Taman Sari Water Palace, Yogyakarta
“The sultans had two hobbies”, the guide is explaining. “Hunting and hunting.”
“They hunt for four-legged…”, he pauses. “And they hunt for two-legged.”
It’s to investigate this second type of hunting – the one that certainly sounds more salacious – that I’m on my way to the Royal Water Palace (Taman Sari) in Yogyakarta. It’s not far from the official royal palace, known as the Keraton. In fact, although it was built as a holiday retreat for the Sultan, it’s only a few minutes away by car or bus these days.
The Keraton is still in use, as Yogyakarta still has a Sultan who acts automatically as the region’s governor. But the Water Palace is now a part of history. Its main use is not really appropriate in modern Indonesia.
As I arrive, I can see that it has fallen slightly into disrepair. Not in the sense that it hasn’t been looked after – more that it has not been maintained to the same level an actively-used palace would have been. Where once water would have flowed from fountains, there is just an empty entrance to a pipe. Where once people would have sat and entertained each other, there is just a dusty floor with a scattering of unswept leaves.
In the main part of the palace, through the entrance gardens and down the steps beyond a large wall offering privacy, is the pool. The blue waters are still here today and – with the sun shining down into the area – they sparkle. The wind blows ripples across the surface and they softly collide into the gentle fountains poking out from the floor.
It was here the hunted would play, not unwittingly. Young ladies – chosen for their looks, their grace, their artistic talents – would swim in the water and stretch out by its edge. It’s probably not fair to say they would relax, though. You see, they knew they were being watched.
High in the tower at one end of the pool, the hunter would play. It was here that he would sit, peering out through a barred window down to the pool. He would watch the women and, when the time was right, choose one.
This was a great honour, though. The women were not being chosen for a quick bit of fun. The sultan was looking for wives and, once a lady had been chosen, she would be taken away to be styled, tested and taught – essentially a process for officials to make sure she would be appropriate for the sultan. This was the first step of her introduction in the royal court.
It feels a bit strange to climb up the steps of the tower today and look out through the window. To me, it seems a bit perverted and a bit creepy. But I think that’s because I’m judging it on modern standards. I can understand, when I try, that this was appropriate and honourable behaviour for the royal leaders of this land once upon a time. And, for the women, it was something they aspired to. The pool itself seems comfortable and the atmosphere would have been enjoyable at times.
The Water Palace certainly does seem a long way from the Keraton, even if in reality it is just a few blocks.
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.
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