Taman Sari: Life in the Sultan’s Own Backyard

48 comments
Asia, Indonesia
The Restored Gate to the Former Royal Bathing Complex

The Restored Gate to the Former Royal Bathing Complex

“Transport Mister? Water Castle?” all rickshaw drivers kept asking me the same questions during my visit to Yogyakarta (Jogja) in January 2011. It was not my first trip to the city, however I always missed Taman Sari – or better known as the Water Castle to foreigners – on my previous visits for so many reasons, until this July.

On a sunny Tuesday morning, Alexander, Detta and I were joined by a group of local university students before the ornate gate of Taman Sari complex. Painted in an ivory color, the floral-patterned gate led to a small courtyard with a manicured garden which brought us to the royal bathing complex, a walled compound of three bathing pools and a watch tower.

During its heyday the tower was used by past Sultans to watch their concubines bathing in the pools and later choose his favored one to enjoy the privilege of spending a night with him. The three-storeyed tower consists of three chambers at the lower level which were used for different purposes. One was obviously intended as Sultan’s own love lair where a wooden bed was placed on top of three small furnaces which would be filled with hot charcoal to warm the bed. However today the current Sultan is married to only one woman and they live in a more enclosed area of keraton – the royal palace.

Walking out of the bathing complex through a gate with a Kala-Makara relief on it, we were welcomed by a larger courtyard with an even more monumental gate standing on its far side. To our left a smaller gate proved to be more inviting for us since less people were heading towards that direction. We walked further and as soon as we passed the smaller gate, rows of modest houses filled both sides of the narrow walkway. One would find it confusing at first as the elegant and beautifully decorated royal complex suddenly turned into local people’s unassuming houses.

We walked further, past the small houses with a motorbike parked in the front yard of each house. Some local residents gave us some very welcoming yet curious smiles and asked where we were from. The small alley got even narrower as we ventured deeper, then we found an old well with unused but clean old chambers right next to it. A place like this might have looked quite different back then when it was still fully functional, a place full of banter and clamor.

The Enclosed Bathing Complex of Umbul Pasiraman

The Enclosed Bathing Complex of Umbul Pasiraman

The Tower from Which the Sultan Watched His Concubines

The Tower from Which Past Sultans Watched Their Concubines

The Bed of Love

The Bed of Love

Umbul Pasiraman Viewed from the Tower

Umbul Pasiraman Viewed from the Tower

One of the Main Gates to the Complex

One of the Main Gates to the Complex

The Ancient Oven

The Old Kitchen

Kala-Makara Roof Decoration

Kala-Makara Roof Decoration

Gedong Ledoksari, Sultan's Meditation Complex

Gedong Ledoksari, Sultan’s Meditation Complex

The Meditation Chamber

The Meditation Chamber

The Ornate Alleys of Kampung Taman

The Ornate Alleys of Kampung Taman

A Batik-Painted Wall

A Batik-Painted Wall

Erected in the mid-18th century, Taman Sari was initially built as the resting, meditating, and hiding place for the Sultan complete with picturesque gardens and an artificial lake. Today however, only the main compound remains mostly intact while the rest has turned into a densely populated residential area called Kampung Taman, literally village of the garden, which slowly grew following a series of wars and earthquakes. Navigating the narrow yet colorful alleys of Kampung Taman, one would not miss the ruins of Kenongo, once the largest building in the entire compound which was surrounded by an artificial lake.

Around the base of Kenongo a handful of local women were busy painting white sheets of cloth with pictures from Javanese Hindu mythology. Walking past them, we climbed the stairs leading to the abandoned ruins on top of a small hill. With no ceiling the blue skies peeked through the crevice, and with the absence of walls at some parts of the building, the wind blew quite strongly through the empty corridors of Kenongo.

“There was a bird market down there, near the base of this small hill” Alexander recalled. “It was so atmospheric.”

We continued our stroll through the alleys of Kampung Taman to get to the most iconic structure in Taman Sari, albeit quite small in size: The underground mosque. Walking down the staircase to an underground corridor, we went deeper through a thick concrete tunnel, which later opened up into a round doughnut-like structure – intentionally designed to optimize the acoustic quality inside the mosque – where four staircases rose and met at the center from which another staircase led to the upper level, above a small pond which was used for ablutions. The hollowed two-storey structure was studded with intermittently small niches on the outer wall; one of them was once used as the mihrab, indicating the direction of Mecca.

