|A Bantam Rooster. Despite their smaller size, they can get quite|
aggressive when disturbed and a real force to reckoned with.
Strategically located in the northwest of Java, the Sultanate of Banten had some of the busiest ports of the 16th century as numerous Europeans came to the Indonesian archipelago looking to dominate the spice trade.
Banten was actually founded by Sunan Gunungjati or more popularly known as Fatahillah, a well known figure in Indonesian history. He is credited as the man who first spread the religion of Islam to Java and Sumatra, which were largely influenced by Hinduism at that time. After defeating the Kingdom of Sunda, he chose Banten as the regional centre of his Sultanate, the first Muslim Sultanate ever established in the East Indies and established the centre of his kingdom in the northwest of Java.
Banten provided an important trading platform for teas, silk and ceramics from China, spices from the Philippines and pepper from the East Indies to be coordinated and shipped back to the lucrative European markets. The present-day location of Jakarta, then known as Jayakarta, was also under the control of the Sultanate of Banten. However, before the colonial intervention of the Dutch in the East Indies, the port of Jayakarta was less significant as compared to the main port of Bantam in Banten Girang, the central seat of power of the Sultanate of Banten on the banks of the Cibanten (translated as the Banten River - "Ci" is the Sundanese word for river)
The first Dutch fleet, led by explorer Cornelis de Houtman, first called at Bantam on its expedition to the archipelago in 1596, before it went on to explore other parts the Spice Islands. de Houtman was eventually killed during a skirmish with the Sultanate of Aceh's navy, which was led by the legendary female admiral Malahayati. After going through the trials and tribulations of the sea voyage, the original crew of 249 men had been reduced to 87 by the time the ship returned to the Netherlands. Despite this, it was perceived as a symbolic victory for the Dutch as it meant that they had found a way to establish a shipping route to wrest control of the spice trade in Europe away from the monopoly of the Portuguese.
The Dutch East India Company was set up in 1602 and it gradually dominated the spice trade in the East Indies by setting up a trading post in Banten. Following this move, the British followed suit and they were soon joined by the Danish as well.
Banten had traditionally been strong in the pepper trade since the early days of its founding as its second Sultan - Mulana Hasanudin - cleverly established his foothold on southern Sumatra, where the bulk of pepper production came from. The wealth generated from the trade of pepper alone made the Sultanate of Banten one of the most richest and powerful Sultanates in that era. At one time, the Sultanate comprised almost all of Sunda - the entire western end of Java - and all of southern Sumatra as well.
|Paddy fields of present-day Banten Province, near to the Sultan's Palace|
However, the Sultanate started to decline after the Dutch arrived. The VOC (Dutch East India Company) conquered the port of Jayakarta from Bantam after conflicts arose over both parties over the pepper trade in 1619. The Dutch Governor-General, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, then founded Batavia (present-day Jakarta) on the ruins of Jayakarta and it became the center of the VOC's operations. Batavia had become a serious rival for Bantam.
There were also several armed conflicts between the Sultanate of Banten and the VOC during the middle of the 17th century which weakened the Sultanate further. In 1752, the foothold of the Sultanate in southern Sumatra was lost to the VOC.
The Sultanate was subsequently annexed by the Dutch Governor-General, Herman Willem Daendels, in 1808. The 18th Sultan of Banten, Aliyuddin II, was captured when he refused to cooperate in his orders to shift the Sultanate to Anyer following the commisioning of the construction of the Great Post Road by the Dutch Government. To top it off, the Dutch envoy who was sent to Bantam to deliver this message was beheaded by the Sultan and his head was sent back to Daendels, a move that incensed the Dutch further. Daendels commanded a force which greatly outnumbered the Sultanate and stormed the grounds of Banten. The Surosowan Palace (known as the Keraton Surosowan in the local language), long occupied by the Sultans of Banten since the start of the empire, was also destroyed by the Dutch forces as a result of the invasion.
The Sultanate finally came to an end in 1813 when the last Sultan of Banten, Muhamad Syafiuddin, was forced to relinquish his throne by Sir Stamford Raffles - the Lieutenant Governor of Java - following the Dutch's capitulation to the British in the Java campaign. The Sultanate of Banten lasted from 1527 to 1813.
The rich history of Banten, and the fragments of the past which remain, were certainly worth visiting. In order to narrow down on the traces of this lost Sultanate, I knew I had to visit the former seat of power in the northwest of Java. The capital of the Sultanate of Banten is located in the vicinity of the present day "Banten Lama" or Old Bantam, in the Serang Regency, a two hour drive from Jakarta.
