Published Article: Rediscovering Buitenzorg

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Moesson Magazine | January 2021

Located sixty kilometer south of Jakarta, in the foot of Mount Salak, Bogor, for over centuries, has witnessed the changes in the course of history. Until the mid of the 16th century, it was the capital of Sundanese Hindu Kingdom of Pajajaran where the king built a huge garden like a forest within the capital. In the mid of 18th century, Dutch Governor General Gustaaf Willem van Imhoff was impressed with the serenity and the tranquility of the place. He decided to build a palace within the garden and renamed the town Buitenzorg, without worry. During the short British rule in the early 19th century, Governor General Thomas Stamford Raffles transformed the place into a beautiful English garden. It was not until May 18th, 1817 that it became a botanical garden, collecting many species of plant from all over Indonesia, and becoming a research center for botanists.

In the following years, the Dutch built a town surrounding that 87 hectares garden, which flourished bigger and bigger as the number of population increased. With an average rainfall of 3500-4000 mm a year, this town has been also known as Rainy City.

Today, this 118,5 kilometer square town become a favorite place for people, mostly from Jakarta, to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. Every weekend, thousands of them come and pack the streets with cars, motorcycles, and buses, while the locals crowd the traditional markets, mostly wet, that seem to be scattered all over the town, causing massive traffic jam. I was wondering if there are pieces of Buitenzorg remain within this chaotic town.

Few days ago, I headed to Bogor from Jakarta by train, passing through the old railway route built in 1873 by Nederlandsch Indische Spoorweg Maatschappij, known as NIS, a private company. The route was then extended in 1879 by Staatsspoorwegen, a state owned company, far to the mountainous region of Priangan where many cash crop plantations were established. This new route made Buitenzorg the major hub station between Batavia, the former name of Jakarta, and Bandung. As a response, the Staatsspoorwegen built a new grand station of Buitenzorg in 1881, a few kilometers south of the old one built by NIS.

I got off at that historical grand station, few hundred meters away from the botanical garden. Even though it is no longer a major hub station, I could still see the grandeur of this 139 year old building. Its sturdy structure became evidence how significant this grand station was in the past.

From the station, I walked eastward trough a busy sidewalk, shaded by tall walnut trees, and packed by street vendors, along Jalan Kapten Muslihat, passing by the late 19th century Blessed Virgin Mary Cathedral that serves as the seat of the Catholic Diocese of Bogor. The existence of this cathedral showed us that there were a significant number of Dutch people living in this town and its surrounding.

At the end of the street, I turned right to the south, walked along Jalan Ir. Haji Juanda, one of the four streets that encircle the botanical garden. This street is actually part of the De Grote Postweg, a 1000 km road built across Java in the early 19th century under the rule of Herman Willem Daendels, connecting Anyer in the west and Panarukan in the east. There, I passed by another big old church “Zebaoth,” built in 1920, about 300 meter from the governor general’s palace. The first stone of this Protestant church was laid by Governor General J.P. Graaf van Limburg Stirum. He named it Koningin Wilhelmina Kerk, after the queen.

In the years before the two churches were built, the town had only one simultaneous church where the Catholics and the Protestants had to share one building and took turns in using it. The church does no longer exist, left behind its building for a post office, located adjacent to the old Protestant church of Zebaoth.

I kept walking southward on the sidewalk around the botanical garden toward the old Chinatown, right across the garden’s main entrance. This quarter was founded in the early 19th century, along with the construction of De Grote Postweg. The Chinese settled along that road, built shop houses, temples, and developed the area into a business district of the town.

Today, as the population of Bogor reaches over one million people, the Chinatown becomes a hectic crowded traditional marketplace, full with carts loaded with fish, vegetables, and fruits, street vendors sitting cross legged on the street side, shouting to attract customers, creating a chaotic atmosphere, and there is always constant traffic congestion, especially with the presence of many motorcycles and Angkot, a public minibus that wouldn't stop honking and halted all over the place. This was absolutely far from the idea of Buitenzorg.

I left the market to escape the hustle and bustle, walked through narrow alleyway between shops that led to a bridge over Ciliwung River, connecting Chinatown with Pulo Geulis, a teeny tiny piece of land located in the middle of the river. It was like an island, or Pulo as the Sundanese called it.

Long before the coming of the Dutch, this island was a resort for the Royal Pajajaran family. When the kingdom was collapsed in the 16th century due to the invasion of Islam, the island was totally abandoned and became a wild jungle until it was rediscovered in 1703 by Abraham van Riebeeck, a Dutch merchant and explorer who became a governor general of VOC in 1709, during his expedition, sailing along Ciliwung River to search for the remnants of Pajajaran Kingdom.

This 3,5 hectare island is now densely populated by 2500 people, mostly local Sundanese and Chinese. Over centuries, these two ethnic groups have lived harmoniously, and that can be seen from ancient Muslim graves inside an old Chinese temple Pan Kho Bio. The graves are sacred and frequently visited by Muslim prayers.

Walking around Pulo Geulis can be very confusing as there is no signage, and the alleyways will make us think that we walk in a labyrinth with no way out. But the good news is there is no car on this tiny island, so it’s quite safe for a walk. As I walked closer to the edge of the island, to the riverbank, I found a group of women do their laundry in the river. For a moment, I felt like going back in time to the years when washing machine hadn’t been invented. I sat there and listened to the sound of the stream and the chirp of the birds. It was so peaceful, like the idea of Buitenzorg. I left the island for the botanical garden, hoping to find more serenity.

That afternoon, guided by Ibu Fitri from Indonesian Institute of Sciences, the administrator of the botanical garden, I toured the place, visited historical sites within. She showed me around the park, began with the research laboratory named after Melchior Treub, - a Leiden University graduate botanist who became the director of the garden in 1880, and also the founder of Buitenzorg Landbouwhogeschool, which now becomes Bogor’s Institute of Agriculture, - and then the old Dutch cemetery surrounded with bamboo groove where several prominent figures from the 18th and 19th century were buried, the sacred ancient graves dating back to Pajajaran kingdom’s period where people come to meditate, and some monuments erected to honor Dutch botanists for their contributions to science.

Wandering inside this 87 hectares quiet garden, walking slowly along the street on the side of Ciliwung River that flows through this place, shaded by centuries old high tall trees, and hearing the sounds of nature coming out from birds, and insects, I felt like being totally isolated from the urban chaos outside.

We walked toward Danau Gunting, a man-made lake surrounded by lush green forest and overgrown with beautiful water lilies with a water fountain in its centre. We stopped at one of its corners, looked at the former governor general’s palace across the lake. It was a magnificent view, like Europa in de tropen. I guessed I had found a piece of Buitenzorg that remained in this town.

Late in the afternoon, I was walking back to the station to catch up the train back to Jakarta when it was suddenly raining. The street soon became chaotic as people were rushing to find shelters, and the traffic was getting worse. At this point, I realized that it was not easy to restore Bogor to its former Buitenzorg. The town has rapidly grown along with the number of its population. But I am glad however that there is a piece of land in the center of the town that still stands today as a witness and a remnant of the tranquility that the Dutch found many centuries ago. It is the botanical garden, which is sadly but true, not yet declared as a cultural heritage site.

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