Boredom is contagious, I thought to myself as I watched the abdi dalem (servant of the king) sit motionless in the Kamandungan of the Kraton Surakarta. I could barely notice him breathing. For one brief moment I considered the possibility that he had died in that position days ago and no one had noticed. Then one of his hands moved ever so slightly to brush away a fly. He was alive, though barely. Exhausted from the strain of brushing away the fly, the abdi dalem sank into an even deeper comma. It was not just this one tired man that caught my attention that day. As I looked around the palace, I noticed that everything and everyone connected with the Kraton seemed so utterly exhausted.
I was able to see this clearly for the first time because I had been away for so many years. I had been away studying and living in Europe and America, and my time there had helped me shake the dust from myself and become young again. America has many faults and problems, but it is not tired. America is a place of great energy and momentum. And energy is also contagious. When I returned to Java, I saw clearly for the first time the depth of the Kraton’s defeat, and what that had done to the character of the place. At that moment of clarity, I also saw my first glimpse of what needed to be done to move us forward.
It was in 1946 that the newly independent Indonesia took vast quantities of land and property from the Kraton Surakarta. Yogyakarta was given a special territorial status that permanently made its Sultan the governor over his territory. To this day, Kraton Yogyakarta retains political and economic power which the Kraton Surakarta does not enjoy. For Surakarta, this was a defeat so great that it was tantamount to a death. A court that had once governed most of Java was now reduced to utter impotency. Over the years the sting of this defeat turned into grief. Slowly this grief devolved into lethargy, and lethargy eventually became boredom. The once great palace of Surakarta, with its glittering intellectual, cultural and political life, has sunk slowly into a stupor so low that its pulse can hardly be found. While I have great sympathy for the anguish of this defeat, and feel it quite personally, it is time to summon the courage and energy to move forward. The widow has worn her mourning clothes for too long. The dreariness of defeat must be buried with the dead. It is time to scrub our faces and put on our brightest batik. This is a time of new beginnings.
At the start of the 21st century, we are awaiting the coronation of a new Sultan for the Kraton Surakarta. It is a joyous time, pregnant with possibilities. It is also the appropriate moment to ask ourselves, what is the relevance of the Sultan in our time? It is the right juncture to consider a fresh, new course that will serve the needs of the Javanese people in the 21st century. If the new Sultan and his court sit in their crumbling palace and dream of the glory of the past Majapahit kingdom, and wistfully fantasize about its return, then the Kraton will continue its slide into vestigial irrelevance. Its now faint pulse will vanish completely by the end of this century. At this momentous time, we would do well to consider the American expression, “There is nothing sadder than a missed opportunity”. With this new coronation comes a great opportunity for all of us. I believe the Kraton could once again be a vital and relevant force in the life of the Javanese people. Indeed, its most glorious days could be ahead of us. What might such a 21st century Kraton look like? How might the Kraton open its doors and let in the fresh air needed to make itself truly useful again?
There is a couple that lives down the street from me in the village of Cokrobedog. They sell rice and chicken for only Rp 2.500 in their warung. One day I asked them, “Where is the profit in selling your chicken and rice for only Rp 2.500?” They answered, “The profit is in feeding as many people as possible”. In this simple wisdom lay the answer for all of us. What food has the Kraton to offer the Javanese people today? There are many kinds of food which the Kraton has in its abundant storehouses. Let us begin with the literal meaning of the word. The work of feeding people is entirely relevant. Charity should be at the center of the Kraton’s mission. Much has already been written about the corruption that pervades the Kraton’s current charitable efforts. I won’t spend many words on that subject today, except to say that cleaning up this corruption is possible. Among the members of the Kraton family are people of integrity. With the right family members at the helm, and with an oversight board that is truly independent of the Kraton family, I believe that a high level of honesty and accountability is possible. What’s needed is the vision and commitment to get us to that level of honesty and accountability. Giving up is not an option. There is too much human need that cries out to be addressed. What a joy it would be to see the new Sultan make this a major priority.
