Cultural Construction of Surakarta

Published as chapter 6 in Vinayak Bharne, ed., The Emerging Asian City: Concomitant Urbanitites and Urbanisms (New York: Routledge, 2012).

Whether people believe the city is a dog-eat-dog world or the “family” of a fatherly king, they act, think and see accordingly and so make their imaginings real.
—Richard O’Connor[1]

A city’s form is an imprint of values held by a society at key moments of its development over time. This is a widely accepted understanding of urban form as a reflection of the culture that builds it. But there is a second relationship between city form and cultures that is much less established:  city form also reinforces meanings and structures the choices of its inhabitants, and in some cases, is self-consciously designed with explicit intentions to operate as an instrument by which social meanings are maintained, reproduced and constructed to operate in ways that favor specific outcomes in terms of social perceptions, economic flows, human behavior, and power.

This chapter examines a bi-directional relationship between urban form and meaning in the Javanese city of Surakarta, Indonesia as passive reflection and as active instrument through three parallel readings. The first reading of Surakarta (a.k.a. Solo) is of a city, like hundreds of other secondary Asian cities, that has been inexorably transformed by the successive waves of modernization.[2]

A second reading is triggered by an awareness that the twin cities of Surakarta and Yogyakarta, separated by a mere 60 kilometers, were rival royal capital cities since their founding in the mid 18th century and continue to support the presence of royal families overseeing some degree of cultural authority. This places them in a somewhat more elite club of several dozen formerly preeminent Southeast Asian cities and deepens the sense of imminent erosion, and eventual loss.

The third reading is not just that of a city transformed by an unprecedented onslaught of international economic and cultural forces, but also that of a culture in the midst of a continuous and ongoing process of syncretic cultural evolution. This reading compels us to come to grips with two of the foundational assumptions that have accumulated around the word “globalization” in both the popular and scholarly press. First, that exposure to international economic forces results in an inevitable erasure of distinctive cultural meanings. Second, that this process of globalization is happening for the first time.

That Surakarta has been transformed under the influence of global forces, particularly in the past several decades, is indisputable. These physical and social transformations have irreversibly altered the world views of the next generation. But a longer historical perspective contextualizes current globalization as only the most recent of several, arguably more significant, waves of cultural influence that have swept and similarly altered Java. Given the long history of Javanese cultural adaptation, resilience, and persistence, the appearance of cultural acquiescence is not something to take at face value. This third reading suggests that to the extent that Javanese culture has been transformed, it has done so in unexpected ways according to its own terms of reference. Confronted with interlocutors in search of singular truths, Java has proven only too willing to supply easy simplifications, but in ways that cloak without displacing the deeper operation of more complex cultural realities.

The first of three parts that follow lifts the edges of first and second readings revealing the possibilities of a layered unfolding of history that runs counter to the tropes of modernization. The second part briefly outlines the cosmo-spatial model that continuously informs subsequent cultural constructions of Surakarta offering a counter-narrative to the self-evident nature of outward appearances. The final part examines opportunities presented by the simultaneity of Surakarta’s multiple readings in the context of contemporary negotiated futures.

Figure 6.1: The matter-of-fact incorporation of Hindu Lingga and Yoni offerings in the Islamic Garebeg Maulud observance. Photo: Robert Cowherd

First  Encounters

The physical evidence presented by Surakarta’s historic urban core is legible to the Western perspective as nothing much more or less than a poorly maintained but officially recognized cultural asset protected by the Republic of Indonesia on behalf of its citizens. In the early 1990s, a research arm of the local university was putting the final touches on an ambitious historic preservation plan for the Surakarta palace modeled closely on Colonial Williamsburg, USA. Actors dressed in period costume would portray royalty, palace guards, nobles and subjects feigning ignorance of cameras, t-shirts, and cell phones. The vast complex of nested courtyards in various states of disrepair and decay was to be restored or rebuilt from scratch in a simulacra of romantic feudal and colonial era projections for the edification of an anticipated tourism boom. Surakarta provides evidence of being a part of a singular global cultural condition supporting a convenient one-to-one mapping between its world and the West.

The first suggestions that there might be more to the story came in with what seemed to be competing interpretations of architectural elements of the palace. Depending on who was telling the story, a column or pavilion or courtyard was either linked to the mythical Queen of the South Seas, the Hindu cycle of life, or Mohammad’s teachings. Seeking clarification from a Mr. Gusti Dipokusumo, he instead complicated it sagely with a question: “why must one be true and the others false?”  suggesting the possibility of multiple parallel readings of Javanese culture.

