The imperial city of Sourakarta, commonly abbreviated into "Solo," was the hereditary capital of the Mohammedan emperors, now mere puppet-princes held in the iron grasp of Holland. The present Susunhan, descended from both Hindu and Arab ancestry, maintains a brilliant simulacrum of royal state, and his huge Kraton, far surpassing that of Djokjacarta, contains 10,000 inhabitants. The pronounced Hindu type, though debased and degraded, remains noticeable even amid the all-pervading environment of squalor and disorder, which dims the gorgeous colour and brilliant ceremonial, producing the effect of jewels flung in the dust. A dense throng of brown humanity, clad and unclad, walks to and fro beneath the dusky avenues of feathery tamarinds which shield Solo from the ardour of the tropical sun. Old crones, with unkempt locks streaming over brown and bony necks, pass by, their wide mouths distorted and discoloured with sucking the scarlet lumps of Sarya, from which the native derives unfailing consolation, even the Javanese girl showing absolute disregard of the disfigurement produced by this favourite stimulant. Deep moats, lichen-stained walls, and hoary forts, invest Solo with a feudal aspect, and the grim tower of Vostenberg menaces the Kraton with bristling cannon, reminding the hereditary Ruler of his subserviency to modern Holland, for only a melancholy illusion of past glory remains to him. The dragon-carved eaves of the Chinese quarter, the open tokos beneath waringen boughs, the shadowy passer brightened by mounds of richly-coloured fruits, and the stuccoed palaces of Court dignitaries, framed in dark foliage, give character and interest to the city, where the life of the past lingers in a series of street pictures remaining from bygone days of pomp and show. Ministers of State walk beneath many-coloured official umbrellas, held by obsequious attendants; graceful bedayas, in glittering robes, execute intricate dances, and gamelon players discourse weird music on pipe and drum. Court ballet-girls, known as Serimpi, are borne swiftly through the crowd in gilded litters, and masked actors give al fresco performances of the historic Wayang-wayang, represented by living persons, for the actual "shadow-play" is impossible in broad daylight. The colour of the mask indicates the character assumed by the actor. The golden mask signifies Divinity, heroes wear white, and evil spirits black or red. Here, as elsewhere, the profile of the grotesque disguise invariably shows either the Greek, or the hawk-nose strangely suggestive of Egyptian origin, and which, as a variation on human physiognomy, specially commended itself to Mohammedan thought as a skilful evasion of an inconvenient dogma. Elsewhere the spirit of concession to alien ideas is almost unknown, even flower and leaf being conventionalised on those architectural monuments of Islam which form the supreme expression of Mussulman genius. The suppression of national amusements has ever proved a perilous step, and in the heart of this ancient kingdom the original setting of Javanese life remained in stereotyped form. The moving panorama of the tree-shadowed streets possesses a strange fascination, and the light of the past lingers like a sunset glow over the human element of the changed and modernised city. The twang of double-stringed lutes, the tinkle of metal tubes, and the elusive melody of silvery gongs, echo from the ages whence dance and song descend as an unchanged inheritance. An itinerant minstrel recites the history of Johar Mankain, the Una of Java, who shone like a jewel in the world which could not tarnish the purity and devotion of one whose heart entertained no evil thought. In the intricate byways of the crumbling Kraton, a professional story-teller draws a squalid crowd of women from their dark hovels and cellars, with the magic wand of enchantment wielded by the reciter of heroic deeds from the Panji, exaggerated out of all recognition by the addition of fairies and giants, demons and dwarfs, to the simple human element of the original story. The apathy and decay of native life, lacking all the scope and interest common to a strenuous age, appears galvanised into some fleeting semblance of vitality by the extravaganza presented to it, for the language of hyperbole is the natural expression of Eastern thought, and penetrates into mental recesses unknown and unexplored by the relater of unvarnished facts. The quick response of the native mind to Nature's teaching, and the wealth of tradition woven round flower and tree, mountain and stream, foster the love of marvel and miracle in those whose daily wants are supplied by the prodigality of a tropical climate, for the innate poetry of the race has never been crushed out by the weight of practical necessities.
