At the palace in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta, there are two honours passed down through the generations. In both cases, when a son is born, the father knows his child will one day take on a special responsibility. It is the right and the duty of the child to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors.
One of these honours is to become the Sultan of Yogyakarta, a hereditary title that dates back to the eighteenth century. The other great honour that stays in the family is to be a guard at the palace. It is not just royalty that passes on the job to the next generation, but also those who dedicate their lives to the royal protection.
Today, there are two thousand palace guards in total. Only about one thousand are active, though. It’s a job for life, so as they get older and can’t physically work anymore, they are looked after rather than being thrown out of service. On any particular day there are about one hundred palace guards actually working.
The palace is known in Yogyakarta as the Keraton. Although it’s open for visitors in the morning, it is still a functioning part of the political sphere here in the region. The sultan holds that particular title in name, not power, since the declaration of Indonesian independence in 1945 – but he is also automatically the governor of the region. Therefore the Keraton is used for official functions, political meetings, and as the royal residence.
There is also a cultural link with the compound and the people. In some ways it is almost a spiritual connection. The Keraton was designed to reflect the Javanese cosmos. It faces towards the volcanic Mount Merapi in one direction and towards the Indian Ocean, home of the important Indonesian sea spirit, in the other.
The placement of the pavilions, the courtyards and even the trees all have a significance within the traditional spiritual view of the world by the local people. But, look a bit closer, and you’ll also see in the intricate designs an integration of the faiths that have influenced this part of Indonesia over the years. There are Buddhist, Islamic and Hindi elements to much of the decoration in the central part of the palace.
From my experience, most of Indonesia is very proud of their heritage. But those in Yogyakarta seem more enthusiastic than others to continue weaving it into daily modern life. The Keraton and the connection with the people is a strong one. There seems to be a genuine affection and respect for the leadership amongst the people here. This palace complex is the bridge between the old and the new and the faith that binds the cultures.