Javanese mythology is a very important element of the vibrant Jogjakarta culture. In fact, these myths have withstood an even longer time than the ancient temples and palaces ruins that are scattered around the city. If you are planning a tour in Yogyakarta, or simply curious, we have uncovered 7 of the most interesting (and some spooky!) local folktales for you!
1. Prambanan Temple: The Myth of the 1000 Temples & The Cursed Princess
Prambanan Temple is the largest Hindu Temple site in Indonesia, and also one of the biggest in SEA. The massive temple site itself is a stunning sight to behold; surrounded by 999 individual temples is a towering beautiful temple standing at 47m high.
Modern engineers may argue that such a complex site need years of planning and construction, but legends dictate otherwise. The temple was, in fact, believed to be built overnight.
Once upon the ancient Yogyakarta time, there lived a mighty yet cruel ruler called Prince Bandung Bondowoso. The prince fell in love with the beautiful princess Rara Djonggrang, but failed to capture her heart as he outrageously killed her father. Desperate to keep the prince at bay, Princess Rara thought of a seemingly impossible task for the prince; she proposed that Prince Bandung build 1000 temples in a night for the exchange of her love. To complete the task, Prince Bandung meditated and gathered the help of supernatural beings. The builders worked diligently throughout the night and almost succeeded in their task. The witty princess saw this and instantly came up with a trick; she asked her servants to start burning hay to imitate the break of dawn and pound rice as normally done by the locals before the sun rises. The supernatural beings bought the trick and immediately left before finishing the 1000th temple as they feared the sun would appear. The princess managed to fool all but one; the mean Prince Bandung Bondowoso. So angered and betrayed was he by such deed, he cursed and turned the beautiful princess into the final temple. This temple is now known as the Rara Djonggrang temple, home to the most exquisite statue on the site that forever immortalize the beauty of the princess.
Tips from locals when visiting Prambanan Temple
The delicate statue of the beautiful princess is not the only belief that survived through time. Rumor has it that the curse of the betrayed lover still echo through the compound. As charming as Prambanan Temple is, local couples who are still dating will avoid visiting this site at all costs. It is believed that unmarried couples that visit Prambanan temple will have a doomed relationship, just like the creators of the temples.
2. Borobudur Temple: The Temple that Emerged from Beneath the Earth
Borobudur Temple is arguably the most famous ancient temple amongst the many that dot Yogyakarta. This ancient site is the most visited site of Indonesia for its extraordinary architecture, but the mysteries that surround it have also been the object of high fascination by historians and travelers alike.
The Borobudur is synonymous with mysticism; it was discovered in the 19th Century by the Dutch beneath layers of volcanic ash and jungle, and no ancient records about the temples were ever recovered. Today, Borobudur Temple is famous for both pilgrimage and a must visit attraction for tourists in Yogyakarta.
There are many exciting tales for the creation of this magnificent site. The most common belief is that Borobudur Temple was created in the 9th Century by the architect Gunadharma. And, if you look closely, you may catch the sight of Gunadharma taking an eternal break from the years of arduous Borobudur Temple construction. If you can’t find it, here’s a little clue:
Climb to the summit of the temple and look towards the South. What you will see is a stretch of lust green hill in a distant, the Gunadharma hill, taking the form of a resting man.
Other tales when visiting Borobudur Temple
The temple is also home to a notorious statue; Singa Urung. The word “urung” means “to separate” in Javanese, and the statue has earned its reputation by “separating” unmarried couples that walk past it. But fret not, if you happened to accidently walk through this statue with your partner, just head down straight to Kunto Bimo to reverse that curse!
3. The sacred Banyan Trees: The Twins that Will Make Your Dreams Come True
Alun Alun Kidul (The Banyan Tree of the South) is probably one of Yogyakarta most iconic site. These massive trees that stand parallel to each other are also called the Gate to the South Sea; the mystical sea that is home to the Queen Nyai Roro Kidul.
Alun alun Kidul is located at the backyard of the once Keraton Palace. According to local beliefs, the sacred Mt Merapi is connected to the mysterious Parangritis Beach by an imaginary line, and the Keraton Palace is built along this line.
Over the centuries, these enormous trees have been attributed to possessing supernatural strength. In fact, the main role of the guardian trees is to shut off any evil intention that wish to reach the Palace. It is believed that only those with pure and kind intention could walk between the twin trees without steering off course.
According to traditional folklore whereby the beautiful daughter of Sultan Hamenkubuwono I chose her suitor based on the condition that he must walk in a straight line through the trees while being blindfolded. Out of the countless willing men, only one could succeed in doing so. In another belief, the trees were said to be the supernatural guardian of the Keraton Palace to keep off Dutch forces during their invasion.
4. Parangtritis Beach : A Place Duly Protected by the Ferocious Queen of the South Sea
The legend of the Queen of the South is a tale familiar to all Indonesians. The Queen is a legendary deity believed to be the ruler of Java’s Southern Sea for centuries and also the guardian of the Keraton family. Every year, the Keraton will throw a ceremony in appreciation of her protection in an event called Labuhan. On this day, great offering were given in the form of flowers, food and even the hair and nails of the Sultan.
