“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.
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.