Bima And The Anti–Sultan
In Bima the kraton is no longer the sultan’s home, although he still uses it for ceremonial or festive occasions. Most of the time the kraton is kept as a museum, which is usually open to the public. Unfortunately, when we arrived the doors were closed because the sultan had died only a few weeks before, and the kraton was still under the official forty–day period of mourning. However, the open gate had been welcoming, and no one took any notice of our arrival as we rode through them. Several young couples sat together in the shade of some giant trees, giggling like young couples everywhere and large numbers of deer roamed freely around the grounds.
Built in 1927, the kraton is a large two–story house. Huge verandas, supported by thick pillars, wrap its sides. Some faded black and white photos hang in simple frames on their walls, so we wandered up the stairs to look closer.
The photos mostly showed groups of people at ceremonial
occasions of the past or traditional musical instruments.
On an impulse, I tried the front door, and the rattle of
the handle quickly brought an old man from inside.
“Good morning, Bapak. We know you are closed. Do
you think we can come in and have a look? We have come a
long way.” And so, as simply as that, we were invited into the
kraton museum. Its entry hall is large with a steep wooden
staircase leading upstairs on one side and hallways heading
off both left and right to give access to the lower rooms.
These days the downstairs rooms are mostly empty except for
a few dusty display cases showing some old clothing, a few
porcelain pots, two small, plain sedan chairs, a couple of old
rifles, and some chain–mail, but little else. Oddly, there were
two huge vases of beautiful fresh–cut flowers standing on
either side of the staircase, despite the museum being closed.
We were led upstairs. This is where the recent sultans had
lived with their families. Still furnished in a 1930s era decor,
the bedrooms have wardrobes and chests of drawers from
Europe, carved Chinese armchairs, and four–poster beds. The
rooms aren’t large, and water marks on the ceilings and faded
peeling paint belie the fact that this was a royal palace. The last
sultan, who was the seventeenth of his lineage, had moved to a
house a few hundred metres away, and it seems few funds have
been spent on maintenance since then, although the old man
who was our guide did mention some restoration in 1973.
Looking out the windows from the upstairs corridors,
I could see, across an open park (the alung), a flat–roofed
vinyl shade tent with rows of white plastic chairs on the road
in front of a house where the latest sultan had actually lived.
This was where mourners could come and join in the daily
prayers to farewell the old sultan.
The palace was slowly succumbing to neglect. I passed the toilets and bathrooms and entered what would have been a servants’ area. It was without a ceiling, and I was interested to see the roof joists and the wooden skeleton of the building, but the old man called me back immediately because the floor wasn’t safe to walk on. I could imagine his embarrassment if I’d suddenly plunged through the boards into the kitchens below on a day he was supposed to keep the museum locked up.
There was an ancient handwritten Koran open on a chest of drawers in the sultan’s bedroom, and we could picture him standing there reading it. Iben posed in front of it for a photo, pretending to read. In the hall were plastic mannequins wearing old clothes. I stood between two and posed for my own photo, and the old man took a topi off the head of the mannequin beside me and placed it on mine. “Spot the dummy,” I said.
There was very little of any real value in the museum, and with the low security we’d witnessed, we could understand why. According to our guide, the sultan’s family now keeps valuable items under lock and key elsewhere.
Iben had told me weeks earlier that we might have been able to meet the sultan, who had been a keen amateur historian himself, so his death was untimely in terms of our visit. After the old man ushered us outside, we sat on the front veranda to discuss what to do next. A short stocky man proudly growing three or four long black hairs from a mole on his face joined us. Iben knew him and introduced him to us as the “Assistant Sultan,” which I correctly took to mean ‘assistant to the sultan’. He is a pleasant man, then in his mid–fifties, and Iben apparently knew him quite well. They talked for a while, and Iben announced that we would
be able to meet with the “anti–sultan” that afternoon. I didn’t
know what an anti–sultan was but figured that maybe he
was a stand-in before the new sultan was proclaimed. The
future Sultan (the eighteenth) was still a student in Jakarta,
so perhaps there’d be a year or two of rule by the ‘anti–
sultan’ whilst he was still studying. Curious, I asked Iben
if this was what was happening, but the Assistant Sultan
distracted him, and I let it slide because the mystery would
clear itself up when we made our visit and I was distracted
myself: the man’s mole hairs waved about as he spoke like
tiny semaphores and when he laughed they whipped back
on themselves like they had a life of their own. Anyway, our
plans changed again when we were told that the anti–sultan
was in prayers with the mourners and not available. He
would, however, be happy to meet with us the next morning.
