Tracing the Heritage of Cirebon

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Cirebon was known as Grage in the past, which came from the word “negara gede” means “great Kingdom” is located in the north cost of Java island, near the provincial border of Central Java with West Java. Another source says that the name Cirebon comes from the words Cai and Rebon, which means water and shrimp in Sundanese. Most of the population back then worked as fishermen, counting their life on the sea.

Starting as a small fishing village named Muara Jati in the 15th century, Cirebon grew became a major port in the north coast of Java. At that time many foreign ships had come to trade with the locals and in this port also seen that activity of Islam was growing. The establishment of Cirebon Sultanate in the early 15th century marked the first Islamic rule in Western Java, under the leadership of Sunan Gunungjati, one of the Wali Songo (nine Moslems saints spreading the teachingof Islam in Java).

Cirebon played significant role in the early coming of Islam to Java. Its culture was described as Java Pasisiran (coastal) culture, with notable mixtures of Sundanese, Chinese, Arabic-Islamic, and European influences. Thanks to its role as a major port in the past.

After taking 2.5 hour ride by train from Jakarta, we arrived in Cirebon railway station which was located right in the city centre. First we headed to Keraton Kasepuhan. It was the oldest Palace where The Sultan of Cirebon lived and we went to the oldest Mosque in Cirebon known as a Masjid Agung Cirebon located on the west side of the Palace.

As we arrived in front of the entrance, we were welcomed by a tour guide dressing in a traditional costum who explained the history of this Sultanate while walking around the 25 acre palace complex. The palace was built in 1447 and its architecture and interior are a blend of Sundanese, Javanese, Islamic, Chinese and Dutch styles. There were many historical places we could visit in Cirebon which were evidence of the early coming of Islam.

Entering the palace complex, we saw a Hindu-styled split gate named Gapura Adi. It is similar to the gate of Balinese Hindu temples. This red brick gate leads you to Siti Hinggil area where there are five wooden pagoda-like pavilions, or we called it as pendopo. Siti means land in local language and hingil means high. This area was built on a level higher than any other areas of the palace to symbolize the divinity of the member of the royal family.

These pendopos were built on soft carved brick bases without walls in teak wood columns lined symmetrical with a wooden roof joglo-shaped and tiled floor. The carvings on the pendopo columns were restored in 1940s as a resemblance of the ancient originals. Dating back to 15th century, Pendopo was usually used for gamelan performance during royal ceremony.

Like any other ancient kingdoms in Java, the layout of the royal complex must follow a sacred traditional pattern. The Palace has to face north. In front of the Palace there has to be one large central square to house lively traditional ceremony or other public gatherings. To the west of the square, there should be a mosque or other religious buildings. To the north, there should be a jail and to the east, a marketplace. The Palace and the Mosque still stand proudly until today, however the square looks very much abandoned and both jail and market had long been vanished.

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, the sultanate thrived and became a major regional centre of trade and commerce, as well as a prominent centre of Islamic learning. The sultanate then split into three royal houses in 1677, and a fourth split off in 1807, each with their own separate lines of descent and kratons; Keraton Kasepuhan, Kraton Kanoman, Keraton Kacirebonan, and Keraton Keprabonan. Today they remain, performing ceremonial duties.

After spending 20 minutes on pendopo area then we entered the palace complex. We can see beautiful and well maintained small garden in the middle of courtyard with two white tiger statues that are the symbol of Pajajaran. Not only that, there are also two canons on both sides.

The palace also has a somewhat neglected small museum. On the left side there was an old horse carriage museum that was said to have the prettiest and most sophisticated carriages in the world in its day. A beautiful 17th century gilded horse carriage called Singa Barong may be seen along with a modern duplicate carriage used on official occasions. On the right side, there was a museum with display of wayang, kris, cannon, furniture, Portuguese armour, and ancient royal clothes.

