Yogyakarta. For a city whose kingdoms are heavily patriarchal, it’s refreshing to find and explore a museum in Yogyakarta that is dedicated almost solely to the powerful feminine figures in the Javanese kingdoms. It was pure curiosity that pushed me to make the two-hour drive to the chilly Kaliurang region on the slopes of Mount Merapi to visit the Ullen Sentalu Museum.
Unlike other museums in Yogyakarta or Indonesia in general, Ullen Sentalu is well-preserved and well-maintained. Visitors are not allowed to freely roam the exhibition rooms themselves. Instead, they are divided into small groups for which a dedicated guide, whose services are part of the Rp 30,000 ($2.30) admission fee, explains the history of each exhibit as the groups move from one room to the other in chronological order.
We sat in the outdoor vestibule while waiting for the tour to begin, engulfed by the warm and welcoming atmosphere that Ullen Sentalu’s surrounding greenery brings. Near the museum’s entrance a massive banyan tree stands tall, its huge roots cradling the entrance like giant hands.
There is something eerie about the view, and, true enough, with its remote location and long history, Ullen Sentalu is often rumored to be haunted. Taking photographs inside the museum is prohibited, which some say is a policy aimed at preserving the collections, while others speculate it’s a move to protect the “unseen” inhabitants of the place.
As the tour began, we were escorted through a narrow door with a low ceiling. Cahya, our guide, explained that each component at the museum was carefully set up to convey a specific meaning. The low-ceilinged entrance, for example, represents the Javanese gesture of greeting and respecting resident owners upon entering their places. With the low ceiling, visitors have no option but to to lower their head and practice kulon uwun, or the tradition of asking for permission before entering a person’s home.
Once inside, a massive Dewi Sri statue welcomed us. The goddess of rice and agriculture, Dewi Sri is a symbol of fertility, providing enlightenment, the very same intention that Ullen Sentalu aspires to. The museum’s name itself is an abbreviation of the term Ulating Blencong, Sejatine Tataraning Lumaku, meaning that it was established to be the lantern that can light the way to understanding the history of Javanese cultural heritage. Indeed, with its seven exhibition rooms, the museum has splendidly served its purpose. It hosts some private collections representing the history of four keraton (royal houses) that exist in Java, from the biggest — the Yogyakarta keraton — to the keraton in Solo and two smaller ones.
Even so, the whole vibe of the museum is awash with feminine energy, with a lot of focus given to the feminine figures of the kingdom instead of the kings and sultans of Java.
The first room is reserved for the arts and gamelan collection. In the intricately decorated room, a massive gamelan set from the Yogyakarta keraton serves as the main attraction. Surrounding the set, a collection of other musical instruments and paintings of traditional dances are displayed on the wall. These include the Golek Menak dance, a special dance created by Yogyakarta’s Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX on his quest to be the king, and another painting portraying beautiful dances performed by Gusti Nurul, a Javanese princess known for her beauty that drew many suitors in her time — so much so, that there is a special room in Ullen Sentalu specifically dedicated as an ode to Gusti Nurul.
From this gamelan room, we were escorted to a narrow lane named Guwo Sela Giri. Located underground, Sela Giri was built to resemble a cave with a high ceiling and walls lined with volcanic rocks from Merapi. The room hosts many exquisite portraits and paintings of Javanese royalty from the four kingdoms. One of the most striking figures to me was the series of portraits of Ibu Ageng, an empress to Solo’s Pakubuwono XI, always portrayed with the heavy chains of the keraton keys in her hands. The mother of the reigning Sultan Pakubuwono XII, Ibu Ageng is the true power in the kingdom; the mistress of the keraton. No one is allowed to enter any room in the kingdom without her permission, as she is known to be overly protective of her son and rejects any potential partners for him. As a result, Pakubuwono XII has never had an empress, only a series of mistresses, and Ibu Ageng remained the empress during her husband and her son’s time.
At the end of the dimly lit tunnel lies a 3-D painting of Ratu Kencono, the wife of Sultan Hamengkubuwono V. The painting seemed so real that I could feel her eyes following me everywhere in that narrow cave.
Going back above ground, we reached the next section known asKampung Ngambang, or the floating village, passing through a winding, maze-like road to get there. The guide said the path was made to resemble life, often unpredictable and intricate.
The maze led us to Ruang Syair, or the Poetry Room. Occupying a modest feminine room, this room is dedicated to Princess Tinneke, the daughter of Solo’s Pakubuwono XI. Tinneke is a beautiful princess, educated in Indonesia and the Netherlands, and is the sister to the current sultan of Solo.As the story goes, Tinneke suffered from a broken heart during her teenage years following the royal family’s rejection of her lover, who was said to be a commoner.
The heartbreak drove Tinneke to despair, prompting her friends and relatives to start writing her poems, notes and letters of encouragement. These documents can now be found in this Poetry Room, and reading them, I found myself smiling at the beautiful writing, often chuckling, as some were quite funny. Tinneke herself finally cast off her depression and was married 10 years later.
The next part of the tour was a room dedicated to Gusti Nurul, the daughter of Sultan Mangkunegara VII. Named Ruang Dambaan or Room of the Desired, the room reflects the beautiful princess’s charm, which attracted many men.
Gusti Nurul herself is not only beautiful but also well-educated, speaking fluent Dutch and once performing a dance in the presence of the Dutch Queen Wilhemina in the Netherlands. Given her star quality, her suitors came from all walks of life, from Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX to Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, who once asked her hand in marriage. Gusti Nurul, however, declined all those offers, although she eventually married in her late thirties to a military officer and now lives in Bandung with her family.
The room is decorated as Gusti Nurul’s private parlor, with her portraits hanging on the walls and statues of her standing at one end of the room. Atop a dressing table, a portrait of Gusti Nurul during the inauguration of the room caught my eye. She was 81 in the picture, but her beauty was everlasting.
Toward the end of the tour, we headed to Bale Nitik Rengganis for a short break, where we were served Ratu Mas Jamu, a concoction made from a secret recipe of seven herbs, created by the empress to Sultan Pakubuwono X. I gulped down my drink that promised youth and beauty. We were subsequently led to the final room, the Bride and Groom room, where Cahya explained in great detail the different costumes and traditions of Yogyakarta and Solo’s wedding cultures.
Our tour ended as we reached the garden. From the outside, Ullen Sentalu is equally majestic. Designed by local architect Haryono, it has mixed elements of medieval European gothic architecture and Javanese style. The building’s facade is covered with vines. I sat there in a European-style garden amid the misty air that characterized the Kaliurang region. The mist brought upon me a romantic yet eerie feeling that I wouldn’t be surprised if I were to catch a glimpse of the ghosts of Javanese princes and princesses within the premises, walking around, chatting and giggling as they wandered the hallways. It is safe to say that the elegant museum was a unique Javanese-style Downton Abbey experience at its best.