Monday, 19 November 2012

Travel Diaries: Solo - Yogyakarta - Ahmedabad

Solo - Yogyakarta - Ahmedabad

Central Java is for me heaven on a stick: the people are refined, the scenery sublime and the rituals and architecture ancient.
Last month I went back to Solo for the Mangkunegaran Palace production of the Javanese classical dance epic ‘Matah Ati’, a tale of love and heroism in Dutch colonial times.
On the way to Solo I stopped off in Jogjakarta to visit the tomb of Penembahan Senopati, the founder of the Islamic Mataram dynasty in the 17th century, in picturesque Kota Gede, the old capitol, itself a treasure of architectural oddities. 
As so often happens in Central Java, I bumped into a parade of fake princesses and princes which included escapees from the Matah Ati chorus and an assortment of theatrical loonies commemorating the granting of special autonomous status to Jogjakarta in 1950.
On the same day I also happened across a Jatilan trance dance performance in Badung village near Bantul south of Jogjakarta. In this unique ancient ceremony young men in Hindu-era costumes engage in frenzied mock battles with the troupe’s drummer and with each other. It is hands down my favourite ‘street theater’ in Indonesia and needs to be seen to believed.
I also visited the Hamengku Buwono Palace — now swamped with tourists, and municipal garden tendencies — and the nearby Taman Sari Royal baths, which has been restored to within an inch of its life by Portuguese conservation experts no less.
I stayed the night in the village of Tembi, near Bantul at Sir Warwick Purser’s d’Omah hotel — a haven of romance and Javanese simplicity.
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On the way to Solo the next day I continued my Islam-Majapahit architectural research by visiting the royal tombs at Imogiri, south of Jogjakarta, and the tombs of Ki Ageng Pandanarang in Klaten, half way to Solo. In these well-maintained 17th century  Central Javanese cemeteries I find myself admiring the combination of Hindu and Islamic architecture, the gorgeous gardens and the colourfully dressed pilgrims (peziarah) on the magical, mystical trail. Indeed, there’s so much magical, mystical and magnificent around Central Java — beyond the nightmare traffic and bustling airport — that one only needs to plan well, and to persevere.
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September 8, 2012: A dance spectacular in Solo
The dance performance in the carpark of the Mangkunegaran Palace tonight is hauntingly beautiful if a tad far off: in the middle of the third production number one lady collapses from eyestrain. (Bring binoculars to be able to see the stage at these big Javanese classical dance spectaculars that are becoming more and more popular these days).
See my video Matah Ati for a better appreciation. Link:
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The next morning I dragged my Australian travelling companion one hour up the hill East of Solo to pray at Candi Ceto, a late (some say the last) Hindu Majapahit temple. I have written about Candi Ceto often before. Die-hards can watch this trip video:
This morning, being a Sunday, the normally empty terraces are alive with young lovers and scout troupes. The priest in the top terrace tries to sell me a dodgy amulet (Non-U Hindu behavior) but eventually we get to place a prayer to Brawijaya Pemungkas and strike a blow for spiritual tourism.
30 October 2012: To Ahmedabad in Gujarat India for Ganesha’s birthday 
Ganapati is my favourite Indian holy day because the streets swell up with processions bearing giant Ganesha statues heading for the rivers and the coasts.
There’s much wild-dancing and ordered mayhem, India-style.
I stay at the delightful Taj Gateway near the airport — an architectural gem dating back to the early 1970s, with a superb Indian fine-dining restaurant (Gujarati food is sublime). During the working day I bump into some 100 Ganapati processions variously involving camels, 40 foot cranes, auto rickshaw cavalcades, and riverside dervishes.
See my video Ganapati, Ahmedabad for a visual feast:
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From Ahmedabad I flew the fabulous, relatively new INDIGO airlines to Kochin, in Kerala on the Cinnamon Coast, arriving in time to see the crazies bathing in the backwaters (I have a garden project on the lagoon edge).
In Kochi I filled up on plum cake (a local colonial era speciality rather like plum pudding, but with a zesty cinnamon kick) and spicy parathapancakes.
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From Kochi I took a train to Kasargod in the far north of Kerala, on the Coast.
I am interested in coastal forts from the pre-colonial era and wanted to see the 17th century Fort Bekal built by the Sivappa Nayakes but made famous by its last owner, the great Muslim warrior Tipu Sultan, whose pajamas now hang in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The fort is the largest (40 acres) in Kasargod and sits on a large prominontry rather like Galle Fort in Sri Lanka. Unlike Galle Fort, however, it never held any township — it was only ever used for defense. Similar to Golconda Fort in Hyderabad, the whole is ringed by a high rampant wall some metres thick, beautifully constructed from the local red laterite. Tipu Sultan added a handsome observation tower.
According to history the fort was originally built in the 14th Century to guard a palace. It held off successive Arab, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British raids during the mighty Vijaynagar period (13-16th Centuries); a golden era for South India which roughly coincides with the East Javan MAJAPAHIT Era).
In 1820 Tipu Sultan was in charge when the fort fell to the British East India Company who carted all of the ruler’s possessions of to London as bounty. Today his palace standards hang in the halls of the Chelsea Hospital.
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The Kerala Coast is dotted with many colonial era forts as well — Danish, Portuguese and Dutch — the most famous being the 15th century fort district of Kochi where Vasco de Gama died and was first buried. Many of the smaller forts in South and Central Kerala have been turned into boutique hotels. Most have more history than luxury.
Indonesia, likewise, has a wealth of forts from the colonial era — Fort Belgica in Banda Neira and Fort Rotterdam in Makassar being the most famous.