The possibilities for charitable work are far beyond anything the Kraton as yet tried. The royals of Europe are far from perfect examples, but they have collected billions of dollars for the poor by cleverly using their prestige to inspire people to open their wallets and give. Here in Java, the rich and powerful are very interested in aligning themselves with the Kraton Surakarta. The prestige of the Kraton is a powerful tool. So far, this tool has been used in ways that produce little benefit for the Javanese people. But this new Sultan could use the allure of the Kraton to inspire a great era of generosity. In turn, that generosity must be wisely used to reach those in greatest need.
In addition, let us remember that money is not the only component of charity. Princes Diana of England was so popular in part because she turned her considerable energy to more direct help for the poor and needy. She didn’t just give money, she literally took food to the poor with her own hands. She also spoke movingly and persuasively on their behalf. Such hands-on charitable work did not diminish her status as a member of the royal family. It was her charitable work that gave genuine meaning to her role. How powerful it would be to see the Kraton’s new Sultan go into the slums of Surakarta and listen to the needs of real Javanese people. An honest Sultan could put integrity back into the Kraton’s charitable work. So much could be done by those with the vision, honesty and commitment to make it happen.
Most of the initiatives I have suggested, and those I am about to suggest, have one thing in common, they require money. I am constantly reminded that the Kraton has little of it. We are currently limiting ourselves by looking at the balance in our bank account. More to the point, we are limiting ourselves by our lack of imagination. We are the victim of our own small thinking. We are capable of far more than we have even begun to dream. The Americans Steve Jobs and Bill Gates started their computer business working out of a small garage. Out of that humble effort has grown Apple and Microsoft computer companies. They started small with little money, but they had a vision of where it could take them. So must we. The horizon is only the limit of our sight.
There are other kinds of food that feeds our hungry minds and spirits. The richness of Javanese culture is food indeed for a starving people. The wisdom of our ancestors, the rich poetry and traditions of our past are not simply relics of the past, they can put our lives into context. They can help us answer the most basic questions. Who am I? Where did I come from? What is my purpose in this life? It is difficult to answer the large questions without a firm grasp of our history and culture. Can we know where we are going if we don’t know where we have been? Javanese literature is the food we have packed for the long journey ahead of us. Will we starve along the way, or have we packed enough for our journey?
Many Javanese, astranged from their mother tongue, have no idea of the value of Javanese literature. The Javanese who only speak Bahasa Indonesia often cannot see a good reason for preserving the language of Javanese. If you are one of those who has lost touch with the language of your ancestors, then you don’t know what you are missing. A culture is greatly defined by its literature. Without literature, society develops a kind of cultural amnesia. Javanese literature is the memory of the Javanese people. Through the pages of our great authors, the shape and trajectory of civilization is mapped, pondered and recorded for generations. Javanese is the true voice of our people. If you have lost it, than you have lost touch with the soul of our people. It is not too late for you. This is exactly the dilemma that the Kraton needs now to address. We are loosing our language and with it, much of our identity. We need books, books by old and new authors of the Javanese language. We also need a major new initiative to promote Javanese literacy for the young and the old. The Kraton has influence in the halls of power. The Kraton could be a significant force in reviving the Javanese language.
I would be thrilled to see a new publishing house grow out of the Kraton. Kalatida by Ronggowarsito, Wulangreh by Pakoe Boewono IV, Wedatama by Mangkunegara IV, and other important works should be presented in clean, readable, modern editions. Of equal importance, new works of Javanese poetry and prose should be published. It would also be marvelous to see the Kraton become a kind of college for Javanese studies. They could offer courses of study that deal with both the classical art and literature of the past, and with our ever evolving identity. While the Kraton does not currently have the funds and resources to accomplish this on its own, in cooperation with the UNS and STSI, the Kraton could offer diplomas in Javanese Art, Literature, History, Cultural Anthropology, Philosophy, and other subjects. Its library and resources could greatly augment the facilities of these universities. The result would be a richer learning experience for the students and, in turn, for society as a whole. By publishing and more actively teaching and promoting Javanese literacy and culture, the Kraton could be once again at the center of Javanese intellectual life. In a sense, this was its role for centuries. Though not literally a college, in the time of the Sultan Agung, the Kraton was at the center of intellectual life. The court of Sultan Agung did not sit around dreaming of its glorious past. It lived in the present and helped shape the future. If the Kraton really wants to reclaim its glory, it will only do so by living in the present and putting its unique seal upon the future. The prestige of the Kraton could make this happen.
