Kudus, Demak and Jepara, in Central Java
Originally published in the Jakarta Globe 08/09/11
Smooth, white walls rise on either side of the narrow alleyway, the stonework cool to the touch. Small birds flit back and forth across the thin strip of blue sky above, and women’s voices echo from hidden courtyards. The alley makes a sharp turn to the left and the blank wall is punctured by a window with carved wooden shutters, but I can make out nothing through the darkness within.
I am lost somewhere in the Kauman, the old Islamic quarter of the Central Java town of Kudus, but only the glimpse of a blue becak rattling through the intersection at the end of another alley proves that I am still in Indonesia.
Far from the usual ramshackle openness of the typical Javanese kampung, this is a private world, where domesticity turns its back to the street behind bleached stonework. There is a hint of the Mediterranean and the Middle East about this place, recalling the area’s historic connection along Indian Ocean trade routes to far-flung lands.
East of the seething Central Java, Semarang, the coast abruptly bulges northward around the isolated up-thrust of Mount Muria. At the southwest foot of this ragged, 1,602-meter mountain stands a triangle of towns — Demak, Jepara and Kudus. Today this is the ultimate backwater, overlooked by the tourists and history buffs heading south for Yogyakarta and Borobudur. But in the 16th century, it was the anteroom of Islam in Java.
Clambering onto my motorbike, I head out along the highway from Semarang to explore this enigmatic area and to hunt out the hints of its history.
It takes some time to find my way out of the maze of Kudus Kauman and back to broader streets, but it is cool and quiet in the shaded alleyways, and this is a fine place to get lost. Eventually, I emerge on the lane that leads to the famous Menara Mosque, built in 1549 during the region’s heyday.
Although the rivers have now silted up and pushed the coastline away from Kudus and neighboring Demak, these were once among the most important ports of northern Java. Traders from China, India and Arabia arrived here, bringing with them new foods and new ideas.
Foreign Muslims had probably settled in these towns as early as the 14th century, but it wasn’t until the end of the 15th century that the region gave rise to Java’s first Islamic kingdom, Demak.
By the middle of the 16th century, this new power had superseded the crumbling Majapahit Empire, and pushed its influence deep into the hinterlands.
Kudus was part of the core Demak territory and a hub of its Islamic identity. It is the only town in Java with an identifiably Arabic name — Kudus is a corruption of al-Quds, the Islamic name for Jerusalem.
Despite its proudly Muslim identity, there is evidence of an older pedigree at Menara Mosque. The original elements of the mosque are lost beneath modern olive-green paintwork. But the surrounding courtyard walls and the tiered clock-tower are strikingly different. They are built of weathered red brick, rising in tapering columns — the style is unmistakably that of the Hindu temples of Majapahit.
Leaving the old town behind, I head back to the modern part of Kudus. Today, cut off from the sea and no longer functioning as a port, Kudus makes its living from cigarettes. Millions of Indonesia’s hallmark clove-laced kretek cigarettes are churned out by factories here each year, and an aroma of cloves and tobacco lingers over the town.
But it is lunchtime and I’m after other spices, so I pull up at Pak Denuh restaurant, a narrow, open-fronted eatery on a roaring roadside, which, I have been informed by locals, is the very best place to try soto Kudus.
The town’s best-known specialty is served up in a chipped white bowl, but the first mouthful is a delightful surprise. The soup is rich and creamy, with base notes of cumin and turmeric that, like the white alleys of the Kauman, make me think of lands on the far side of the Indian Ocean.
After a second helping of soto Kudus, I head back to the road and bear east along the main highway, before branching north at Pati for a long loop around Mount Muria. Like Kudus, Mount Muria’s name shows a link to the Holy Land: it is thought to be named for Moriah, the mountain on which Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son. The road streaks through bowls of green farmland and rears over outlying ridges, carrying me to the sleepy little town of Jepara, where I stop for the night.
Today, Jepara is the quintessential provincial Javanese backwater, with a grid of tree-lined streets where the rattle of the becak still rules over the roar of the motorbike. In the soft morning sunlight I wander along the riverside, where brightly painted fishing boats are unloading the night’s catch.
Greater fleets once sailed from this harbor. In the 16th century, Jepara was a maritime city-state within the bounds of Demak. It had links across the Java Sea to the Malay states of Sumatra and the Southeast Asian mainland and on three occasions sent armadas to attack the Portuguese outpost at Melaka.
Today, however, Jepara is best known in the folklore of Indonesian nationalism as the home of Raden Ajeng Kartini, the daughter of the local regent at the turn of the 20th century, now celebrated as a proto-feminist and nationalist heroine.
Jepara’s other claim to fame is as “the city of carving.” According to local legends, the art of woodcarving, practiced here and in Demak, was introduced by a Chinese craftsman, Ling Sing. The locals clearly took to the trade with gusto; as I head out of town I pass dozens of workshops where men sit chiseling away, cutting intricate designs into the timber.
From the carvers’ workshops I begin to make my way back toward the busy streets of Semarang. Flat rice fields stretch on either side and the outline of Mount Muria retreats into a yellow haze.
There is a final stop to make, at Demak itself. The onetime powerhouse of Java is a somewhat shabby stop-off on the main highway. By the end of the 16th century, the star of the Demak state was burning out and before long, the hub of Javanese power would shift to the southern heartlands as the Mataram kingdom rose.
Today few visitors would come to Demak were it not for its mosque, said to be the oldest in Java. It stands on the edge of the central square, roofs rising in three-tiered tiles.
I park my bike, pick my way to the edge of the courtyard and sit to watch the steady stream of pilgrims. As the anteroom of Islam, this whole region is a place of pilgrimage, studded with the tombs of holy men and warrior queens. This mosque is the most sacred spot of all — for some traditionalist Javanese Muslims, seven pilgrimages here amount to one journey to Mecca. But like the other places I’ve visited on my journey, the three-tiered roof hints at temple architecture and links beyond the bounds of orthodoxy.
This whole corner of Java, the onetime cradle of nascent Islamic power, I realize as I make my way back to the road across the hot tiles, is in truth a strange mixture, spiced like a bowl of soto Kudus with flavors from China, India, the Islamic world and, of course, from Java itself.
© Tim Hannigan 2011