After we’d finished at the museum, we rode up the hill
named Dana Taraha which overlooks Bima. This is where the
seventeen deceased Sultans are buried. Sultan Abdul Kahir,
the first sultan, who reigned from 1630 until his death in
1640, had a simple hemispherical concrete bunker grave,
which looked so much younger than 374 years; I suspect it
had been rebuilt. Iben entered it briefly to pray.
Metal bars caged the grave of sultan number 4, one
had a wooden shelter with a shingle roof, but the others
were simple constructions marking a patch of earth. The
graves were labeled with laminated, faded paper signs, which
announced the names of their occupants and dates of their
burial. Buried there too was the last sultan, the seventeenth.
He had a blue tarpaulin above him for shade, and the clay
of his grave was already hardening. There were a few flowers
around but no real indication of what the grave will look
like when it is a permanent construction. The Bimanese are
Muslims, of course, and unlike the local Chinese who maintain massive mausoleums to their ancestors, most Muslim graves remain simple affairs. It appeared that even the sultans followed this custom.
From the hill, we headed to the waterfront for coffee. Bima sits beside an enormous, picturesque, sheltered inlet several kilometres across. A small volcano named Mount Orambuha stands on the far side of the bay from Bima and it stops any view from there of Tambora, only 65 kilometres away as the crow flies. Unfortunately there was so much haze that day we could hardly even see Orambuha.
As it was malam minggu—the Saturday ‘date’ night—weekend stallholders were setting up sitting places around the water where people could meet with their friends, drink coffee, and eat noodles. Some of the stalls were fenced metal and concrete constructions with roofs, the size and shape of the pens you see at Australian country fairs built to hold competition livestock. They were stretched right around the bay, and in a strict Muslim city, such as Bima, they may well be major venues for the high points of Friday and Saturday night entertainment.
We enjoyed hot steamy Sumbawan coffee and watched the world pass us by for an hour before heading back to Subhan’s house for the night. On the way, Hughen and I bought some takeaway beer from a local warung, and, having an aversion to warm beer, we also picked up a bag of ice to take with us as Subhan didn’t own a fridge.
The next morning we were getting ready to leave to meet the anti–sultan. Hughen asked Iben if he would need to wear long trousers and boots rather than his sandals. Iben nodded.
“Old ladies, you see. More respect,” he said. I had visions of the royal court—the anti–sultan sitting on his throne,
old ladies in waiting attending to his needs, glancing with
horror at Hughen’s hairy knees.
“Gotta have respect,” I added smugly.
We loaded up the bikes because after our audience with
royalty the plan was to ride the full length of the island
back to Taliwang.
“I wonder how old she is,” mused Hughen.
“Who?” I asked.
“The aunt,” he replied. “She must be quite old if her
father died in 1951.
“The sultan’s aunt, the woman we’re about to visit.”
“What? Ah I see...” In a flash, it was all suddenly clear.
In the same way Iben had introduced the assistant to the
sultan as the ‘assistant sultan’ he had also described the
sultan’s aunt as the ‘aunty sultan’.
There is no such thing as an ‘anti–sultan,’ and it’s quite
likely always been that way. We started the bikes and set
off for Bima with me feeling a bit of a dill, and Hughen
mumbling something about me having cloth ears. I didn’t
even try to explain my misunderstanding to Iben.
We arrived at the aunt’s house a little after 8.30. It
is a normal, though large, suburban house on a reasonably
busy street. Some of the rooms on its right side
have been turned into a small museum, guarded by the
obligatory old Dutch canon. In the garden and facing
out to the street there was a giant political poster for a
woman running for election. Her photo was over a metre
high–a huge balloon head wrapped in a blue headscarf. In
the corner of the poster an older woman’s photo caught
Was this the aunt?
We took off our shoes on the porch, and Iben led us to the open front door. Inside a woman with heavy makeup and a peach–coloured head scarf sat next to an old lady, posing for a photograph, so we waited quietly on the side. The room clearly belonged to an old lady, and I remembered many like it owned by my own great aunts decades ago—full of aging furniture, hundreds of books and photos, doilies, and cut flowers. It had that peculiar homely smell that pervades old people’s houses, of dust, mildew, lavender soap and vegetable soup. Three tennis racquets hung on one wall and there were several trophies. A row of plaques, of the type which are commonly presented at special events in Indonesia, were propped open in their boxes along one bookshelf, and vases of flowers stood among the various souvenirs and knick–knacks she had collected over the years.