Other multiple readings followed. “Gusti,” it turns out means “Prince,” and Prince Dipokusumo’s father was the old guy in the local hotel lounge with a predilection for word play and flirtation. He was also the “Sunan” (King) Pakubuwono XII, coronated during the last days of Dutch colonialism. He was the “axis of the world” at the center of an elaborate hierarchy with six wives, 36 children, the religious head of kejawan (Javanism) and Islam, and responsible for maintaining a demanding cycle of rituals and ceremonies. Prince Dipokusumo at first downplayed the significance and scope of these rituals. Some were indeed small gatherings attended solely by an older generation. But others turned out to be popular spectacles attracting large and enthusiastic crowds.

One such event is the Malam Satu Sura Javanese New Year parade. Surakarta’s population of 600,000 swells by another hundred thousand or more as people from villages within a 50-kilometer radius walk into the city to line the parade route. The meditative vigil anticipates the eventual emergence of the King and his most trusted priests carrying sacred objects imbued with supernatural powers. The nobles, palace officials, and several thousand volunteer abdi dalem “servants” to the King form a procession led in a circumambulation of the palace complex by sacred white buffalo. The buffalo set the pace. The thousands of participants walk, wait, or lift their sarongs and trot along to keep up. When the buffalo relieve themselves on the street, people lining the way break ranks to soak up the sacred urine or gather up the holy excrement in sarongs for use through the coming year against disease or crop failures.

In light of these first readings of Java and the Javanese, the annual New Year’s ceremony was something of a vestigial reenactment of a bygone religious practice. A second reading of the ceremony was compelled by the enthusiasm with which nominally Muslim men competed for the honor of carrying buffalo manure home to their families. This reinforced a growing sense that the King and the palace were part of a widely embraced belief system mixing animism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam rendered in hybrid expressions of indigenous, Middle Eastern, European Baroque, and Dutch Modern material cultures.

Further research compelled a third reading. Although the ritual had historically been held in response to a crisis in the kingdom, its status as an annual event began only in the 1970s at the request of Indonesian President Suharto. This reading is consistent with President Suharto’s makeover from brutal military dictator to benevolent “Father of Development” in part through the deft reweaving of sub-national expressions into an invented “Indonesia culture.”[3] In characteristically Javanese fashion, these readings are not mutually exclusive.

Urban Form as Instrument of Spiritual Power

The principle instruments by which the King restores balance to the realm during the Javanese New Year ceremony would appear to be the pusaka sacred talismans carefully chosen based on the inauspicious events of the previous year and predictions for the next. But in this and the multitude of regular ritual acts large and small, it is the palace itself that is the most significant pusaka (supernaturally charged object). As a “kraton,” the Surakarta Royal Palace (officially: Karaton Kasunanan Surakarta Hadiningrat) is one of only a handful of exceptional palace complexes that both emulate the Hindu-Javanese cosmological model of the universe, and operate as an instrument through which the fate of the world can be altered.[4]

In the first centuries BCE, sea trade between ports in what are now India and China brought ships from both to Java. The seasonal nature of equatorial trade winds made the port cities of Java home to Chinese and Indians for several months of the year. Over time, segregated ethnic enclaves became one of the most characteristic elements of the Southeast Asian city.[5] Chinese and Indian influences left deep traces on the Javanese cultural landscape. Hindu religious practices and cultural expressions were highly venerated and quickly assimilated in a classic example of syncretic cultural formation.[6]

The Hindu model of the cosmos posits a concentric arrangement centered on Mount Méru, the abode of the highest gods.[7] The world of human experience is considered to parallel the divine world to which it is directly linked. When these two worlds become misaligned, calamity strikes on the human side of the system. The kraton complex performs the task of influencing the alignment of the divine and human worlds in part by serving as a third parallel world matching the patterns and forms of the other two.

The joglo double-pitched hip roof marks the sacred center of the kraton as the puser (naval) of the world through which good fortune flows from the divine realm (the mother) through an umbilical chord of sorts to the human world (the fetus). The flow of good fortune from heaven to earth is subject to blockages and mis-alignments bringing on famine, natural disaster, or social unrest. The primary role of the King is to correct and maintain proper alignments and smooth flows. The offerings and rituals performed in different locations within the kraton are the means by which the King, like his predecessors over the centuries, fulfills this sacred duty.

