I am guilty of having childhood dreams of being a princess. Disney stories and fairytales have a way of portraying the life of a princess to be fun, happy, and bright with frilly dresses and a prince charming waiting on every corner. Then I grow up and realize that there’s a lot more to being a princess than those things. But I’ve always been curious as to what being a princess is truly like.
My trip to Kraton Yogyakarta (aka the royal palace of Yogyakarta) gave me an insight to what life is a princess comes with – in this case a Javanese one. With IDR3.000 and an extra IDR1.000 for a photography pass, I got to explore the bits of the Sultan’s palace open for public viewing with a 78-year-old guide who refers to himself as “grandpa”.
He told me the stories each part of Kraton holds and even little-known facts about the royal family the way a grandpa would tell a story to his grandchildren. These stories include things like how the floor’s tiles all have eight-leaf-clovers painted on them because the 8th sultan built the current palace building, how the same 8th sultan actually had 78 kids and his son had 41 of them but how the current sultan (the 10th) only has five kids from one wife because his wife is claimed to be “a really fierce woman” who doesn’t allow the current sultan to cheat on her as casually as the previous sultan’s wives did and that all five of the current sultan’s kids are women so the next successor of the throne will most likely be a queen and how a legend says that if you take a photo standing in front of the sultan’s gamelan set, you will become a powerful person someday.
He also showed us around the palace building and pointed at things here and there while unfolding more stories.
Some of the most important things I’ve learned about life as a Javanese princess include how a princess should be married according to Javanese customs. Firstly, a man who wants to propose to a princess must bring a huge of load of food. On the wedding day, if the groom is still from the royal bloodline, then he can stand next to the princess throughout the whole procession. However, if the groom is a peasant, then he and the bride’s royal relative must carry the princess on their shoulders for a certain amount of time. Once they’re married, the bride and groom must spend at least a night on the royal honeymoon bed (yes, they have one of that) – which is a golden four-poster bed with numerous carvings on them.
What happens when the princess has children of her own? For starters, these kids would have to go through a circumcision ceremony (symbolically for the girls) and spend a night on the royal bed of circumcision (again, they have that). For the rest of their lives, these kids can never wear the same outfit as their parents. The differences come down to the smallest detail such as the fabric pattern and the material used for making the clothes.
I honestly couldn’t imagine what it was like for the current princesses to go through all this.
Our 78-year-old guide also took us walking towards the sultan’s carriage museum which houses all of his collection of carriages for different purposes.
When I say “carriages for different purposes”, I truly mean they were all used for different purposes.
There were carriages for every person in the royal family: from the sultan’s siblings, the princes, the princesses, the sultan’s mother, the sultan’s cousins, even a special carriage for the dead. When they parade through town (usually on Muslim holidays), each carriage would come with its own servants: one to put an umbrella over the royal family members as they get down from the carriage, one to be the passenger’s assistant, a guard, and of course, the carriage driver.
The carriage used by the princess is actually neither as colorful nor bright as Disney movies describe vehicles for princesses to be. It’s actually a very simple, black carriage.
Some of these carriages are considered sacred in Javanese culture, so what “grandpa” did before showing us each carriage was bow his head and made a prayer hand motion towards the carriages. He said that although he is a Muslim, he still pays his respects to the carriages because his culture deems them sacred since a lot of people meditate near the carriages and find peace near them.
Our trip to the Kraton ended with a wave goodbye from “grandpa” as we came across each other while going our separate ways – us walking back to the car and him riding his bike while wearing sunglasses.
However, there’s more to Kraton than the front side which people see. The following day, we returned to the palace complex again, but this time exploring the sultan’s living quarters. We paid IDR5.000 as an entrance fee and IDR1.000 for a photography pass and started walking along what is essentially the sultan’s yard.
Apparently, if you’re a Javanese princess in the Yogyakarta royal family, your palace would include plenty of chambers containing pretty much everything. The palace complex (the parts of it open for public that is) is basically the royal family’s ginormous storage room for antique and unique things that they own.
First off, there is a chamber specifically for displaying each sultan’s genealogical line.
There is also a chamber displaying individual photos of the nuclear members of the royal family. I couldn’t imagine what it’s like if I were a princess and it was a bad day for a photo but then the photos turned out to be available for public viewing.
However, these princesses all looked stunning on their photo day.
Other chambers house the royal family’s collection of paintings, tea sets, fancy clocks and table ware, even the thrones used by previous sultans.
The trinkets chamber in particular blew my mind. This chamber displays every single token of friendship the sultans have received from way back when. These tokens range from candy jars, clocks, jewelry boxes, fancy make up cases, flower vases, tea sets, even soap containers. Their origins range from as close to China and as far away as France.
A lot of these trinkets were adorable for me and if I were a Javanese princess, the first thing I would do is take them all out and put them in my bedroom.
Apart from the chambers I’ve mentioned above, other chambers include chambers displaying the royal family’s batik collection and a chamber full of photos of the royal family doing various activities.
One interesting piece of information about the royal family here is that every women in the royal family has a certain hairstyle they would have to follow and a specific kind of clothes they would have to wear.
There is apparently a lot of things that a Javanese princess has to do in order to show the world that she is a princess. She must dress a certain way, walk a certain way, go through various ceremonies through stages of her life, and they must also make contribution to the society and behave gracefully in public.
Another fact is that she needs to escorted by a servant when she decides to visit the chambers open for public, even though those chambers are essentially part of her home. These servants, called abdi dalem serve the royal family through their entire life – some even pass on the servant status to their descendants. They cannot be paid more than about IDR10.000 a month as what they do is considered a service to the kingdom. You can find a lot of abdi dalems around the palace complex, doing various chores at whichever time of day it is that you visit.
A lot of these abdi dalem will welcome you taking a picture with them, as long as you respect the palace’s regulations, use your manners, and not disturb them from doing their jobs.
One thing I noticed through my stroll in the royal palace is that there are a lot of birds kept in ginormous cages and fed with bird food. Perhaps the current sultan is a bird enthusiast, which wouldn’t be a problem considering he has plenty of servants to make sure his birds are all fed and well-attended to.
The coolest part about the entire palace complex, however, is actually the museum dedicated to Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX – the predecessor of the current sultan. I thought he was just another sultan but his museum revealed how awesome of a person he was.
For starters, he was an athletic person who liked working out to stay in shape and cooked a lot of his own meals.
He was also a boy scout, a soccer player, a scholar, a great soldier who moved way up the ranks who became a vice president of Indonesia at one point and got awards from countries like Germany and France. He also did a lot of learning overseas so he had this open way of thinking as well.
As if he couldn’t be more awesome, he loved photography and had his own photo album complete with captions and stories behind each shot – which would probably be a blog in the modern era.
As a woman, I honestly aspire to be this awesome of a person. But I can’t help but imagine what it must be like for the current sultan to live under the shadow of such an awesome person. Eventually, the future queen will have the same expectations applied to her and probably all the more so because she’s a woman.
After my visits to the royal palace complex, I’m honestly enlightened on how demanding it is to be a princess. The ceremonies and rules I’ve come to learn are perhaps only the tip of the iceberg compared to how much a princess actually has to do to fulfill everyone’s expectations. So with that being said, I’m happy to conclude that I am extremely happy not to be a princess because at least I can do things the way I do them now and not have to go through so many rituals and live on hundreds and hundreds of rules in my life.