Hughen recognised the woman being photographed from the poster outside—this was a candidate for the next election; not a balloon-head after all, but an ambitious determined woman with a heavily painted face. After her photographs were taken, she was ushered away to sit on chairs across the room and forgotten. From her body language, I could tell she was mightily annoyed, but by then we were being entertained by royalty, so I didn’t give her another thought until she huffily said her goodbyes and stalked off a few minutes later.
Iben formally introduced me to Ibu Siti Maryam, daughter of the 16th Sultan of Bima, a putri, or princess. She was tiny, with the age–bent body and slow movements of the elderly. Iben bowed and touched his forehead to her hand, and Subhan, Hughen, and I both followed his lead and did the same. She seemed fragile and there was something about her that immediately made me feel protective—and I wasn’t
the only one as later, when she moved across the room, we
almost fell over each other to be her steadying hand. But
none of us could compete with Subhan. A Bimanese himself,
this old lady was his royalty, and he clearly had great affection
for her—if she needed care while we were there, then he
was just the man for the job. I thought he’d probably fight
me for the honour.
“Nice to meet you,” she said to me in English but,
although I suspected she could speak English fluently, she
used very little after that. She sat on a couch beneath photos
of a younger version of herself visiting Versailles and Paris,
Jerusalem, and London, and she talked briefly about her
travels. She had grown up in the kraton in Bima, and I wondered,
but didn’t ask, if she ever compared the opulence of
Versailles with her own palace upbringing. We had visited her
austere childhood bedroom upstairs in the kraton only yesterday,
and it was a poor comparison even to the bedrooms
many modern day Indonesians have in their big city houses.
Iben explained about my interest and research into
Tambora and told her of my plans to write about it. In fact,
he expanded on my virtues and seemed not at all shy about
his use of hyperbole, while I sat quietly, slightly embarrassed,
and put up with it in case this use of such flowery
and complimentary language was normal protocol—after
all, this was my first brush with royalty.
“...he is very famous in his country. Pak Derek has written
many books, and his writing brings great prestige to the
place he writes about. He is writing now about Sumbawa
and Tambora and...”
The introduction had the right effect, and she was immediately
open to my interviewing. I asked what she knew of
the mountain and its eruption, and it quickly became clear
she had a great deal of knowledge and, in fact, had the original writings of the sultan of the time about the eruption. Would I like to see them?
“Mau!” I said. In English, it just means want. As a single word, it might have appeared a little bad mannered, but in Bahasa Indonesia when said with enthusiasm, it seemed the appropriate response, my version of “yes, please”. The princess rose slowly to weave her way through the numerous chairs of her sitting room. Subhan leapt to her service and helped her negotiate the path through the furniture. He would have gladly piggy backed her if she’d asked. Along the wall was a glass fronted bookcase full of old leather–bound books and one, a very large green book was clearly visible. Iben carefully took it down and carried it over. This man of letters, with several degrees in history and sociology behind him had his hands on a very precious volume indeed, and he was nearly in tears of excitement. It was the Bo Saugaji Kai, an almost holy book for him, written by the sultans through the ages to record special events in their domain. Iben’s hands shook as he placed the book on the table and waited, squirming like a toddler waiting under the tree on Christmas morning, for Ibu Maryam to be seated once again to open it.
When she was ready, she opened the book at random to reveal incredibly neat Arabic script for page after page. A faint smell of age rose from the pages as Iben modestly admitted he could read a little Arabic. He and the princess leafed slowly through the book looking for the right era. It must be an extraordinary feeling for her to read the writings of her grandfathers over hundreds of years. I picked out a few dates in the text—1716, 1845, and other years, but the rest was unintelligible to me. Finally the Tambora page
was found, and Iben struggled to translate it. He could see it mentioned the Tambora kingdom and a ‘bad’ sultan and they were destroyed by the eruption, but without a dictionary,
he could do little more.
“There is, of course, a translation in the museum next
She had been struggling to read the text too but blamed
cataracts. She said she needed to have them operated on but
was scared of the operation. I encouraged her—both my
parents had had the operation in their eighties, and they
could see again seperti sulap, like magic! Hughen’s grandmother
had had a cataract operation at ninety–four, and
the princess seemed emboldened on hearing this.
