Published Article: When Time Stops in Kotagede

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Moesson Magazine  |  October 2017

Muslims all around the globe celebrate the Islamic New Year on the first day of Muharram, the first month in Islamic lunar calendar. It commemorates the migration of Prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD. Many celebrations and rituals are held during the occasion.

In Indonesia, a country with huge Muslim population, the rituals are varied from one place to another. In its island of Java, where the practice of Islam is sometimes intertwined with the teaching of ancient beliefs, some people come to sacred old places in the hope for blessings and fortunes.

Like in Kotagede, a historic district in the province of Yogyakarta, also the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Islamic Mataram, people come to the ancient royal cemetery around the site where somewhere between sixteenth and seventeenth century, the sultan’s palace was standing. The palace has long gone, but surprisingly, its spirit remains alive until today.

Two days before the Islamic New Year, I arrived in Kotagede after taking one hour flight from Jakarta to Yogyakarta to witness the rituals. I stayed at a hotel which according to google maps, was only twenty minutes walk to the ancient capital.

In the afternoon, I walked to the historic site of the palace complex where there were still standing the royal grand mosque, the royal cemetery, and the royal bath. It only took about fifteen minutes walking through kampongs which was such an enjoyable experience as I could greet the locals along the way.

Wandering in the royal complex of Kotagede often means walking between the walls. The city seemed to be built within layers of fortresses. Despite the fact that Mataram was an Islamic kingdom, the architecture was still very much influenced by Hindu, a predominant religion in Java for many centuries before the coming of Islam in the fourteenth century.

The Kingdom was divided by the Dutch in the eighteenth century into two; Yogyakarta and Surakarta. Later in the nineteenth century, each of those was restructured by the British. So today there are two kingdoms, each with one duchy. Coming to Kotagede is like tracing back the glorious day of the Islamic Kingdom of Mataram.

The former royal complex is today surrounded by kampongs. Exploring Kotagede also means exploring the kampongs. In every kampong I came to, I always found a modest community hall. It’s more like a Pendopo, a semi open single building covered with traditional Javanese style roof of Joglo.

In one Pendopo, I found a group of women sitting on the floor, playing sets of Gamelan, the traditional Javanese instruments. They were rehearsing for a performance held in the next few days. The sounds of gamelan was like magical. It evoked the spirit of the past and brought us back to the old days.

I talked with one of the women about the ritual of Islamic New Year in Kotagede. She told me to go to the old royal cemetery located right at the backyard of the royal grand mosque of Mataram in the new year’s eve as it became the centre place of the ritual.

The women told me that all the people coming for the ritual were from out of town. No one living in Kotagede came for the ritual as they were followers of Muhammadiyah, a movement arose in the early twentieth century, and was meant to purify the teaching of Islam, so as not to mix up with the ancient beliefs.

Another kampong I came to was Kampung Alun Alun, named after the old main square in front of the palace where the kampong is situated today. What is so special about this kampong is the alley bisecting rows of Javanese style wooden houses, built in the mid nineteenth century, as it used to be the inner court of those houses. Of all the kampongs in Kotagede, this one is the most tourist friendly. Well, it doesn’t mean we can enter all those old traditional houses.

The only house open is the one located right across the community hall. Many tourists will stop by at this house and look around inside it. The community hall itself functions as a library with old photographs hanged on its wall.

Not far rom the kampongs, there is Pasar Legi, a traditional market which has existed since the sixteenth century. In the past, it only opened on Legi, one of the five market days in Javanese calendar. It is certain that wherever you go in Indonesia, you will find traditional market that becomes the centre of people’s activity, mostly in the morning.

In Pasar Legi, you can find many sorts of delights like traditional cakes and foods that can hardly be found in the cities. Since there are no fancy supermarket or hypermarket nearby, people still count on the traditional market for shopping groceries.

Finally, the night I had been looking forward to came. It’s the Islamic New Year’s Eve. The celebration took place in the former royal complex, and there were two different groups of people coming to this place.

