Chapter 2, Part 8
As Demak rose to prominence and became independent from Majapahit, another sultanate began to flourish on the northwestern coast of Java. Previously under the sphere of influence of the Hindu Galuh kingdom, the Sultanate of Cirebon became effectively independent under the rule of Sunan Gunungjati, one of the nine Muslim saints (Wali Songo) famous for disseminating Islamic teaching in Java by incorporating local customs.
Initially known as Grage (a contraction from Negara Gede – Great Country), then Caruban (a place where different peoples mix – a melting pot), in the 16th century Cirebon grew as an important trading port and the sultanate was considered a center of Islamic teaching in Java. Similar with the introduction of Islam to the Javanese society through the acculturation of Islamic values with Hindu-influenced traditions, the Sultanate of Cirebon heavily borrowed the cultural aspects of Hinduism and incorporated them in many forms, from the architecture of the royal palace to the rituals practiced by the people.
One would be forgiven to think that the main keraton (royal palace) of Cirebon is a Hindu compound for its architectural and decorative elements are distinctively Hindu. But there is one major difference: the carvings of gods and characters from Mahabharata or Ramayana – two of the most well-known Hindu epics – are absent. Such assimilation allowed Islam to be embraced by most people across Java in a relatively peaceful manner.
A Candi Bentar – split gate found in Javanese and Balinese Hindu temples – marks the entrance to Siti Inggil, an enclosure filled with roofed pavilions decorated with fine and intricate wood carvings. Each pavilion serves a specific purpose, from the sultan’s audience hall to pavilions for his entourage, and at the far back of the enclosure a linggam and yoni – symbolizing the Hindu god Shiva – sits under a tree, a reminder of the time when Islam in Java absorbed many Hindu cultural symbolism.
Down the path from the enclosure was the current seat of Keraton Kasepuhan, the palace of one of four royal houses of Cirebon which emerged in the 17th century following the split of the sultanate. As the oldest of the four (the others are Kanoman, Kacirebonan and Keprabonan), Kasepuhan – House of the Elders – still holds the most prominent position in the local society, albeit limited to ceremonial functions as all but one of Indonesia’s sultanates and local kingdoms were stripped of political power following the foundation of the republic in 1945.
Today many people in Cirebon not only still hold onto Islamic values, but also practice centuries-old traditions which often involve veneration of artifacts considered sacred. Stories about an enchanted well where one can gain or lose power, a white crocodile which comes and goes like a ghost, a keris (Javanese dagger) which magically appears from inside a tree, certain parts of the palace which were built by supernatural creatures, and places within the palace compound where holy water from Mecca spouts, are very much alive and believed by a large proportion of society. Reality and superstition walk hand in hand and are only separated by a blurred, thin line. Cirebon is after all not only a caruban (melting pot) of different peoples, but also of different faiths intertwined to form a cultural identity that is unique to the city.
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.