Archaeologically speaking, Central Java is by far the richest part of the vast Indonesian archipelago. This is mostly due to a single kingdom, Mataram, which flourished when Europe was in the Dark Ages. Apparently some 280 ancient temple foundations have been located in the province, and it is believed that many more are buried under the volcanic soils of this geothermally active region. And the kings of Mataram were not just prolific temple builders; they were also artistically inspired. They left a stunning architectural legacy which includes two of the region’s finest monuments, Prambanan and Borobudur.
Though these temples are scattered as far west as Mount Slamet, near the edge of the Javanese cultural realm, by far the greatest concentration is in the area around Yogyakarta. There are more than 100 temple foundations in the Yogyakarta area, meaning that it was probably the centre of Mataram at least for part of the history of that kingdom. The area also includes the single greatest temple complex of the Mataram kings, Candi Prambanan, and the impressive palace complex of Ratu Boko, which was inhabited over a period of seven centuries. This indicates that this part of Java, which is regarded as a repository of authentic Javanese culture to this day, has been a ceremonial centre for the Javanese for the past 1200 years.
In recent years domestic tourism has been booming in Indonesia, and many locals have been taking a much greater interest in cultural tourism. This is a promising sign, and it holds out some hope that the long and sorry neglect of Indonesian cultural remains might finally becoming to an end. Since 2010 two major temple complexes in Central Java have been restored. One was Candi Merak, in the regency of Klaten, just outside Yogyakarta but an even more impressive temple is Candi Ijo, literally the Green Temple.
Candi Ijo has by far the highest altitude of any temple in the Yogyakarta area, set just below the peak of a 427 metre-high hill, with remarkable views across the plains. The panoramic views it affords are likely to make this an increasingly popular tourist sight in the coming years, and I expect that once word of it has got out, it will become a regular feature on the Yogya tourist circuit. Long an overgrown ruin, it has now been completely restored, making it much more photogenic for the average tourist.
The original conception of the temple was as a whole cultural landscape, with terraces and pavilions set on 11 different levels up the hillsides. These might have been resting places for pilgrims to Candi Ijo, with them praying and meditating at each level on their way up to the main sanctuary. Nowadays nothing much remains of these temples on the terraces. Most of them are little more than temple bases, but there are enough traces of reliefs and statues to reveal that they were once much more substantial structures. Most visitors these days just completely ignore these lesser ruins and head straight for the main temple complex on the peak.
This complex features one candi induk (Mother Temple) and three candi pewara (satellite temples), all set in a row. The main temple has a square design, measuring 13 metres squared, with an impressive projecting porch. Within the cella is a large yoni and lingga, indicating that this was a Shivaite shrine. The whole structure is topped by a sloping pyramidal roof, which must have given the sense of a man-made mountain to the ancients. This, of course, was no coincidence; Hindu temples were intended as a symbolic representation of Mount Meru, the abode of the gods. It is also worth checking out the side walls, which feature elegant niches topped with delicate carving.
It is also worth paying careful attention to the satellite temples (candi pewara). For many years they were in a very dilapidated state, but they have now been thoroughly restored, and are just as beautiful as the main temple. These elegant buildings bring to mind the shrines of the Dieng Plateau, the kala-makhara arches around the doorways offering crisp and intricate carving. Moreover, the interior of one of them offers a pleasant surprise: an intact statue of Nandi, the mount of Shiva. This is the best remaining piece of sculpture at Candi Ijo. Whether you come here for the views or the ancient art, this has now emerged as a major sight in the Yogya area.