The Heritage of Cirebon

48 comments
Asia, Indonesia
Twin White Tigers Welcome Visitors to Cirebon's Keraton Kasepuhan (Palace of the House of Elders)

Twin White Tigers Welcome Visitors to Cirebon’s Keraton Kasepuhan (Palace of the House of Elders)

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.

Ubiquitous Mega Mendung Patterns on the Lintel of the Palace

Ubiquitous Mega Mendung Patterns on the Lintel of the Palace

Chinese Porcelains on A Gate

Chinese Porcelains on A Gate

Plaited Leaves for Ceiling

Plaited Leaves for Ceiling

Ornate Wooden Pillar of the Praying Area

Ornate Wooden Pillar of the Praying Area

Decorative Elements of the Ceiling

Decorative Elements of the Ceiling

The Audience Hall

The Audience Hall

Porcelain Plates with Scenes from the Bible and the Netherlands

Porcelain Plates with Scenes from the Bible and the Netherlands

Biblical Scenes inside the Keraton

Biblical Scenes inside the Keraton

The 300 years old Royal Chariot

The 300 years old Royal Chariot

Elements of Chinese, Indian, and Middle Eastern Cultures

Elements of Chinese, Indian, and Middle Eastern Cultures

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.

Batik Shirts with Mega Mendung Patterns

Batik Shirts with Mega Mendung Patterns

More Mega Mendung Patterns

More Mega Mendung Patterns

A Morning Market Scene

A Morning Market Scene

The Façade of Cirebon Train Station

The Façade of Cirebon Train Station

Dutch-Style British American Tobacco’s Office in Cirebon

Dutch-Style British American Tobacco’s Office in Cirebon

Old Merchants House

Old Merchants House

Soto Daging Sapi (Beef Soto) – Not Necessarily Native to Cirebon but This One was Special

Soto Daging Sapi (Beef Soto) – Not Necessarily Native to Cirebon but This One was Special

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

48 thoughts on “The Heritage of Cirebon”

  1. Wonderful post Bama – I especially love the mega mendung patterns, you can truly see the Chinese influence in the way those clouds are drawn! The Keraton Kasepuhan looks like such a cosy place to live… it seems beautifully decorated but not overwhelmingly so. 🙂

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    • Thanks James! Compared to other Batik patterns, mega mendung looks fresh and modern. The Keraton actually looks more like a large old house of a wealthy Indonesian. In fact, many modern houses are more swanky than the Keraton. 🙂

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    • You’re welcome Meredith! Indonesia and Sri Lanka are not that far away, and it’s even closer to Australia. So you’ll never know, maybe it will be sooner than later that you’ll find yourself in Indonesia. 🙂

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  2. I’m so pleased to have found your great blog and I’m now following you. Fabulous photos and interesting post about Cirebon. Thanks, Lottie

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    • Thanks Lottie! Glad to know another blogger who’s based out of Jakarta. I hope today’s flooding in all over the city doesn’t affect you.

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  3. Great post Bam! Love the pictures. Each city in Indonesia has indeed at least one interesting place to visit, and Cirebon seems to be one of them.

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    • Thanks Bin! I didn’t expect Cirebon could be this interesting actually. So you’re right – each city deserves a visit. 🙂

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  4. Note to self: never read this blog on an empty stomach… may spontaneously die of hunger due to provocative food descriptions.

    😉 Gorgeous post, Bama. I may be betraying my own ignorance here, but I had no idea there were still sultans today. Learned something new, as always here!

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    • Oops, sorry for that! 😛 Writing provocative food descriptions might have become my new habit because by doing so I can relive the moment the food entered my mouth – more often than not makes me think that I’m in food heaven! Thanks Meghan! I will be embarking on a 9-day trip to Istanbul next Monday. I wonder what scrumptious Turkish food I can write about when I have returned to Jakarta. 😉

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    • I hope it’s in a good way, Marilyn! 🙂 Actually I’m not sure what they’re made of but the texture seems like mortar. Thanks for reading!

