Java is covered with 110 volcanoes in a mountain chain stretching from east to west, 35 of them are still active and occasionally erupts. Even if an eruption can cause a lot of damage and suffering, it is also the reason why Java is one of the most fertile agriculturural regions in the world.
Compared to other geographic regions the volcanic ash here is non-acid, on the contrary it nurtures the soil and the plant life.
Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, is located northwest on Java and has about 10 million inhabitants. It was established by the Dutch in 1619, the start of their long occupation of Indonesia. This city is like Yogyakarta a special territory, in addition Java is split in three; West, Central and East Java. Two of the other large cities in the country is also located on Java; Surabaya (East Java) and Bandung (West Java).
The climate is generally hot and humid with an yearly average temperature of 22 to 29 degrees. The wet season is from October to the end of April, the best time to travel here is usually May to September.
Flora and fauna:
Java has a varied nature and in many areas a rich wildlife, unfortunately many species are highly endangered and only live in a few national parks on the island. Farming dominates large parts of the landscape, but still there are some pockets of tropical rainforest with a rich flora and fauna. Java has several national parks, the best known is maybe Ujung Kulon on West Java, home of the very rare Java rhinoceros.
People and Religion:
The population mainly consist of Sundanese and Javanese, a third group is the Madurese who originates from the Madura island on East Java. Each of these groups has their own separate language. The population on Java is closely related to people from Malaysia and the Philippines. The large cities has in addition large groups of Chinese, Indian an Arabs.
During the first centuries AD the Indians had a great deal of influence here, and with Indian traders came Buddhism and Hinduism. Islamic kingdoms gained control over Java around year 1500 AD, and today about 90 percent of the population are Muslim. The remaining part is mainly Christian and Hindu. This is not only the Islam we know from Arab countries, it is also blended with superstition, mysticism and black magic with a dash of ghosts and evil demons. Even today in the big cities there are many traditional medicine men. They are still frequently visited by many locals, who also use modern medicine, just to be on the safe side.
Javanese, especially from Central Java, is known to be very polite, like on Bali the language has a high and a low form, depending on who they talk to. It is considered to be very rude to point at negative things in another person or to criticize an authority. They are also known to be resistant to show any authority themselves or to take a decision. Javanese on East Java, especially Surabaya, is considered to be a little bit more vulgar than in Central Java. Also the Sundanese on West Java speaks in much the same polite way as the Javanese, while the Madurese are known to be more straight forward and proud.
Traditionally the main income on Java has been agriculture and trade, but now also modern industry plays a major role, especially in the big cities. Tourism has become an important industry, but the economic and political crisis from 1997 caused a major setback. There are now signs of improvements, but the country and Java is still struggling with corruption and large deficits. Java has to a large extent been living on the resources of other Indonesian regions, increasing protests from the provinces can put an end to this and stop the huge cash flow to the region. Fortunately Java has large resources on its own that could be developed in a better way, maybe the largest of them all is the people themselves.
History of Java:
The famous Java man which were found here in 1891 is proof that this part of the world has a long history. These were remains of Homo Erectus, an early human species that existed about 250.000 years ago. Modern man has probably lived here for about 40.000 years.
The development of modern methods of growing rice in terraced, irrigated fields meant a lot for the shaping of the Javanese culture, like the use of ox and the development of more advanced ships did. There has probably been contact seaways as far as with Madagascar to the west and the Easter Island to the east.
The growing of wet rice led to a stronger cooperation between the different villages in order to build and maintain the irrigation channels. This was the foundation of the first small kingdoms on Java, but the first kingdom of any size first appeared in the 8th century with king Sanjaya and his Hindu Mataram kingdom on Central Java. Sanjaya’s dynasty was followed by the Buddhist Sailendra dynasty, and around year 780 the building of Borobodur started. During this period Buddhism and Hinduism peacefully existed side by side, and the Hindu Prambanan complex was completed in 856 AD.
