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Banten Lama & Surosowan Palace, West Java

Former Capital of the Once-Glorious Banten Sultanate

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The walls of Surosowan Palace, Banten Lama

The walls of Surosowan Palace, Banten Lama

Image © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com.

Banten Lama was once a great capital for a great kingdom, the Banten Sultanate, which ruled west Java from the 12th century to the 19th.

The once-great city has since been leveled to the ground, but other traces of the sultanate remain. The Surosowan Palace, formerly the Sultan’s home, has since been reduced to its bare fortifications and foundations, but the Tasik Ardi (an artificial lake used as a reservoir and pleasure pavilion) and the Masjid Agung, or Great Mosque (the Sultanate’s religious center) still linger in the vicinity.

For Banten Lama in pictures, see: Images of Banten Lama, West Java, Indonesia.

Banten Lama’s Seat of Power - Surosowan Palace

A set of orange brick perimeter walls is all that remains of the once-grand Surosowan Palace, the capital of the Banten Sultanate from the 1500s to its demise. Construction of Surosowan Palace was initiated in 1522 by Sultan Maulana Hasanuddin and completed in 1570 by his son Sultan Maulana Yusuf. The latter was responsible for the eight-foot-high red brick perimeter walls, the moat surrounding the walls, and Roro Denok within.

The perimeter walls are made of coral and red brick, and are 16 feet thick, enough to frustrate most cannons of its time. To strengthen the walls, the fourth Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa hired a Dutch engineer to add bastions at each corner of the citadel.

The buildings in the interior, sadly, are all gone. When the Banten Sultanate was finally defeated in the early 1800s, the Dutch colonizers relocated the provincial capital, and cannibalized material for their new capital from the Surosowan Palace. What’s worse, nobody knows what the buildings inside Surosowan Palace looked like, making restoration a very remote possibility.

Just enough is left of the original buildings to give one a clue of their function and purpose. The visitor can easily discern the royal bathhouse used to house the pool now known as Bale Kambang Rara Denok, a rectangular cesspool 14 feet deep, and about 100 by 40 feet in area. Back in the day, when it wasn’t a murky mess, Rara Denok used to serve as a bathhouse for Banten’s royal princesses.

Tasik Ardi: Sultan’s Pleasure Pavilion

Surosowan Palace got its water from a nearby artificial lake called Tasik Ardi, located about 1.5 miles from the citadel. Built by Sultan Maulana Yusuf and renovated by Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa, Tasik Ardi served as both a reservoir and an R&R garden for the Banten Sultans.

Water from Tasik Ardi was purified in three steps, color-coded “red”, “white”, and “gold” to denote the purity of the water that resulted from each step. Once the water had passed the “gold” filtration process, it was carried via terracotta pipe to the Palace, where it emerged from the Pancuran Mas (golden fountain) at the rear of the citadel for the Sultan’s use.

What was once a rest area reserved for the Sultan and his family is now open to the public. Tasik Ardi is currently populated with pleasure craft and picnicking Indonesians. The water is now much the same as any unmaintained lake in the region, being dark and murky, its grounds littered with picnickers’ trash. An artificial island in the middle still remains – it once used to house the visiting Sultan and his family, and ruins of the old pleasure pavilion can still be seen here. Entry costs about IDR 2,000 (about 25 cents).

Masjid Agung Mosque: Multiculturalism Embodied

The nearby Masjid Agung Mosque was an integral part of the Sultan’s power, and an outward sign of the multiculturalism that flourished at the height of the Banten Sultanate. The Masjid Agung’s design betrays influences from Javanese, Western, and Chinese sources.

The stepped roof, for example, is typical of Javanese mosques, although Chinese pagodas share the multilevel structure as well. In the front of the mosque, steps lead down to a series of pools for pre-prayer ablutions.

Near the mosque, a number of Royal tombs can be found. Among the sultans buried here are Sultan Maulana Hasanuddin and his queen; Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa; Sultan Haji; Sultan Maulana Muhammad; Sultan Zainul Abidin; Sultan Abdul Fattah; Sultan Abdul Mufakhir, and Sultan Zainul Arifin.

Towering over the Masjid Agung is an eight-sided minaret rising almost 80 feet above the ground. The top of the minaret is accessible via 83 steps, providing visitors with a view of the nearby structures and the sea about a mile to the west. Given its height, the minaret was also used a a lookout for seaborne raiders.

One one side of the tower, a dome-shaped sundial can be seen, helping muezzins keep time for the prayer schedule.

Shopping at Banten Lama Marketplace, and Getting There

The mosque and the palace are connected by a sprawling marketplace. The stuff to be had here isn’t top quality, but you can buy nice tokens of your stay here, from songkok (fez-like headwear worn by Javanese men) to pirated DVDs to Javanese clothing.

Masjid Agung Banten is located about 10 miles north of Serang town. Angkot (buses) departing trom Serang’s Terminal Pakupatan reach Banten Lama, and charge about IDR 4,000 (or about 50 cents) per trip.

Banten Lama is about two hours’ drive from Anyer, where your guide was staying (he was a guest of the Club Bali Hawaii resort). Many 3-star resorts offer charter rides from Anyer, rates should be available upon request.

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