Sumarsono demonstrates how he walks, kneels to the ground with his head bowed and makes no eye contact when in the presence of Sultan Hamengku Buwono, the leader of the special region of Yogyakarta, a province on the Indonesian island of Java.
For the past 27 years, 49-year-old Sumarsono has dedicated himself to serving the sultan and, at less than $1 a month in wages, considers it an honor.
“Three generations in my family have worked at the Kraton,” he says, referring to the small city within a city.
Kraton is the Javanese term for royal palace, and Kraton Ngayogyokarto Hadiningrat, established in 1755, is the sultan’s palace in Yogyakarta.
Built in line with Javanese beliefs in mysticism, spirituality and symbolism, the palace area is designed with intricate underground tunnels, for the royal family to get around conveniently, and large open spaces for ceremonies.
Sumarsono points out the lavish pavilion where Hamengku Buwono X was crowned after his father, Sultan Hamengku Buwono IX, died in 1988.
Chandeliers dangle from the canopy-shaped ceiling varnished with gold-colored plates. Pillars are wrapped with golden lotus and leaf ornaments, which symbolize goodness, according to Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. Calligraphy spells out “Allah” and “Muhammad” for Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
The 10th sultan now serves as head of the internal government of the Kraton as well as the third governor of Yogyakarta. He recently announced his bid to enter the 2009 Indonesian presidential race.
“In responding to the call of the motherland, I now declare that I will contest as a presidential candidate in 2009,” the 62-year-old sultan announced from his palace to thunderous applause and shouts of “Hidup Sultan” or “long live the king,” according to the Straits Times.
Riding on the coattails of his father, who was Indonesia’s vice president from 1973?1978 under President Suharto, the sultan is widely revered throughout the region.
“Ninety-eight percent of Yogyakarta people think he’s good,” says Rono Slameta, one of the more than 10,000 people who live and work in the greater Kraton area. “The sultan sees the gap between the rich and poor.”
The people say their ruler, despite his title and status, has not lost touch with them and the community. “He’s humble,” says Yatno, who like many here goes by one name. “When there are kampung (or village) football competitions, he visits sometimes and watches.”
“We are as a common people [who] also blend with community,” says his oldest daughter in her second language, English. Princess Gusti Kanjeng Ratu Pembayun, whose family did not inherit sizable wealth, was enrolled in a public school rather than being home-schooled like previous royal family children.
This generation of royals appears to have adapted to the modern world, running for public office and holding down jobs, while staying loyal to Javanese tradition.
They do still hold on to their past, says Princess Pembayun. “We have an obligation to perpetuate our cultures, outside or inside the Kraton. All basic rules, especially traditional ceremony, cannot be changed or replaced, even though we are in modern life and more practical.”
Sumarsono shares some of the cherished traditions that are upheld throughout the Kraton.
He points out the detail of batik textile patterns on the elaborate costumes worn by the royal family on display. Fine batik fabrics, sometimes silk, are made by hand, using a wax and dyeing process. It can take months to complete a single piece.
A nearby shop offers handmade traditional “wayang” theater puppets, which have been entrenched in Javanese culture since the ninth century.
In a locked room just outside the palace wall are two gamelan musical instrument sets. An ensemble of gongs, flutes, xylophones and drums, the sets, says Sumarsono, are older than the Kraton itself and are believed to carry some mysticism he can’t quite explain.
“It is a precious and valuable Kraton treasure,” says Sumarsono, whose skill as a musician has earned him the rare privilege of playing this gamelan set three times over the course of his nearly three-decade career.
With Indonesia’s impending presidential election, many in Yogyakarta wonder if and how much it will affect their lives and customs in coming years.
Sumarsono is protective of his leader and province. “I mind, because I’m afraid the sultan will be manipulated by people from [political] parties if he becomes president.”
The sultan is showing enough political clout to be considered among the top five contenders for the presidency, though he significantly trails incumbent Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and Megawati Sukarnoputri, the country’s first female president, who is running again this term.
Succession to the throne, because he has no sons, would go to the sultan’s younger brother, who is also popular with the people because he shares the same highly regarded father.
The institution of a male sultan is so strongly regarded that the oldest of his five daughters hasn’t even considered asking her father about the possibility of a female leader.
“It is not my capacity to answer it, and I have never asked it to my father,” says Princess Pembayun.
While some don’t rule out the possibility, others won’t buck tradition when it comes to the notion of a female sultan.
“I would retire,” says tour guide H. Suhadi.
Sumarsono expresses some concern that coming generations may not carry the same depths of devotion to the sultan in the future.
Already many who work at the Kraton are now there part-time, leaving in the afternoon for other paying jobs to make a living in the modern world.
Younger generations who hold contemporary jobs aren’t as willing to give up their days to serve the sultan, as Sumarsono does, though the honor of working there is not lost on them.
“I don’t know how they do it, but I respect the Kraton workers,” says a youthful working woman who prefers not to be named.
These youths still believe in the Kraton’s mysticism, the Javanese worldview that through the cosmic universe, magic and religion, the sultan is able to protect them. They also respect royal convention.
People can keep the reverence alive if they “hold on to tradition and still do some of it,” says Fenny, who works at an upscale hotel outside the Kraton.
As for the next generation of Sumarsono’s own family, he is giving his three children the choice of whether or not to follow in their father’s footsteps.
It is a choice he wasn’t given, and a chance to pave their own way for their futures, passed on to them.
Nita Gunarti contributed to the reporting of this story.