COLONIAL SPLENDOR IN SURABAYA Duncan Graham © 2005
If you’re planning to visit East Java, maybe to climb magnificent Mt Bromo, you’ll probably end up staying a night or two in Surabaya. Ignore the naysayers; Indonesia’s second largest city is full of surprises. Duncan Graham charts the latest:
Culture buffs looking for a grand old building, an authentic slice of the East Java capital rich in history should not go past Grahadi. This is the nearest thing to a palace in Surabaya and is now open to the public.
This sprawling 16,000 square metre former Dutch garden house was once the governor’s residence. It’s now the principal reception centre for dignitaries visiting East Java.
Its wide forecourt and deep lawns also make it an ideal parade ground for students and public servants practising for the next big show. These are regular events and usually include children from distant schools in astonishing fantasy outfits – frequently a cross between cheerleaders and fairies, creating a paradise for photographers.
The performers march and cavort around some dinky little cannon of unknown ancestry, two caged cockerels to signify the Province and crow up the dawn, and a mighty flagpole.
Built in 1795 by Dutch commissioner Dirk van Hogendorp, Grahadi must have originally dominated the city. That’s because it fronted Kali Mas, the river which bisects Surabaya and was once a major transport route. Now the river carries little traffic so access to Grahadi is from Jalan Gubernur Suryo.
The change in orientation meant switching the main entrance from the north riverbank to the south-side highway. Till recently most present-day visitors have been unaware that the river is just outside the rear of the building.
Now tourists have the chance to peep down the once-handsome promenade where in colonial days families would have participated in the passing parade and soaked up the evening cool.
The Dutch may have been solid builders and competent constructors, but as designers they didn’t leave soaring architectural monuments. Grahadi isn’t lofty but it’s certainly substantial. It was built to last of big red bricks laid without mortar and has well outlived the colonialists. The timber flooring upstairs is teak, robust and enduring.
The roman pillars supporting the top deck and making a grand entrance statement (and a shady veranda) are all recent editions, which mask the original rather plain structure. These have been embellished with a frieze showing scenes from the Battle of Surabaya when in November 1945 the British tried to retake the city after the defeat of the Japanese and were met with fierce resistance.
Inside there’s all the paraphernalia of protocol and a wide variety of donated gifts. Visitors can see the handicrafts of East Java and portraits of governors since Independence. The first, Pak R.T. Soerjo is also remembered in the little Kroesen Park facing Grahadi where his large statue shows the governor in the uniform of the post-colonial era.
Just behind him is another park, quiet, spooky and thick with banyan trees. Here Joko Dolog, the mysterious 13th century statue of Buddha Akshobya, sits with a Sanskrit inscription clear around the base. On Thursday nights this is a busy place for the superstitious and pilgrims of many faiths praying in clouds of incense.
The walls of Grahadi carry an eclectic collection of pictures featuring events from the Majapahit kingdom through to the Revolution. Some fine old photographs show Grahadi in the early 19th century. There’s also a well preserved and rare Seni Reog Javanese dance headdress from Ponorogo made of a tiger’s head and peacock feathers, and occasionally wheeled out for a performance.
The building is carpeted in the European fashion although the tropical heat of East Java is better suited to tiled floors. The upstairs rooms can be reached by a small staircase indicating the building was designed more for work than pleasure. Otherwise there would have been a grand staircase where the fashionable could make sweeping entrances in a grand swish of skirts.
There are four well-furnished bedrooms. These are used only for high-ranking guests. The present Governor lives elsewhere, and his offices are some distance away in Jalan Pahlawan.
More than 30 staff work at Grahadi, a name derived from the Sanskrit Graha (meaning house) and adi, implying distinguished. Formerly it was known as Simpang (deviation or crossroads), the name now allocated to the nearby road junction.
Staff members are happy to show visitors around, but to appreciate the place properly it’s worth sitting quietly in the cool courtyards of the building’s wide wings. These are the unembellished tiled and timbered rooms more appropriate to the climate and genuinely East Java.
Take time to reflect on the past. Here the big kitchens and shuttered quarters for workers look much like they must have appeared two centuries ago. That was when Grahadi was the place to be seen – the administrative and legal centre of Surabaya, busy with business and alive with the adventure of a growing port.
(Grahadi is open to the public at weekends and public holidays unless a major event is underway. Times 8 am to 5 pm.)
(First published in Jakarta Kini, May 2005)