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      • My pleasure Marilyn! I’ve never been to the western hemisphere, so for the moment on I can live vicariously through your blog.

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    • Thanks Harish! It’s my pleasure to share some interesting stories of places that I’ve been to. 🙂

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  5. Beautiful photos, and the food! I would love to try it. I love the mega mendung pattern so much I had part of a jacket made and lined with it. Thanks for this post.

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    • Thanks Lydia! Well, you know how addictive Indonesian food can be. 😉 Oh I have to admit that I don’t have anything with mega mendung pattern – most of the Batiks I have are in Jogja patterns. Maybe when I return to Cirebon one day I will buy some. Thanks for reading!

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    • Thanks Marisol! It’s a small palace but when I looked closely I found those interesting small things inside the palace.

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  6. Chuckling at the “Dutch style British American Tobacco house” 🙂 Cirebon, seems like a delightful place. Thank you for taking us to such off beat areas of your country Bama.

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    • You got it Madhu! 🙂 There are still some historical places in Cirebon that I haven’t visited. I hope I can go back one day I can write some stories of them. You’re very welcome Madhu!

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  7. What a beautiful find! Loved going through your blog and this post ….beautiful. I have breifly been to Indonesia on work, just in and around Jakarta and didnt get to savor the flavor of the land. I am a travel and socio-cultural history enthusiast myself. will be following you from now
    🙂

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    • That would be a good reason for you to go back to Indonesia one day. 🙂 Thanks for dropping by and following my blog!

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  8. Waaah pas banget ada rencana mau ke Cirebon, thank you for the wonderful suggestions in your post, will be sure to check it out when I go next week.

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  9. Nice post, from the picture, I agree that the audience hall looks too humble for a palace 🙂 Do you think that this is because of the humility of Sultanate of Cirebon?

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    • Thanks Ethenia! I think most of Indonesian palaces have rather modest audience halls, which is not surprising at all considering how humble Majapahit’s heritages are, despite its significance. I think it runs in Indonesians’ blood. 🙂

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    • Makasih Annisa! My intention was to share more about the diversity within the country. But it’s a nice thing to know that my posts have an even further impact. 🙂

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    • Oh ayeuna di Cirebon? Urang geus lila tara ka Tasik euy. Tapi hayang sih jalan-jalan nostalgia kitu. 🙂

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  10. Richar says:

    Stupendous images with interesting descriptions…keep on! it’s a blessing to find out some of your travels to some corners of this world especially to some places of our country, Indonesia through the photos and their description. What about traveling to some exotic places in the eastern part of Indonesia, e.g. Toraja, South Sulawesi or Nusa Tenggara (Komodo Island)? My hometown is Labuan Bajo (but I am staying in Manila right now), the launching point for tourists going to Komodo Island.

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    • Thanks Richar! Actually a year ago I have booked my flights to Makassar to visit Toraja. But then for one reason I had to cancel it. I’ve also been dreaming to go to Komodo Island, and hopefully within a few years’ time you’ll find me writing stories from those places. 🙂

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  11. Been to Cirebon three times and never got bored yet. And you should go back there and get lost in Trusmi 🙂

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    • The next time I go back to Cirebon I will definitely find that empal gentong restaurant before exploring other places in the city. 🙂

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  12. Hebat… beruntung sekali jadi mas Bama ini “maknyos” heuheu…

    Oh ya… gk sekalian mampir ke kota kecil sebelahnya bernama Kuningan + nyicipin masakan nya ? ^^

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  13. Hebat… beruntung sekali jadi mas Bama ini… “maknyos” heuheu…

    Oh ya… gk sekalian mampir ke kota kecil sebelahnya bernama Kuningan + nyicipin masakan nya ? ^^

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    • Waduh, yang hebat itu kayak Bondan Winarno, Simon Reeve, dll. Saya biasa-biasa aja kok. 🙂
      Kalo ada kesempatan saya juga pengen mampir ke Kuningan sih. Makanan khas Kuningan itu apa aja ya mbak?

      Like

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