Off the tourist trail

regal ‘Kraton’, Sumanep’s main attraction(photo by author)

Having spent more than a fortnight criss-crossing Java, the most populous of Indonesia’s roughly 17,000-odd islands, I headed for Madura, an island well off Indonesia’s crowded tourist map.Dozens of gaily-painted fishing boats huddled against the sandy, palm-fringed shore. Painted water-birds ducked and dived into the dense mangrove swamps that spread out into the sea in tropical abundance. The road from the port led through neat little villages — red-tiled cottages built around pagoda-shaped mosques that were set amidst fields bursting with tobacco and maize plants ready to be harvested. Three hours later, we arrived in Sumanep, the capital of the former Sultanate of Madura.

Sumanep was just the place I needed for a couple of days of relaxed and much-deserved unwinding. It boasted of little vehicular traffic — the main mode of transportation being three-wheeled bejaks — open trishaws with bucket seats pushed by a driver seated at the back on an attached cycle. Life in the town seemed to crawl unhurriedly.

The town’s crown attraction was its gigantic kraton — an enormous colonial-style palace that still housed the family of the erstwhile Sultans, and was surrounded by a dozen or more smaller royal structures. Ancient Chinese urns and ornate teak furniture lay scattered about under pillared canopies. Dutch cannons — Madura, like most of Indonesia, having being ruled by Holland for centuries — were planted under shady tropical trees in the expansive lawns outside. A scrawny emu and a distressingly undernourished deer peered out from a diminutive cage — royal pets suffering dismal neglect.

A Dutch television crew was filming a musical and dance performance put up specially for them when I entered the kraton’s gargantuan assembly hall, and I smuggled myself inside to watch the show. The performance began with a grand slametan, a traditional feast consisting of an array of tubs of flavoured rice and trays filled with different meats — truly and vulgarly royal, as befitted its setting and its sponsors, members of the erstwhile Sultan’s family, who milled about the hall, dressed, presumably specially for the television cameras, in ‘traditional’ outfits: the men in black felt caps and stunning batik shirts, the women in lace-frilled blouses and batik sarongs, showing off their ample jewellery.

The hearty meal gave over, and then the crowd assembled in front of the gamelan performers — a dozen or so men who wielded a range of traditional instruments — pipes, harps, gongs, xylophones, flutes and drums. The music was delicate, almost fairy-like.
Then, as the tempo picked up, a party of silk-liveried female dancers, richly adorned like painted dolls, floated into the hall. Flashing their smiles, they stirred themselves into a delightful dance, showering the audience with auspicious yellow rice. They were followed, in turn, by men dressed like monkeys who performed a vigorous dance based on a story about the monkey-god Hanuman from the Hindu epic Mahabharata, which still remains immensely popular in Muslim Madura, as indeed in many other parts of Indonesia. After the prancing simian dancers came a band of women dancers wearing sleeveless gowns and wielding in their hands twisted krises, knives that are believed to possess occult powers, sensuously swaying their bodies as the gamelan players burst into song.

Sumanep’s museum, located opposite the kraton, proved to be a veritable treasure trove. It boasted an amazing variety of artifacts that testified to the waves of cultural influences that have shaped Madura, and, indeed, most of Indonesia, over the centuries, turning it into a fascinating melting pot of various civilisations and religions. Immense statues of a host of Hindu gods — principally Shiva, Vishnu and Ganesh — and of the Buddha, lined its walls. They dated back to Madura’s famed Hindu-Buddhist past, when south Indian traders who settled in Madura brought with them and propagated their Indic culture and religions. As these artifacts indicated that before Madura turned Muslim — possibly in the 13th century — a majority of its inhabitants were Hindus or Buddhists or animists who had imbibed many aspects of Indic Hindu-Buddhist culture. Other exhibits that the museum contained included a large collection of centuries’-old palm leaf manuscripts in the now almost extinct Madurese script that strangely resembled Pali or Sanskrit and might indeed have been derived from one of them; leather wayang kulit puppets crafted to represent various characters from the Ramayana; ornate, richly caparisoned winged royal chariots; and a massive handwritten Koran, weighing, so it was claimed, no less than half a ton. One section of the museum had been converted into a vast portrait gallery of successive Sultans of the island who bore a curious mix of Sanskritic or Hindu and Islamic names and titles.

Evidence of the Hindu-Buddhist past of the Madurese is still richly evident in their customs and rituals, especially those linked to the Sultans, who are believed to have possessed magical qualities. At the hill of Asa Tinggi just outside Sumanep, I encountered massive crowds gathered at the enormous, curiously Chinese-style Muslim royal tombs, where on any day a number of people can be seen loudly reciting duas or supplications for the long-dead kings and their families, whom they have been led to believe were powerful saints or what they call walis.

There was little else to see or do in Madura. But that actually made it even more endearing — being able to simply relax unhurriedly on a virtually wholly tourist-less island. In these days of mass tourism, that was a truly rare experience.

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