Do you have one of those places you’ve always gone to but never really explore? Jogja is such a place for me and Twosocks. Work would send us there nearly every other month, but it has been more than a decade since I properly explored the place as a traveller. It’s not the Malioboro or the Kraton we yearned to revisit, or the gudeg and lesehan we crave in our palate. It was going outside the bounds of the provincial capital and experiencing what the other four regencies have to offer that compelled us to hoist our backpacks, book a room for IDR150k/night in a small guest house, and hire a car to take us around Jogja last Easter weekend.
There really were a lot to see and do in the short span of three days. We cartwheeled and sand-surfed around the magnificent dunes of Gumuk Pasir, the closest thing Indonesia has to a desert. We rented a motorbike and explored the slopes of the Merapi volcano and enjoying the cool mountain air. We climbed over three hundred steps to take a peek at the tombs of the Sultans of Yogyakarta and Surakarta. We visited Beringharjo village, the prima donna du jour for tourist destination in Jogja, and lazily floated in a tube to see fruit bats hanging at the roof of the limestone cave in Pindul. We climbed aboard a pick-up truck running off-road to a river where we body-rafted, jumped off cliffs, and had a spiteful water fight. We splashed, crouched, and climbed across the long, dark, underground, bad ass cave that was Gua Cerme. We sipped countless clay cups of teh poci, devoured dozens of rabbit satay, and inhaled Indomie and nasi rames at sidewalk warungs like no tomorrow. We took roads that snaked around lush paddy fields and cuts through forests while our driver shared anecdotes of rural life in Jogja, from the struggles of farmers in Gunung Kidul during dry season to the many wives of a kyai who supposedly masters black magic.
They were all thrilling and wonderful, but above all, there was Ullen Sentalu.
Ullen Sentalu is a museum of Javanese culture and art in Kaliurang, which I have heard friends gush about and understand within minutes of setting foot on its door why such gushing is warranted. It was a treat for all five senses – I am just not that lucky to have a sixth sense.
There was the perennial petrichor – the scent the rain makes when it kisses the soil and one of the universally most beloved scents. The museum complex consists of several buildings and gardens sprawled over a huge complex surrounded by pine and cinnamon forest. The cool breeze of Kaliurang gently carried the petrichor around and accompanied us as we walked the maze-like corridors connecting one building to the other.
The sights were breathtaking, and no, I am not exaggerating. The European, colonial stone buildings, the tall trees in the surrounding forest and the well-tended gardens, the sculptures displayed outdoor – the architecture was enough reason to declare the place a museum. Some galleries were located underground, others were small rooms interconnected within a labyrinth. The art collection housed by the museum was no less impressive. Three-dimensional paintings of kraton princesses and sultans with eyes that followed us as we moved past it, handwritten letters and love notes of the royal family, the intricate gamelan and batik collections, and the black-and-white childhood photographs of royal family members with yellowing tattered edges were elegantly displayed under warm golden lights. There were no camera flashes or smartphone clicks to disrupt the visual joy, as the museum strictly forbids picture-taking. There were excited smiles and curious stares from the visitors, instead of the usual bored expressions I so often see in museum visitors.
We were not allowed to touch any of the displays, but our shoulders brushed against other visitors in our group. Ullen Sentalu breaks the visitors into several groups per hour and assigns a guide to escort the group into the museum and share the stories of the person immortalized in the painting or the message painted into the batik patterns. I normally hate being in group tours, but the Ullen Sentalu experience was made special also because of the people in our group. There were small things people did, like saying “Excuse me, Mbah” whenever he entered a new room, which reminded me of old Javanese belief that antique things contain a spirit within them. There were funny jokes and questions addressed to the guide, which I enjoyed and in turn allowed me to recognize how others also enjoyed being in the museum.
And of course, there were the stories we got to hear. There was the Sultan in his fifties who married a kraton princess in her teens, choosing her because she was the only one among her sisters to steal a glance at his face and made him fall in love at first sight. There was the surprise upon hearing the Western nicknames of sultans and princesses, such as Bobby and Tineke, which reminded me just how close the priyayis were to our Dutch colonizers. But for me, the most captivating story of all is the story of Gusti Nurul, the only daughter of Sultan Mangkunegara the seventh.
The room hosting Gusti Nurul’s paraphernalia is called Ruang Putri Dambaan – Room of the Desired Princess – because she really was desired by many important men in Indonesia’s history. The pictures from her youth showed how classically Javanese her beauty was, but they also showed her many talents. She was an equestrian, a rare feat for any woman at that time, and a remarkable Javanese classical dancer who sailed for a month to the Netherlands in her teens to dance for Princess Juliana’s wedding to a tele-conferenced gamelan orchestra through a gramophone. With such beauty and talent, Soekarno, Sutan Sjahrir, and Sultan Hamengkubuwono the ninth have all proposed to her, only to be turned down because she refused to be in a polygamous marriage. She ended up marrying a quiet, low profile soldier when she was 30 years old and led a happy life in Bandung away from the public eye. I have always had a penchant for stubborn Javanese ladies, ignited by the amazing Indonesian author N.H. Dini who wrote about sex so honestly in her books laden with strong female characters, and I admired her even more for standing up to tradition of marrying at a young age in a household where polygamy has always been the norm.
The cherry on top of the Ullen Sentalu experience was the jamu served to us at the end of the tour. The herbal drink made of tangerine, lemongrass, and curcuma was taken from one of the Sultan’s recipe book and it warmed us after walking through the nippy underground galleries and the cool Kaliurang breeze in the gardens. The jamu was not listed in the menu of its charming colonial restaurant, the Beukenhof, but the place served one of the tastiest chocolate mousse Twosocks and I have ever had.
Ullen Sentalu may not boast a vast collection in the calibre of the Louvre or displays as enigmatic and enthralling as the mathematical paintings in Den Haag’s Escher museum, but it was the only one that offered us such a lavish feast for the five senses. Hands down, it was the most beautiful museum I have ever seen and the best museum experience I have ever had, and I am very happy to have found it in one of Jogja’s corners, a mere hour flight from my hometown.
Jakarta, 1 April 2013
P.S: I just noticed the date. Trust me, folks, the sentiment expressed in this love note to Ullen Sentalu is not an April Fool joke!