Friday, 2 November 2012

Travel Diaries: Jepara, Central Java

Fishing vessel at Jepara’s main harbor.
Jepara, Central Java
For years I’ve always wanted to go to Jepara ― Java’s oldest trading port and the centre of Indonesia’s popular over-wrought carved lounge set production ― but I have never mustered the extra effort: I have been too worn out by the marvels of Demak and Kudus along the heavily congested North Coast road. 
Now Lion Air flies Denpasar to Semarang direct, daily, and my advisor on all things Islam-Majapahit and North Coast Javanese Soedarmaji Damais says I must see the tomb of the legendary 16th century princess Ratu Kalinyamat (Ratu Jepara) who once sent 500  warships to Malacca to battle with the Portuguese.
Once committed, I even toyed with the idea of going to picturesque Karimun Java island one hour by fast boat from Jepara but ended just getting a car and driver on line from the Central Java based Karimun Java Tours.

Entrance Arch to Mantingan, the town that was once the home of Ratu Kalinyamat.

The mouth of the main Jepara river supports a lively harbor of small fishing vessels.
•                •                  •
In Jepara I stay at the refreshingly local Palm Beach Resort on a beach just south of the main harbor. It is the preferred weekender for Semarang yuppies ― a large demographic group who all have large cameras and think of the beach as a large outdoor restaurant.
It is still fasting month and amazing feral street bands are playing in the night market when we check out downtown on our first night.
Next day, early morning, I visit the tomb complex ― mosque, royal graves, museum ― which is a gem of coastal Islam-Majapahit architecture and landscape design. The gates and courtyard walls are still predominantly 16th century red-brick design and the cemetery gardens within are a riot of color ― bright yellow codeum (puring batik/crotons), blood red cordylines (andong) and plumeria (kamboja) abound.

The four-tiered roof of the Majapahit-Islam gate to Ratu Kalinyamat’s tomb.
The tomb of Ratu Kalinyamat is housed in a handsome quasi-colonial ‘vault’ (gedong) with an exquisite neo-classical style verandah. The walls are decorated with ‘medalions’ of original carvings by the Chinese artisans donated by the princess’s Chinese father-in-law, an artist-architect. I recognize these medalion motifs as precursors to some of the refined tomb decorations along the north coast of Java. For a fuller discussion see my video :

Detail of one of the tombs 16th Century carved limestone wall medallions.
Interior of the Mesjid Agung Mantingan.

The morning receptionist at Ratu Kalinyamat’s tomb.

Blind masseur who sleeps at the mosque.
The mosque front is similarly decorated with carved limestone panels which all date from the 16th century. The mosque interior is quite Byzantine ― almost Damascus church-like ― in it’s colour and detailing.
Ratu Kalinyamat is famed for having meditated for months in a dark forest, naked, her body covered only by her long hair, to gain strength to avenge the murder of her young husband. She is believed to have formed a divine alliance with Ratu Kidul, the legendary Goddess of the South Seas who is rumoured to have imparted some of her ‘powers’.
Today, Ratu Kalinyamat’s tomb dispenses holy water from a nearby well that is supposed to have magical powers.
The museum has a fine collection of old bits and pieces including some Balinese-baroque-looking teak door leafs (lawang) and turned timber pavilion columns, identical to those on the entrance pavilions at the Makam Sunan Kudus nearby.
The complex custodian (Juru Kunci) is a learned man: together we lament the loss of many fine old timber-framed mosques in Java and the importance of architectural conservation. The nearby Makam Sunan Muria (the artist’s saint) has been ruined by restoration he comments.
•                •                  •
Fisherman mending nets at Jepara harbor.
As it’s still early morning we make a dash for the main harbor and fish market to check out the local scene.
The town’s 300 meter long jetty is another riot of colour ― North Coast sailors don’t hold back in the fashion stakes. One fisherman has ‘teamed’ his outfit with the faded indigo of his boat’s nets (See photo above).
There is Javanese dangdut music blaring from every mast, a five star warung on wheels serving triple-by-pass bakwan donuts and a host of hombres ready to pose and prance for the cameras. It is etho-cinematographer heaven.
The nearby fish market, surrounded by local tall boats, is equally vibrant.
•                •                  •
On the way back to our hotel we discover the Hok Tek Tong Chinese Temple, the oldest in Java, founded during the 15th century by Kung Fu masters from the fleet of famed Chinese Admiral Cheng Ho. Under the main altar table I find votive images to all the main deities — Hindu, Muslim and otherwise — of Java.
Day Two was spent in Demak — visiting the tombs and museum of the magnificent 16th century Mesjid Agung — and Semarang, a city I’ve never really ‘cracked’.
The museum of the Demak Mesjid Agung has the original Hindu — early 16th Century doors from Majapahit palace in East Java and the original columns from the old palace’s pendopo agung now form the Serambi veranda of the mosque complex. The doors are amazing for their bright poly-chromatic design — almost in the ornate style of Sebatu, Bali.
The graveyard behind the mosque has some beautiful central Javanese pavilions which house the tombs of the founders of the Mataram-Islam dynasty, Raden Patah and his brothers, who were sons of the last Hindu King of Majapahit.
From Demak it is one hour drive west to Semarang capitol of Central  Java, in Dutch colonial times.
Front door of an old building in the cock-fighting sub-district of old Semarang.
We drove through the old Dutch colonial era part of Semarang which is a living museum of dying buildings. In one quarter I found an outdoor cockfighting arena and related market place at an intersection of magnificently decayed   early 19th century buildings. Ficus trees grew out of the roof drains to such an extent that the roads below were in permanent shade.
We stayed hard on Chinatown in the fabulous 60s era METRO  hotel — a marvel of Soviet era decoration and friendly Central Javanese service. All lifts lead to the legendary massage parlour in the basement.

Jamu seller and cock-fighter customers in old Semarang.
Old Semarang has been spared the ravages of modernization — it’s vibrant Chinese community are as traditional, in their outlook, as those in Georgetown, Penang, or nearby Lasem.
One could spend a week exploring old Semarang — also site of another magnificent 16th century timber-framed mosque, the Mesjid Agung.