A Day in Old Jakarta
Jakarta, Indonesia, 2011-08-21 12:00 by Laerke and Martin
How to spend a Sunday in Jakarta? Fed up with big gleaming malls and horrendous traffic of the metropolis today, we decided to pay Jakarta’s past a visit. We jumped in a taxi and battled through the ever present traffic, to the Taman Fatahillah in Northern Jakarta.

This area is known as Kota (literally meaning “Town”) and it is one of the few places where you can see remnants of colonial Jakarta, or Batavia as it was known then. If you’re up for it, here comes a history lesson on Jakarta – or else just scroll further down.

Pre-colonial era
The area in and around modern Jakarta was part of the fourth century Sundanese kingdom of Tarumanagara, one of the oldest Hindu kingdoms in Indonesia. Following the decline of Tarumanagara, its territories, including the Jakarta area, became part of the Kingdom of Sunda. From 7th to early 13th century port of Sunda is within the sphere of influence of Srivijaya maritime empire. According to the Chinese source, Chu-fan-chi, written circa 1200, Chou Ju-kua reported in the early 13th century Srivijaya still ruled Sumatra, the Malay peninsula, and western Java (Sunda). The source reports the port of Sunda as strategic and thriving, pepper from Sunda being among the best in quality. The people worked in agriculture and their houses were built on wooden piles. The harbour area became known as Sunda Kelapa and by the fourteenth century, it was a major trading port for Sunda kingdom.

The first European fleet, four Portuguese ships from Malacca, arrived in 1513 when the Portuguese were looking for a route for spices. The Kingdom of Sunda made an alliance treaty with Portugal by allowing the Portuguese to build a port in 1522 in order to defend against the rising power of the Sultanate of Demak from central Java. In 1527, Fatahillah, a Javanese general from Demak attacked and conquered Sunda Kelapa, driving out the Portuguese. Sunda Kelapa was renamed Jayakarta, and became a fiefdom of the Sultanate of Banten which became a major Southeast Asia trading center.

Through the relationship with Prince Jayawikarta from the Sultanate of Banten, Dutch ships arrived in Jayakarta in 1596. In 1602, the English East India Company's first voyage, commanded by Sir James Lancaster, arrived in Aceh and sailed on to Banten where they were allowed to build a trading post. This site became the center of English trade in Indonesia until 1682.

Jayawikarta is thought to have made trading connections with the English merchants, rivals of the Dutch, by allowing them to build houses directly across from the Dutch buildings in 1615.

Colonial era
When relations between Prince Jayawikarta and the Dutch deteriorated, Jayawikarta's soldiers attacked the Dutch fortress. Prince Jayakarta's army and the English were defeated by the Dutch, in part owing to the timely arrival of Jan Pieterszoon Coen (J.P. Coen). The Dutch burned the English fort, and forced the English to retreat on their ships. The victory consolidated Dutch power and in 1619 they renamed the city "Batavia.

The former Stadhuis of Batavia, the seat of Governor General of VOC. The building now serves as Jakarta History Museum, Jakarta Old Town area.

Commercial opportunities in the capital of the Dutch colony attracted Indonesian and especially Chinese immigrants. This sudden population increase created burdens on the city. Tensions grew as the colonial government tried to restrict Chinese migration through deportations. On 9 October 1740, 5,000 Chinese were massacred by the Dutch and the following year, Chinese inhabitants were moved to Glodok outside the city walls. The city began to move further south as epidemics in 1835 and 1870 encouraged more people to move far south of the port. By 1930 Batavia had more than 500,000 inhabitants, including 37,067 Europeans.

During the World War II, the city was renamed from Batavia to "Jakarta" (short form of Jayakarta) by the Indonesian nationalists after conquering the city from the Dutch in 1942 with the help of the Japanese forces.

This rich history is the setting for our visit to Kota and Glodok.

The cobblestone square of Taman Fatahillah and a few surrounding streets are pedestrian only, which gives a much needed respite from Jakartan traffic. The square is lined with old colonial buildings, some are crumbling away while a few, like the Stadhuis (once the townhall and now a museum) retains former glory. One of the main activities on the square is bike rental; you can rent a classic bike in all the colours of the rainbow and it even comes with a matching safari helmet. Young Indonesians seem to enjoy a ride around the square, without worrying about being bulldozed by a car.

We wandered around the streets looking at the depilated buildings and life in general. The colourful food stalls were ever present, selling bakso or young coconuts with a straw. All the old buildings gave a fascinating peek into the past and we enjoyed photographing them. Unfortunately many of the historical building have already rotted, crumpled or have been bulldozed away. Apparently there is a plan to regenerate the area, but so far only a couple of buildings have been restored. One of the reasons this project is dragging out, is the fact that Kota is very prone to flooding – much of Jakarta has actually been build in a swamp and is currently sinking with up to 10 centimetres per year! It’s a shame that not more is done to save Kota as the area is definitely worth preserving for the future.

For lunch we stopped by Cafe Batavia. This historical building is an essential visit, and sits at the edge of Taman Fatahillah. The restaurant has a great atmosphere, with teak floors, art deco furniture and millions of interesting photographs hang on the walls. On the ground floor it was easy to imaging the Dutch colonials in high hats sharing stories or talking trade amidst thick cigar smoke, while high tea was server on the upper floor, with gossiping ladies looking down on the busy square.

After having been cooled down and fed properly, we headed on to the nearby area of Glodok, the traditional enclave of the Chinese. This area is full of bustling lanes, street markets, a shabby mall or two and dodgy DVD stores. We walked through the area, looking for the main street market, known as Petak Sembilan, streets signs were few and far between, so we wandered at will and let our senses guide us past traditional medicine shops and storefront full of waving cats. Soon we ventures down a narrow, bustling lane, with red lanterns hanging above. Stalls cramped together on both sides, one stall was selling pink ladies nightgowns, while the neighbour had cages full of dwarf hamsters milling about. Further down, all sorts of vegetables were sold and one tiny lady was selling skinned frogs right next to the open sewer running along the entire lane. As the stalls started to thin out, we decided to ask for directions for the Petak Sembilan street market and the Buddhist temple that was supposed to lie at the western end. A very bemused Indonesian man, told us, that we were in fact already on Petak Sembilan and the temple was right behind us! Thanking the man and feeling slightly stupid, we entered the large Chinese Buddhist temple compound of Jin Di Yuan, which dates from 1755 and is one of the most important temples in the city.

The atmosphere was captivating, dense incense and candle smoke clouded the Buddha statues and made our eyes water. This was one busy temple; the worshippers did not waste any time sitting around contemplating, instead they were marching through the temple, waving their thick bundle of incense sticks at as many deities as possible, optimizing their time wishing for good luck and swelling fortunes.

The visit in the temple concluded our time in the more atmospheric part of Jakarta, and so we returned to the high-rises and air-conditioned world of Kuningan, were we live. Our 17th floor apartment affords views of many skyscrapers and even more in the making, looking down upon swimming pools, tennis, basketball and cricket courts full of modern Indonesians living modern lives. All of this is a world away from the smells and sounds of Kota and Glodok.