On the banks of the mighty Bengawan Solo, Java’s longest river, lies an elegance and refined court centre, the Kraton Surakarta. Better known as the Kasunanan or Susuhunan Palace, which means “royal foot placed on the head of vessels homage”, the Kasunanan claims to be the true and rightful heir of the central Javanese Mataram Dynasty.
The court was moved to the Bengawan Solo valley in 1680 from the Yogya area, first to Kartasura and then to Surakarta. The palace was built by Sri Susuhunan Paku Buwono II in 1745 and has remained an important cultural centre since that time.
The Kraton Surakarta simultaneously defines the centre of the town and the kingdom, as well as being a physical and spiritual representation of the universe as it is understood in Javanese cosmology. It remains the repository of priceless cultural and artistic treasures. Its gardens are of ineffable splendour. Each architectural appointment also represents the unsurpassed artistry of those who joyfully surrended their entire life to its creation. While the palace retains much of its physical beauty, its role as a centre of Javanese culture has been cheapened by throngs of clumsy tourists.
Among other things, its fragile solemnity is marred by the daily gawking and hawking of vacationers and souvenir hunters. Its future is threatened by would-be developers bent on exploiting the palace as a kind of historical amusement park.
A devastating fire in 1985 damaged some very valuable sections of the palace, including the King’s residence and private meditation chamber. To add to the devastation, antique collectors aided by some of the people who work in the Kraton took the opportunity to steal valuable works of art.
They literally peeled carvings right off the walls.
Without regard for the loss to the Indonesian people, they sold our history to the highest bidder. I doubt the money they received will be equal to the karma they received as a result of their greed.
Since that time, the palace has been beautifully restored. In a moment of poetic justice, the palace was aided by its own dedication to the traditional arts. The abdidalem, who have dedicated their lives to the maintenance of the palace, used many of the traditional skills they had learn in the palace school to restore the burned and looted sections.
Our unending thanks should go to the master craftpersons and culturally-minded citizens, whose efforts and donations brought the Kraton Surakarta back from the dead.
The contemporary mission of the palace has included a school for the learning of traditional arts (i.e. Gamelan musical orchestras, Wayang shadow puppets, Classical dance, etc.). While this important work continues, the waning interest of Indonesians in the traditional arts has caused the palace to reduce its activities.
As Indonesia becomes more and more preoccupied with modernization and economic development, it runs the risk of loosing its precious identity. In the belief that both economic advancement and cultural identity are important, we wish to highlight the irreplaceable nature of the Surakarta Palace, as a means of supporting its continued viability into the new millenium.