published article: The Teaching of Kejawen in the Kraton

Friday, May 01, 2020

Moesson Magazine | October 2019

Two weeks ago, at 8:25 AM, together with hundreds of local and foreign tourists, I stood in front of a huge green door made of thick solid wood, guarded by a barefoot Abdi Dalem, a royal servant wearing a traditional Javanese outfit; batik sarong, dark blue striped motif shirt, and Blangkon, a traditional Javanese headdress. 

The door was the main gate to enter Keraton Yogyakarta, a royal compound built in the mid 18th century by Sultan Hamengkubuwono I, shortly after the Dutch divided the Kingdom of Mataram into two: Yogyakarta and Surakarta. Everyone was ready for a tour inside the compound. That morning, I would be guided by Ibu Agustina, a seventy year old Javanese woman who speaks three foreign languages: English, French, and Italian. 

Through that gate, we entered the keraton which was surrounded with high thick wall. Behind the wall, I felt like finding another world. It was a world where withered flowers wrapped in a banana leaf put in almost every corner, sometimes with burnt incenses placed in a clay pot. The scents rose up through the air, making me wonder whom the offerings were for. 

“Every sacred thing and place is guarded by a spirit.” Ibu Agustina said. “It is the teaching of Kejawen, the Javanese ancient way of life, and here in keraton, we still practice it.” 

“Is Kejawen some kind of a religion?” I asked. 

“No, it’s not. Everyone regardless their faiths can practice it. It's a local wisdom that has existed since the first human inhabited the island of Java, long before the coming of Hindu, Buddhism, and Islam.” She replied. 

While walking around the compound, she showed me how the keraton represents those three religions, all are expressed in shapes and symbols found in the buildings. The shape of lotus in the columns and the summit of the roofs represents Buddhism, the head of Batara Kala above every entrance represents the deity figure from Hindu mythology who keeps the evil spirits out, and the curvy lines found almost everywhere are actually taken from Arabic calligraphy which of course, represents Islam, and so is the green color dominating the keraton. 

“Why there's no any symbol of Christianity?” I asked. 

“Historically, there was no Christian or Roman Catholic kingdom ever exist in Java,” she replied. 

At the other part of the keraton, I met Bapak Wasesawinata, an 82 year-old Abdi Dalem sitting cross-legged on the marble floor. He was listening solemnly to the reading of Macapat, an old traditional Javanese poetry read on every Friday morning, when I came to sit next to him. 

“Long before the Arabs and Europeans came to Java, brought along their faiths, our ancestors had already had their own way to worship the God.” He started a conversation. “We may embrace their faiths, but never let go our way of life as Javanese.” 

He later told me that the Keraton Yogyakarta has its own way to practice the teaching of Islam. In every ritual they hold, they serve Kue Apem, a traditional cake made of sugar and flour, and Kolak Pisang, cooked banana served in brown sugar syrup with coconut milk. Both are symbols of purification and are associated with Arabic words. Apem is with Afwan, literally means to apologize, and Kolak is with Khalik, means God, the creator. They beg for God’s mercy in every ritual. 

At the end of the tour, Ibu Agustina took me closer to Gedong Kuning, a building where the current Sultan Hamengkubuwono X resides, to tell me a story. 

“It was September 30, 1988. I was the official tour guide for German’s Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his entourage during their state visit when suddenly, out of nowhere, a black crow flew over us, made the loud sound of caw and then perched on the roof of the sultan’s house.” She said. 

“The chancellor was shocked and asked me what that was. I told him it was a bad sign and someone would die. I had no idea what exactly was going to happen. Two days after that, we got news that Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX passed away in Washington D.C. You can call it superstition, but actually it’s not. In Javanese tradition, we are taught to read signs and symbols. They’re not always clear. Sometimes they come as puzzles.” 

