Yogyakarta is the only region in Indonesia that continues to be governed by a hereditary monarch. Hamengkubuwono X reigns from a palace, or Kraton, located at the very heart of Yogyakarta. The city itself grew out from the Kraton since its founding, and today the palace serves many functions: the home of the Sultan, a center for Javanese performing arts, and a living museum that glorifies both contemporary Indonesian history and the royal line of Yogyakarta.
Visitors expecting grandeur on the scale of the Vatican or the Buckingham Palace will be disappointed - the low-slung buildings in the Kraton do not inspire much awe. But every building, artifact and artwork holds deep significance for the Sultanate and its subjects, so it helps to listen to your guide to discern the deeper meaning behind everything you see on the grounds.
You may never see Hamengkubuwono X himself — but as a visit to his Kraton makes clear, you feel his presence (and that of his ancestors) everywhere.
There are several sites of interest within walking distance lie scattered around the periphery of the royal palace.
Entering the Kraton
The total area of the Kraton covers about 150,000 square feet (the equivalent of three football fields). The main cultural area, known as the Kedaton, is only a small slice of the Kraton, and can be visited in the space of two or three hours.
Visitors are required to hire a tour guide at the gate. The guides are taken from the ranks of the abdi dalem, or royal retainers, who serve at the pleasure of the Sultan. They dress in soldierly uniforms, complete with a kris strapped to their backs. They can be hired at the main entrance at Regol Keben, accessible through Jalan Rotowijayan.
The first compound is notable for its large performance-arts pavilion; the Bangsal Sri Manganti hosts cultural performances every day of the week for the benefit of Javanese art lovers and tourists. The schedule for the daily performances at the Bangsal Sri Manganti follows below:
Check the website for a performance schedule.
The Kraton's Inner Palace
South of the Bangsal Sri Manganti, the Donopratopo gate stands, guarded by silver-colored statues of the demons Dwarapala and Gupala - stocky supernatural beings with bulging eyes, each one bearing a club.
After passing the gate, you'll see the Bangsal Kencono (Golden Pavilion), the biggest pavilion in the Inner Palace, which serves as the Sultan's venue of choice for the most important ceremonies: coronations, ennoblements and weddings are held here. The Sultan also waits in the Bangsal Kencono to meet with his most distinguished guests.
The Bangsal Kencono is rich in symbolism - four stout teak pillars represent the four elements, and each is decorated with the symbols of the religions that have at one time or another held sway over the island of Java - Hinduism (represented in an intricate red pattern near the top of the pillars), Buddhism (a pattern of golden lotus petals painted at the base of the pillars) and Islam (represented as Arabic calligraphy running up the shafts of the pillars).
The Sultan's Commemorative Museum
You won't be permitted to enter the Bangsal Kencono - the area is roped off, so you can only view or photograph the pavilion from the covered walk - but the Museum of Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX is open to all comers.
The air-conditioned, glass-walled pavilion on the southwest corner of the inner palace stores the previous Sultan's memorabilia, ranging from the glorious to the banal: his medals are displayed in this hall, as are his favorite cookware and a ribbon from a tourism conference in the Philippines.
Taking pride of place in the museum is a reminder of why the Ninth Sultan is so revered: a table in the middle of the hall on which the Dutch and the Indonesian forces signed a treaty recognizing the independence of the new nation. Hamengkubuwono IX had been instrumental in bringing this about, having coordinated in a 1949 military offensive that eventually pushed the Dutch forces into retreat.
The rest of the inner palace is off limits to visitors. Off the path, you may be able to see a number of pavilions, including the Bangsal Prabayeksa (a storage hall for royal heirlooms), the Bangsal Manis (a banqueting hall for the Sultan's most important celebrations), and the Gedong Kuning, a European-influenced building that serves as the Sultan's home.
Special Events at the Kraton
A number of periodic celebrations center around the Kraton and the Sultan's blessing. (An updated calendar of events can be seen at Yogyes.com.) The biggest annual celebration in Yogyakarta, in fact, is celebrated mostly on the Kraton grounds.
The Sekaten ceremony is a week-long celebration of the Prophet Muhammad's birth, held in the month of June. The celebration begins with a midnight procession that ends at the Masjid Gede Kauman. All through the Sekaten week, a night market (pasar malam) is held at the northern square, the alun-alun utara north of the Kedaton.
Visitors should stop by the pasar malam during Sekaten to get a feel of the local culture, food, and entertainments, all concentrated in one spot.
At the end of Sekaten, the Grebeg Muludan is celebrated with the unveiling of the Gunungan, a mountain of rice, crackers, fruits, and sweets. Several gunungan are carried in a procession through the Kraton grounds until they make a final stop at the Masjid Gede Kauman, after which the locals scramble for a piece. Any claimed pieces of gunungan are not eaten - instead, they are either buried in the rice paddies or kept in the house as a good luck token.
Two other Grebeg processions also happen on other auspicious religious holidays, for a total of three times in one Islamic calendar year. Grebeg Besar is held at Eid al-Adha while Grebeg Syawal is held at Eid al-Fitr.
An ancient Javanese competition is performed regularly on the Kraton grounds: the Jemparingan is a test of Javanese archery skill, conducted at the Halaman Kemandungan south of the Kedaton. Participants dress in full Javanese batik and shoot while sitting cross-legged at a 90-degree angle; the position is supposed to simulate the motion of shooting from horseback, as the ancient Javanese were supposed to do.
Jemparingan competitions are held on Tuesday afternoons that coincide with the wagé days of the Javanese calendar, which roughly happen every 70 days.
Transportation to the Yogyakarta Kraton
The Kraton is right in the middle of downtown Yogyakarta, and is easily accessible from either Malioboro Road or the tourist area at Jalan Sastrowijayan. Taxis, andong (horse-drawn carriages) and becak (rickshaw) can take you to the Kraton from anywhere within downtown Jogjakarta.
The address is Panembahan, Kraton, Yogyakarta, Indonesia.