One group went to the royal grand mosque for a reading of Al-Quran (Islam’s holy book), followed with a sermon given by an Ustadz (Islamic scholar) from Muhammadiyah.

The other group came to the royal cemetery, located right behind the mosque, for a ritual called “Tirakat,” which is actually like meditation. First they burned the incenses, put some offerings like flowers or fruits, and then sit with their legs crossed. They would fast with no food and water, stay awake and keep silent for the entire ritual which in this occasion, would take overnight.

These people come with different intentions and wishes. Many of them are desperate from year long illnesses, financial troubles, and perhaps romances. They could spend hours sitting in the dark in front of the old cemetery.

Contrast with the cemetery, the lights at the grand mosque was bright and the ambience was festive as to welcome the coming of the new year.

These people I saw at the mosque didn’t stay overnight. They considered the ritual of “Tirakat” as not Islamic. Soon as the sermon was over, they left the mosque and returned to their homes. So that night, I saw two different ways of celebrating Islamic new year in Kotagede, the traditional Javanese way, and, let’s say, the more Islamic way.

On the following day, I was more focused with what the Kingdom of Mataram had left in Kotagede. The palace had long gone. It was only the throne of the sultan that remained. Today, we still can see the massive stone on where the Sultan used to sit. It is housed together with another massive stones shaped like bowling balls.

The house, located between two huge banyan trees, is always locked. To get inside, we need to obtain permission from an Abdi Dalem, the royal servant wearing traditional custom, stationed not far from the house. In Kotagede, the servants actually work under the control of Sultan Palace (Kraton) of Yogyakarta.

The Abdi Dalem will guide us to the house and tell the whole complete history of those stones, or watu as the locals call them. The stone which used to be the throne, known as Watu Gilang, has an indentation on its edge. From that thing, we can go back far to the sixteenth century, when the Kingdom of Mataram was ruled by Panembahan Senopati, who was also the founder of the kingdom.

Senopati was threatened by a man named Ki Ageng Mangir, a rebel who could overthrow him from the power. Mangir was not an easy man to conquer as he had a magic weapon like spear named Ki Baru Klinting. It would be impossible to kill Mangir with that spear around him. By the way, it was common for Javanese to name their weapons, especially the sacred ones.

So Senopati came up with an idea of sending her beautiful daughter, Ni Roro Pembayun, to seduce Mangir with a dancing performance. To make it short, Mangir fell in love with Pembayun and married her. That made him the son in law of Senopati, the man he hated.

The king asked her daughter to bring her husband to meet him in the palace. When someone was going to meet the king, they were not allowed to bring along any weapons. So Mangir had to give away his spear and that made him lost his magic.

Soon as he kneeled to the king who was sitting on the throne, his head was by force bumped to the stone and crushed, leaving a mark of indentation that we can still see and touch until today.

Sitting inside the house made me feel like completely isolated from the outside world as there was no light and window in it, and the space was cramped. For a moment, I felt like disconnected with the present world. No wonder if some people come to this place to meditate in front of the stone. Since it is sacred, people put offerings like flowers on top of it.

As for the stones shaped like bowling ball, there are three of them which were also sacred. The servant said that those balls used to be played by Raden Ronggo, the son of Panembahan Senopati, when he was a little kid.

Rationally, it would be way too impossible for a little kid to play with such heavy balls like those. I would rather listen to much more sensible version which said that those were actually canon balls used to attack the VOC (United Dutch East Indies Companies) in Batavia in the seventeenth century.

My trip to Kotagede was soon over. It’s time for me to leave the old town with all its ancient stories behind. I was thinking that I was going to miss the sound of gamelan, the loyal royal servants wearing the traditional costumes, the old houses and kampongs, the narrow streets between the walls, the horrible scent of the incences, the market in the morning, and of course the delights I found in the market of Pasar Legi.

But I shouldn’t worry because everything would likely stay the same in the next future as time seemed to freeze in Kotagede.

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