This portal of divine power forms the core of a ubiquitous socio-political-spatial system structuring the urbanism and worldview of the Javanese throughout a long history. Despite subsequent waves of deep cultural penetrations including Islam, European colonialism, and 20th century modernization, the Javanese world order has demonstrated a remarkable capacity for change and continuity. At least part of the persistent renewal of elements at the core of Javanese culture is attributable to their roles in the habits of daily life in a nearly constant reinforcement through language, dress, spatial practices and related operations of identity construction. Although all of these have been influenced by the recent rise of international cultural exchanges, the longer historical perspective reveals that such external forces have been the historic norm rather than the recent exception.

Figure 6.2: Enhanced satellite image indicating the key elements of the Karaton Surakarta’s cosmological operation. Source: GoogleEarth™, Robert Cowherd

Traditionally, specific codes of dress, language, body posture, and attitude all mapped directly onto different courtyards of the kraton complex according to its location relative to the center. Mirrors mounted on either side of each threshold as one moves towards the sacred center of the kraton are used to examine one’s outer and inner disposition and make adjustments before moving up the spiritual hierarchy of the Javanese spatial system. The distinct vocabularies of the Javanese language have historically located the relative social and geographic position of speakers as being closer to, or farther from, the kraton and the King. Thus one expects to hear only low Javanese in the coastal villages farthest from Surakarta, while those addressing the King at the center of the kraton are expected to use high Javanese, or even a special set of verbs reserved only for references to His Royal Highness.[8] A similarly concentric pattern of socio-cultural hierarchy orders the physical and social space of Javanese life at the scale of neighborhoods centered on the homes of local nobles, and is recognizable in even the smallest homes of the rural hinterland.[9]

The Negotiations of Cultural Constructions

The struggle to reconcile multiple readings of the traditional palace-city develops in parallel with an appreciation of the historiographic strategies by which each generation reconciles even the most dramatic transformations—dynastic change, religious conversion, Western colonization, globalization—in ways that deliberately render them as continuations of prior conditions, practices, and meanings. The constant negotiations within and between the hundreds of distinct cultural-linguistic identities of the Southeast Asian archipelago has created conditions favoring strategies of cultural adaptation cloaked in a profound conservatism.[10] In the first contacts with India and China, the embrace of Hinduism did not displace prior indigenous cultural practices. Instead, Hindu culture was “Javanized” in a process of syncretic adaptation in which aspects and attributes of the two or more sets of cultural practices and meanings become recast as contiguous extensions of each other.[11] Once identified in their more dramatic manifestations, the conscious and reflexive operations of cultural construction and reconstruction are all the more evident in subsequent waves of Islamic conversion and re-conversions, European colonialisms, postwar international modernisms, and other globalizations. The méru roof, named for Mount Méru at the center of the Hindu-Javanese cosmological model of the universe, was incorporated as the iconic form of the Javanese mosque.[12] A Dutch carriage is easily understood as a gift to the Javanese King from his royal counterpart in Holland. Despite being so unwaveringly Baroque in every physical aspect, it was rechristened Kyai Garudo Kencono and plays a central role in the maintenance of cosmic balance and divine flows through ritual offerings every Thursday evening.

Figure 6.3: Baroque pediment of the Mangkunegaran Palace serves as the backdrop for the hybrid Ottoman-Dutch-Indian costume of a marching band. Photo: Robert Cowherd

The Dutch legitimized their own physical-spatial constructions by locating the Catholic Church, fortress, and colonial banks in conformance with the kraton’s north-south ceremonial axis. The colonial counterpoint to the Javanese spatio-political order comes at the northern gate of the palace where it is crossed by an east-west axis of colonial infrastructure: the post road and rail line along which the cinema, motorcar and locomotive transcend the old fixities of time and space to offer a liberating modernity seemingly beyond traditional hierarchies. The former royal capitals of Surakarta and Jogjakarta are mere station stops between the cosmopolitan centers of Jakarta, Bandung and Surabaya. [13]

Post-independence Surakarta continued to avail itself of these strategies to negotiate Javanese identity construction through its ongoing modernization under the influence of national and international capital. Ultimately, the plan to “kill” the palace in order to “revitalize” it, proved antithetical to the ongoing practices of Javanization and cultural construction. When the Aga Khan Award for Architecture selected Surakarta as the venue for its triennial award ceremony the opportunity came to establish this third reading in terms of reference identifying the significance of the physical assets as a function of ongoing socio-cultural spatial practices.

