Be­yond the Palace Walls

Yogyakarta is the living, beat­ing heart of Ja­vanese cul­ture. An­to­nius Martono shares with us some of the city’s best se­crets.

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Most peo­ple who visit Yogyakarta ex­plore Jalan Malioboro and the Sul­tan’s Palace. But there is a lot more to this city, in­clud­ing Vre­de­burg Fortress and the an­cient path around the for­mer palace that once served as the front line in the Ja­vanese’s de­fence against the ex­pan­sion of West­ern cul­ture. I re­cently made my sec­ond visit to the city of my an­ces­tors af­ter stay­ing away for 10 years, and had the chance to ex­plore the real Yogyakarta.

Truly Ja­vanese

To know the Ja­vanese and to know Yogyakarta, Kota Gede is a good place to begin. Lo­cated southeast of Yogyakarta is an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site that con­tains the re­mains of the Kra­ton, the Royal Grave­yard and Royal Mosque of Mataram. The site dates back to the late 1500s and early 1600s. In high Ja­vanese, the site is called Pasar Gedhe. As I had ex­pected, there was not much to see of the Kra­ton, or Royal Palace, at the site. My fa­ther and grand­fa­ther used to tell me that there was noth­ing there any­more but lo­cal leg­ends and tales about the palace. While the mosque and the grave­yard (the pre­cur­sor to Imo­giri, the cur­rent royal grave­yard) were quite in­tact, only a few sec­tions of the orig­i­nal palace walls re­mained. The an­cient palace be­gan to fall in dis­re­pair when the cen­tre of power shifted from Yogyakarta to Kar­ta­sura, near mod­ern Su­rakarta. It fur­ther lost po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance af­ter Imo­giri be­came the royal ceme­tery for the sul­tan and his fam­ily. The re­mains of the Royal Grave­yard in Kota Gede pro­vide ev­i­dence of the past glory of the area. Graves trace the lines of con­nec­tion from the Mataram King­dom and ear­lier king­doms, and the place­ment of the graves can be con­sid­ered a phys­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of sil­si­lah, or the ge­neal­ogy of the rulers. Although it is guarded and main­tained by juru kunci (lit­er­ally, keep­ers of the keys), I was able to gain ac­cess to the sa­cred in­ner part of the grave­yard, where the mau­soleum of Panem­ba­han Senopati (the founder of the Mataram King­dom) is lo­cated. A small grave­stone cov­ered in white fab­ric marks the rest­ing place of one of Senopati’s grand­sons, Prince Mar­ta­pura, who is my an­ces­tor and who held the throne of Java for less than a month.

Royal Bath in the City of Cul­ture

The iden­tity of Yogyakarta has changed over the years as it has played dif­fer­ent roles in In­done­sian his­tory and so­cial life. For years, Yogyakarta was known as the “City of Ed­u­ca­tion” and the “City of Cul­ture.” Re­cently, Yogyakarta was named by the United Na­tions as one of 88 his­tor­i­cal cities around the world, in­clud­ing Ky­oto, Paris and Lon­don. It was the only city in In­done­sia to re­ceive the hon­our. To this day, the Kra­ton plays a ma­jor role pre­serv­ing Ja­vanese cul­ture and tra­di­tions. When I vis­ited the Royal Palace, prepa­ra­tions were be­ing made to wel­come vis­i­tors with a tra­di­tional dance. The palace it­self is a ver­i­ta­ble trea­sure.

