Background - Water Castles

book cover



Posted in Background on November 29, 2011

I’m still at work on Journey’s End. It’s amazing how disruptive things like floods can be, even though the direct impact on myself was quite minimal. I wasn’t ever in any real danger, but it was nonetheless quite distracting.

I have completed most of the key episodes of the story already and am now mostly filling in the more mundane but important ‘stuff’ that gets the characters from one place to the other. The setting for one of the crucial scenes was inspired by my recent trip to Central Java, specifically the Taman Sari or ‘Water Castle’ in Yogyakarta.

Bathing spaces seem to have been a part of Javanese culture long before Islam swept across the island in the sixteenth century. Royal palaces going back to the tenth century feature sometimes large spaces with large pools. By the eighteenth century, these places got ever more elaborate, becoming palaces unto themselves.

Taman Sari, or the Water Castle, is one of Indonesia’s grandest bathing pleasure palaces. It was built in the middle of the eighteenth century in one far corner of the Sultan’s palace, or Kraton. It was designed and engineered by a Portuguese team, even though Java was occupied by the Dutch at the time.

Sunken Courtyard

It’s a bit difficult to imagine what the place was like back when it was the Sultan’s pleasure garden. The main barrier to seeing the complex as it once was is that all of the structures were originally set in the middle of a large lake. The lake has long since dried up, and now the buildings are surrounded by the small modest homes of people who work in the palace.

There are three main structures to the complex. The smallest, but the most unusual, is the sunken courtyard. This was once right in the middle of the lake, completely surrounded by water. It could only be reached by boat, or by an underwater passage from another structure, which was a tall building set atop a high mound, which was itself another island in the lake. The sunken courtyard was used as a place of meditation - also a common element of Javanese palaces - or according to some, a mosque.

[caption id="attachment_365” align="aligncenter” width="600” caption="View of the largest pool from the Sultan’s window."]Sultan’s View[/caption]

The third and largest structure in the complex is a set of large pools set inside high walls. The two big, but rather shallow, pools are separated by a high tower. According to legend, the sultan’s harem would use the larger of the pool areas. The sultan would climb the tower to look out over the harem, and select one of the women to ‘invite’ into his own private bathing area on the other side of the tower.

The water castle was used by the sultans of Yogyakarta for a little more than 50 years. When the British briefly took control of the Dutch Indies early in the nineteenth century, the Water Castle was badly damaged during the siege of Yogyakarta and fell into disuse. Thus is was more or less abandoned during the time that Journey’s End takes place, but that makes it the perfect place for an evil prince to carry out his nefarious doings. To find out what, you’ll have to wait until I finish the book.