Moving through the first and second readings of Surakarta as an historic city worthy of preservation reveals a more profound value that lies beyond the scope of even the most technically sophisticated conservation methods. Within this framing, the dictates of disciplinary knowledge and technical expertise are demoted to merely advisory status. The details of construction are decided by the King, designated members of the palace community, and a reactivated network of artisans and craftsmen, even in cases where this might run counter to the determinations of professional expertise. Given that the highest value of the Karaton Surakarta lies in its living community, the greatest opportunities for the future are available by locating authority in the stewards of its ongoing spiritual practices. Maintaining this historic linkage supports the possibilities for the ongoing evolution of the multiple meanings layered onto every detail of the palace complex.

Hybrid Cultural Formation as the Historic Norm

The extraordinary persistence of indigenous practices and Hindu-Javanese cosmological blueprint for the Javanese world testifies to the place these value systems have at the core of the Javanese identity. The mechanisms of “Javanization” allowed the Javanese to embrace Islam, accommodate European wars and colonializations, and to enthusiastically pursue a national infatuation with international capital without entirely relinquishing their kejawan reference points. That the central attributes of the Javanese personality were reinforced and renewed through each successive wave of transformation speaks of a remarkable resilience imbued through various strategies of adaptation and for resolving the appearance of conflicting meanings.

Figure 6.4: In the hours awaiting the King’s appearance the sober meditations of the Abdi Dalem is momentarily broken by an unexpected demonstration of affection. Photo: Robert Cowherd

This characterization of Surakarta challenges the assumptions of the Western gaze of a few scattered “authentic” indigenous cultures have somehow yet been spared the ravages of progress by their remoteness or insularity. Instead, Surakarta is one of the many cases that turn this presumption on its head: cultures that have been in the cross fire of globalization for several centuries have developed the reflexive responses of resilience, pragmatism, and genius for adaptation. The values and meanings embedded in seemingly inhospitable forms continue to defy overly simplistic readings based on appearances alone. Amidst the abundant evidence that everything has changed, it is remarkable to find just how much has stayed the same.


[1] Richard A. O’Connor, A Theory of Indigenous Southeast Asian Urbanism, Research Notes and Discussions Paper No. 38 (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1983), 5.

[2] Hans-Deiter Evers and Rüdiger Korff, Southeast Asian Urbanism: The Meaning and Power of Social Space (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), 2-4.

[3] John Pemberton, On the Subject of “Java” (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 4-7.

[4] Peter J. M. Nas, “The Early Indonesian Town: Rise and Decline of the City-State and Its Capital,” The Indonesian City: Studies in Urban Development and Planning, ed. Peter J. M. Nas (Dordrecht: Foris Publications, 1986), 18-36.

[5] T.G. McGee, The Southeast Asian City: A Social Geography of the Primate Cities of Southeast Asia (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1967), 55-61.

[6] Clifford Geertz, The Religion of Java (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976).

[7] Timothy Earl Behrend, “Kraton and Cosmos in Traditional Java,” (masters thesis, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1982), 156; and Paul Wheatley, Nagara and Commandery: Origins of the Southeast Asian Urban Traditions (University of Chicago Department of Geography Research Paper Nos. 207-208, 1983).

[8] Ward Keeler, Javanese: A Cultural Approach (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1984).

[9] Ikaputra, “A Study on the Contemporary Utilization of the Javanese Urban Heritage and its effect on Historicity,” (Ph.D. diss., Japan, 1998).

[10] B. Schrieke, Ruler and Realm in Early Java (The Hague and Bandoeng: W. van Hoeve, 1957), 99-101.

[11] James T. Siegel, Solo in the New Order: Language and Hierarchy in an Indonesian City (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 88-90.

[12] Nancy Florida, Writing the Past, Inscribing the Future: The Prophesies of the 19th Century Javanese Royal Court (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1995), 325.

[13] Abidin Kusno, The Appearances of Memory: Mnemonic Practices of Architecture and Urban Form in Indonesia (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 155-74.


1 thought on “Cultural Construction of Surakarta

  1. Pingback: POST D: Traditional Dance Keeps the Indonesian Culture Alive | Indonesia Global Design Studio

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