Although often overshadowed by more famous Yogyakarta, Solo’s entangled past is particularly evocative and you get the very poignant feeling that history remains a living force here. Mark Eveleigh enjoys a case of the Solo blues.
Words and Photography by Mark Eveleigh
“The people of Solo are very proud of their romantic past,” says Ibu Endang Widiastuti. “Of course, our royal families don’t have anything like the power they used to have, but the king is still a highly respected ﬁgurehead.”
As a guide at Pura Mangkunegaran Palace, Ibu Endang is doubly well-qualified: not only is she immensely knowledgeable and clearly enthusiastic about her city’s dramatic history, but she is also a distant descendant of the kings of Solo.
As we gaze up at a particularly regal portrait of the current king, officially known as Gusti Pangeran Adipati Arya Mangkunegara, I comment that it’s a rare privilege to be shown around a palace by a descendant of the Solo kingdom.
There is no other region in all Indonesia where the ancient power of the country often feels so close at hand. Increasing numbers of travellers are choosing Solo as a base from which to explore the world-famous Borobudur, a site that was already at the heart of a thriving culture at a time when many of the great cities of Europe were just barbarian hovels. This city has more than enough old-time glamour and romance to make it a thrilling destination in its own right.
Palace guide Ibu Endang is leading me around the mighty pendopo (pavilion) reception area, where the Mangkunegaran traditional orchestra is practising for one of the periodic dance performances that are held here. The pendopo is painted in the attractive baby blue that seems so popular in Solo: just as the cities of India are often known for the colour of their paintwork, so a few hours here will be enough to convince you that Solo could be known as the ‘blue city of Java’.
With its Italian marble and French-style chandeliers, the pendopo is a wonderfully romantic combination of the sort of European avant-garde architecture that was in vogue when it was built in 1804. Yet it also exudes a classic Javanese style that predates the European influence by centuries. Sky-blue Dutch-made cast-iron pillars mingle with beautiful batik-engraved teak beams tinted with gentle pastels. The ceiling above the dancing area is divided into eight coloured panels symbolically painted to protect the virgin dancing girls who perform here.
Royal guards on duty at the main entrance to Keraton Kasunanan palace.“Red protects them from evil, for example,” says Ibu Endang, “orange guards against fear, purple prevents bad thoughts, white is a talisman against sexual desires, green combats frustration…”
We take off our shoes to enter the museum that now occupies what was once the dalem throne room.
“I see it [as] not only a sign of respect but also of democracy,” Ibu Endang jokes. “Look around: there are no high heels or sneakers among us now. We’re all on the same level.”
The throne room remains as it did when it was built in 1757, and a stuffed Sumatran tiger and Javanese leopard still flank the royal thrones. Glass cabinets display a fascinatingly eclectic collection of artefacts that belonged to nine generations of Mangkunegara kings: jewellery, statues, chastity belts (female and male) and religious paraphernalia related to the unique combination of Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist practices that mark the particular religion of the Mangkunegara family. At one end of the room is a collection of krises, scimitars and even Japanese swords, and the cabinets that contain them are protected with offerings to appease the spirits that are said to still reside in these weapons.
While tradition reigns supreme in the throne room, outside in one of the old stables stands a Volkswagen three-wheel motorbike that belongs to the current king, who happens to be a Harley-Davidson fanatic.
It strikes me that Solo is home to a living history in more ways than one.
While Pura Mangkunegaran has received much-needed renovation, the slightly older Keraton Kasunanan palace, on the other side of the city, is sadly falling into disrepair. The iconic sky-blue paintwork is chipping away from ornately carved pavilions in the gardens (the only part that is open to visitors, since the Keraton remains a royal family home). Several resplendent carriages still hint at the days of past grandeur and it is to be hoped that restoration will arrive in time to save one of the fading gems of the blue city.
There is perhaps nowhere in the city that brings alive the tangled history of Solo with its ancient feudal dynasties, Dutch colonials and Japanese occupiers in the way that Pasar Triwindu does. This musty, dusty Aladdin’s Cave of an antique market on Jalan Diponegoro might be the most enchanting market in all Indonesia. Two storeys of stalls are packed with heaps of wonderful genuine antiques and cool retro bric-a-brac. The laid-back, friendly stallholders are more than happy for you to browse and wander without even the slightest pressure to buy, making it surely one of the most pleasant markets in Asia. This is one of the most enticing places to pass the time of day exploring Solo’s mysterious history.
Beyond the blue doors of the palaces, the backstreets and markets of Solo are evocative enough to stand as a living museum in their own right. Cycle rickshaws and horse-drawn carts ply the old alleyways around Pasar Klewer and, in the grand old townhouses of the batik quarters, the talented women of the neighbourhood produce royal batik designs that, even today, are worn only by the great families of Solo.
Here, in the batik workshops of Kampong Kauman and Kampong Laweyan, where some of the most iconic batik fabrics in all Asia are produced, the cooling hints of Solo blue seem to explode into a real kaleidoscope of rainbow hues.
Jakarta to Solo
Flight Time 50 minutes
Frequency 35 ﬂights per week
From Colours June 2016
5 Senses – Sight
While Kampong Laweyan has many fine batik outlets, Kampong Kauman is the prime batik-producing quarter. Batik Gunasti, one of the most famous producers, is located in a timber building with an evocative café. Apart from stocking a massive range of beautiful batik attire and souvenirs, it is also a great place to watch some of the most talented artisans at work. You can even join a class and produce a batik of your own.