In Jakarta last month to meet Indonesian President Joko Widodo and several ministers, I was repeatedly startled by the prominent display of statues and paintings – not only of humans and animals but also mythological creatures that adorned the halls and gardens of grand official buildings. In hotels, restaurants and museums too there were stone reliefs, wood carvings and lanterns portraying legendary scenes. When conversations got dry I studied my hosts’ batik shirts and marvelled at the prevalence of dragons, birds, fish and butterflies festooned in them.
Such representations of creatures are comparatively rare in Malaysia, apart from the feline supporters on our national crest. It wasn’t always that way: Mubin Sheppard’s Taman Indera published in 1972 shows a mystical Burong Pertala Indera Maha Sakti and the apparently secure tradition of wayang kulit narrating Hindu epics. Today, royal buildings and ceremonies serve as important bulwarks to the erasure of certain traditions from public memory: the ukiran of Istana Lama in Seri Menanti includes mystical birds, and the recent enthronement of the 35th Sultan of Perak saw gold dragon and snake armlets being worn. Songket and keris enthusiasts lament the stylisation of traditional animal designs to conform to new religious interpretations, and the eschewing of human depictions has relegated Tugu Negara from a solemn place of remembrance to a mere tourist attraction.
A more recent trip to Yogyakarta and Surakarta left me even more provoked by our comparative abandonment of cultural history. At a batik workshop, a Javanese matriarch taught me the traditional (and sadomasochistic) method of applying 70 degree wax onto a cloth tightly wrapped around one’s wrist, making abundantly clear her disdain for the abstract style of batik commonplace in Malaysia. (Earlier, I confirmed that suggesting Javanese people were “Malay” can result in a walloping.) In the background, Javanese gamelan played in its haunting slendro scale, but an escape to bakmi jawa was accompanied by relentless keronchong performed live as if it was the most natural thing in the world in the eatery’s modest furnishings.
But it was at Borobodur (supposedly “rediscovered” by Raffles in the five years of British administration in Java) that I was fed the historical context that feeds the powerful Javanese identity, by a storyteller who reminded me of my guide at the Pyramids of Giza: a Muslim passionate about the pre-Islamic history of their civilisation. Not everyone agrees: in the eighties it was targeted by bombs and recently a self-proclaimed branch of ISIS threatened to destroy it. Later, I saw banners and graffiti declaring “keep ISIS out of Indonesia”.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Buddhist temple was built in the ninth century in the Mataram Kingdom, contemporaneously to the nearby Hindu temple of Prambanan, suggesting peaceful coexistence of religious communities possibly headed by two branches of the same dynasty. A popular theory holds that an eruption of nearby Mount Merapi triggered the kingdom’s relocation and ultimate demise, as internal dynastic politics plagued it too: one theory says that the Buddhist branch retreated to Srivijaya (based at Sumatra) and subsequently defeated the Hindu branch on Java.
This was eventually reversed when Srivijayan influence on Java was removed by the Singhasari Kingdom, itself replaced by the Majapahit Empire which completed the demise of Srivijaya. Politics and war played their course, and the Majapahit Empire was succeeded by the Demak Sultanate, the Kingdom of Pajang, and finally the Mataram Sultanate. With Dutch involvement, this polity was ultimately divided into the two courts based at Yogyakarta and Surakarta.
Today, both entities (like many others in Indonesia) still have traditional royal rulers, but the former is the only one that is accorded formal executive powers (as governor of the province) by the republic, a legacy of recent history: both houses supported Sukarno’s proclamation of the Indonesian Republic and were rewarded with a special status, but Surakarta’s was soon lost due to a local anti-royalist uprising.
In Surakarta’s keraton (palace) I caught glimpses of a prosperous and enlightened civilisation epitomised by a well-travelled monarch, Pakubuwono X, who exchanged gifts with the Pope, institutionalised religious freedom in his realm, and whose state crest featured the world [buwono] being held by a nail [paku].
Despite the amazing artefacts, the whole place was in a state of disrepair. When I asked why, the guide darted his eyes and quietly told me of royal and political intrigue that has caused a blockage of maintenance funding. When I asked of the current president’s involvement he refused to say more.
Of course, Jokowi was Mayor of Surakarta for seven years, and as my friends looked for signs of his legacy, I pondered the legacy that has led to the divergent appreciation of cultural history in our two countries.
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Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is Founding President of IDEAS