A 60-Minute Introduction to Badass Javanese Princesses

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll probably figure out that I am immensely fascinated by history, especially that of the Javanese royalty. But I’ve never actually revealed why. You see, one of my great great grandmothers was a descendant of the Javanese royal family but because she’s a woman and – like almost every other royal family in history – the Javanese royal bloodline is patriarchal, the rest of her descendants (myself included) are sort of cut off from the royal family tree. But I still feel deeply connected with my Javanese roots and am really keen to know what life was like for my great great grandmother.

Most museums in Yogyakarta and Central Java have only given me an insight into the royal women’s life from the male perspective, such as the whole wedding ritual, which princess was married to which sultan, how many children each princess had etc etc. All this knowledge is nice, but I’d like to believe there’s more to Javanese princesses than just their marriage. I want to learn about them as their own person, not just as some sultan’s wives. It was at Museum Ullen Sentalu that I finally got an understanding of just how awesome they were.

Located in Kaliurang, Museum Ullen Sentalu is a private museum which houses numerous paintings depicting the lesser-known members of the Javanese royal family, private photographs and letters they owned, as well as statues excavated from dig sites. The whole goal of the museum itself is to lead the youth into loving Indonesian history and culture, especially in an era which makes it easy for us to love others’ history and culture.

For IDR35.000 for domestic visitors and IDR50.000 for international visitors (because not all of the guides can speak English), we get a 60-minute guided tour of the museum complex which was meant to be explored like a maze. No visitor will be left without a guide because it is the guides who bring life to the museum’s collection through their stories. Visitors do have to wait for a certain quota of tour participants to be filled up before the start of the tour itself though. My dad and I were joined with this group from Surabaya who had kids with them so my guide, Ms. Ratna told me that we’ll be getting a PG-13 version of the story which omits all mentions of any scandalous affairs or polygamy the guides in other museums won’t talk about.

Damn those kids, that version would have been really interesting.

There was also no photography allowed inside the whole museum complex except for certain spots to preserve the collection’s quality and protect the copyrights of paintings in the museum. So I switched my camera off and just followed Ms. Ratna along, listening to her and trying to remember as much as I could.

Entrance to Museum Ullen Sentalu

We journeyed through a labyrinth of chambers containing creepily lifelike paintings of the royal family, incomplete sculptures dug out from excavation sites, batik fabrics belonging to princesses and the princesses’ actual clothes and fashion items (which were surprisingly very Parisian). Throughout the 60-minute tour, I felt like a kid in history class again, learning about Javanese history through a largely feminine standpoint and answering the guide’s questions every now and then with beaming pride.

Yes, Ms. Ratna tested our knowledge about Javanese history every now and then by asking questions the way teachers do in class and I felt like the proudest student ever every time I got it right.

The story we got throughout the trip allowed me to look at the Javanese royal family from an entirely new point of view and is largely about the power of women in the Javanese royal family. Most of the museum’s collection explains the life of one princess in particular: Gusti Nurul.

Gusti Nurul
Gusti Nurul

For the royal Javanese men of her time, she was known as the most beautiful princess everyone wants to marry. But for me, she’s the ultimate badass princess. Growing up in the 1930s, she was expected to be very ladylike and aspire for marriage. But she broke all those expectations by wearing high heels (which was considered an act of rule-breaking back then), riding horses, riding Harley Davidson motorbikes, learning and mastering 11 languages, choreographing and performing her own dance, learning to play the piano, and still obtaining enough knowledge for her to attend international conferences and events.

As if that’s not cool enough, three notable men in Indonesia (Soekarno, Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX, and Sutan Sjahrir – former PM of Indonesia) all proposed to her and she turned down all three of them! The reason was that none of the three men actually wanted to commit to her – they all wanted polygamy. But Gusti Nurul put her foot down and was like “if I’m not your one and only then I don’t want to be in this relationship with you.” She ended up marrying a major in the army who was less famous, less powerful, and less rich than the former three men simply because this major wanted to completely commit to her. They actually stayed married until death did them apart.

My gosh, Gusti Nurul is absolutely what women should be – strong, intelligent, and never settling for less. And she’s an absolute representation of what Javanese royal women are actually like because the rest of the stories told throughout the tour of the museum made me grow a ton of respect for Javanese royal women.

There was a story of this prince in Solo nicknamed Prince Bobby who didn’t feel like he could trust any other women to be his queen so his mom was the one who did all the queen’s duties during his reign. So this mother of his who was getting really old represented him at international events such as the Dutch king’s wedding and did all the international relations.

Another story that really got me holding back tears was that of Princess Tineke. The princess got her heart broken really badly by a guy and fell into depression. That got all 29 of her female cousins and friends to send letters to her containing uplifting messages and poems about standing on her own two feet as a woman along with their photos attached to them – and yes, this was from the 1920s so one selfie took forever to do. These letters and poems were all so beautiful in their wording and content that I was choking up at some of them. The letters are on full display in one chamber of the museum and they all showcased the love these women had for her so much. The entire chamber was the ultimate display of how women should lift each other up instead of tearing each other down.

There were the funnier stories as well. There was a princess whose dad insisted on editing all of her love letters so that she could flirt more smoothly. One of the letters is displayed and there are literally words crossed out and edited, it was so funny. I was silently praying my dad (who was standing behind me the entire time) didn’t get any ideas from this. There was also a sultan from Solo who ate as much as he could to gain weight just so he could get a bigger coat that would display all of his medals. Another sultan from Yogyakarta was literally called “Sultan Rich” in Javanese because he owned a lot of land all over the kingdom and was the actual richest sultan ever.

We ended the tour with a tiny glass of a princess’ homemade concoction meant to preserve youthful beauty. The recipe was a secret, but I could taste a bit of ginger, honey, lime, and cinnamon.

Princess' concoction

The area of Museum Ullen Sentalu leading up to the exit was open for photography so I took as many shots as I could of the place.

An iconic photo spot at Ullen Sentalu

The Dutch restaurant at the complex

One of the statues yet to be cleaned

Part of the complex

I left the museum feeling proud to be one of the great great granddaughters of a royal Javanese woman and very keen to learn more about the other women in the Javanese royal bloodline as well. The museum really showed me that these women usually only known in Indonesian society as graceful and ladylike wives are actually strong, intelligent, and look out for each other really well. I am immensely proud that my great great grandmother was one of these women. Also, while other museums often portrayed the royal family as just that – royal, rich, and powerful – this museum showed the more humane side of them instead and that’s what I absolutely adore about it.

All in all, I got a 60-minute crash course on badass Javanese princesses as well as the lives of royal family members less known by the public from Museum Ullen Sentalu and this museum achieved its purpose for me because I left feeling excited about our history and culture, especially after looking at it from a less popular lens.

Museum Ullen Sentalu | Jalan Boyong KM 25, Kaliurang Barat, Kec. Sleman, Daerah Istimewa Yogyakarta | Closed: every Monday. Open: Tuesday-Friday, 8.30 AM to 4 PM; Saturday-Sunday, 8.30 AM to 5 PM.

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