Throngs of vendors fill the narrow alleys outside the royal courtyard. Colorful shirts for souvenir and appetizing scent of bakso – meatball soup – keep bargain hunters and tourists stay in this maze-like seasonal market for hours, among other things. It takes a while for us to find the entrance to the Keraton – the Royal Palace – as we have to navigate through the tarpaulin-covered narrow walkways while spotting a modest Ferris wheel at an open space. It is merely one week before the celebration of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, often carried out in festivities across the country.
It is not an easy thing to locate the entrance gate. But fortunately the typical hot and humid air of coastal cities in tropical regions is absent this time, sparing all of us from excessive sweating. As I have anticipated, the gate to the inner courtyard looks rather modest for a palace’s standard. An old man sits near the ticket counter, waiting for a group of tourists to come, us. Wearing a green shirt with tiny holes on some parts – probably burned by his own cigarettes – and a pale Batik cloth around his legs, he turns out to be the official tour guide to the royal palace complex.
This is the Keraton Kasepuhan of Cirebon, the seat of the once reputable sultanate on the northern coast of Java with thriving trade and cultural cooperation with regions as far as China, India, and the Middle East. The sultanate reached its peak in the 16th century when it flourished not only as an important trade port, but also a center for Islamic studies in Java.
Two white tiger statues stand in a symmetrical proportion on top of an artificial coral rag, welcoming everyone to the inner courtyard. Directly behind them stands the white-washed gate to the palace, adorned with mega mendung – literally cloudy skies – patterns on the lentil which are unique to Cirebon and might have been influenced by Chinese traditional patterns. We enter the Keraton from the right wing of the palace complex, through a narrow gateway embellished with small colorful porcelains from China. To our right, a surau – small praying hall – with an intricately carved wooden pillar and glossy black tiles sits in solitude, detached from the main palace building. A few steps forward, we find the entrance to the audience hall to our left.
As is the case with the entrance gate, the audience hall looks too humble for a palace – scarcely decorated with artistic ornaments which are ubiquitous in most royal palaces. However the most interesting part lies right behind the throne, a wall mounted by small ceramic plates depicting scenes from the Bible and the landmarks of the Netherlands.
The Dutch played an important role in the history of the Sultanate of Cirebon as they proposed the initiative to split the sultanate into two ruling families – part of the strategy to weaken local kingdoms throughout the archipelago. In the 17th century, the sultanate was divided between two main royal houses – the house of the elders (Kasepuhan) and the house of the youth (Kanoman) – each has its own palace. The former retains the seat of the sultanate in the Keraton, while the latter had to move to a new palace compound called Keraton Kanoman.
The audience hall is the furthest we can enter because the rest of the palace is still used and inhabited by the descendants of the Kasepuhan house, including the current sultan, Sultan Sepuh XIV. The royal family had long relinquished its right to rule Cirebon and ceded the governance of the city and surrounding regions to the civil government. However the sultan still plays a significant role as a cultural leader for the locals. He himself is a businessman in his everyday life.
Before we leave the Keraton, our mannered guide takes us to a small museum, a few walks away from the main palace building. It is the house of Kereta Singa Barong, the original royal chariot dating back to the 18th century. The wooden chariot is crested with a sculpture of Singa Barong – a mystical creature with the head and horns of a dragon, the trunk and tusks of an elephant, and a pair of wings. Each element represents the close relationship between the sultanate and other nation – the dragon for China, the elephant for India, and the wings for the Middle East. As a matter of fact, Princess Ong Tien – the daughter of Emperor Hong Gie of the Ming Dynasty – was married to Sunan Gunung Jati, the ruler of Cirebon in the late 15th century. He himself was born from an Egyptian father and a Sundanese mother.
Finding our way out of the Keraton proves a lot easier as we have already known the way. Having immersed in a hefty dose of history of the royal palace, we agree that a nice lunch is what we need and further exploration of the city will be a nice thing to do in our short visit.
Cirebon itself, along with many other regions in Indonesia, has its own Batik industries. One particular pattern which is unique to Cirebon is the mega mendung, similar with the patterns we found in the keraton. The curvy minimalistic patterns transform into vibrant colors of Batik clothes where shades of red, green, black, and orange mega mendung patterns are hand-drawn or printed onto. Like other cities in Indonesia, Dutch colonial buildings are abound in Cirebon. Quite close to Keraton, we spot a large and relatively well-maintained colonial building which seems to belong to the British American Tobacco (BAT).
Time is one thing we lack of on this visit to Cirebon. However we make sure to make the best out of it when it comes to food. Local delicacies such as empal gentong (sliced beef in rich beef broth with coconut milk, turmeric, chopped scallions, and other spices), nasi jamblang (white rice covered in teak leaf and served with various side dishes), and skewered young mutton are too good to miss. Spices-infused beef slices tickle our palates alternately with melt-in-your-mouth skewered mutton in chili and soy sauce, and the subtly fragrant nasi jamblang with spicy hard-boiled eggs gently pinch our taste buds. Soto daging sapi – sliced beef in light beef broth with sliced fried shallots, sliced tomatoes, spices, and a spoonful of sambal – although not necessarily native to Cirebon also tastes a lot better than what I usually have. I will seriously consider for coming back to this city even only for the food.