Considering the total population of Java today, one might be startled to realize just how many people live on this Indonesian island. Java’s land area is slightly smaller than Florida, and just a little bit bigger than the whole of Greece. However, while the Sunshine State is populated by more than 20 million people, and around 11 million call Greece home, roughly 150 million souls dwell on Java. It’s not hard to understand the reason behind this overpopulation; one only needs to look into the history and geography of the island.
Located near the equator with the Java Sea to its north and the Indian Ocean to the island’s south, rainfall is consistently high over most parts of Java, particularly during rainy season. Moreover, being among the islands located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, Java’s volcanoes are plentiful and alive, ensuring the soil is repeatedly replenished with minerals essential for keeping the tapestry of forests, plantations, and farmlands on the island lush and prolific. Such abundance is critical for supporting a multitude of societies to thrive, which helps nurture a conducive environment where people’s basic needs are fulfilled and artistic endeavors encouraged. In the past, these conditions had allowed artisans and masons to create monumental structures unlike anything the island had ever seen before.
However, more than a thousand years since the great temples of the Medang kingdom were completed and eventually abandoned – or centuries in the case of those ornately carved temples in East Java – whenever the question “where is the cultural center of Java?” is asked today, the answers likely evoke a bitter schism that tore the royal court of Java apart, an event instigated by the avarice of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). While Java itself was not the main reason why the Dutch ventured far from Europe risking their money and lives – it was the Spice Islands (where nutmeg originated) that had lured the Spanish and the Portuguese decades before the arrival of the Dutch – the island was already home to some of the most important trading ports in the vast archipelago that makes up modern-day Indonesia. The port of Batavia in the western part of Java, where the colonial administration in the Dutch East Indies was based for most of the time, eventually grew into the teeming megalopolis we now know as Jakarta.
So, back to the question: where is the cultural center of Java?
Two cities usually pop up in people’s minds: Solo (Surakarta) and Jogja (Yogyakarta). Not only are both located near the ruins of the colossal Hindu-Buddhist ancient temples this part of Java is famous for, but they also host what are arguably the most influential royal courts on the island. The Sunanate of Surakarta and the Sultanate of Yogyakarta are often seen as the custodians of Javanese culture, bulwarks against rampant modernism and also creeping conservatism that has worryingly been gaining ground in recent years. Both monarchies trace back their history to the same root: the Mataram Sultanate, a powerful Islamic kingdom that rose to prominence in the late 16th century and reached its apogee in the 17th century.
Although nominally a sultanate – an Islamic realm led by a sultan – Mataram was established in a period of time when Java – for centuries a stronghold of Hinduism and Buddhism – was gradually converting to Islam. Some Hindu traditions remained, not only in architecture (although depictions of humans were conspicuously absent), but also in rituals. Mataram Sultanate, along with other smaller sultanates on the island, spread a version of Islam that was starkly different from the one practiced in the Arabian desert.
In the early 18th century, when the VOC grew more powerful, the sultan sought help from the Dutch company to put down rebellions in his kingdom. This marked an era when the Dutch began meddling with the internal affairs of the Mataram Sultanate, supporting whichever ruler who brought the most benefits to the European power. One by one, coastal cities once held by Mataram were ceded to the VOC, leaving only the heartland of Central Java in the sultan’s full control. In the mid-18th century, the Dutch further involved themselves in the power struggles of the royal court of Mataram. Pakubuwono II, the sultan at that time who had just built a new palace in Surakarta and moved his court there, was a close ally of the Dutch. Prince Mangkubumi – Pakubuwono II’s brother who had been promised a reward of land for successfully suppressing a rebellion – grew dissatisfied with the sultan for changing his mind and giving concessions to the Dutch instead.
In 1755, following years of rebellion by Prince Mangkubumi, a treaty was signed by the VOC, Pakubuwono III (Pakubuwono II’s son), and the rebel prince – omitting Prince Sambernyawa, another claimant of Mataram Sultanate’s core realm. The treaty divided Mataram in two: Surakarta and the land east of the Opak river belonged to Pakubuwono III, and Yogyakarta to the west of the river fell under the control of Mangkubumi who then took the title Hamengkubuwono I. Apart from the split of Mataram, the treaty also allowed the VOC to determine the ruler of the two new kingdoms whenever necessary – officially bringing Mataram’s independence to an end.
After gaining independence from the Dutch in 1945, the Indonesian government gradually stripped local kings across the archipelago of political power, demoting them to mere cultural leaders of their respective communities. The Sunanate of Surakarta was no exception; the kingdom became part of the province of Central Java although the sunan (how the sultan is called in Surakarta) retained his title and continued residing in the royal palace. Neighboring Yogyakarta, however, was granted a special status, allowing its sultan to keep his political power in the nascent republic. This was made possible thanks to Hamengkubuwono IX’s pivotal role in providing a temporary capital for Indonesia when Jakarta fell to the Dutch following the European nation’s military intervention (known in Indonesia as the First Dutch Military Aggression) to retake parts of its former colony.
Today, the royal palace (keraton) of Surakarta is a testament to the kingdom’s significance in the past and a silent witness to the intrigues that took place within its walls. Situated right at the heart of the city of Solo, the whitewashed Gladag gate welcomes people to the northern square of the expansive palace compound. Fronting the square is the 18th-century palace mosque, commissioned by Pakubuwono III, and a large audience hall used by the house’s lords. A short walk deeper into the complex brings visitors to a trapezoid-roofed gate, the entrance to the main palace. A shaded veranda painted and decorated with accents of blue and adorned with kala and makara, ubiquitous in Hindu temples, lies immediately behind the gate with a round tower looming from the back of the structure. Beyond this display of different architecture styles is a leafy courtyard surrounded by the palace’s main audience hall as well as rooms and chambers which now house some of the palace’s collections, including royal chariots and centuries-old Hindu-Buddhist artifacts.
The current sunan, Pakubuwono XIII, resides in the tranquil palace complex following another power struggle in recent years as the previous sunan, Pakubowono XII, never announced any of his sons as the heir to the throne. In April 2017 a dispute between two claimants was finally settled when the younger prince acknowledged his half-brother as the new sunan. Surakarta’s long rival Yogyakarta, meanwhile, has been more successful in avoiding this kind of internal commotion, though perhaps not for much longer as greater uncertainties are looming on the horizon.