A permit being obtained to view the interior of the Susunhan's palace under a Dutch escort, we present ourselves at the colonnaded portico, where the Prince Probolingo, brother of the Susunhan, receives his visitors with simple courtesy. This descendant of a hundred kings is simply attired in a dark brown sarong and turban, the kris in his belt of embroidered velvet ablaze with a huge boss of diamonds. Attendants, holding State umbrellas over the favoured guests, usher them through marble-paved courts, in one of which a little prince is seated, with furled golden umbrella behind him to denote his rank, a group of royal children playing round him, their lithe brown forms half-hidden in the green shadows of a great tamarind tree. A superb marble ball-room with crystal chandeliers, forms an incongruous modern feature of the spacious Palace, but helps to popularise the so-called "Nail of the Universe" among the European inhabitants of Solo, by the splendid entertainments continually given at the imperial command. The porcelain and glass rooms convey an idea of the boundless hospitality bestowed; the thousands of wine-glasses being especially noticeable, for 800 guests are often invited at a time. Treasures of linen and costly embroidery, silken hangings and velvet banners, gorgeous carpets and mats of finest texture, are displayed to our admiring eyes, but possession rather than enjoyment is the keynote of Eastern character, and the bales and bundles of priceless value, kept in huge cabinets of fragrant cedar-wood, seldom see the light of day. Long counting-houses are crowded with native scribes, their brown bodies naked except for sarong and kris, the perpetual rattle of the abacus making a deafening din, for apparently the smallest sum cannot be added up under Eastern skies without the assistance of this wire frame with the ever-shifting marbles. Cramped fingers move wearily over the yellow parchments, with their long lists of undecipherable hieroglyphics, and the turbaned heads are scarcely raised until the entrance of the Prince necessitates the time-honoured salute of the dodok, the crouching posture assumed in the presence of a superior. The needs and luxuries of the immense royal household render the counting-house a feature of the utmost importance. The Prince Probolingo has himself forty wives, and a Harem in proportion to their numbers, the Susunhan's Imperial Harem far exceeding that of his brother. Wonderful tales are told of the fairy-like loveliness belonging to these inner palaces, with their treasures of ivory and sandalwood, cedar and ebony, but they are jealously guarded from intrusion, and a glimpse of their fantastic glory seldom permitted to Western eyes. After an exhibition of gold-encrusted litters and painted coaches of State, used in royal processions, the Prince, a clever-looking man of forty, takes wine with his guests. Each stand of solid silver contains six bottles, the crouching attendants also carrying silver trays of tumblers and wine-glasses, a gaily clad servitor with a huge silver ice-bowl bringing up the rear. After drinking the health of His Royal Highness in iced Rhine wine, we make our adieux, and escape from our splendid pajongs of rainbow hue on the steps of the Great Entrance, conveying our thanks through the medium of an interpreter. These fainéant princes learn no tongue but their own, greatly to the advantage of their Dutch masters. The colossal incomes assigned to scions of the royal stock only serve the double purpose of political expediency and personal extravagance, for the luxury of a licentious Court remains unchecked, and the idea of educating or reforming tributary princes is unknown in Java. Territorial rights were relinquished for pecuniary gains, and the entire Court of the Susunhan is in the pay of the Dutch, the wealth amassed from the richest island in the world affording ample compensation for the pensions lavishly bestowed on the former owners of the tropical Paradise. The Dutch Resident, in his capacity of "Elder Brother" to the indigenous race, claims the full privileges of his assumed position, but the advancing tide of social reform has even touched these distant shores, and the alien authority tends on the whole to the welfare of the community. Hygienic regulations are compulsory, and even here the traditions of Holland enjoin an amount of whitewashing and cleaning up unique in tropical colonies. The green and vermilion panelled sarongs of Solo are renowned for their elaborate designs, and the painting of battek, or cotton cloth, remains a flourishing industry of the ancient