Learning History at the Sultan’s Palace in Yogyakarta

After getting off the bus at the wrong stop, switching buses and getting some help with directions from the bus stop attendant, I made my way to the first destination–the Sultan’s Palace in Yogyakarta. It was my last full day in the city, I had planned on seeing some of the cultural sites within the city proper.

Yogyakarta road
View from the bus after getting a little lost

I hadn’t researched much about things to see within the city–my main purpose of the trip was to see Borobudur and Prambanan, the two major tourist attractions an hour outside Yogyakarta. I marked a few things down on my map as I walked through the city after my sunrise journey through those magnificent temples and asked hotel staff about where to go and what to see. The Sultan’s Palace was the only thing that was recommended.

Yogyakarta bus stop
My bus stop in Yogyakarta

Officially known as Kraton of Yogyakarta, the palace is a relatively small complex that is home to the sultan and his family. I was fortunate enough to run into a man, Imam Syafi’i, who works for a music school attached to the palace who offered to take me on a tour. He said he normally gives tours a couple days a week and I was just lucky that he was there that day because it wasn’t one of his normal days.Yogyakarta sultan's palace

The palace was first built in 1775. Then on June 20, 1812, Stamford Raffles (the same man who is revered in Singapore) led an invasion of Yogyakarta, which ended with the looting and burning of the palace. Today’s palace was mostly built during the reign of Sultan Hamengkubuwono VIII¬†from 1921 to 1939.

Sultan's ceremonial space in Yogyakarta
This area was used for ceremonies for the royal family

Obviously because the palace is still used by the sultan and his family, I was only allowed to see the parts that are open to the public, including some exhibits that showcase traditional attire for various occasions.

The most interesting part of my tour wasn’t seeing the palace itself, but the stories my guide told. I was first informed that the sultan of Yogyakarta is not just a figurehead ruler–unlike in most former monarchies, the sultan here is the official governor of the region (Yogyakarta is considered a special administrative¬†region of Indonesia). I was also told that the current sultan, Hamengkubuwono X, is the first to eliminate the practice of polygamy–my guide said that he is also the first generation of his family to have only one wife, which he said was more than enough.¬†sultan's palace pillar

One of the more interesting aspects of the architecture of the Sultan’s Palace is design of the pillars that embrace the history of the region. At the bottom is the elephant’s foot, representing Hinduism. Above that is a lotus flower, representing Buddhism, which came to Yogyakarta after Hinduism. Finally, the pillar is painted green to represent Islam, the dominant religion of today.

Yogyakarta palace
Ceremonial platform

Of course, the funniest comment about culture that day was my guide’s story about the most recent royal wedding, which is likely the last one for quite some time. Tradition holds that the groom and a member of the royal family carry the bride on their shoulders. As my guide said, “The wedding broke tradition [pause] because the bride was too fat.” Apparently, the bride was almost twice the groom’s weight. There were no pictures of the wedding on display to verify this anecdote.

Royal Mosque of Yogyakarta
Royal Mosque of Yogyakarta

After finishing my tour of the Sultan’s Palace, I walked by Masjid Gedhe Kauman (Grand Mosque), which is open to the public. This is the royal mosque that was built in the 18th century. It was full of people milling about and sitting around in the shade to avoid the midday heat.

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