They served, in effect, as exporters of agricultural produce from the fertile Javanese hinterland, as builders and outfitters of large spice trading fleets, and as trading entrepots frequented by merchants from all corners of the globe. Between the 15th and 17th centuries, when Islam was a new and growing force in the archipelago, these ports also flourished as political and religous centres for powerful rulers who spread the word of the prohet at home and abroad.
Most of the pesisir harbours have long ago silted up, and their major monuments are few. Consequently, foreigners seldom visit the north caost, even though it is one of the finese areas for handicrafts in Indonesia and contains many unique sights: eccentric palaces holy graves, ancient mosque, bustling markets and colourful Chinese temples. Perhaps the coast’s greatest attraction, however, is that it is completely off the beaten tourist track.
Electric Cirebon: The first port of call if you are taking the northern route is the ancient sultanate of Cirebon – once a powerful court centre and still a fascinating pot – pourri of Sundanese, Javanese, Chinese, Islamic and European influences. It’s a rather sleepy place now, with a small harbour and a sizeable fishing industry. While it is famous for its seafood, it is physically indistinguishable from many other mid sized Javanese cities. As you begin to explore Cirebon’s byways, however, the town’s coluorful past quickly comes to life.
Cirebon’s two major palaces were both built in 1678 in order that each of two princes could have his own court. The Kraton Kasepuhan (palace of the “elder brother”) was raised upon the site of the 15th century Pakungwati palace of Cirebon’s earlier Hindu rulers, and one of the royal pavilions occupying the forecourt bears the date 1425. This complez, with its split red brick gate (candi bentar) and several elaborately carved audience pavilions, is undobtly one of the finest ex-Hindu – Javanese architecture in exixstence.
The palace itself is Javanese in design, but throughly composite in its execution. A Romanesque archway framed by mystical Chinese rocks and clouds gives onto a spacious, pillared Javanese pendopo furnished with French period peices. And the walls of the Dalem Ageng (ceremonial chamber) behind it are exhibiting biblical scenes. To top it all off, the small adjoining museum contains a coach carved in the shape of a winged, horned, hooved elephant grasping a trident in its trunk; it’s a glorious fusion of Javanese, Hindu, Islamic, Persian, Greek and Chinese mythological elements.
Just next to the Kasepuhan palace stands the Mesjid Agung (Grand Mosque) constructed ca. 1500. Its two tiered “meru” roof rest on an elaborate wooden scaffolding, and the interior contains imported sandstone portals and a taekwood Kala head pulpit, together with the Demak mosque, it is one of the oldest remaining landmarks of Islam on Java.
Kraton Kanoman (the palace of the “younger brother”) is nearby, reached via a bulstling marketplace. Large banyan trees shade the peaceful courtyard within, and as at Kasepuhan, the furnishing are European and the walls are studded with tiles and porcelains from Holland and China. The mueseum contains a collection of stakes still used to ommolate the flesh of Muslim believers on Muhammad birthday each year (seni debus), as well as a pair of fine coaches and relics from Cirebon’s past.
Further evidence of Cirebon’s extreme cultural eclecticism is to be foun among the restored ruins of Taman Arum Sunyaragi, 4 kms (2,5 miles) out of town on the south western bypass. Though originally built as a fortrees in 1702 and used as a base dor resistance againts the Dutch, this stone, mortar and coral rock folly was cast in its present form in 1852 by a Chinese architect, to serve as a pleasure palacecum hermitage for Cirebon’s rajas. With its many nooks, crannies, tunnelsm poolsm gardens, gates and sentry cahes, it is remiiscent of Taoist meditational grottoes and Hindu representation of Nirvana.
Five kms (3 miles) north of the city along the main Jakarta road, lies the hilltop tombo Sunan Gunung Jati, a 16th century ruler of Cirebon and one of the mine wali’s who helped propagate Islam on Java. Pilgrims come to burn incense and pray in shrine at the foot of the hill. Its guardians are said to be descendants of a sea captain who was shipwrecked here, and their shifts are still assigned like watches on a ship. The mausoleum of Gunung Jati’s mentor, Sheik Datu Kahfi, sits on another hillside across the road to the east, and at the summit of this hill the grave of Gunung jati’s fifth wife, the Chinese princes Ong Tien, overlooks the sea.
Before leaving Cirebon, be sure to visit one of several artisan villages located just to the west of the city. In keeping with the area’s eclectic past, these villages maintain higly distinctive traditions of calligraphic painting. Wayang pupperty, gamelan music and topeng mask dancing, in addition to producing som e of Java’s most unique batik textiles.
Travelling east along the coast, the prospect is generally dull. Occasionally there are small estaurine towns where colourful boats ride easily on the tide, and rolled fishing nets shimmer in the bright sunlight like giant cocoons of raw silk. Except as a road junction, Tegal has little to recommend it, though pottery and handicraft enthusiasts may be tempted by the excellent ochre and brass wares produced and sold about 10 kms (6 miles) to the south of the town.
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