I have always been fascinated with cemeteries, especially European ones. I think it came from the time I lived in England, where my flat was right next to an old church with a vast area for the church’s cemetery. The cemetery and my flat were only divided by a simple iron fence. The church ground was built on a higher ground so it seemed as though it was towering over my block of flats.
It may seem a little spooky but I wasn’t bothered by it. It was rather funny too since I was immensely scared of cemeteries when I was Indonesia. My parents thought I was pretending to be a grown up, but really I was more fascinated than terrified.
Through the gates, I saw intricate designs of the tombs. Sometimes I could see sophisticated angel statues and other kinds of statues. In winter, which sometimes brought some sleet, made the cemetery looked almost magical with its ivy leaves covered in ice. During my time in the UK, I have seen many amazing tombs, its stories of the people lying there and this was the seed for my curiosity for cemeteries.
Back home in Indonesia, I was brought up in a society full of myths and scary stories revolving around death and cemeteries. It wasn’t my parents who told me, rather it was their friends, my aunts and uncles. Death was seen as something not to be discussed, it was dark, dreary, you were advised not to be curious of it. So I grew scared of cemeteries. In fact I hated them. It doesn’t help either that when you come to a local cemetery here, people who claim to have “cleaned” your relative’s graveyard would bluntly ask for money in exchange for their hard work. You could only surrender and give them money as there would be many of them and you would feel completely intimidated by their presence, for a moment forgetting that you were there to pay your respect to your loved ones.
It is such a shame though isn’t it? You could learn so much from a cemetery. You could often identify many things such as a person’s gender and culture just by examining its graveyard. And isn’t a cemetery ultimately a celebration of people’s lives?
One day, my dad asked me if I wanted to go to Imogiri. I love travelling with my dad since we both have the same traits when it comes to travelling. He suggested that we go and see the royal cemetery in Imogiri.
I was hesitant at first, but agreed. It was about time I started learning about cemeteries in my own country and Imogiri Royal Cemetery seemed like the perfect start.
Of course there were myths and legends of the place but I chose to embrace them instead of be afraid of them.
Anyway, about the trip. My journey to Imogiri was such a pleasant one. From Yogyakarta, it took around an hour and the road was decorated with traditional houses and rice paddies.
When we arrived, we parked the car and walked to the entrance of the cemetery. Apart from it being a popular cemetery for the Sultans of Yogyakarta, it is also a village. Its name “Imogiri” is often pronounced “Imagiri” and is from a Sanskrit word Himagiri which means mountain of snow. I didn’t encounter any snow (obviously) but it was indeed like climbing a mountain to reach to the cemetery site which was located high on a hill.
Luckily it was within walking distance from the car park and the road was well paved. Often we would see some homeowners opening a small stall in front of their house selling homegrown products like papaya and cassava.
We noticed that there were several sets of stairs to get to the complex. As a local I have heard of the famous myth enveloping these stairs. It was said that when you try to count the stairs as you go up and as you go down, it was almost impossible to have the same exact amount. People have tried to count as accurately as possible and yet they would still fail. Another myth was that if you could count the correct number of stairs then you would be able to make a wish, in which the wish would come true.
I don’t know if these myths are true but it seems that the number of these stairs have special meanings. One of the sets, the longest set of stairs is 346, which symbolizes that the cemetery complex was built for 346 years. There are 409 stairs in total.
Even before climbing up the longest stairs, I could see some small tombs. I spotted some more as I stopped to catch my breath (by this time I have definitely lost count of the stairs!). It was not an easy feat climbing these stairs, especially in the afternoon heat.
I felt glorious when I reached the top but I also noticed the change of air. The atmosphere became sacred and somehow intense but instead of stifling me, I was in awe and in an automatic state of deference. This place was indeed sacred, but it was also a resting place for many Sultans and their families.
There are three main sections in this complex. The middle part is the oldest part of the complex, built by Sultan Agung. As for the other two buildings are used for the Sultanate of Surakarta and Yogyakarta.
I learned that I could explore more of the oldest section but I couldn’t just enter the area. Inside was the graveyard of the prominent Sultan Agung and people could only enter with the clothing provided by the abdi dalem (the people who dedicated their life to the Sultanate). My dad dressed himself in a traditional clothing complete with a blangkon (a traditional hat). I was escorted to a different room where the women changed. I was given a kemben and a long skirt. The women there helped me dress. It was quite an experience as I rarely (maybe even never!) dress as traditionally as this. I looked at the abdi dalem, men and women all dressed traditionally and they did this every day! It was amazing to see their dedication.
We were told that we couldn’t use our shoes either, so we left it at the pendopo. There was also a sign that we could not bring cameras inside. There are three main gates before entering the complex and they were symbols of the stages of one’s life: birth, living and death. There are also many other symbols around the area such as four crocks containing sacred water that is believed to have healing power. These crocks were given by other kingdoms to Sultan Agung.
I could smell incenses being burnt as I entered the graveyard of Sultan Agung. Sultan Agung was the third Sultan of Mataram. He is considered a national hero for his many contributions to the country. There were also many abdi dalem taking care of the tombs with showers of roses and prayers. It was quite different than my experience of visiting well-known people abroad. Usually, there would just be a tomb and people could freely take a close look at it. Here, you were accompanied by the abdi dalem.
I didn’t stay for too long as I didn’t want to crowd the place. My feet were both burning from the heat reflected from the sand. I have no idea how the abdi dalem could manage being barefoot all day long.
Afterwards, I wandered around the other sections for a while before heading back down. It was no doubt an experience like any other.
Many people come to this place not only out of curiosity like myself, but also for a pilgrimage (usually directed to Sultan Agung). I was hugely in awe of the people who took care of this place day in, day out. Diminishing my fear gave me a whole new perspective that day. I treated the myths and legends as lessons instead of threats. In return, it gave me a gratifying and humbling experience.
Have you been here before?
This week’s theme: Spontaneous Trip