Ignoring history

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 March, 2004, 12:00am

While Indonesia might proudly sell itself as having Southeast Asia's richest mix of cultural diversity and places of historical interest, actually preserving that history has never been high on Jakarta's list of priorities.

The city, known as Batavia in the 17th century, was an international centre for the spice trade, with nutmeg brought from the Spice Islands - modern day Maluku - fetching more than gold. The British, Dutch and Portuguese fought for influence, while sultans from central and eastern Java launched wars to gain control of this important port.

But today, apart from a few Dutch warehouses lining Jakarta's Sunda Kelapa port and the city's Dutch-built canals, there is little evidence of this rich history. Throughout the rest of Indonesia, where historic buildings still stand, most have survived not out of respect for the past, but because there was no development slated for that particular site. Even the name given by the Department of Tourism to historic monuments and places of historical interest - 'tourism objects' - reveals the authorities' attitude to its history.

'Tourism objects', such as the famous Hindu monument of Borobudur, are places to visit, take a photo and leave, in many people's opinion. Indonesian visitors to Borobudur usually spend more time having their photos taken, preferably with any foreign tourist who happens to be there, than they do looking at the thousands of richly carved friezes depicting life in central Java 1,200 years ago.

Indonesian tourists in Jakarta prefer more modern monuments - such as the Monas, or national monument, to dusty galleries filled with sculptures.

Monas is an ugly, Soviet-inspired obelisk which has a gold-tipped flame and was built by Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, as a monument to the nation's struggle for independence from the Dutch. But because every Indonesian student learns about Monas and the independence movement, but little about the spice trade and the battle for control of the Indonesian islands, it tops Indonesian tourists' list of favourite destinations.

Thus, it is something of a surprise that a local government, with some encouragement from international donors, is working to preserve a piece of history. Yogyakarta's crumbling Water Palace, located beside the Sultan's Palace, is one of the most interesting pieces of Indonesian architecture.

A mixture of Javanese, Portuguese and Islamic styles, it was built by one of Indonesia's favourite sultans - Hamengkubuwono I, the Sultan of Yogyakarta. Portugal has agreed to donate 1.6 billion rupiah (HK$1.4 million) towards the 4.5 billion rupiah required for the complex's restoration. The rest will be funded by the city and regional governments.

The complex once included a huge artificial lake bordered by a series of underwater passageways which provided access to the palace. The palace, now a crumbling structure, once had private viewing rooms where the sultan could watch over his mistresses or wives as they played in private pools.

The sultan's small circular meditation atrium, built beside the pools, is typical of the Javanese hybrid architecture of the time. Rumour has it that after praying, the sultan used to descend to a secret tunnel beside the mosque and swim or travel in a canoe along the tunnel to cavort with Nyi Roro Kidul, the mythical Javanese goddess believed to control the Indian Ocean.

After the restoration, the Water Palace will be much more than just an inanimate tourism object. It will become a historical park, where visitors can get a real feel for the pleasures and mystique of palace life 400 years ago.