Since 1995 the entire Taman Sari compound has been listed as a tentative UNESCO World Heritage Site in Indonesia. Alexander recalled that many buildings have been restored to their original state, compared to a few years ago when most of the structures were left decaying and crumbling. The work to bring back the old grandeur of this place is still far from complete, but today one can envisage how life was like for past Sultans when Taman Sari was a magnificent expanse of gardens, pavilions, and lakes to showcase the wealth of his Sultanate.

The Ruins of Gedong Kenongo, Once the Largest Building in the Area

The Ruins of Gedong Kenongo, Once the Largest Building in the Area

Peeking Through the Ruins

Peeking Through the Ruins

Empty Halls of Gedong Kenongo

Empty Halls of Gedong Kenongo

Tajug Buildings, Previously Used as Air Vents

Tajug Buildings, Previously Used as Air Vents

The Underground Mosque, First Floor

The Underground Mosque, First Floor

The Elevated Platform

The Elevated Platform

Where Four Staircases Meet

Where Four Staircases Meet

Hollowed Walls around the Staircases

Hollowed Walls around the Staircases

The Second Floor of the Mosque

The Second Floor of the Mosque

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

48 thoughts on “Taman Sari: Life in the Sultan’s Own Backyard”

  1. What a curious, mystical complex! I especially love the look of the gateways and the underground mosque – the four staircases must lead to a very special place. Strangely, the Sultan’s bed doesn’t seem very comfortable, it could be the lack of an actual mattress and bedding, but then again it’s tightly hemmed in by three walls. Thanks for taking us along Bama, I must put this down for the next time I go to Jogja!

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    • When you go to Jogja one day, I’ll make sure to take you to Taman Sari as well. That underground mosque was very unique indeed. No other mosque in Indonesia looks like that, as far as I know. I guess there must be some sort of bedding back then, otherwise he would get back pain a lot! 🙂

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  2. A great post, Bamo! I loved my visit (mid-80s, I guess), and trying to imagine the life within. Sad to hear the bird market has gone – it was so exotic and seemed to take us back into another time. 🙂

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    • Thanks Meredith! Oh so you did go! I can only imagine how atmospheric it was when the bird market was still there. It must add up the traditional ambiance to the place.

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    • I would always recommend Jogja to those who’s going to travel in Indonesia. It’s the base to explore most of the magnificent ancient temples, also to immerse in the Javanese cultural scene.

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  3. Thank you for sharing these wonderful photos! I have never seen anything like this in real life. One must really travel to see the wonders of the world. 🙂

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    • And thank you for your lovely comment, Joycelyn! The world is indeed filled with so many amazing places, and it is ours to keep and explore. 🙂

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  4. Halim Santoso says:

    This is my favourite hideaway while i’m stuck in Solo, Bama. And…tomorrow morning i’ll going there ( again ) hahaha…. When will you explore Solo? Let me know if you go to Solo 🙂

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    • Oh wow, again? You must really love it, Halim! 🙂 Actually I haven’t really explored Solo. I’ve been there twice but I always made it as a base to explore other places. I will surely let you know if I go to Solo again.

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  5. I went there with my friend last January. It was indeed a beautiful place. The guide took us in the Underground Mosque too and he mentioned that the government has plans to restore the whole area to its original grandeur.

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    • That is such a good news that the government is planning for more restoration works! Thanks for dropping by CJ!

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  6. I always missed this place too on my previous visits to Jogja. Hopefully I’ll make it there next month
    Anyway, you did write a beautiful story about this place, Bama. It makes me even more curious to explore it. Cheers 🙂

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    • Hi Debbzie! It’s funny how everyone loves this place but it was not until this July that I had the chance to finally visit Taman Sari. And apparently I’m not the only one. 🙂 Hope you have a nice time there next month. Thanks for dropping by!

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    • Thanks Jessica! I’m honored and at the same time glad that you enjoyed my blog. We’ll see what I can do with the award, but again, thank you so much!

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    • Wow, I’m flattered! Thank you so much for your kind words and encouragement! I’m glad you enjoyed my blog.

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  7. I went here last year during an office outing and it’s splendid! It’s like reminiscence of the past. Now, if only there’s a time machine… :p

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  8. Eten says:

    “During its heyday the tower was used by past Sultans to watch their concubines bathing in the pools and later choose his favored one to enjoy the privilege of spending a night with him…”

    -____-

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