The broad, green crescent of fertile ricelands that blankets Mt. Merapi’s southern flanks – with the historic city of Yogyakarta as its focal point – is today inhabited by about 10 million Javanese. Rural population densities here soar above 1,000 people per sq km (2,500 per square mile) and in some areas a sq km of land feeds an astounding 2,00 people (5,00 per sq mile), under the most labour intensive cultivation conditions found on earth.
The area also embrances a seemingly disproportionate number of cultural attractions. The somber stillness of its beautiful Hindu and Buddhist tmples, from the 18th to the 10th centuries, is found again in the sequestered countryards of is 18th century Islamic palaces, where the liquid cadences of the stately Central Javanese gamelan provide a measured counterpoint to the boisterous clamour of colourful city streets and crowded village markets.
Most of the “official” tourist sights are concentrated in and around the twin court cities of Yogyakarta (Jogja) and Surakarta (Solo), for it was here, on the well irrigated banks of several adjancent rivers, that Cnetral Java’s two great Mataram empires flourished. The role of the Javanese courts as cultural “centres of gravity” – taxing has long been recognised, but their vast catalogue of artistic wealth has only begun to be explored.
Though it was founded only in 1755, the sprawling city of Yogyakarta (pop. 500,000) is situated at the very core of an ancient region knowns as Mataram – site of the first great Central Javanese empires. From the 18th until the early 10th centuries, this fertile, sloping plain between the Progo and the Opak Rivers, was ruled by a succession of Indianized kings the builders of Borobudur, Prambanan and other elaborate stone monuments. In about 982, however, these rulers suddenly and inexplicably shifted their capital to eastern Java, and for more than six centuries thereafter Mataram remained relatively deserted.
At the end of the 16th century, the area was revived a new Islamic power based at Kota Gede, just to the east of present day Yogyakarta. This New of Second Mataram dynasty was founded around 1584 by Panembahan Senopati, and his descendants have ruled Central Java up until the present day, though with widely varying degrees of power and influence.
Muslim Mataram achieved its greatest territorial extent under Senopati’s grandson. Sultan Agung (r. 1613 – 45), but there after became embroiled in an endless series of bitter and bloody disputes that involved not only rival court factions, but the Dutch and the Madurese as well. In 1689, following the sacking of Mataram by Madurese forces, the capital was moved 50 kms (30 miles) to the east, to the basin of the Solo River near present day Surakarta. The intrigues and fighting continued however and peace was finally archieved only after the kingdom was literally rent in two. By the Dutch negotiated Treaty of Giyanti (1755), the Mataram ruler’s rebellious brother was given half of the lands, appanages and incomes of the court, and the new ruler, now styling himself Sultan Hamengkubowono I (r. 1749 – 92), proceeded to construct an elaborate palace complex near the graves of his dynastic forebears, at Yogyakarta.
The subsequent history of the Yogyakarta sultanate is notably one of resistance to ever increasing colonial influence in Central Java. The court was twice invaded for failure to comply with colonial instructions – once by the Dutch in 1810 and again by the British in 1812. It was thereafter swept up in a vortex of violence during the Great Java War of rebelion (1825 – 30), led by the charismatic crown prince4 of the Yogyakarta ruling family, Pangeran Dipanagara.
In more recent times, Yogyakarta served as the capital of the beleguered Indonesian republic for four long years during the revolution against the Dutch, from January, 1946 until December 1949. This was a time of extraordinary social ferment when 6 million refugees, more than 1 million young fighters and an enlightened young Sultan (Hamengkubuwono IX), tranformed the venerable court city into a hotbed of revolutionary zeal and idealism.
In many ways, Yogyakarta is still young and restless, despite her traditional Javanese past. Gajah Mada University was founded here during the revolution and is now the largest and one of the most respected schools in the nation.
–> Read Also : Yogyakarta – Yogyakarta’s Heart