Inside is a pavilion with white-washed walls dotted with blue-and-white Delft tiles, a marble floor and Green painted ceiling hung with French chandeliers. These decorative ornaments were evidence that once upon a time Cirebon was a major trading hub in the north coast of Java. While in the living room, there were king's throne and the bedroom.

Royal Mosque of Cirebon

Once we finished enjoying the palace, we immediately walked to the Royal Mosque of Cirebon. Although this mosque was known by the name of The Great Mosque of Cirebon, the actual name is Sang Cipta Rasa Mosque. This mosque was built by Sunan Gunung Jati and Sunan Kalijaga in the 15th century, in 1480 along with the spreading of Islam in Java by Wali Songo with the architectural style that combines the style of Demak, Majapahit and Cirebon.

The mosque entrance is surrounded with red brick wall. The mosque is divided into two parts, the semi-open hall and the main room. At the hall, there is an old sacred well that are still in use by people to take ablution. I was amazed that all the pillars in the mosque's hallway were connected without the use of nails, which connects the pegs. There are nine entrance doors to enter the main room of the mosque from its hallway. This number represents Wali Songo and uniquely all doors are not in the same size, between one and two meter high.

Once we go inside, we found the height ceiling right below the roof. The four main pillars called Saka guru were made from solid wood, still stand firmly without any renovation. Like any other mosque built in the early coming of Islam in Java, this mosque has a pyramid-shape roof built in three layers, called limasan.

Batik Cirebon

The pattern of Batik Cirebon is the result of a perfect collaboration between religions, arts, cultures brought by various ethnics and nations in the past. As a major trading hub during 14th century, Cirebon attracted foreign traders from China, India, Middle East and Portuguese which later enriched a mixture of diverse cultures and produced many new traditions such as Cirebon Batik.

Unlike other Batik producing-regions that feature one distinct style of Batik, such as Batik Keraton (Royal Batik) for Solo or Pekalongan that focuses on Batik Pesisir (Coastal Batik), Cirebon features both styles of batik. Cirebon’s classic royal batik style has also been developed by the Royal Palaces (The Kasepuhan and the Kanoman Sultanates), while the coastal batik emerged from trade and fishing communities who brought their own motifs and style. Royal batik Cirebon is characterized by motifs of royal symbols based on religious philosophy, while coastal batik Cirebon is more dynamic and open to current trends.

In general, the ornaments of Cirebon’s batik can be classified into 5 groups: Wadasan, Geometric, Pangkaan (Buketan), Byur, and Semarangan. Wadasan is the classic ornament of Cirebon batik that mainly highlights the royal batik style. The motifs of Wadasan are among the most renowned of Batik Trusmi that include the Mega Mendung (Clouds), Singa Payung (lion covered by umbrella), Naga Saba (dragon), and Taman Arum, which motifs are largely influenced by Chinese empirial designs. The geometric ornaments mainly feature lines and geometric shapes, among the geometric motifs are; Tambal Sewu, Liris, Kawung, and Lengko-lengko.

The Pangkaan is also known as Bungketan ornaments feature floral variations such as trees or flowers. Motifs included in this ornaments are Pring Sedapur, Kelapa Setundun, Soko Cina, and Kembang Terompet. The Byur is highlighted with flowers and small leaves that completely fill the textile with motifs such as Karang Jahe, mawar Sepasang, Dara Tarung, and Banyak Angrum. The Semarangan Ornament features repetitive motifs placed in certain patterns. The motifs of these ornaments are called Piring Selampad, Kembang Kantil, and more.

All these Cirebon’s Batik is centralized in the village called Trusmi, named after Ki Gede Trusmi, a man who introduced the art of Batik to local people while spreading the teaching of Islam in the 16th Century. Today, Ki Gede Trusmi remains very highly honored by the local inhabitants. His tomb is well preserved and every 4 years, the Trusmi villagers conduct a ritual called Ganti Welit and Ganti Sirap (changing the roof of the tomb).

I become realize that Cirebon is rich with of the glories days of Islam in Java, too bad it’s almost forgotten.

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