Before I embarked on my journey, I asked Hardi - a local nature / exploring enthusiast and personal friend of mine - if he would like to join me in this little adventure a few days prior to my planned trip before. He replied "Of course!" emphatically before I could say Jabodetabek. With Hardi's immense knowledge of local history and culture, as well as his fluency in the Sundanese and Bantenese languages (the most widely spoken languages in Banten province), I knew I was in good hands. We had also been exchanging stories and our exploration experiences prior to this trip so I knew Hardi was a pretty experienced explorer in these parts. Needless to say, I felt thankful for having a seasoned local joining me on my maiden trip to Banten province.
|My local explorer friend, Hardi. Beside three local languages, he speaks
a fair amount of Dutch (his paternal grandparents were Dutch - that
explains his fairer skin tone)|
and a smattering of German.
"This bridge was built by the sweat and blood of the Indonesian people as part of the Jalan Raya Pos as directed by Willem Daendels. Many died during the construction of the road." said Hardi. The Jalan Raya Pos, (Der Grote Postweg in Dutch) or the Great Post Road is a 1000 kilometer stretch of road connecting Anyer in the west of Java and Panarukan in the east of Java. It was built mainly for military reasons as a main supply route to protect the northern Javanese coast against the threat of a British invasion. As Hardi had pointed out earlier, many had died in the construction process, which took just a year to complete.
|Who could have imagined the hardship that the locals had to suffer |
during the construction of Der Grote Postweg?
|Kids on the bridge playing with plastic bags tied to ropes, pulling them against the current.|
The Cibanten's flow seems pretty much stronger after the rain.
I wonder how many bags they've lost.
Surosowan Palace stands in ruins today, a pale ghost of its former glory. The palace was partially destroyed during the Dutch blitzkrieg on the largely outnumbered Sultanate of Bantam, and after the Dutch overran and occupied the area, William Daendels made his madcap plan to tear down the palace. The significance of the palace and its association with the royal family gave the Dutch enough reason to destroy it completely. A new Dutch government building was then constructed in Serang using the bricks and other materials cannibalized from the ruins of the palace, stripping it to its bare foundations which we see today. This Dutch building is now the Governor of Banten's Office in Serang, a town about 10 km from the ruins of Surosowan Palace.
|A broken column shows that at least two different materials|
were employed in the construction of the palace.
"Ah, I see that you've noticed." said Hardi. "Come closer, let me show you something interesting." We went even closer to the wall. "Look at this." said Hardi as he pointed at a part of the outer wall.
It may look like a regular stone wall, but as i looked where Hardi was pointing, it became evident that the wall was anything but normal. I inspected the lighter-coloured material which he was pointing at. The wavy patterns on the surface only reminded me of one thing on earth that could look like that. "Is that a piece of Coral?" I asked.
"Yes. Batu Karang (Coral)." It turns out that these were no mere blocks made from stone but instead they were made from coral rag (a rubbly limestone composed of coral reef material material). The reason for the employment of coral rag was simple enough. Corals are strong and tough enough to withstand the weather and since dried up coral reefs are usually huge in scale around the archipelago, it is much more easier to obtain and therefore cheaper than conventional materials such as stone.
Stepping through the gates, I had my first glimpse of the palace ruins. It was hauntingly beautiful.
Hardi was visibly excited at this point too as he started walking around, taking photos for his own collection. I followed suit, wanting to capture as much of this beautiful place as I could.
|Red bricks leading up to the portico.|
|Broken pieces, just like that of a jigsaw puzzle, waiting to be solved.|
|Hardi was fast!|
|The silent ruins of the former royal palace of Banten have so much to tell.|
|One of the former halls where the Sultans received guests.|
|The original terracotta tiles are still pretty much intact.|
|These ruins in the background are believed to be that of the royal kitchen. Who knows what gourmet dishes were created here for the tasting pleasure of the royal family?|
|The entrance to the ruins of Surosowan Palace.|
|A closer look at the curved entrance.|
|The Queen's Chambers lies in a crumbled mess.|
|A part of the Queen's Chambers. A small bathroom, perhaps?|
|The Bale Kambang|
|Hardi examines the seemingly modern pipes.|
|View from the top of the north fortification wall. Note the thickness of the wall.|
|Culvert bringing fresh water in from Tasikardi.|
|A small creek just outside the palace walls. A part of the former moat, perhaps?|
On our way out of the palace, we found a collapsed part of the a building, a wall perhaps? This gives us an idea of how thick the walls of some parts of the palace were. This particular piece measured slightly more than a metre thick.
