Yogyakarta caresses its tourists in a way that a beach destination could not. Although Yogyakarta does have a beach of its own, its form of tourism is unique; the warmth and mysticism of this Indonesian city is so inviting that tourists don’t know what hit them. Alun-Alun, also known as the Sultan’s Grounds, is one of the unique attractions that only Yogyakarta can deliver.
There is nothing grand or pompous to the Grounds. Alun-Aluns are nothing more than large open lawn squares that are commonly seen in Indonesian villages and towns. It is bare and uneventful. But just like many other Yogyakarta attractions, the significance of the place is more than the eyes can see.
Each kraton or palace has two grounds, one of which functions as the main entrance to the kraton. In ancient times, government officials and locals must walk through the alun-alun with respect because the banyan trees were considered holy. Horse-drawn carriages could not pass through it. Local Javanese who wish to have an audience with the Sultan would need to wait outside and sit under the trees. In other words, it was only in the alun-alun where the Sultan displayed his humanity and humility by meeting with an ordinary citizen. People regarded the Sultan as the official representative of Allah himself, and therefore thought that he must not be bothered for no special reason. On the other hand, when a Dutch official came to visit, the kraton soldiers performed a special ceremony, which includes a 21-gun salute. This is especially true with the alun-alun of Kraton Yogyakarta and the Benteng Vredeburg.
Alun-alun also serves as a venue for public spectacles and celebrations such as the Garebeganan and Sekaten festival. These traditional Javanese festivals still take place today at the Kraton Yogyakarta alun-alun. Huge mountains of rice are taken out of the Sultan’s Palace through the alun-alun and on to the mosque to be blessed. The rice is then distributed to the people.
There was also a dark side to the alun-alun. It is on the Sultan’s Grounds where the Sultan demonstrated his wrath and pursuit of justice. Historical records prove that public executions were held here. Condemned criminals go through a gruesome and painful public execution called krissing. The kris or keris is a traditional Indonesian dagger that is very distinct for its curves. The condemned was stabbed with a keris from his left shoulder blade down to his heart under the alun-alun’s holy banyan trees. Not only that, for traitors and extreme brigands, their heads were cut and placed on public display on the Sultan’s grounds.
Locals cannot be happier that this barbaric practice has long ended. Today, the alun-alun plays a much more acceptable function. Modern alun-aluns are now surrounded with shops and malls, and are frequented by picnickers.
The alun-alun or Sultan’s Grounds were considered so sacred once that strict rules governed the choosing of the location. For instance, the main mosque must be to the grounds’ west side so that it is correctly facing Mecca, the center of Islam. The official residence of the village head must be situated to the North or South. The shops, malls, markets and homes of important families must be on the East. Even now, this sense of sacredness is felt by many of the locals. Tourists should know that when passing along a seemingly empty and boring lawn, they are actually treading on holy ground, according to Javanese belief.