Xanadu on Java

by Mike Di Paola

The stately pleasure domain of a sultan becomes a playground for all
Life was good for Sultan Hamengku Buwono I of the Javanese kingdom of Yogyakarta. When he wasn’t in his personal bathing pond contemplating a happy existence, he was in one of his private viewing rooms above the baths of the Water Palace, watching over his wives and concubines. At night, the sultan was said to sneak out through a secret tunnel and tryst it up with Nyi Roro Kidul, the Javanese goddess believed to control all of the Indian Ocean. When HB I was not disporting with the ladies, he was either praying in his private mosque (you’ve got to wonder, praying for what?) or evading assassins by drawing them into his emptied aquatic chambers and then opening the floodgates. Anything goes in love and war.

The Water Palace was one of 59 buildings at Tamansari, or “Perfumed Garden,” a complex of meditation chambers, pools, and pavilions surrounded by ornamental lakes. It was little used after the sultan’s death in 1792, and abandoned entirely after an earthquake in 1867 destroyed many of the buildings and drained much of the compound’s most famous feature, water. Squatters moved in, and the erstwhile aquatic playground fell into steady decline for the next hundred years.

In 1970, five structures of the Water Palace were restored, and the site began attracting tourists. Now, the local government—and some prominent visitors from abroad—have launched another reparations project. In December 2003, work began on parts of the crumbling palace, with repairs expected to be completed by year’s end; further maintenance will continue through 2005.

The relatively modest restoration is notable for its far-flung support. The government of Portugal, via the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, has ponied up $185,000 for the effort, the Yogyakarta regional government another $127,000. Last year, the World Monuments Fund named Tamansari among its 100 Most Endangered Sites. A sister city to Yogyakarta, Savannah, Georgia, is pitching in with technical assistance. “Tamansari’s intrinsic value is really significant,” says Savannah city manager Michael Brown. “It is a profound cultural expression, in part because the sultan [today Hamengku Buwono X] is still a figure of prominence—and because the royal family was instrumental in ending colonial rule.”

All this attention from interested outsiders suggests that in some cases, globalism works. The restoration project should elevate Tamansari from decrepit tourist oddity to historical park, making it a palpable link to a resplendent past.


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