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In the 14th century, the port of Cirebon , then called Muara Jati, was the harbor town of the Sunda Pajajaran Hindu kingdom whose seat was in the interior highlands of West Java. This port was then already a busy trading center where ships from India, China and Arabia and other boats from throughout the Indonesian islands found shelter and merchants continued trading here during the monsoon season when typhoons raged in the South China Sea.
A hundred years on, in the 15th century, a prince by the name of Cakra Buana, who had embraced Islam, refused to become a vassal of the Padjadjaran kingdom. The Sunda king sent an army to Cirebon but these were defeated. On his victory, Cakrabuana founded his own Islamic kingdom and built the palace of Pakungwati, which now lies within the Kasepuhan Palace. The date of its original construction must have been around 1430 since this date is etched in the Throne Room or the Siti HInggil.
Cirebon was the first Islamic kingdom on Java, later followed by the kingdoms of Demak and Kudus in Central Java. It was Prince Sunan Gunung Jati of Cirebon , who in the 15th century , together with the Sultan of Demak attacked and razed the thriving port of Sunda Kelapa on Java’s west coast, building in its place the town of Jayakarta, that is to grow into the present day capital city of Indonesia : Jakarta
Today, the town of Cirebon has four palaces, precious heritage of this once powerful Islamic kingdom. They are the Keraton (palace) Kasepuhan, Keraton Kanoman, Keraton Kacirebonan, and Keraton Keprabon. The two former mentioned are the largest, and have throne rooms, whereas, the latter are really royal houses. However, all show a fusion of architectures from their Hindu heritage to Islam, and further infused with distinct Chinese and Dutch influences, creating a unique Cirebon style architecture.
The Kasepuhan Keraton (Palace) is lcoated in the sub-district of Lemahwungkuk in the City of Cirebon, built in 1529 by Prince Mas Mochammad Arifin II, the great grandson of Sunan Gunung Jati, who succeeded Sunan Gunung Jati to the throne in 1506. This is therefore, the oldest palace on Java with the longest history. All royal families of Cirebon still live on until today, but all are now, of course, subjects of the Republic of Indonesia.
Standing on a total land area of 10 hectares, the Kasepuhan Keraton is the largest, the most impressive and best kept among the Cirebon palaces, where every niche carries its own historic significance. The inner buildings are all painted white where are found the throne room, living rooms of the royal household and reception areas to meet guests.
As is usual with the keratons on Java, the palace stands on the south side facing the large green square where stands the Sang Cipta Rasa Grand mosque at its western side. The palace itself is enclosed by a red brick wall where in its garden is an open pavilion, or pendopo. The Kasepuhan palace also has a complete museum containing sacred heirlooms as well as the royal collection of paintings. One of the most oustanding heirlooms is the Lion carriage which is taken out once a year only, namely on every 1 Syawal on the Islamic calendar to be cleansed with great ceremony.
The first building constructed here was the Pakungwati I palace, which stands on the east side of the Kasepuhan palace compound. The Pakungwati keraton faces the Java Sea with Mount Ceremai to its back. The building lies again east of the Keraton Pakungwati II palace which was constructed in a later era. Whereas the most recent buildings can be seen only when one visits the throne room, called the Siti Hinggil.
The throne room is guarded on either side by two lion statues, symbolising the fact that the Cirebon Sultanate is in fact, direct descendent of the Padjadjaran kingdom, showing at the same time the influence of Hinduism, - the official religion of Padjadjaran, - on the kingdom of Cirebon. The entrance to the palace is a split gate, similar to those found in Balinese temples, while woodcarvings on the doors are European in style, but the walls of the Siti Hinggil are decorated with Chinese porcelain plates. Meantime, the walls surrounding the palace grounds are made of red brick following Javanese architecture, altogether forming a fusion of different cultures from different times and origins.
A number of specific Cirebon traditions can be noted here. For example, the corridor leading to the Prabayaksa hall or the residence of the sultan is not constructed in a straight line from the terrace that lies in front of the palace, but is bent so as to avert direct attacks on the sultan. Gravel stones are placed around the halls, which are also meant to warn of sudden attacks as the sound of a person stepping on the stones will give away the fact that someone is approaching.
Another interesting feature of the palace is the Lawang Sanga building located on its south side, directly on the banks of the Krayan river. This is the tax and customs office during the reign of the Cirebon kingdom. All goods from overseas entering the kingdom must pass the Krayan river where the king’s officials will levy the necessary customs duty. This building, therefore is most significant for the wealth and welfare of the kingdom.
The Kanoman Keraton lies only some 600 meters north of the Keraton Kasepuhan. To reach this you will pass a tradtional market, which is a great place to buy foodstuffs and souvenirs to take home from Cirebon without having to search elsewhere.
