Published Article: Afraid of the Unseen

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Moesson Magazine | April 2021

In the shadow of two huge banyan trees, a woman came to me, handed a blindfold in her hand and said: “would you try walking straight between the trees with this? If you can make it, all your wishes will come true.” For a moment, I was speechless and then politely refused her offer. It wasn’t the blindfolded walk that I was afraid of, it was the trees. They looked old, sacred, and most likely, haunted.

Those trees grow at the center of Alun-alun Kidul, the south square, 150 x 150 meter by size, which is actually the backyard of Keraton Yogyakarta, the royal complex where the reigning Sultan Hamengkubuwono X resides. Unlike me that morning, many tourists visiting this place would happily accept the challenge.

“It’s just for fun. You have to pay for the blindfold, and that’s how they earn money from visitors,” said Agustina Pandji, a seventy one year old royal servant who was also a senior tour guide in the Keraton. She received me at her modest house in one afternoon, after we met at the Keraton in the morning. Her small living room was adorned with pictures of heavenly figures like Jesus Christ and The Virgin Mary, with a painting of The Last Supper in the middle. To my surprise, she also practiced the teaching of Kejawen, the ancient Javanese belief.

“Everyone, regardless their religion, can practice Kejawen,” said Agustina. “It’s a way of life and philosophy that has existed before the coming of Hindu, Buddha, Islam, and Christianity to Java.”

“Nearly everything you see around the Keraton is actually based on the philosophy of Kejawen, and that includes those Banyan trees that you were afraid of.”

For Javanese, a Banyan tree is a perfect symbol of power for its enormous size, longevity, and ability to survive in any circumstances. “It is deeply rooted to the earth, retaining groundwater, and also, can become a shelter for all kinds of people in a bad weather,” said Agustina. “That means a king should be humble, down to earth, wise, providing prosperity for the people, and of course, protecting them.”

She told me that to understand the philosophy of the Keraton, we need to know how it was built, and that would bring me back far to the mid of 18th century, when Sultan Hamengkubuwono I, the first ruler of Yogyakarta, founded the royal complex in 1755, shortly after the Dutch divided the Islamic Kingdom of Mataram into two, Surakarta and Yogyakarta.

The sultan put the complex precisely in the center of an imaginary cosmic line stretching from the Indian Ocean in the south to the Mount Merapi in the north. “Both the ocean and the mountain are sacred in Javanese mythology, and the Keraton was located between them, facing the mountain in the north,” said Agustina.

“For us, the ocean is where the humankind comes from and the mountain is the place where god resides. So, the imaginary line stretching between them, from south to north, actually symbolizes a journey of a man’s life from the day he was born to the day he departs from this world and meets his creator.”

Along the center line, from south to north, he built a rectangular stable for deer (Panggung Krapyak), the south square (Alun-alun Kidul), the royal complex that we know as Keraton, the north square (Alun-alun Lor), and at the north end, a monument like an obelisk that everybody knows as Tugu.

“The first sultan was brilliant. He put the Keraton exactly in the middle between Panggung Krapyak and Tugu,” said Agustina proudly.

“Why would the sultan put the Keraton between those two objects?” I was curious.

Agustina smiled and said: “Everybody coming to Yogyakarta would take pictures of Tugu, it is 2.5 kilometer north of Keraton. It has become the city’s popular landmark, and even an icon. But little do they realize that the monument is a symbol of male reproductive organ.”

I was surprised to hear that, but before I raised another question, she continued: “Not many people know that Tugu was actually paired with Panggung Krapyak, the deer stable. And do you know what it symbolizes?”

Without any doubt, I was guessing: “female reproductive organ.”

We both laughed, and Agustina continued: “Correct! And together with the Keraton, both objects symbolize fertility. It is an important aspect in human’s life that will ensure our existences. In this case, it is the existence of the Keraton that we hope will last forever.”

I was impressed with the philosophy and realized that of all Keratons in Indonesia today, the one of Yogyakarta is the most well preserved one. In fact, whoever the reigning sultan in this Keraton is, he will automatically become the governor of Yogyakarta Province due to the special status the sultanate obtained from Indonesian government in 1945.

Later that day, I walked toward Alun-alun Lor, the north square. It is actually the front yard of the Keraton, twice bigger than the one in the south, and also has two huge banyan trees grow at its center.

Today, this square becomes a favorite place for the locals to catch the afternoon breeze. I joined them by sitting on an iron bench on its west side to watch people play kites, jog around the square, walk around with their pets, or just sit cross legged on the ground.

I was soon engaged in a friendly conversation with Arianto, a local old man who seemed to know about the history of the place. “In the past, sultan used to interact with the people here. This square spatially connects Keraton with people, and with god,” said Sujarwo.

“God?” I asked.

“Yes, in Islam we are taught to maintain good relations with human being and with our creator. You see over there, on the west side of this square, the first sultan built that mosque to pray. This square perfectly symbolizes that teaching,” he answered while pointing at Masjid Gedhe Kauman, a grand mosque built in 1773.

In the dusk, the sound of call to prayer came from the mosque. Like a spell, the sound stopped everybody from doing their activities. Many of them headed to the mosque and slowly left the square empty. I was moved by what I had seen.

But that was not the case with Alun-alun Kidul, the south square. As the sun goes down, this place becomes vibrant and crowded with visitors. It was more like a Pasar Malam with street foods, and rides to play. That night, I met my friend, Alfian, a local photographer, at that place.

“In the past, this was the parade square for the royal troops,” said Alfian. “And you know what; the troops are still often seen parading here.”

“What? You mean their ghosts”? I responded with surprise. “Can I see them?”

“Only if you have the eyes to see their residual energy,” he answered with smile. “Let me tell you more about other myths around the Keraton,”

We then walked south, 100 meter from the square, to the remaining of Benteng Baluwarti, the defense fort of Keraton. Back in the 18th century, Sultan Hamengkubuwono I fortified the royal complex with a rectangular shaped bastion. It had five gates, and a watch tower in every corner. For various reasons, many parts of the bastion were demolished, and of the five gates it had, only two survived. Alfian took me to one of the remaining gates.

“This is Plengkung Gading, the southernmost gate of the former bastion,” said Alfian.

“When a sultan passes away, his body will be carried in a royal carriage from the Keraton in a grand procession through this gate, to the royal cemetery at Imogiri, 17 kilometer to the south, and that is the only single moment a sultan passes through this thick wall.”

“You’re saying that a sultan doesn’t pass through this gate while he’s still alive?” I asked.

“Exactly! It is strictly forbidden for him,” Alfian replied.

I had to say that I was dumfounded to hear that. To me that gate was just a thick ancient wall, but for some, it was sacred, and obviously had some sort of magical power.

Early in the following morning, before leaving Yogyakarta, I revisited the Keraton. This time, I decided to walk around without a tour guide. Inside the complex, I couldn’t help noticing some royal servants wearing traditional Javanese outfit put their hands together in front of their foreheads while bowing to everything that seemed sacred. And at almost every corner, they put withered flowers wrapped in a banana leaf, sometimes with burnt incenses placed in a clay pot, as offerings. They believed every sacred object and place is guarded by a spirit.

I was genuinely amazed by how people at this Keraton preserved their ancient traditions amidst today’s modern world. Knowing that many old royal palaces in Indonesia slowly lost their glories, I wondered what made this one of Yogyakarta survived. Was it because they practice the teaching of Kejawen with all the symbols, and philosophies, or maybe, because of the spirits? I would like to hear from them, but too bad, I was too afraid of the unseen.

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