In the background, one of her staff had been fussing with
some cloth and sarongs. She called her over with them and
talked for a while about their quality. They certainly were
beautiful woven artworks. She surprised me by giving me one.
“Choose one for your wife,” she said.
I was stunned. “Wow, the blue one you are holding,
thank you, terimah khasi banyak.” I had already taken some
really nice photographs of her with the blue cloth while she
was folding it. I knew that that would mean it to be even
more special to The Lovely Rina, who loves woven cloth
but also has an Indonesian’s high regard for their aristocracy.
Then, after we had put the book away, and posed for
photographs with her as no doubt many thousands of people
had done before, Ibu Maryam, once again supported by the
faithful and now smitten Subhan, led us next door to her
museum. It was her private collection, she said, and she
had several display cases of porcelain, pin boards of newspaper
articles and photographs, official framed photographic
portraits of several sultans, chiefly her grandfather, number fifteen and her father, number sixteen, who held such an uncanny family resemblance to each other, I had thought they were photographs of the same man. There was an article about the princess as a three–year–old dated 1930—she was born in June 1927, the same year as my father.
“My father was born a month after you in 1927,” I told her. “You are also a year older than Mickey Mouse.”
She laughed and asked me where I was from and, when I told her Darwin, she recalled a Bima–Darwin connection:
“Ah yes, QANTAS Airlines used to fly here from Darwin.” Her memory was good. In 1938, QANTAS had flying boats routed directly from the Northern Territory of Australia via Bima, which was a refuelling depot.
On a lectern, there was a full sized replica of the Bo Saugaji Kai, and two published books about it, one of them a direct translation into Indonesian. Iben read some of it aloud. Quickly it became apparent that it was written as poetry, in verses. Iben’s voice rang out as if he was a stage performer.
“Beautiful,” Iben said several times when he’d finished. He was enraptured. The verses described how the volcano had erupted because God was angry with the Sultan of Tambora, Raja Abdul Gafur. He was apparently guilty of forcing a pious Muslim haji named Mustafa, a pilgrim who had just returned from Mecca, to eat dog meat before killing him without mercy. This is the stuff of folk tales, but here it was in the Bo! A few years later, in 1830, it was quoted by a poet from Bima in a poem:
Its noise reverberated loudly
Torrents of water mixed with ash descended
Children and mothers screamed and cried
Believing the world had turned to ash.
The cause was said to be the wrath of God Almighty,
At the deed of the King of Tambora,
In murdering a worthy pilgrim, spilling his blood
Rashly and thoughtlessly
(Syair Kerajaan Bima)
The eruption had destroyed both the king and his
kingdom, and his legacy might be a tough one, we may
never know much more about him. Most of the other sultans
of the island recovered from the catastrophe over time and
continued to manage the island under rule from the Dutch,
after they returned and ousted the English. These days only
the sultans of Sumbawa Besar and Bima are still in office.
Ibu Maryam was proud of her museum, but her cataracts
were hiding the dismal nature of it from her. The glass
display cases were so dirty that it was hard to see inside, and
in a house full of otherwise obsequious young staff it made
me angry to think they were too lazy to clean properly and
were getting away with it. They weren’t even watering her
At one point she drew my attention to two cheap plastic
dolls about 20 centimetres tall. They were still in the plastic
box they were bought in, but now it was grimy with dust
and age. Souvenir shops the world over sell similar items, but
these dolls were modelling Sumbawan traditional clothing.
Ibu Maryam gave a royal roll of her eyes and tut–tutted, and
I nodded as if I understood, but it wasn’t until afterwards
that I realised that they were models of her and her husband
at their wedding, decades ago.
About two dozen armchairs were placed in a circle in the
room. Ibu Maryam said she often showed school children
and college groups around her museum and was pleased that
young people showed interest in history. We talked about life in Bima, and she asked me about living in Lombok. She said she hadn’t been there for several years.
“But Ibu,” I said, “we are going there today. Would you like to join us, you can sit behind me on the bike.”
She laughed. “I don’t like the bumps, I would fall off.”
She invited us to return to Bima in September as she would be holding a Kraton Festival. I said I would try to come, and we took our leave, climbed back on the bikes, and rode 450 kilometres westwards to Taliwang, fare–welling Subhan near his home on the way.
Tambora was still lying there to our north, shrouded in its own February weather, unconquered, but inviting us like a siren, to mount its sides and stand aloft in its battlements.
“I’ll be back,” I said to the north, in a fake Austrian accent.