Tunnels of Taman Sari

The students at my school are in the heat of their mid semester exams, and as a result of some rule that doesn’t allow me to be present during exams, I had the week off to get to know this city more – and there’s a lot to know.

Something I’ve been meaning to see in Jogja that is actually just a short bike ride from my neighborhood is the Sultan’s Water Castle, Taman Sari. So, I hopped on my bike at noon on Thursday, and after stopping only once to ask for directions, I rolled in through the gates of the Water Castle. When the man who collected my ticket struck up a conversation and walked in with me, I thought he was being friendly like Indonesians always are, but the conversation turned into a complete personal tour of the water castle grounds. The pleasantness of being taken around on a private tour was complemented by the added challenge of the entire tour being in Bahasa Indonesia, and here’s what I managed to take away from it.

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Taman Sari was a luxury bath house used by the Sultan of Yogyakarta and his many wives, children, and guests. It is now a cherished relic of the past, and is actively maintained and renovated, especially after taking a hit from the 2006 earthquake that shook Jogja and ruined places like Bantul, a village just outside of Jogja.

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The castle itself has a blend of Chinese, Indian, and European architecture, and is set up with multiple houses that hosted orchestras of gamelan that the Sultan could observe from above. The baths are surrounded by sweet smelling jasmine bushes and exotic bird cages.

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Kepel, a fruit only found in places like Taman Sari or the Kraton (Sultan property).

Underneath the bathhouse is a series of underground tunnels that leads to a subsequent underground mosque. Sometimes these tunnels were used as a means of escape during war, but most frequently they were used to get to daily prayer.

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The mosque at the end of the tunnel was circular in structure, providing excellent acoustics for prayers to travel.

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At the center of the mosque is a convergence of five staircases symbolizing the five salats (prayers) performed each day.

Around Taman Sari, there is a tight-knit community rich in timeless Indonesian traditions.

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This Pak was using tools from a buffalo horn to carefully chisel in the intricacies of a Wayang Kulit puppet onto thick cow skin (kulit=skin). Wayang Kulit is the famous traditional Indonesian shadow puppetry that usually depicts the stories of Hindu Ramayana.

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A finished product. One puppet takes about a month to complete.

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This Ibu was dripping hot wax one drop at a time onto the fabric in a process of color dyeing to make batik. The wax covered areas on the fabric remain untouched by the dye once it emerges and can be removed to reveal beautiful motifs, patterns, or in this case, drawings.

Outside the castle is an effortlessly hipster art community.

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House graffiti of Ramayana characters and traditional Jogja batik motifs.

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Indonesians express themselves in so many ways, from painting to singing to beautiful age old cultural traditions, and they do it so well.

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This little store was selling t-shirts made from bamboo cotton, the softest cotton I have ever felt.

To my pleasant surprise, there is a small community here called Kampoeng Cyber that promotes the spread of Internet use as a means of empowering the local community through the availability of greater communication.

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I was happy to see that Mark Zuckerberg had paid this little village a visit last year, but I think the Indonesians were happier.

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Last but not least, Pak Nanto! My tour guide and new friend, who patiently explained to me the magic of Taman Sari, who led me deep into tunnels underground, who entertained all the questions I was able to piece together in Bahasa, and who shared with me the cultural traditions that are still very much alive in and around Taman Sari.

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