles, ceramics and manufactured goods home of to Java from abroad.
All of this changed dramatically following the intervention of the Dutch in Javanese economic and political affairs, culminating with the institution, from 1830 to 1870, of the infamous Cultivation System (Cultuurstelsel) of forced labour and land use taxes. Under this syste,, more and more Javanese lands were opened to cultivation, the products of which the Dutch sold at such a handsome profit overseas.
An unforeseen side effect of these colonial policies was uncontrollable Javanese growth. By 1900, the population had soared by 28 million amd today it stands at about 110 million.
Not everyone on the island is Javanese. In the uplands of West Java, the inhabitants are mainly Sundanese, a people with their own language and identity. The Javanese themsleves constitute about two thoirds of the total population and inhabit the fertile plains of Central and East Java plus much of the island’s northern coast, with the exception of the island of Madura and the adjoining shores of East Java – home of the Madurese people. There are, in addition, small pockets of Tenggerese and Badui peoples living in isolated highland sanctuaries at the far eastern and western ends of Java respectively. Lasty, the trading ports of the north Java coast also harbour cosmopolitan communities of immigrant Chinese, Arab and European of the Indonesian archipelago.
Each group has its own heritage, language and culture – the capital city of Jakarta has in fact become sich a melting pot that Indonesians no longer consider it a part of Java (which is why it is treated separately here). Although Bahasa Indonesia, the Indonesian national language (a variant of Malay), is the lingua franca throughout the island, in most towns and villages, day to day conversations are still carried on in Sundanesem Javanese and Madurese.
Culturally, Java is also a giant pot pourri. There is a repertoire of dances, drama and compedy which drwas its inspiration alternatively from the Hindu epics, from the exploits of Islamic warriors, and from the tales of ancient Javanese folk hereos. There are mosque where whit – capped hajis finger their prayer beads, Chinese temples where stone lions guard the gates, and chusrches where choirs sing. There are trance rituals whose origins are as misty as mankind’s own beginnings and puppets in leather and wood who entrance local audiences through all night performances. More than that, there is amusic of gongs and chimes which is as glistening and fluid as quicksilver, yet as textured as the face of the land. “See “Dance and Drama” and “Gamelan”).
An island of such depth and complexity naturally has a darker side to its personality. No country in the world, after hundreds of years of domination y a foreign power, has ever been able tpo achieve social and economic justice in a quarter of a century. And , it would be ridiculous to suggest taht over populated Java is without its problems. The distance between the privileged and the poor is obvious. There is a need for more jobs, schools and medical facilities. And there are sign of youthful alienation and religious discontent – an overt rejection of older communal and cultural values, and at the same time a dissatisfaction with newer imported ones.
Yet despite these social and economis problems, there is an underlying current of hopefulness. Desperate people cannot laugh with the spontaneity of the Javanese nor can they find real pelasure in simple things. Least of all can they be as generous in action and in spirit as the people of Java.
Java is a wonderful place for the explorer who wants to get off the beaten track. The arrival of a foreigner in remote towns and villages is an entertainment, an event which adds spice and flavour to an otherwise ordinary day. Yopu’ll be greeted with shrill cries of “Londo, Londo” (which originally meant “Hollander” and now applies to any palaface). A boisterous crowd of children trail after you down village paths screaming “Hallo Mister”. Eyes fix on you as you tuck into a plate of fried rice at a food stall. Giggles, cheekiness and laughter follow.
Sometimes, tired and fretful after the rigours of a journey, you may feel like screaming. And often, when voices are raised and tempers fray, it is a frenetic Westerner who is at fault – not in tune with the gentle flow of Javanese time, but obsessed with the seconds, minutes and hours of schedules. The average Westerner, enmeshed in a private world, also shrinks from physical contact. The Javanese do not. A seat meant for two will always take three, buttocks to thigh. Proximity means friendliness and warmth; people are people.
So, though you may already have a long list of temples, dances and places that you want to see, or may quickly develop one while reading through the pages taht follow, keep in mind that it is a mistake to try to do too much on Java – to keep yourself on a rapid fire itinerary of planes, trains, tourbuses, sights and performance. Take a few days off instead and retreat for hikes in the cool mountains; or visit the secluded south shore; or tour the north coast – as yet virtually undiscovered by tourists; or seek out one of the several dozen more rarely visited Hindu temples on the island.
But above all, take your time, for in Java, perhaps more than in any place else in the world, the travel experience offers the chance. You will find yourself engulfed in a world of extraordinary variety and vitality. You may also become the happy victim of a great and enduring passionfor one of the world’s last bastions of serendipity.