capital. The intricate beauty of the hand-made patterns far surpasses that of the woven fabrics wherewith new mills and factories begin to supply the market. Centuries of hereditary training, from the days when royal Solo was a self-supporting city, contribute to the amazing skill of the battek girls, but the elaboration of native Art is doomed to decay, for Time, hitherto a negligeable quantity in this "summer isle of Eden," begins to reveal a value unknown to the Javanese past, and as the poetry of illumination vanished before the prose of the printing press, so the painting of battek must inevitably give way to the wholesale methods of Manchester in the near future of Java, just awakening from her spellbound sleep to the changed conditions of life and labour. An exquisite plain, described by de Charnay as unrivalled even in Java, surrounds Sourakarta with belts of palm, avenues of waringen, and picturesque rice-fields of flaming green and vivid gold. Azure peaks frame the enchanting picture. The storied heights are rich in traditions of gods and heroes, with innumerable myths haunting the ruined temples which cluster round the base of the mountain range, and suggest themselves as relics of an earlier creed than Buddhism or Brahminism. Archaic sculptures, obelisks, and gateways, massive and undecorated, recall the architecture of Egyptian sanctuaries, but no record exists which throws any light on the origin of the extensive monuments of a forgotten past, though the triple pyramid of Mount Lawu is still a place of sacrifice to Siva the Destroyer. Pilgrims climb the steep ascent to lay their marigold garlands and burn their incense-sticks at the foot of the rude cairn erected in propitiation of the Divine wrath, typified by the cloud and tempest hovering round the jagged pinnacles of the volcanic range, which frowns with perpetual menace above the verdant loveliness of plain and woodland. The instinctive worship seems one of those hereditary relics of a perished faith so frequently encountered in Java; a blind impulse for which no reason can be ascribed by the devotee, swayed by those mysterious forces of the subconscious self which seem imperishable elements in the brown races of the Malay Archipelago. The native Court attracts myriad parasites, and the wealthy Chinese half-castes, or Paranaks of Solo, with their inborn commercial genius, surpass all competitors in the pursuit of fortune. The three centuries of mixed marriages have modified Chinese conservatism, and though the Paranak is severely taxed, and excluded from all political offices, he remains supreme in the kingdom of finance, regarded even by the Dutch as an indispensable factor in the complicated affairs of the island.
The great passer of Solo becomes an endless delight, and the interminable corridors, where the fumes of incense mingle with the breath of flowers, convey strange suggestions of antiquity. Simple meals of rice and bananas progress round cooking-pots of burnished copper. Pink pomelo and purple mangosteen vary the repast; strips of green banana leaf folded into cups fastened with an acanthus thorn, or serving as plates for Dame Nature's prodigality, provide the accessories of the feast as well as the provisions. The Javanese populace, wonderfully free from those household cares which involve so much time and trouble in Northern nations strenuously occupied in keeping the wolf from the door, and left to carry out their own inventions, have evolved numerous methods of blending the different metals—steel and iron, brass and silver. The veinings of the kris, beautiful as those of any Toledo blade, are produced by the welding of metals steeped in lime-juice and arsenic, which destroy the iron and retain the ingrained pattern. The chains of mingled brass and silver show exquisite designs and a special charm of colour, in the soft golden hue and subdued gleam of the heavy links, with their richly-enamelled talismans of ruby and turquoise enamel. Soft voices, tranquil movements, and courteous manners are the age-long heritage of Malay idiosyncracy, and even in the crowded passer, with its horde of buyers and sellers, noise and dispute are non-existent. It is a market of dreamland, and though echoes of marching feet and music of native bands remind us that we are in imperial Sourakarta, the busy hive of the passer suggests a panoramic picture of native life, rather than the pushing, jostling crowd represented by the ordinary idea of a market in that Western hemisphere which, in bestowing so many priceless gifts on humanity, has taken from it the old-world grace of repose.