When most people think of Jakarta they think of traffic, noise, pollution, congestion. And for the most part they’re right. Jakarta is noisy, and polluted, and crowded. And the traffic is horrendous.
But the same can be said of most big cities.
Prior to colonisation Jakarta – or Sunda Kelapa, as it was known at the time – was a thriving seaport of the Sunda kingdom, one of the oldest Hindu kingdoms in Indonesia. And it was a Dutch colony for three centuries after that.
Sounds pretty interesting to me. I think it’s worth checking out.
The Portuguese – who rocked up in a fleet of four ships in 1512, having sailed over from their colony in Malacca (Malaysia) – were the first Europeans to appear in Java, but they were driven out in 1527 by a Javanese general named Fatahillah. The Dutch were next on the scene, turning up in 1596, with the British right on the heels in 1602. These two European forces jostled for control of Indonesia. The Dutch won, following a fierce battle in 1619.
The old Sundanese city was destroyed in the fighting, but on its foundations the Dutch built a new city, the soon-to-be capital of the Dutch East Indies: Batavia.
Fatahillah Square (formerly Batavia City Square)
Fatahillah Square, in Kota Tua (the Old City), has managed to retain much of the atmosphere of the Dutch colonial period. It’s surrounded by many fine colonial buildings, including the former City Hall of Batavia (now the Jakarta History Museum), the Kota Post Office (now an art gallery), The Geo Wehry & Co. Warehouse (now the Wayang Museum – devoted to Javanese wayang puppetry), the Court of Justice building (now the Museum of Fine Arts and Ceramics), and Batavia Café.
Batavia Café, Jakarta
The Batavia Café started life in 1805 as an administration building for the Dutch East Indies Company. In 1991 it was converted into a restaurant and refurbished with period furniture and decor. The meals are a little pricy, but it’s well worth the expense to soak up the atmosphere in here for an hour or two.
Si Jagur Cannon, Jakarta
One of Fatahillah Square’s most notable landmarks is an old Portuguese cannon known as Si Jagur. It was brought to Batavia in 1641 from Macau, and is embellished with a sculpted hand set in the fico sign, or fig sign (thumb poking out between top two fingers of a fist). This gesture, which has been used at least since Roman times, and potentially many millennia longer, is still in common use in many cultures today. Often its use is derogatory in nature, however some cultures use it to signify a negative response, others to represent the number five, and others still to wish good luck. The oldest use of the gesture is associated with fertility. Make of it what you will.
Kota Intan Bridge, Jakarta
Located within walking distance of Fatahillah Square is a small wooden drawbridge built in 1630 by the Dutch. Bridges of a similar fashion can be found spanning the canals of Amsterdam. The bridge has been restored numerous times, but it is currently fenced off from the public and no longer in working use.
Gereja Sion, Jarkata
Gereja Sion (meaning Zion Church in Bahasa Indonesian) was originally known as the New Outer Portuguese Church, as it was built outside the city walls. It was completed in 1695, and is the oldest church still standing in Jakarta.
It’s a fair way away from the other tourist sites though, so it’s probably only worth a visit if you’re a fan of late 17th Century Portuguese churches.
Merdeka Square, Jakarta
Make sure you check out Merdeka Square, which, at 75 hectares, is one of the largest public squares in the world. The most striking feature of the square is the 137m high National Monument, commonly referred to as Soekarno’s Last Erection (President Soekarno was heavily involved in the design of the obelisk, which is a combination of a linga – representing male genitals – and a yoni – representing female genitals; construction of the obelisk was completed in 1975, five years after President Soekarno’s death).
There’s an observation deck in its upper levels, and a small history museum in the basement containing 51 hologram-incorporating dioramas.
Masjid Istiqlal, Jakarta
Masjid Istiqlal (which means Independence Mosque in Arabic) is the largest mosque in Southeast Asia, and it’s capable of holding up to 200,000 people at a single time. At the time of my visit (December 2013), tourists were required to join a guided tour in order to enter the mosque. The tour is a bit of an imposition, but it’s justifiable in the sense of controlling wayward tourist behaviour, and a 45 minute private tour of the grounds for less than $1 a person is hardly an unreasonable ask.
The mosque was opened in 1978 and constructed in non-traditional style that drew much attention and criticism at the time. It contains a giant bedug (a wooden drum) used in place of the more typical muezzin to call people to prayer, and includes, on occasion, a miniature Ka’aba in one of its courtyards. The mini Ka’aba is there to allow pilgrims to practise the rituals of the hajj prior to travelling to Mecca for the big day.
National Museum of Indonesia, Jakarta
Across the road from Merdeka Square is the National Museum of Indonesia, whose chief attraction is the four-metre tall statue of Malayapuran king Adityawarman of the Minangkabau Dynasty depicted as Bhairava. Confused? So was I when I first read about the artefact.
Adityawarman was king of the central Sumatran state of Malayapura from 1347 CE to 1375 CE. In this statue the king is shown as Bharaiva, a Hindu deity. Which is actually really confusing as King Adityawarman was a Buddhist. But to be more precise, he was a Tantrist, a follower of a syncretic Hindi-Buddhist religion practiced by Indo-Javanese cultures in the 13th Century. So it makes sense. Sort of.
The National Museum of Indonesia is stocked with many fascinating pieces, including an extensive prehistory section with skulls and partial skeletons of Homo erectus and Homo floriensis (Homo floriensis is the one metre tall cousin of ours – nicknamed the Hobbit – found on the island of Flores, Indonesia, in 2003). Unfortunately there is very little in the way of labelling in the prehistory section, and there were many times when I had absolutely no idea what I was looking at.
The museum’s exhibition on ancient Hindu-Buddhist art, though also lacking in supportive text, is particularly impressive. The statue of Ganesh sitting atop a bed of skulls, with skull earrings, and a skull headdress, shown in the picture above, is also Tantric in origin. Tantrists performed rituals at burial grounds, and in this manner skulls became a part of their religious art.
Taman Prasati Museum, Jakarta
Taman Prasati Museum is just a short walk from Merdeka Square. It opened for business in 1797 as a cemetery for Dutch aristocrats, but ended up as a work site during the construction of the nearby mayor’s office in 1975. Many of the headstones were removed at this time, and when they were put back it was done with the intent of making everything look neat and orderly, rather than matching up headstones with bodies. Only 32 headstones are currently matched with their graves (out of 4,200 graves), and for this reason the site is referred to as a memorial stone museum, rather than a cemetery.
The most notable individuals lying at rest in Taman Prasati Museum are Olivia Marianne Raffles (1st wife of Thomas Stamford Raffles), and Soe Hok Gie, a Catholic ethnic Chinese Indonesian political dissident and outspoken critic of President Soekarno and President Soeharto. He died after inhaling poisonous gas while climbing Mount Semeru in eastern Java at age 26.
Is Jakarta worth a visit?
Some might be put off by Jakarta’s traffic. Some might be put off by the pollution. Others by the congestion. Personally I found Jakarta to be a fun, busy, engaging city. It has great food, warm and friendly people, and fascinating cultural sites. If you’re planning a trip to Indonesia, then I wholeheartedly recommend devoting a day or two to Jakarta.
Practical information and how to reach Jakarta:
Soekarno Hatta International Airport, located 20 km northwest of Jakarta, has frequent flights to cities throughout Australia, Asia, and Europe. More transport info here.