Taman Sari (literally fragrant garden), or the “Water Castle” as it’s popularly known, was once an extensive playground for the Sultan of Yogyakarta. It encompassed a large artificial lake with islands complete with rare fruit trees, fragrant gardens, swimming pools and meditation areas as well as a network of secret underwater tunnels.
Today only the bathing pools and Sumur Gumuling, an eerie but fascinating underground mosque, are well preserved. Most of the former complex forms residential areas.
Built in the mid-1700s, it was partly destroyed by the British invasion in 1812, and an earthquake finished the job and drained the water in the mid-1800s. Local legend is that the architect was a Portuguese shipwreck survivor washed up on the southern ocean who eventually learnt Javanese and found favour with the Sultan. Although it may look like it has European influence, architectural experts tend to believe that it was a purely Javanese design. However, the area is abundant with such folklore, and there is even a tale that an underground tunnel here leads to the southern ocean to enable the Sultan to meet with his mystical consort Kanjeng Ratu Loro Kidul, the Queen of the southern seas.
Entering the complex through an arched gateway guarded by two nagas, paths lead through courtyards, and down stairs into a high-walled compound containing three bathing pools. The two larger pools were for the wives and concubines of the Sultan, and were separated by a building with a three-storey tower said to have contained a bed chamber from which the Sultan could “cuci mata” (as they say in Indonesian—literally “wash his eyes”). A third pool behind was reserved for the Sultan and his chosen partner. Today the atmosphere is calm and serene, with the slightly pinkish stonework reflected in the cool and inviting green pools.
Among some of the fruiting trees from the former gardens, a rare Kepel fruit tree (stelechocarpus burahol) grows. It's native to Central Java and the fruit is said to have deodorant properties; if eaten apparently your faeces smells like perfume. It was supposedly favoured by the Queen to keep her Sultan from running off with malodorous concubines.
Continuing deeper into the complex, take an exit to the right and follow the passages past local batik shops to the (formerly underwater) tunnel entrance leading to Sumur Gumuling (literally coiled well). Guards will ask to check your entry ticket again here, so make sure you have it handy.
This curious structure is rather like a giant underground doughnut —circular with an open central circular atrium. There is much speculation, but the general consensus is that this was used as a mosque. The shape of the tunnels form a pointed arch common in Islamic architecture. A niche in the upper level was used as a mihrab and another small section was possibly used to call the adhan, the acoustics here are terrific. Galleries on two levels sport arched openings into the central chamber, here four staircase lead from the lower level to a central platform where a fifth staircase leads to the upper level. The number of staircases, perhaps relating to the five pillars of Islam or number of daily prayers. A pool below is said to have been a well where ablutions before prayer were performed. These days you’ll have to fight hordes of locals who crowd into this central area for selfies. However we can see the attraction, the place is fascinating and unique, don’t miss it.
Near the exit of Sumur Gumuling, Pulo Cemeti or Cemeti island was an artificial island, but now just a pile of ruins, however it’s a popular spot for watching the sunset over the rooftops Yogyakarta, and you can get a bird’s-eye view of the top of the donut shaped structure of Sumur Gumuling. From here a staircase leads to the former bird market area (now moved), Pasar Ngasem, but worth venturing down for a fresh juice (18,000 rupiah) or cold Bintang (small: 25,000 rupiah) stop at the friendly Water Castle Cafe at the bottom of the stairs.
Taman Sari is just 600 metres southwest of the Kraton. Give yourself at least an hour to explore this fascinating area. Pulo Cemeti is open daily 06:00 till 17:45.
Water Castle Cafe: Jalan Polowijan, Yogyakarta; T: (0274) 381 448; (0817) 542 0500; open daily 09:00-17:00.
By Sally Arnold
Last updated on 6th December, 2016.