We should also stop and ask ourselves what, if anything, about the structure of the royal family needs to be reconsidered. From personal experience I can say that the Kraton is at odds with the very nature of family. The children of Pakoe Boewono XII had little contact with their father. If PB XIII were more directly involved in the day to day raising of his children, this would be better for his children, and better for Java as well. A sensitive father would be more in tune with the needs of real people. The very act of raising children makes one more patient, loving and wise in the ways of humanity. Are these not the attributes of a good Sultan? Children are not the only members of the Kraton family to suffer under the current system. Women are used and then discarded as if their only true value is to produce children. Perhaps this seemed to make sense in the 17th century. Today, it seems rather bizarre and unhealthy. The dignity of women and their potentials are being largely ignored by the Kraton. It’s time to change that. The histories of Russia, England, Spain and many other countries have shown women to make effective and powerful monarchs. In our own history, Tribhuwana Tunggadewi of Majapahit and Ratu Shima of Kalingga were powerful rulers. A greater role for women is right and proper, as well as historically and culturally appropriate for Java. We should begin to accord women the respect they deserve. We should work toward an equal inclusion of women in the Kraton.
The royal family, both sexes and all ages, is being underutilized. Family squabbles between different Queens have produced a situation where everyone promotes their own faction, and disregards the potential of other family members. This is largely true of all the Queens and their offspring, and it is greatly impeding our progress. Among the Gustis there are experts in a variety of fields including computers, journalism, politics, linguistics, art and history, to name only a few. Daughters of the Pakoe Boewono XII, as well as cousins and members of the extended family, represent an even greater untapped resource. If we could generously reach out to each other, we could easily assemble a formidable body of thinkers and experts to address our problems and set a meaningful agenda for the future of the Kraton Surakarta. My little ideas could be magnified and improved by a family that is energized to work together. At the moment, we are not. This is an unforgivable waste of our human potential.
We call members of royal house, bangsawan (nobility). From what does this nobility derive? Are they noble because they wear courtly clothes? There is a Spanish expression, “Aunque la mona se vista de seda, mona se queda” (A monkey dressed in silk would still be a monkey). A crown does not make for nobility, neither does nobility derive from wealth or palaces. Many non-royal people have wealth and palaces far greater than the Javanese royal family. Crowns, palaces, titles, none of these earthly elements will make a person nobility. Nobility derives from purpose. If one has a noble purpose and works diligently at that purpose, nobility is the inevitable outcome of such work. In the past, the Sultans derived their nobility from the exercise of government. To govern wisely and justly, this is a noble pursuit. It is concern for the people that has at times made Sultans worthy of the title nobility. The measurement of nobility is much the same today. While the current Sultans do not govern, their concern and care for their people is still the measurement of their success. Today, the Royal House of Surakarta will deserve a noble status only to the extent that they put the needs of their people first, and tirelessly work to help them. Through such work, they may indeed be called, bangsawan.
I hope and pray that Pakoe Boewono XIII will take us in a dazzling new direction. The Javanese people deserve boldness of action. There are many ways to make the Kraton relevant to the Javanese people in the 21st century. What we cannot do is simply sit still. Boredom is contagious. But so is hope. Courage, conviction, and even youth itself can be contagious. This moment makes me want to dance with giddiness. How often do we have the opportunity to start afresh? With this new Sultan, we are surrounded by that most precious of all commodities, hope. The American poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is a thing with feathers”. The potential of this moment should inspire us all to dream, and then turn those dreams into the answers we so desperately seek. With hope, we could fly. We could soar higher than ever before. Or, we could continue to sit in the courtyards of our palaces, moving only when it is necessary to brush away the flies. In this great moment, given a choice, I choose hope.