Yogyakarta and the Ramayana Ballet

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It has been awhile since I have been to the ballet. I think the last time was the San Francisco Ballet’s version of the Nutcracker, a lovely production Rebecca and I attended in an effort to relive her childhood Christmas tradition. I cannot say that I am usually a huge fan of the ballet; I’m not a dancer, so I usually just end up falling asleep to the music. But yesterday, in Yogyakarta on the island of Java, the Ramayana ballet we attended exceeded my expectations and rounded out nicely our mixed visit to Yogyakarta.

We originally came to Yogyakarta in order to see Borobudur, the largest Buddhist monument in the world. I admit I was not keen on the idea of visiting what I anticipated would be another temple, after what has at times felt like the temple (and mosque) tour of Southeast Asia. We have seen Buddhist and Hindu temples in every country we have visited and are now pretty good at identifying when a temple was built and which culture’s influences are present. So for Borobudur, I hoped I would be seeing something entirely different.

It was impressive, though I cannot say it was necessarily a highlight of our trip. It is a monument, not a temple, lacking an internal area where people can hang out and pray as in a temple. Instead, it consists of a number of levels of bas reliefs that tell a story. You are supposed to start at one end, go counterclockwise around it, and follow the tale up the side to the top. To avoid multiple school groups trying to get tourists to help them practice their English, we went against the grain and “read” the story backwards. The top level features the bell-shaped stone carvings that distinguish Borobudur architecturally from other religious sites throughout the rest of Asia, highlighting its Javanese influences. And as a nice reward, you are treated to a beautiful view of the countryside and mountains surrounding the complex.

The Borobudur tour took us less time than expected, so we wound up with some extra time that day  We walked around Yogyakarta and had a leisurely lunch, which provided us with a nice respite from the heat and humidity. Later, we decided to visit the city’s other major temple, Prambanan, an old Hindu temple where they do regular performances of the famous Ramayana legend. We took a cab to try to get there before it closed, but we just missed it and settled for a quick walk around the outside. After buying our tickets for that night’s ballet performance, we had a lovely buffet dinner and waited for the show.

The show was great. Beautiful colorful costumes, strange Gamelan music, and highly entertaining choreography combined to tell the first of four episodes of the Hindu epic. I was able to follow the story for the most part, even though it was completely foreign to me. I took a bunch of videos and photographs of the most interesting parts (that I will post on Flickr someday), enjoying every strange minute. It was a great cultural experience unlike anything we had attended elsewhere and gave us a nice introduction to Indonesian dance.

The Ramayana ballet performance redeemed Yogyakarta from the realm of disappointing. We found Yogyakarta to be a little abrasive; the tourist section where we were staying had lots of pushy bike taxis, people stared at us (or worse) constantly, and it wasn’t a very interesting city overall. Our visit to the palace on our first day was consumed by loads of schoolchildren accosting us in order to practice their English (more on that in another post). On our last day, we attended a shadow puppet show that was, predictably, strange. The food situation wasn’t ideal. But the ballet, and its night-lit backdrop of the Prambanan temple area, was absolutely worth the trip.

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