Yogyakarta – An Ingenious Pleasure Palace

Behind and just to the west of the kraton stand the ruins of the opulent and architecturally ingenious royal pleasure gardens,

Taman Sari, constructeed over a period of many years by Hamengkubuwono I, and then abruptly abandoned after his death. Dutch representatives to the sultan’s court marvelled at its construction: a large artificial lake, underground and underwater passageways, meditational retreats, a series of sunken bathing pools, and an imposing, two storey mansion of European design. They referred to the latter as the waterkasteel (Water Castle) as it was apparently fortified and was originally surrounded on all four sides by a man made lake.

The Water castle occupies high ground at the northern of the huge Taman Sari complex, and today overlooks a crowded bird market and a colony of batik painters. Though its stairways have collapsed, one can still scramble atop the crumbling walls to gain a commanding vista of Yogya town and beyond.

A tunnel behind the “castle” leads to a complex of three partially restored Bathing Pools (umbul – umbul). The large central pool with a naga head fountain was designed for the use of queens, concubines and princesses, while the small southern most pool was reserved for His Highness. A tower with several interior chambers overlooks the female bathing area – this is where the sultan’s rested during the day.

Farther to the south, tucked amid a crowded kampung, lies the interisting Pasarean Pertapaan, a royal retreat reached by passing through an ornate archway to the west of the bathing area, then following a winding path to the left. The main structure is a small Chinese style temple with a forecourt and galleries on either side, and is said to have been where the sultan and his sons meditated for seven days and seven nights at a time.

The most remarkable structure at Taman Sari is the Sumur Gumuling (circular well), commonly referred to by locals as the mesjid (mosque) but more likely intended as a trysting place for the Sultan and Nyai Loro Kidul, the powerful Goddess of the South Sea to whom all rulers of Mataram had been promised in marriage by the dynasty’s founder (and from whom they are said to derive their mystical powers). Access is by means of an underground (formerly underwater) passageway, whose entrance lies immediately to the west of the water castle. The “well” is in fact sunken atrium – circular galleries facing onto a small, round pool.

Before leaving the area, stroll through the Pasar Ngasem Bird Market, where Javanese bird lovers browse and haggle over a multitude of parrots, cockatoos, macaws, parakeets, thrushes, lories, minivets, sunbird, guineafowl and more.

Next to the bird market is a Batik Painters Colony, home to score of young and unsung artists of the cloth. Motifs here fall into two distinct categories: traditional Ramayana scenes (in non traditional colours), and attempts at primitive expressionism. Most of it is  kitsch, even if of a rather exotic variety: talented artists who make it quickly move out to set up their own studios elsewhere. Bargain hard if you are buying.

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