trove of an­cient arte­facts that point to the ori­gins of Ja­vanese cul­ture. Most vis­i­tors head straight for the Pram­banan and Borobudur tem­ple com­plexes, but I pre­ferred to ex­plore the her­itage in the city it­self. My first stop was Ta­man Sari. This was part of the royal gar­dens and was called the Wa­ter Cas­tle. Built in the 18th cen­tury, it served a num­ber of func­tions, in­clud­ing as a work­shop, med­i­ta­tion area, de­fen­sive area and a se­cret retreat. It also rep­re­sents the mod­ern his­tory of Java since it was built dur­ing the reign of Sul­tan Ha­mengkubu­wono I, three years af­ter the great Mataram King­dom split ac­cord­ing to the Giyanti Agree­ment. Few peo­ple know that Ta­man Sari was built on top of the for­mer royal palace, Pe­sang­gra­han Gar­jitawati. It is very in­ter­est­ing that Ta­man Sari com­bines Euro­pean and orig­i­nal Ja­vanese ar­chi­tec­tural styles. The com­ple­tion ofTa­man Sari’s con­struc­tion was marked by a re­lief that shows birds drink­ing the nec­tar from flow­ery trees. It sym­bol­izes the year 1691 on the Ja­vanese cal­en­dar, or 1765 on the Gre­go­rian cal­en­dar. Ta­man Sari can be di­vided into four ar­eas. The first is the ar­ti­fi­cial lake, Se­garan, lo­cated in the west. The sec­ond area is a bathing com­plex to the south of the lake, called Um­bul Bi­nan­gun. The third area, now com­pletely gone, was the Pasarean Le­dok Sari and Gar­jitawati Pool, lo­cated to the south of the bathing com­plex. The fourth area extends far to the east and to the southeast com­plex of Ma­gan­gan. To­day, the area around the Ta­man Sari com­plex is filled with the houses of the 2,700 res­i­dents of Kam­pung Ta­man. The com­mu­nity is known for pro­duc­ing batik and tra­di­tional paint­ings.

Cross­ing the City Wall

Look­ing for the ori­gins of tra­di­tional Ja­vanese houses, I drove back to Kota Gede, hop­ing that the an­cient city would re­veal its mys­ter­ies to me.

The only well-pre­served build­ing in the area that may re­flect Ja­vanese ar­chi­tec­tural tra­di­tions is Sekar Ked­ha­ton. The small build­ing is beau­ti­ful, cov­ered in or­na­ments that carry their own unique leg­ends. The build­ing was orig­i­nally owned by Prawiro Soe­warno, whose name will not be un­fa­mil­iar to Yogyakarta’s bon viveurs, hav­ing gained a rep­u­ta­tion as a jeweller to Ja­vanese aris­to­crats and the royal fam­ily. Sekar Ked­ha­ton is a trea­sure trove of arte­facts from Yogyakarta’s dis­tin­guished past. The estab­lish­ment in­cludes a two­s­torey restau­rant and lounge. The ground floor is dec­o­rated in tra­di­tional Ja­vanese style and houses the restau­rant, as well as play­ing host to el­e­gant ri­jsttafel ser- vice, that stately colo­nial dining ex­pe­ri­ence. The sec­ond floor is the lux­u­ri­ous lounge, where wine and other bev­er­ages are avail­able. The sec­ond floor also pro­vides ac­cess to the ho­tel’s Pres­i­dent Room, with its sweep­ing views over Kota Gede. But Sekar Ked­ha­ton, of course, is not a tra­di­tional Ja­vanese house in the strictest sense. I was told to drive north to Kudus, where I could find a well-pre­served joglo, or tra­di­tional Ja­vanese house. The house in Kudus is an an­tique knock­down house de­signed us­ing solid teak and or­na­mented with beau­ti­ful tra­di­tional carv­ings and el­e­vated floors. It was built based on the three ne­ces­si­ties of life, ac­cord­ing to Ja­vanese tra­di­tion: food, cloth­ing and shel­ter. All th­ese ap­pear in the dif­fer­ent parts of the house. The best of the tra­di­tional houses were three in­de­pen­dent constructions, each with its own roof, and to­gether they formed one whole. The three parts were the Pen­dopo, in which vis­i­tors were re­ceived, the Pring­gi­tan, a nar­row pas­sage to the back of the house, and the Dalem (ageng), the pri­vate space for the fam­ily. What I had planned as sim­ply a fun jour­ney to Yogyakarta turned out to be an en­light­en­ing trip back into the past, which opened my eyes to the majesty of Ja­vanese cul­ture.

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