At first glance, Jakarta seems to be so caught up in its present-day bustle of traffic, high rises and never-ending construction of malls, that a walk in the park seems nothing more than a distant memory.
But it did not stop members of the Love Our Heritage community from strolling through parts of the city with a clear purpose, to find glimpses of its colorful past.
Founded by Amelia Devina and Ferry Guntoro in May 2009, Love Our Heritage set out to preserve the capital’s historical places of interest.
“We first got the idea to establish Love Our Heritage following a visit to the early 20th century mausoleum [of Chinese landlord Khouw Oen Giok] at Central Jakarta’s Petamburan Cemetery. We noticed its historical and aesthetic value and that it was neglected by the Jakarta Provincial Administration, so we took the initiative to clean the tomb and other parts of the cemetery,” Amelia said. “The effort was more than just cleaning the tomb of graffiti. We even had to clean the crypt from human waste. That was how extensive our cleanup effort was.”
However, Amelia added, Love Our Heritage did not start its first tour until September 2010, when it went to the 19th century post office in Jakarta’s Old Town district, and others like it, to trace the growth of Indonesia’s postal service over the years. Since then, Love Our Heritage has diversified.
“Our tours vary according to the themes,” Amelia said. “For instance, we would go to the Pasar Baru area, which is a recurring destination along with Petamburan Cemetery, for our Places of Worship tour. We go there each March, because its houses of worship are not only the oldest in Jakarta, they can also reflect Indonesia’s religious diversity.
“On the other hand, our environmental tour would go through areas like Menteng, Manggarai and Bendungan Hilir, because those areas somehow reflect Jakarta’s environmental changes,” Amelia added. “Other tours also touch on Jakarta’s varied heritage, among them its historical and culinary legacies.”
Taman Prasasti Cemetery: A place for remembrance and contemplation
Last Saturday, the Love Our Heritage community toured Jakarta’s historical monuments to trace the city’s past, present and future. The tour, which included its first ever trip to the Presidential Palace complex in Central Jakarta, started off at the Museum Prasasti, or the Memorial Stone Park Museum.
“The Museum Taman Prasasti, once known as Kebon Jahe Kober Cemetery, is perhaps the world’s oldest public cemetery, as it was founded in 1797,” said Ferry of Taman Prasasti, whose founding predated the more iconic Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris by six years.
“Some of the dead were reinterred here from [the Nieuwe Hollandsche Kerke, currently the Wayang Museum] in the Old Town’s Fatahillah area. In some cases, only the tombstones, some of which date from the 17th century, still remain,” he added.
The tombstones are one of the cemetery’s highlights. Made in a variety of styles, ranging from ancient Javanese, Hindu, neo-Gothic and classical, the stones drew visitors keen to etch them or take their picture. The short lifespans of the dead that were inscribed on the stones also give a glimpse of the toll that the tropical climate and endemic diseases such as malaria or dengue fever took on people in colonial Jakarta.
The cemetery, which was given full museum status by late former president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid in 2000, is the final resting place for such people as Olivia Mariamne Raffles, the wife of the 19th century British governor of Java, Thomas Stamford Raffles; Dutch doctor FH Roll, who founded the Stovia medical school, the forerunner of the University of Indonesia, as well as student activist Soe Hok Gie. Other relics include the original coffins for Indonesia’s founding fathers, President Sukarno and Vice President Muhammad Hatta, and a replica of a 17th century hearse.
While most of Taman Prasasti is in a tolerable state, some parts still show the toll that time and neglect took on the cemetery, such as substandard infrastructure and graffiti on a few tombstones. However, its still, tranquil atmosphere make it a worthwhile place to stop by, while the tombstones provide an interesting glimpse of life and death in colonial Jakarta.
Admiring the grandeur of the Presidential Complex
The Love Our Heritage tour then left the still, dead atmosphere of Taman Prasasti and headed for the beating heart of Indonesian politics, the Presidential Palace complex.
The complex tour is the first to be carried out by Love Our Heritage, since President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono opened the grounds to the public in 2006. The tour through the 68,000 square meter grounds was highlighted by a glimpse at the Merdeka, or Freedom Palace. Among the chambers featured in the 19th century Neogothic palace are the Credentials Room, where the president receives foreign ambassadors and holds press conferences, as well as the Jepara Room, where he receives foreign heads of state.
The firsthand look at the palace and grounds left some visitors spellbound.
“I’ve seen images of the Presidential Palace often enough, but it’s nothing until I saw it firsthand,” said Enny, a travel agent. “I’m impressed by the scale of the palace and its marble facade. Its good to see that Indonesia has buildings that are just as impressive as the White House.”
Other highlights include the Wisma Negara housing complex, which hosts state guests, and a glimpse at the Istana Negara or State Palace, the President’s own residence, which remained off limits to the public.
The National Museum: A glimpse at Indonesia’s rich past
Following the tour through the Presidential Palace complex, the Love Our Heritage group headed to the National Museum. Otherwise known as the Museum Gajah or Elephant Museum due to the statue of an elephant in its front yard. The museum is a treasure trove for art lovers and history buffs alike.
“I was particularly impressed [by the National Museum]. My favorite section is probably the prehistoric wing” said Lis, a tour guide and history buff.
“The most fascinating items include the files to sharpen teeth in parts of Bali, the tattoos of the Dayak tribe in Kalimantan, as well as koteka penis sheaths from Papua. We often hear about Indonesia’s diversity, but we won’t really see it firsthand until we come here.”
Other items featured in the Museum include Buddha statues from the Borobudur Temple, figures of Hindu gods such as Shiva or Ganesha from various Hindu shrines and relics from the ancient Majapahit kingdom that was based in Java, and the Sriwijaya kingdom that was based in South Sumatra.
The museum also boasts the less well-known Treasure Rooms, featuring gold artifacts including jewelry and weapons inlaid with precious stones. The items, which come from various parts of Indonesia, date to the around the 10th century.
The tour then ends at the Jakarta Provincial Administration’s urban planning gallery, where the participants get to see how the capital may look in the future.
Among the highlights are the Provincial Administration’s countermeasures against perennial problems such as floods and traffic, as well as Jakarta’s growing population.
On her part, Amelia has other plans up her sleeve for Love Our Heritage.
“Among the plans that I have for Love Our Heritage is to improve our knowledge and services. Aside from using it for the tour, we would also carry on with our efforts to preserve old buildings and prove that they are a viable part of Jakarta,” she explained.
“We also aim to extend our tours to the greater Jakarta area.”
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on July 5, 2013