On August 15, 1945, people across Japan, at that time an empire encompassing large swathes of Asia, heard something they considered unthinkable. The once formidable power officially surrendered to the Allies in an announcement made by Emperor Hirohito himself. Very early the next day in Southeast Asia, Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta (Indonesian independence leaders for years), were secretly relocated from Jakarta to the town of Rengasdengklok by elements of the local independence movement who wanted them both to declare Indonesia’s independence as soon as possible. After endless meetings and a lengthy negotiation, the draft of the proclamation was finalized in the wee hours of the morning of August 17, 1945. Then at 10am that day, Sukarno and Hatta declared the nation’s independence in Jakarta, symbolizing the end of centuries of foreign rule in the Indonesian archipelago.
However, the Dutch who colonized the Southeast Asian island chain before the Japanese came and took control of the 17,000 or so islands, were keen on reclaiming their former possession by all means necessary. Skirmishes broke out across the new country – particularly on the islands of Java and Sumatra – between the Republican forces, the remaining Japanese soldiers, and the British military who, as part of the Allies, helped facilitate the return of the Dutch forces to Indonesia. There were efforts by both the Indonesian and the Dutch sides to end this period of instability known as the Indonesian National Revolution. Two agreements were signed in 1946 and 1948, but both collapsed miserably as each side insisted on implementing their own interpretation of the accords.
The Netherlands Indies Civil Administration (NICA), set up by the Dutch as their post-war colonial administration in Indonesia, managed to overrun the capital, Jakarta. Hamengkubuwono IX, the sultan of Yogyakarta at that time, offered the Republicans the chance to temporarily relocate to his city, located in the heart of Java more than 400 km away. The Indonesian leaders quietly left the capital by night train and managed to arrive in Yogyakarta undetected by the Dutch. The Sultan provided Gedung Agung – the former office of the Dutch resident situated not far from the royal palace – for Sukarno and Hatta to run the national government and lead the ongoing struggle against NICA. Yogyakarta remained the capital of the nascent republic for three years – although the seat of the Indonesian central government was briefly moved to the West Sumatran town of Bukittinggi in 1948 following the capture of Sukarno and Hatta by the Dutch – until 1949 when the Dutch-Indonesian Round Table Conference held in The Hague marked the official transfer of sovereignty of the Netherlands East Indies, with the exception of Western New Guinea, to Indonesia.
On August 17, 1950, five years after the de facto declaration of Indonesia’s independence, Jakarta was finally restored as the capital of the republic. The central government now began focusing on domestic matters, including the relegation of local rulers’ power all across the country to make way for the implementation of a modern governmental structure. All but one ruler lost their political powers. Instead of becoming a part of Central Java province, Yogyakarta was granted a special status with Hamengkubuwono IX as its governor. The move was a token of gratitude by the central government for the Sultan’s pivotal role in sheltering its leaders in Yogyakarta during the struggle against the Dutch.
As the influence of neighboring Surakarta waned, Yogyakarta took the lead in promoting Javanese culture in Indonesia and abroad. Strategically located in the Kewu Plain, where a wealth of eighth- and ninth-century Hindu-Buddhist ancient temples dot the fertile landscape, and close to the world’s largest Buddhist shrine of Borobudur, Jogja (Yogyakarta’s nickname) has been capitalizing on its reputation as the cultural heart of Java reasonably well – although Solo (how most people call Surakarta) might passionately disagree with the notion of Jogja as culturally superior. Jogja has also been a center of learning as it hosts a multitude of universities, including one of the nation’s best, which gives the city a lively art and cultural scene. A Canadian vlogger who has been living in Indonesia for more than 10 years even describes Jogja as a place where you can have the most amazing philosophical conversations with random people at a convenience store.
Jogja has indeed been known as a place that is open for everyone and every belief. Despite being officially an Islamic kingdom, the Islam practiced by the royal family and many who live outside the palace walls is one that incorporates Javanese philosophy and traditions where Mount Merapi – Indonesia’s most active volcano – and the Indian Ocean – the abode of the mythical Queen of the South Sea – form an integral part of those beliefs. Located in the middle of a straight line connecting the volcano and the south sea is the keraton, the official residence of the sultan since the 18th century following the schism of the Mataram Sultanate. Consisting of large and small pavilions clustered in seven groups of buildings, the palace complex is an epitome of the finesse of Javanese architecture. Despite being rather modest compared to the palaces in Europe, some structures within the keraton bear some of the most ornate wooden rafters I have ever seen. Intricate wood carvings with a lavish finishing in gold paint are a treat for the eyes of palace visitors, as they have been in centuries past.
Other religions also flourish in Jogja as seen in the plethora of Catholic and Protestant universities in the city, churches from various denominations, and also an important remnant from the past: the magnificent Prambanan, a rare temple compound where shrines for the Hindu Trimurti (Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma) form the focal point of the temple’s concentric layout. On my last visit for a company outing, our tour guide explained to us the connections among the most prominent figures of the world’s main religions and the common values they preached, a very Javanese way to see things, I must say. In the city, workshops where batik cloths are made have long been a major attraction for tourists, alongside the silver shops where one can find anything from earrings to a miniature model of Borobudur for those with deep pockets. No less iconic to the city is its drag shows where performers dress in traditional Javanese women’s costumes at restaurants adorned in a Javanese architectural style. I have never seen the show, but I’ve heard positive reviews about it.
Jogja’s openness is such that it has also become a breeding ground for conservative and hardline ideologies. This is the paradox of Jogja: on one hand it is home to people who might have been less welcome in other regions of Indonesia, but on the other hand it tolerates intolerant groups. For much of its history, Jogja has managed to keep the precarious balance of accommodating everyone while maintaining social harmony. However, in recent years things appear to have tilted to the right; the forced closure of an Islamic boarding schools for transgenders – the first of its kind in the world – eight years after it was established was only one of many disturbing occurrences which are, unfortunately, becoming more common these days. As recent as last week, a lone terrorist with two swords attacked a priest and a few people during a Sunday morning mass at a local Catholic church. Yet, in the days that followed Muslim neighbors who live in the church’s vicinity helped clean the place of worship of blood and the debris of a shattered Jesus statue so it would be ready for mass the following Sunday. As a Javanese myself I know that deep in their hearts most people in Jogja value peace and harmony more than anything else.
To say that Jogja is at the most important crossroads in its history is not an understatement. Apart from the ongoing struggle by those who want to keep it open for all kinds of people and those who wish to have a society dictated by stricter religious values, a potential crisis is looming on the horizon for the sultanate. Hamengkubuwono X, the current sultan, appointed his eldest daughter as his heir apparent for he has no son, and nor has he married more than one woman – who could have given him a son – as was the norm practiced by past sultans. Since its inception in 1755 Yogyakarta has never had a sultana as its ruler, and this understandably has stirred up controversy and discontentment within the royal family and outside the palace walls. Some cite religious reasons, although in history several Islamic monarchies – from a kingdom in what is now Algeria to Aceh in modern-day Indonesia – once had female sultans. But others – the traditionalists – might pose a uniquely Yogyakartan question regarding this predicament: how can a woman lead Yogyakarta while one of the mandatory rituals for a new sultan involves a mystical marriage with the Queen of the South Sea?
A sultana who can stand upon solid justifications to lead a supposedly Islamic realm, and navigate her way to uphold centuries-old rituals, and become a benevolent ruler for those who love and hate her – subjects who embrace diversity and denounce it outright – will certainly bear a mountain of burdens on her shoulders. Ready or not, Jogja is on the cusp of a fascinating new era.