|These were found all over the palace and they were the work...|
|...of these guys. They were grazing all over the palace.|
It was hard to imagine that we had just stepped out of such a deserted and quiet world beyond those iron gates into a busy street lined with stalls on both sides.
|Pete (known affectionally as Petai or Smelly Bean in Singapore) is|
a popular bean sold almost everywhere in West Java
With the sea only a short distance away, the octoganal minaret was a lookout point during the old days, apart from being a focal point and to provide the call for prayer. Curiously, it was also used as an armoury where weapons were stored. The lighthouse was designed by Hendrik Lucasz Cardeel, the same person who proposed and designed the European-inspired features of Surosowan Palace.
|The ablution pools of Masjid Agung.|
|Sundial previously used by the Imams to tell the time to call for prayers.|
The gnomon (shadow casting object) is missing, rendering it purely ornamental now.
Unlike other mosques in Java where the mosque's founder's tomb is located in the west by tradition, Sultan Maualana Hasanuddin's tomb is located on the north side of the mosque.
|Prayers were going on in the royal mausoleum so I had to snipe from afar.|
|That creepy old tree looks right at home in the royal graveyard.|
|Rudimentary, but definitely effective|
|The legendary Watu Gilang|
The Watu Gilang was used for swearing in purposes between the second to the sixth Sultan, while a second stone called the Watu Singayaksa, located not too far away from here, was used from the seventh Sultan onwards. The stone is a precious piece of history and mysticism indeed, but today it lies neglected amongst the various stalls, often ending up as the bed of a stray cat or dog.
From this position, we decided to take a walk to Tasikardi, which was about two kilometres away from the town centre. Soon enough, we were away from the hustle and bustle of the market and surrounded by rice fields. As we walked along, Hardi explained the workings of Surosowan Palace's water filtration system.
"The water from Tasikardi is channeled via clay pipes through three filter houses, namely Pengindelan Abang (Red Filter), Pengindelan Putih (White Filter) and Pengindelan Emas (Gold Filter) along the way to the palace. The water from Tasikardi will pass through Pengindelan Abang and be certified red quality, afterwhich it passes through Pengindelan Putih and becomes white quality, and finally through Pengindelan Emas where it becomes clear and certified gold quality."
|Hardi circles the filter house to get a good shot|
|Former gate posts of Pengindelan Abang. |
The area used to be fenced up during the Sultanate's reign.
"Bats?" I asked. Before Hardi could answer, one of the cretins flew past our heads into the entrance. Hardi grinned at me with a "I think that just answered your question" kind of look.
I stood at the doorway and looked into the filter house. The entire bottom area was flooded as expected due to the building's primary function. There was rubbish floating in the water and the stench was horrible. I took a couple of shots of the interior and ended up with these.
|The water was brown, stagnant and probably teeming with millions of bacteria.|
|Ragged and jagged roof|
|Hardi was happy to get away from the filter house.|
Tasikardi is fenced up and there is currently only one entrance, which we had to pay a nominal fee to enter. After walking into the perimeter of the lake, the last thing I expected to see staring back at my lens was this:
|"We welcome you with open arms!"|
Pity the guy below has a splitting headache.
|OMG they killed Mickey.|
|Fanny - not a good name at all.|
The name Tasikardi stands for artificial lake in Sundanese and Hardi explains that Tasikardi was built for one simple reason - to provide a source of clean water. Back in the old days, foreign vessels would call at Banten and most of the time, the crew on board would pass some diseases to the local community after being at sea for months on end. Since the locals lived in slums, it was hard to contain such diseases. Hence, Sultan Maulana Hasanuddin decided to build a lake far from the town where he could draw clean water from. The water supplied to the palace was through enclosed clay pipes so there was no way the water could be contaminated.
|Tasikardi and the man-made island|
It was sad to see such places of historical significance being neglected like such. Surosowan Palace, Tasikardi, the former town square of Banten and even the three filter houses all played an importnat part in creating the first building blocks of Islam in Indonesia.
As I boarded the car for my next destination, I said a little prayer for the lake. I hope the authorities can do something about the restoration of these places and although I know that the hope is dim, I'm keeping my fingers crossed.
|Broken down tram in Tasikardi rusting away|
Article & Photos copyright of Aaron "Six Stomachs" Chan
Photo of Masjid Agung Ablution Pool copyright of Hardi Pribono and used with permission
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