Stumble Into Indonesia's Unseen Places
Submitted by viravira on 23 November 2016 • Destination
I was walking down a narrow alley in Kotagede when a middle-aged woman was walking toward me. She seemed to be observing me quickly with the kind of stare when people notice you’re a tourist or someone foreign to the place. I guess me taking pictures of doors and windows in the alley that gave it away. She then smiled once we met eyes, and I smiled back. No words exchanged, but I felt sincere friendliness from her expression – I hope I was right.
I experienced that kind of brief but friendly interaction often in Kotagede; in the narrow alleys and on the streets, with other pedestrians and people on bicycles, men and women. As a district with a long history and heritage buildings, Kotagede is one of the important districts of Yogyakarta. It was also popular for the silver crafting, though nowadays the demand has reduced. Tourists from all over the world have wandered the streets of this once the Mataram kingdom center. I guess the locals are used to seeing tourists on the streets but I didn’t see any sign of hassling sellers like you’d see in highly commercial touristy areas. I don’t know why, but Kotagede still feels low-key and far from being touristy, which is one of the reasons why I love it.
The initial reason for my stay in Kotagede was to join the Jagalan Festival’s sketching event. Jagalan is a village within Kotagede that houses many vintage buildings, though some have been renovated due to the huge earthquake in 2006. I’ve grown a liking to sketch buildings live, and Kotagede’s Javanese-Dutch architecture was calling me to have another sketching trip like I did in Singapore. The festival only took place in a weekend, I extended a few days to stroll around on my own.
At the festival, my fellow sketcher Seto, who was in the committee and is a native Yogya, took us to sketch at the Masjid Agung Kotagede (Great Mosque of Kotagede), the oldest mosque in Yogyakarta special region. The mosque was built in 1575, when Panembahan Senapati just reigned over the Islamic Mataram Kingdom.
There was an opening ceremony of the festival with so many people at the mosque’s court, they were blocking my view to this largest heritage of the Mataram Kingdom. So I just walked further in to the complex, following my fellow travel sketchers Motulz and Yandi, and found the old bathing area called Sendang Seliran that was built in 1284. The day was scorching hot, I chose to sit under the shades and did a live sketch of the Sendang Seliran’s gate, which is in a typical Hindu style, like the rest of the building in the mosque complex. Hindu style in a mosque complex, what an interesting example of unity in diversity.
Sendang Seliran is just next to the graveyard of Mataram’s forefathers. You can visit the graves only on certain days and the rules are pretty strict, like you have to wear Javanese clothes, which can be rented there, and cameras are not allowed.
Seto also took us to sketch at Kampung Cokroyudan, a neighborhood located where an alun-alun (openfield city square) used to be. Javanese city squares were always surrounded by a mosque, a palace and a market. Since the moving of the kingdom center to Plered and a few more succeeding locations, houses were built on the alun-alun and have become a gem of Kotagede until now. A gem for sketchers, to the least! Almost every corner is sketchable (borrowing the suffix of the word Instagramable for Instagram worthy objects). It is aesthetic and (or because) the houses are typical Javanese.
Kotagede has narrow alleys, many of them don’t fit cars. According to Seto, it was designed to prevent the Portuguese’s cannons to invade the neighborhood in the 16th century. Many of the windows were placed relatively high to give space under them for the people to duck and hide. This kind of story about local’s wits reminds me of the Viet Cong’s strategy of digging underground tunnels that only fit their small Asian bodies and ended up winning the war against the big Americans. Sometimes it’s the simple thoughts that prevail.
The labyrinths is also made to help thieves loose their way once they start running. They get so confused and can’t run away. This backfired during the earthquake, because people were confused where to evacuate themselves as the alleys were so tight and endless. Some people chose not to comeback to live there.
The neighborhood was relatively quiet though packed with houses built wall to wall. I didn’t see many people outside, not even the little kids. One or two passersby would stop and watch what we were doing, almost no question was asked. Honestly, that was a good thing because even though I’ve gotten more used to onlookers, I am more comfortable to sketch peacefully.
It was different with the traditional market, Pasar Legi Kotagede (Legi Market of Kotagede; Legi is a name of a day in Javanese calendar). The market people were either not so good at hiding their curiosity or they wouldn’t let a possibility of a buyer to pass. When I was looking around to see where I could sit comfortably and not getting in the way of others’ transactions, I felt the sellers’ eyes were following me, perhaps hoping that I was going to buy their goods. When I finally found a spot among veggies and snack stalls inside the building, occasionally buyers and sellers would look over my shoulders and match the figures in my sketch with the real people.
“That doesn’t look like me,” says a banana seller in pink pants.
“I know, I’m not good at drawing people’s faces,” I admitted.
But he kept on stopping by to see the development of my sketch and tell his passing acquaintances about my sketch. The veggie lady looked like she had a feeling that I was drawing her but chose to ignore me. I was glad though that she looked pleased with my version of her when I showed her my finished work. While sketching, there were a few people, including the pink pants man, that asked me questions. Where was I from, was I an art student, what was I doing in Yogyakarta, and so on. I wasn’t annoyed at all, in fact I was glad because they took an interest at me instead of looking disturbed, and I had expected that kind of interaction in a market.
Located about 100 meters north to the Great Mosque, the market had been there since 1575. It’s been the place for people to gather ever since. Only the establishment that has gone through some renovations. The stalls outside the building are open since about 3 a.m., while the ones inside since about 5 a.m. A few days later I was back at the market just to buy some fruits, and it was still busy even in the evening.
The narrow alleys, the friendly people, the humble facades, and more. I am not much of a solo traveler, but I had no single doubt that I would enjoy Kotagede by myself and a little bit of company of friends occasionally, and that was exactly what happened. I owe it to the sincere ambience of the area, my sketching, and the one that I have yet to tell you in the next post: Bhumi Hostel.
Meanwhile, take a look at more of Kotagede the way I experienced it.