The Philosophy of Keraton Yogyakarta

After the guided tour, I began to explore the keraton and learned that all the buildings inside the compound are philosophically laid out and placed by Sultan Hamengkubuwono I, the first sultan of Yogyakarta reigning from 1755 – 1792, known as an architect. He put the keraton precisely in the centre of an imaginary cosmic line stretching from the Indian Ocean in the south to the Mount Merapi in the north, where the compound was exactly located in the middle of those two sacred subjects, and oriented to the mountain. 

To define the line physically, in 1756, the sultan erected a 25 meter height monument in the north, 2,7 kilometer from keraton. It was a rounded column with a ball on its top, named Tugu Golong Gilig, means a cylinder and a ball. In 1867, the monument was destroyed by a massive earthquake. The Dutch rebuilt it in 1889 and replaced it with something looked more European, 15 meter height. They renamed it De Wit Paal, or Tugu Pal Putih as the locals called it. Today, it is popularly known as Tugu and becomes the icon of Yogyakarta. 

In the south, also 2,7 kilometer from the keraton, the sultan built Panggung Krapyak, a 17,6 x 15 meter rectangular and 10 meter height building, where he would hunt the deer from its rooftop. Back in the mid 18th century, Yogyakarta was surrounded by wild forest. 

The Tugu symbolizes male reproductive organ and the Panggung Krapyak symbolizes the female’s. Together with the keraton, they symbolize fertility, an important aspect of human’s life that will make the existence of Yogyakarta last forever. The imaginary line stretching between them symbolically pictures the journey of a man’s life from the day he was born in the south to the day he dies and meets his creator in the north. 

“The ocean gives the mankind birth, and the mountain is the place where the God resides.” The ancient Javanese belief says. 

In the reign of Sultan Hamengkubuwono VIII (1921-1939), the keraton was largely renovated. Its new architecture is an example of eclecticism where the Javanese philosophy was incorporated with Oriental and European elements. 

Beyond the Wall of the Keraton

The keraton has two squares, called alun-alun, located in the north and south, each with two huge banyan trees planted in its centre, along east to west, symbolizing the sultan’s protection toward his people. The vast square in the north is the front yard of the keraton where in the past, interaction between the sultans and the people took place. The locals call it Alun-Alun Lor, a 300 x 300 meter plaza with Masjid Gedhe Kauman, the royal grand mosque built in 1773, on its west side. 

In the early days of Yogyakarta, when the sultan adopted strict sharia law, those committing murders or were against the sultan were beheaded right on this square after trials. Today, as there is no more blood spilled on this ground, it becomes a favorite place for people to catch the afternoon breeze. Every year, a pasar malam is held on this square for a week as part of the ritual Sekaten, a festival to celebrate the birthday of Prophet Muhammad. 

Commonly, every palace has only one square, located in the north. In the case of Keraton Yogyakarta, they built another one at its backyard to honor the sacred Indian Ocean in the south. The square, known as Alun-Alun Kidul, is only 150 x 150 meter and famous for its ritual Masangin where people walk blindfolded between two banyan trees. The myth says those who can walk straight will have their wish come true. 

In the afternoon, when I was about to leave the keraton, an old Abdi Dalem called me to sit next to him on a concrete bench right under a centuries old tree outside the compound. He introduced himself as the descendant of Sultan Hamengkubuwono I. 

“Many things in this keraton have changed.” He said. “It becomes less sacred than it used to be, too commercial, too many tourists.” 

“But the keraton needs the money from tourists.” I replied 

“I know, but the former sultans could fund the keraton without exposing it to the public.” He answered. 

“What I heard, the former sultans had shares in many sugar factories run by the Dutch in Yogyakarta.” I debated him. 

Suddenly, he stared at me, upside down, and said, “You’re a writer for a media.” 

“How do you know?” I was surprised. 

“Oh I know, simply by looking at your face.” The man smiled. 

I was speechless and suddenly remembered what Ibu Agustina told me this morning, “we are taught to read signs.”

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