Beside the southern alun-alun (main square), Yogya's enormous kraton (palace) is the cultural and political heart of this fascinating city. Effectively a walled city, this complex of pavilions and residences is home to around 25,000 people and encompasses a market, shops, cottage industries, schools and mosques. Around 1000 of the inhabitants are employed by the resident sultan. Although technically part of the kraton, there's a separate entrance (and ticket) for the Pagelaran Pavilion, overlooking the northern alun-alun.
The kraton comprises a series of luxurious halls, spacious courtyards and pavilions built between 1755 and 1756, with European flourishes, such as Dutch-influenced stained glass, added in the 1920s. There were originally separate entrances to the kraton for men and women, marked by giant male and female dragons (although its hard to determine which are which!). Although this segregation is no longer practised, an appreciation of history runs deep here, and the palace is attended by dignified elderly retainers, who wear traditional Javanese dress. The innermost complex is off limits as the current sultan still resides here, but visitors can enter some of the surrounding courtyards. Alas, the treasures of the palace are poorly displayed, but it remains a fascinating place to wander.
At the centre of the kraton is the reception hall, the Bangsal Kencana (Golden Pavilion). With a fine marble floor, intricately decorated roof, stained-glass windows and columns of carved teak, it makes a suitably imposing statement for the reception of foreign dignitaries. The gifts from some of these illustrious visitors, including European monarchy, are housed within two little museums in the same courtyard complex. Interesting exhibits here also include gilt copies of the sacred pusaka (heirlooms of the royal family) and gamelan instruments, the royal family tree, old photographs of grand mass weddings and portraits of the former sultans of Yogya. A modern memorial building dedicated to the beloved Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX, with photographs and some of his personal effects, occupies some side rooms.
Outside the kraton, in the centre of the northern square, there are two sacred waringin (banyan trees). In the days of feudal Java, white-robed petitioners would patiently sit here, hoping to catch the eye of the king. In the alun-alun kidul (southern square), two similar banyan trees are said to bring great fortune to those who can walk blindfolded between them without mishap; on Friday and Saturday nights the youth of Yogya attempt this feat to a chorus of laughter from friends.
Daily performances in the kraton's inner pavilion are included in the price of the entrance ticket. Currently, there’s gamelan on Monday and Tuesday (10am to noon), wayang golek (puppetry) on Wednesday (9am to noon), classical dance on Thursday (10am to noon), Javanese poetry readings on Friday (10am to 11.30am), leather puppetry on Saturday (9am to 1pm) and Javanese dance on Sunday (11am to noon).