The Royal Court of Yogyakarta, of the Sultanate of Yogyakarta, is one of those interesting quirks of Southeast Asian History. Officially the Special Administrative Region of Yogyakarta, with the governorship of the Region held hereditary by and connected to the rulers of Yogyakarta, this is among the very few instances where royal houses still retain power amidst a declared republic.
A Becak Ride Away
In a city as storied as Yogyakarta, it only makes sense to ride in a rickshaw from the oldest and arguably grandest hotel in central Jogja (the nickname of Yogyakarta), the Hotel Phoenix, to the Royal Palace, the Keraton Yogyakarta. Having paid a decent price of IDR 100,000, for the return trip, including waiting time, I made my way along the main axis of Malioboro towards the monumental Royal Quarter.
Now, Malioboro Street is part of the spiritual and geographic axis of Yogyakarta, linking the Sultans of Yogyakarta, to Mt Merapi to the north to the Southern Ocean to the south. Having just ascended Mt Merapi, a trip to the seat of spiritual power, to the Keraton, the seat of temporal (and arguably some more spiritual power), made sense.
The Inner City
Passing the gates of the Keraton, it gives you a glimpse of what it once was in the 18th century. While other grand palace complexes in Bangkok and Beijing have effectively become tourist spots, with the ‘living palace’ relegated to a footnote, the Keraton Yogyakarta still maintains the ‘living palace’ feel.
As you enter the inner entrances, people still mill about: some tourists, some actual palace staff, some actual palace courtiers. At the outer gate, you are greeted by a post office and ticket office, and for a small fee, including camera fee, you are free to roam most of the palace.
Now, I brought my Royal Javanese fan with me, as it was hot. Little did I realize this was the perfect accessory for this crowd. I followed a few palace courtiers in the main entrance: a simple, elegant construction that followed traditional Javanese-Bali constructs, filled with right angles.
Inside the main courtyard, you will see small pavilions all about, with large, well maintained, mature trees providing shade from the midday sun. In one pavilion was set a stage: the audience pavilion, where the Sultans used to hold court. Nowadays, there are daily cultural performances from 10am until 12pm, with a focus on gamelan, dance or drama, depending on the day.
Conveniently, when I was there, they were doing Javanese Court Gamelan. The sheer dedication, skill and acoustic beauty of this performance mesmerized all who were about, and made me appreciate the refined court culture Southeast Asia has. It also gave me an opportune moment to fan myself, sitting down, appreciating the multiple sopranos, accompanied by the fine brass percussions.
A Living Palace
One thing you will notice as you walk around the palace complex is that is it very much a living palace. Courtiers still live in the inner palace, artisans still produce fine works, musicians still practice their artforms. Courtiers and palace staff, the abdi dalem or inner staff, shuffle about. Some practice their music, others restore the palace fittings. All easily spotted with their distinctive batik and black uniform, a combination of browns and gold, accented in black.
Some sections of the palace are closed to visitors, but on occasion, you can get a glimpse of what lies behind the forbidden gates: courtiers and staff laughing, doing housekeeping, or just generally being themselves.
One thing I like about the palace is the scale. It may be wide, may be open, but it is not overly opulent, neither is it too overbearing. The scale is very human: not set to overwhelm but rather to calm.
As you walk around, you will hear the occasional warm-up of gongs, as the gamelan orchestra practice their singing and dinging. It is at this moment, you realize you are invited in to this sacred, royal, deeply intimate world of Javanese court culture. The pomp, the circumstance, becomes a play, a theatre of state, but rather than imposing will, this incorporates will, and incorporates all.
Respite of Peace
Unlike other palaces, where once you leave, you feel awestruck, even overwhelmed by the sheer grandeur of the place, the Keraton Yogyakarta leaves you feeling at peace. The green spaces calm you, the space gives you peace yet enough human contact to remind you that you are not alone.
The palace courtiers greet you with a smile and a small bow as they shuffle from hall to hall. Paintings by Dutch masters remind you that this Royal House is still Europeanized, yet the little details emphasize their distinct Javanese heritage. You feel like a guest, and you do not feel so much as an intruder, a voyeur, but more like a welcomed spectator to see, to learn, to appreciate their refined culture.
This is when I realize the significance of the axis: where the spiritual and temporal merge, where the strength of the volcano and sea combine with the elegance of culture and human touch.
Agency: Self-tour. There are guides available at the ticket counter.
Preparation: Lots of walking involved, but nothing too strenuous.
Bring: Camera and water. The sights alone will make you snap away.
Wear: Something light. This is the tropics. This is still a working palace, so do not dress as if you were going to the beach.
Time: I spent 1.5 hours in the palace. I was in a bit of a rush, so if you have time, 2 hours is just nice to walk around the palace compounds and catch the performances at 10am.
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.