The story of the Queen of the South Sea is no ordinary folkfore. In fact, most locals refer to the Queen with certain degree of fear. While the Queen is believed to be a protector, sometimes she may “attack” without warnings in the form of violent waves or missing beach visitors.
The history of Nyai Roro Kidul is believed to have been originated from as early as the 14th century during the reign of the Pajajaran Kingdom.
There once lived a very beautiful princess by the name of Dewi Kadita, and her alluring beauty drew the admiration of many. Unfortunately, there were those who were highly jealous of her charm and eventually cursed to become a hideous girl. The father of Dewi Kadita saw this as a sign of bad luck, and drove the poor princess away from the palace. As the princess sat by the sea and wept, she had a dream that the curse would be cured if she were to jump into the water. Dewi Kadita did just that, but not only was the curse reversed; she was also turned into a deity in the process. She was henceforth known as Nyai Roro Kidul, or the Queen of the South Sea, ruler of all creatures in the Southern sea of Java. To avenge her father, Nyai pledge to be the bride of all Mataram princes, the rival kingdom of her father.
Over the years, countless tales have emerged of men being swallowed by surprised currents as they walked along the shore. Legend has it that these men were captured by the Queen to be her guards. The queen is especially fond of the color green, as is said to only “capture” those who are clad in her favorite color.
5. Mount Merapi: Java’s Most Sacred Volcano or also Known as the “Kingdom of Spirits”
Standing proud at 2,968m high, Mt Merapi is considered as sacred to most Javanese. Literally means “fire mountain”, it is one of the most active and deadly volcanoes in the world.
Locals believe that Mt Merapi is guarded by many spirits, with different region of this sacred site guarded by a different presence. Out of the many notable mystical beings, two emerge as their rulers; Empu Rama and Empu Permadi. Their history date back to as early as the day of Java’s creation. According to beliefs, the island of Java was unbalanced when it was first created due to a presence of a massive mountain on its West End. As the Gods planned to move it to a central location in the island, Empu Rama and Empu Permadi showed their disagreement by blocking this said site. Unfortunately, the Gods were not very pleased; they turned the two men into eternal guardians for the new mountain site, which is now known as Mt Merapi.
The Yogyakartans have religiously carried the tradition of paying their respects for the spiritual protectors of the mountain. It is therefore very likely that you’ll chance upon offerings, such as yellow rice, scattered along the trek. In return, these protectors not only protect the sacred site, but sometimes gave advance massage of impending trouble to the locals living around the mountain. Legend has it that when the volcano is about to erupt, the North Guardian tends to make an appearance in the form of a cloud above the mountain as a warning sign.
Tips from locals
Believed to be the “Kingdom of Spirits’’, visitors are advised to put on their best behavior during their visit so as not to anger the Gods. Visitors are advised not to point directly at the volcano, as doing so is a sign of disrespect. Also considered inappropriate is to call the volcano by its name; locals refer to it as “Si Mbah”, which means an elderly person.
6. Jomblang Cave : The Insanely Beautiful Cave with Insanely Dark Secrets
Located in Gunung Kidul, South Yogyakarta, Jomblang Cave is arguably the most divine natural wonder within the province. Inside this vertical cave is a 300m long walkway covered in thick vegetation leading to a spot where one could witness the “light beams from the heavens”.
The wondrous beauty of Jomblang Cave may be incomparable, but believe it or not, this stunning site was once avoided by locals and travelers alike.
During the Indonesia’s Great Slaughter period in the 1960s, Goa Jomblang was used as the unfortunate site for the dumping of dead or injured bodies. Ever since, locals claimed to have occasionally hear cries for help coming from inside the caves, and many of the cave explorers have also remained missing to this day. The locals decided that something had to be done; they came together and made prayers in the cave. Till this date, there have been no more chilly tales of Goa Jomblang, only stories about its wild beauty.
7. Sukuh Temple: The Erotic Temple with Supernatural Gifts that will Tingle Your Spicy Senses
Amongst the exotic temples scattered within Yogyakarta, Sukuh Temple could perhaps be called the rebel due to its architecture and purpose. Built in the 13th Century, Sukuh Temple is considered the youngest and naughtiest; by that we mean erotic!
Locating this fascinating temple itself require some guts and adventure. Found within the thick jungle of Gunung Lawu, Sukuh Temple is reminiscent of a Mayan temple, with the addition of exotic reliefs, such as one of a detailed human’s womb.
Locals believe that the temples have a truly unique function; Sukuh Temple can be used for testing (ehem) the virginity of women or the loyalty of men to their spouses.
Tips from locals:
Ladies: If you manage to walk up the steep and narrow steps on the surface of Sukuh Temple without tearing your clothes, it shows that you are pure.
Men: If you managed to walk pass the relief of the human womb without the need of taking a leak, this signifies that you are a loyal man.
The tales shared by the locals are more than just stories; today, Jogjakartans hold annual ceremonies and offerings to the local legends, deities and spirits. The sites mentioned above are some of the must-visit attractions in Yogyakarta.
Yogyakarta is a city of myths and temples and you may hear of many other myths while being there. Do share with us other myths and tales about the city, we would be happy to hear about it! 🙂