Banten - Belitung

About thirty years ago, while researching a book on Balinese architecture, I stumbled upon a late 19th century Dutch lithograph of a distinctly Balinese-looking temple on the banks of a broad river in the West Javanese regency of Banten. The temple was, in fact, a palace, called Kraton Kaibon, built by one of the last Banten sultans during the late Islamic-era Majapahit (16th century)  and destroyed by the Dutch Governor-General Herman Willem Daendels’ troops after an episode of skullduggery in the early 18th  century.
Last month I finally visited Banten Lama to see the ruins and the great mosque nearby — linked, historically, to the great mosque of Cirebon through a shared mentor the great ruler of all Islamic West Java Sunan Gunung Jati — as part of the last leg of my research for a coming book Majapahit Style. Historically Banten, together with Blambangan and Madura in the eastern end of Java, was one of the last outposts of Hindu Majapahit before the whole island converted to Islam.

19th century print of the Kraton Kaibon by an unknown Dutch artist

In particular I had one specific reason for last month’s visit —combining tourism with amateur detective work is my passion — which involved a shadowy figure in the history of the design and construction of the exquisite quasi-Hindu Java style mosques of Cirebon and Demak in the 15th  century.
When the Sultan of Demak, Central Java, defeated Majapahit in the 1430s he sent prisoners to Banten including one Raden Sepat, a minor noble who was, some histories tell us, a talented architect. Raden Sepat’s release was requested by Sunan Gunung Jati (my hero, as the ultimate Islamic-era Majapahit aesthete) to help design the great mosque of Demak, and on the way, the Sang Cipta Rasa mosque in Cirebon (see my diary of two months ago).

1880s photo of Banten nobleman and his wife (courtesy of Banten Museum)

So my quest was to try and turn up any evidence of artistic collaboration between Cirebon and Banten.
To visit Banten Lama, as it is now called, one has to take the dreaded Tangerang Toll, which is like the decent into hell, before popping out in the regency’s messy capital Serang. It’s a 90 minute drive from downtown Jakarta on a good day and 60 minutes from the airport via a new toll road. I stayed at the space-age Ratu Bidakari hotel in Serang which does have some interesting historical photographs and maps in the lobby plus free boiled yam and bajigur (a Sundanese ginger drink) at reception as a sort of reward for making it past Tangerang.

The main five candi bentar entrance gates to the Kraton palace, Kaibon, Banten, West Java

I visited the Kraton Kaibon ruin early the next morning — it's a grim 15 minutes drive from the hotel which has no redeeming features, until one reaches the still magnificent and well-tended Kraton Kaibon ruinscape. Amazingly one still gets a sense of the grandeur of the great moated palace: it’s not hard to transpose a typical Balinese palace lifestyle into the interconnecting courtyards that remain. The row of five candi bentar gates along the palaces western flank are still majestic and the river beyond a landscape treat.

Friendly mosque attendant (kuncen) at the Mesjid Agung, Banten

Tomb of Sultan Maulana Hassanudin

A few kilometers down the road is the great mosque, site of the tomb of Sultan Maulana Hassanudin (1552-1570) a descendant of the Sultan Demak who married the daughter of Sunan Gunung Jati (historically speaking they were a tight bunch). The mosque is indeed similar to the great mosque of Cirebon — the original three tiered timber frame still forming the main body of the building — with a roof pinnacle donated by Sunan Gunang Jati himself, the legend goes. In the mosques vast forecourt rises a handsome white masonry tower, built in a sort of Moorish-Sundanese style, with, low and behold, an entrance door pretty identical in design to Raden Sepat’s amazing Hindu-Buddhist style limestone doorway in the Cirebon mosque, but built some 150 years later (see photo below). I was thrilled.

The Banten Mosque tower door inspired by Raden Sepat’s wall at the great mosque in Cirebon

Next door to the mosque is a good museum with terracotta and limestone artifacts from the old palaces — all in the distinctive pesisir-colonial style of Banten. In fact, during the 17th century a Dutch architect had designed the sister palace to Kaibon of which only the surrounding walls and foundations remain.

1930s photograph of a Banten dagger dance (courtesy of Banten Museum)

Unique European-Banten hybrid terracotta urn from the 16th century Kraton Surosowan

For me, the most interesting item in the museum was a colonial era photograph of kris-dancers, slashing at their forearms as they perform a dance so similar to dances I have seen in similar ceremonies in Kuta earlier this year.
From the museum I visited the newly restored Klenteng Avalokitesvara, Banten, which has a delightful garden in the vihara abbey next door, and the ruins nearby of an old hanafi (Moslem) Chinese mosque. In many cases in coastal Java, Buddhist temples were built over 15th century Chinese mosques.

Front veranda of the early 16th century Klenteng Avalokitesvara, Banten

From Banten I had to travel to Belitung Island, a 40-minute flight north of Jakarta. I travelled on Sriwijaya Air out of the old Terminal 1B at Jakarta Airport. I have forgotten how delightful and truly Indonesian is Terminal One, with the all the neo-Majapahit proscenium arch carvings and wide open corridors filled with sleeping beauties. Aeroports de Paris did a greater job on the original design for the airport: it’s tragic the way Terminal Two has been turned into a luxury mall for the terminally elite.

Javanese waitress at the Pasir Putih restaurant near the ferry terminal to Bangka Island, Tanjung Tinggi, Belitung

In Belitung I stayed at the brand new Aston which is Belitung's first international standard city hotel. The guest relation’s officer there suggested I have dinner at Rumah Makan Mutiara which has the best seafood this side of the Sydney fish markets. At sunset sleepy Tanjung Pandan, the capitol of Belitung, turns into one big seafood restaurant with half the populace gorging on steamed crab and tiger prawns before going to bed at 8.

Beautiful Belitung: the rocks at Tanjung Tinggi beach

At dawn I visited the sensational Tanjung Tinggi tourism zone — more 5-star seafood restaurants and remarkable scenery. The giant granite boulders that litter the foreshore have to be seen to be believed. I counselled my client, a successful putra daerah, to lobby the government for 100 meter setbacks and no billboards and a conservation order on the local’s favorite beach, before it turns into another Bali.

Belitung spear-fisherman at Laskar Pelangi Bay, Tanjung Tinggi beach

Belitung has some incredible ship wreck dives — according to local tradition, a Ming-era princess married a local and, upon her death, the Ming emperor sent shiploads of treasure, which were purposefully sunk, to accompany her in the afterlife.
The local villages are still charmingly colonial-era Malay with timber huts on stilts tastefully painted.

Typical Melayu-Belitung house front

Belitung is now serviced by Garuda, Sriwijaya and Lion and a great destination for nature lovers who want to get out of Jakarta for the weekend. There are numerous beach hut-style hostels on Tanjung Tinggi Beach and a Lorin hotel done in the popular army campus style. One can charter a boat and visit the nearby islands.

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