The Kanoman palace depicts historic events leading to the break up of the kingdom of Cirebon into four, as evident in the existence of the Keraton Kasepuhan, Keraton Kanoman, the Keraton Keprabon and Keraton Kacirebonan within one city.
The Kanoman palace was built in 1588 by Sultan Badaruddin who separated from the main Cirebon kingdom because of the dispute with his brother over succession to the throne of Cirebon. The Kanoman palace is smaller than the Kasepuhan. It has an open front pavilion called the pendopo that contains an altar. Here you will find antique plates from Europe. The Keraton Kanoman takes up around 6 hectares of land. Today, this is the residence of the 12th Sultan, Raja Muhammad Emiruddin and his immediate family. At the Kraton Kanoman are 27 large ancient buildings, one of which is called Bangsal Witana which is the cornerstone of the palace. In the Palace grounds are also a number of old, shady banyan trees and cool gardens, a welcome respite in the hot Cirebon climate.
Here is also a royal museum, whose doors are beautifully carved. Its most important collection include the carriage used in battles called Paksi Naga Liman, as well as the Jempana royal carriage which is almost a replica of the carriage of the Kasepuhan Palace. Other items include weapons, keris-like daggers, spears as also a set of gamelan musical instruments. Not far from here is the Bangsal Jinem or pendopo to receive important guests, the pavilion where sultans are crowned, and ceremonies held related to the Islamic Maulid Nabi. While in the center of the complex is the throne room, called Siti Hinggil.
Among the palaces, the Keraton Kanoman is the one most closely linked to Sunan Gunung Jati (Syarif Hidayatullah), one of Java’s , most important nine Islamic saints, known as Wali Songo. Sunan Gunung Jati was the one who spread the Moslem religion in West Java, the region that was formerly under the Hindu kingdom of Padjadjaran. Keraton Kanoman is the palace that also closely adheres to the traditions handed down by Gunung Jati and dutifully celebrates the rituals of the Grebeg Syawal, held one week after the end of the fasting month, Eid el Fitri, when members of the court make a pilgrimage to the grave of Sunan Gunung Jati in the village of Astana, in North Cirebon.
The entire palace faces north. Outside the palace walls is a Balinese-style red brick building called Balai Manguntur, standing next to a large banyan tree. This is where the sultan used to attend military marches or witness the playing of the sekaten gamelan on each 8th day of Maulid in the Islamic calendar. People also believe that the name Maguntur is a shortened form of the words balai mangun tutur, the place where the sultan used to deliver his speeches and meet his people to explain legal and religious matters. Here is also the typical alun-alun or large green square where thousands of people used to converge to attend ceremonies and other royal events.
The Keprabon palace is located at Jalan Lemahwungkuk, close to the Kanoman Keraton. This building is better known as Ndalem, or royal residence since it does not have a cluster of buildings typical to Javanese palaces, it has also no green alun-alun, and no grand mosque. Access to the keraton is through a 3-meters wide lane between a number of shop houses. Its interior is also modest, not showing no palatial grandeur. It is in fact a mansion with a small garden.
The Kacirebonan palace was built in the year 1800, and houses a number of historic heirlooms like the Wayang Keris, battle gear, and a special royal gamelan set.
The Kraton Kacirebonan lies at Pulasaren in the subdistrict of Pekalipan, one kilometer north west of the Keraton Kasepuhan and about 500 meters 500 meter south of the Keraton Kanoman.
The Kacirebonan palace is an extention of the Keraton Kanoman built after the death of Sultan Anom IV. Crown prince PR Muhammad Khaerudin, successor to the throne was banished to Ambon by the Dutch colonial government since he was considered a rebel.Upon his return to Cirebon, he found that the throne was already taken b y PR. Abu Sholeh Imamuddin. On the agreement of the royal household PR Anom Madenda built the Kacirebonan palace, thus starting a new royal house under Sultan Cirebon the First.
Compared to the other palaces, the Keraton Cirebonan is easily accessible since it is located right on the main road. Similar to the Keraton Keprabon, the complex does not have the typical features of a Javanese palace. The building looks more like a mansion for Dutch colonial officials and has strong European architectural features.
Located on the northern highway that stretches along the entire north coast of Java, popularly known as Pantura – Cirebon is easily accessible by road an by rail from Jakarta or vice versa from Surabaya.
From Jakarta you can take a train to Cirebon from Gambir Station in Central Jakarta at Medan Merdeka Timur.
To travel around the city of Cirebon best take a taxi or hire a car. There are, however, also small buses called “angkot” that will take you to the many attractions.