Backscratchers, banquets and goosebumps
Blitar is history in the raw.
Visitors eager to understand more of the Archipelago’s distant and recent past untouched by image polishers will find rough-cut gems in the small East Java city
The marvellous and the mundane, the profound and the crass, the graceful and the kitsch all rub shoulders – but don’t create friction.
Blitar is the resting place of President Soekarno, the Proklamator of Independence. In 1970 his body was banished to the inland town 170 kilometers below Surabaya by his usurper Soeharto, fearing that a Jakarta grave would become a shrine for dissent.
In other countries such an internationally historic figure would be weighed down with grand titles, but in Blitar he’s just Bung Karno. ‘Bung’ is street talk for mate or brother and gives a good feel for how Soekarno has been embraced as a man of the people.
Blitar is more than BK. It includes the 12th century Candi Penataran, the largest Hindu temple in East Java and still a revered site – another reason to visit. Unlike Borobudur in Central Java, Penataran has not been over commercialised. Tourists are rare, so likewise touts.
The Haul (commemorations) marking the eve of Soekarno’s passing had a religious theme, though only through happenchance. This year Ramadhan fasting falls in June, which is normally BK’s month. Otherwise the Haul was secular, sunny and fun. Security had nothing to do but yawn and rub their tummies.
The theme was 1,000 Tumpeng, the yellow rice cones encircled by a landscape of vegetables and meats. This spectacular dish is presented on a tampah, a large woven bamboo plate, the arrangement so precise that demolition seems sacrilege. However hunger, like love, conquers all.
Tumpeng represent the national cuisine, though the widely-exported nasi goreng (fried rice) holds that position overseas. Combining nationalism with religion meant fasters could assuage the gnawing beast at 5.25 pm while giving thanks to Bung Karno for making his people proud.
The Tumpeng were served on red carpets laid on the roads, the banquet enjoyed by many of Blitar’s 140,000 residents. Visitors were invited to join whatever their faith. The foods were donated, with the most lavish presentations from the biggest government departments and corporations.
Although supposedly an egalitarian feast, the footwear left at the edge of the carpets revealed the gap - handcrafted leather shoes at the VIP end, battered rubber sandals in the kampong.
The gourmet gauntlet stretched at least two kilometers from the well-preserved home of BK’s family right to his grave.
This is the sort of place you wouldn’t want to be seen dead in - slippery marble, cracked concrete and columns devoid of art. There’s an abundance of photos and memorabilia wanting preservation – along with the roof.
Three drip-catching buckets among the portraits told the broader story, unworthy of a man who had taste in everything – including women.
The official tally is nine wives and 14 children, though only Sukmawati Soekarnoputri (left) visited Blitar on 20 June to remember the passing of her Dad.
Although not at the official buka puasa (breaking of the fast) the stylishly dressed daughter did watch a staged love story about her grandparents. This had a plotline more like a TV sinetron (soap opera) than recall of a momentous moment, but the crowd wasn’t expecting Sophocles so thought it a hoot.
In the play Javanese schoolteacher Raden Soekemi Sosrodihardjo meets his future Balinese wife Ida Ayu Nyoman Rai, overcoming religious and regional prejudice and eventually producing baby Bung.
For three hours around 2,000 onlookers heard rousing speeches praising Pancasila, stirring songs in Javanese and frequent shouting of Merdeka! (Freedom!) All was jovial.
A marathon noteless recital of BK’s life and times by schoolgirl Galuh Adriani Sulaiman preceded elegant dancing by bare-shouldered beauties who would be whipped in Aceh for public indecency. Such is the diversity of Indonesia.
Further proof was the presence of hundreds of white-clad Hindus, recognized with many Om shanti peace greetings. Indonesia has a reputation for being almost monotheistic and at times intolerant of non-Islamic religions. But at Blitar’s Haul Muslims mixed openly and cheerfully with followers of Java’s original faith.
Also in the audience was Singgih Hartono,(right) a 70-year old market gardener from Probolinggo. He makes an annual five-hour journey from the north coast just to recall the greatness of yesteryear. He was one of the few who had actually met BK.
“I was a teenage scout and he told me we had to grow a great nation,” Hartono said. “I will not tolerate anyone saying bad things about him. Bung Karno is our Nelson Mandela (the anti-apartheid champion of South Africa.)
“He is still alive in my heart. Just talking about him now gives me goosebumps.”
If these bothered him, Hartono could have bought a BK back-scratcher, catapult, massage sandals and other trashy souvenirs of a statesman. Otherwise a T-shirt with a portrait and slogan to suit every viewpoint.
The air-punching demagogue in black glasses screaming into a microphone, the dapper diplomat meeting foreign heads of state, the family guy with wives and kids.
This year the image is of a friendly fellow, though the colorists had spilt the pastel paintpot giving BK a wishy-washy look diluting his reputation.
How he is remembered depends on the history lens used – clear-sighted visionary or devious manipulator, hero or betrayer, despot or democrat, hypnotic orator but flawed economist.
Blitar only knows a son who went into the world and dazzled. The city honors him in a way that’s neither solemn nor sad, though elements of those emotions linger and are there to be savored by all.
Said Hartono: “Other leaders built grand houses for themselves. Bung Karno built a nation for his people.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 15 July 2016)