Mataram collapsed in the 11th century, most likely caused by the invasion of the Sriwijaya empire from Sumatra. The power returned to a Javanese ruler with the mythical king Airlangga. He was son of the Balinese king Udayana and his Javanese queen Guna Pria Dharma Patni. Airlangga married a Javanese princess and moved to Java, when he was 16 his father in law Dharmawangsa lost the throne and his life and Airlangga had to escape to West Java. After some years in hiding he came back and managed to conquer the lost throne. He ruled from 1019 to 1042, and with him strong connections between Java and Bali was established. Later he retired to live as an hermit, and split the kingdom between his two sons, the two parts were Kediri and Janggala. Ken Angrok took control over Janggala early in the 13th century, conquered Kediri and established a new kingdom called Singosari. This continued to grow until the last king, Kertanagara, was murdered in a rebellion in 1292.
The most famous of all the kingdoms on Java, Majapahit, was founded by Raden Wijaya, also called Kertarajasa Jayawardhana, in 1293. The background for this was that the Chinese leader in those days, Kublai Khan, sent a fleet of 1.000 ships and 20.000 soldiers towards Java to revenge that king Kertanagara had not paid “tax” to the Chinese. Due to sickness and tough weather it was a badly reduced fleet that arrived Java. They were met by Raden Wijaya who could tell them that his father in law, the king, was dead. In return for a large reward he suggested a common action against his enemy Kediri, which had annexed his throne. 5.000 of Kediri’s soldiers died during the battle, and while the Chinese was celebrating the victory, Raden Wijaya gathered his troops and surprisingly attacked the Chinese, many were killed and the rest escaped to their ships.
Majapahit’s king Hayam Wuruk who ruled between 1350 and 1389 claimed the entire Indonesian archipelago, even if his territory only consisted of Java, Madura and Bali. The other islands probably just had to pay tax to Majapahit. Responsible for the conquests was Majapahit’s, and one of the most famous historical figures in Indonesia, prime minister and general Gajah Mada. The Majapahit empire quickly declined after the death of Hayam Wuruk, several regions declared independence and converted to Islam. The largest of these were Demak, Cirebon and Banten on the north coast. Finally Majapahit was conquered by Demak, and around 1515 most of the Hindu nobilities, artists, soldiers and craftsmen escaped to Bali, where they later had a huge influence on Balinese art, culture and society.
A new, now Muslim, Mataram kingdom was reborn in the 16th century and soon established control over almost all of Java. Surabaya, Cirebon and Banten resisted for a long time, when the Dutch arrived in 1596 all of Java except Banten was under the control of Mataram.
The Dutch first came to Java in 1596, and gradually took control of the island. They regularly met resistance from the Javanese, who never managed to put aside their own quarrels to grow strong enough to drive the Dutch away. The last remains of the Mataram kingdom survived as the special territories Yogyakarta and Surakarta (Solo), and the kings were allowed to keep their privileges and status.
The Dutch rule should be long and sometimes bloody, until they in 1942 had to escape during the Japanese invasion. After the war they tried to regain control, but heavy resistance from the Indonesians and UN resolutions forced them out in 1950, when the new Indonesian Republic was unilaterally proclaimed.
Art and culture:
Even if Islam with its distinct culture had a breakthrough here in the 16th century, much of the pre-Hindu and Hindu traditions has been preserved. Cultural specialties like Wayang Kulit, Batik and Gamelan music probably developed during the early Hindu period of Java’s modern history. Wayang means puppet and kulit means shadow, a Wayang kulit performance can last for many hours and is often based on Hindu epics like Ramayana, accompanied by a gamelan orchestra. Variations of this is wayang golek, which is performed with three dimensional puppets made of wood and wayang topeng which is performed by humans with masks. The different districts and towns on Java has in addition their own unique culture, dance and music. Javanese often consider Balinese dance as somewhat vulgar compared to their own.
Today Java is the center of Indonesian politics, culture and economy. Almost everything is governed from here, not to everybody’s satisfaction. Regional conflicts has lately grown in intensity, especially in Aceh, the Maluku and on Irian Jaya (West Papua). Many of Indonesia’s provinces are strongly contributing to the economy of the country, and feel themselves that they get very small amounts of these riches themselves, most of the income ends up on Java. Java itself is still a safe place to travel, it is the best developed island in Indonesia, with good communications.