The Yogyakarta area is perhaps the best-established part of Java in terms of international tourism. Nonetheless, it is still possible to find interesting places in the region which hardly ever see a foreign tourist. One of the best examples is the Tomb Complex of Sunan Bayat Ki Ageng Pandanaran. In an area famous for its Hindu and Buddhist temples, it provides an interesting contrast: here you find an outstanding example of early Islamic architecture in Java and it’s within easy day-tripping distance from Yogyakarta.
I have no idea how you’d go about getting out here by public transportation. While there would certainly be some sort of conveyance heading out that way, you may have to change between several angkutans (mini-vans), and it may be challenging without basic Indonesian competency. The alternative would be to hire a car and driver for the day from Yogyakarta. We managed to get one for Rp 550.000 after a bit of shopping around, which included stops at several different sites in Klaten Regency. You could easily add the sugar museum in Klaten as well as Candi Merak, a beautiful Hindu temple, as well as any of the numerous antiquities in the area around Candi Prambanan.
The drive out to this tomb complex is around 35 kilometers and after the halfway mark, it took us deep into the Javanese countryside. Returning to this area for the first time in years, I was impressed by the pastoral charm of the area. You will find gaggles of geese roaming about, old villages with sloping, red-tiled roofs and emerald rice paddies backed by forested hills. The area around the tomb itself has some of the finest scenery on offer. The area is quite hilly (the tomb itself is situated on a hilltop) and there are groves of trees even near the larger villages.
Once you’ve reached the car park, you find a scene which is reminiscent of all of Java’s Islamic pilgrimage sites. There are vendors selling skullcaps, prayer-mats, Saudi Arabian dates and histories of the lives of Muslim saints. Both the people who work in the shops and those who are visiting the site tend to wear conservative Muslim dress. That said, we were made to feel welcome as Western tourists; people seemed surprised but pleased to see us there.
We were soon told that pilgrims had two choices in visiting the hillside tomb complex. You could either walk the whole way up the long flight of the stairs or you could hire ojeks (motorcycle taxis) which would take you right to the top. We opted for the latter, deciding to return to the bottom via the staircase. The trip up to the top turned up to by quite steep, taking us winding hillside roads with remnant forest on the hillsides. Once again, I was pleasantly surprised by how attractive the countryside was. Within a few minutes we had reached the top of the hill. The outer walls of the tomb complex were directly ahead.
The tomb complex dates from the late fifteenth century, making it one of the earliest examples of Islamic architecture from Java. While there are slightly older complexes in Gresik and Demak, these are both on the North Coast, where Islam is presumed to have first entered the island. The tomb complex of Sunan Bayat Ki Ageng Pandanaran is the oldest one I am aware of from the Yogyakarta area, or indeed anywhere this far from the North Coast. It attests to the speed to which Islam spread from the sultanates of the coastal regions into the Javanese heartland.
Like many other complexes from the early days of the Islamic period, it shows a transitional style which still incorporates numerous Hindu elements. In particular, it features a series of courtyards divided by elaborate gopuras (ornamental gateways). These brings to mind the layout of Balinese puras (temples) right to the present day. They also recall the design of keratons (palaces) from the Hindu sultanates of the island. The motifs on the gates, such as diamond-shaped lozenges, also draw on Hindu-Buddhism. The diamond was sometimes used as a Buddhist meditational device. Therefore, you see a syncretic approach familiar Hindu elements were being repurposed for the new faith.
After the final gopura, there is the main tomb. Sunan Bayat was a member of the Javanese royal family who was an early adherent of Islam and helped to spread the religion among other members of Javanese royalty. Inside the tomb complex you can find elaborate genealogies which will lay out his relationships with hundreds of other nobles. The tomb itself is accessed via a low doorway and it is flocked by devout pilgrims most of the time, so it is important to keep a low profile here. Obviously, modest clothing is a must. The sound of prayer fills the area as you approach the tomb and its wooden enclosure.
On the way back out of the complex, you will notice a small timber mosque. It is a small, squarish structure with a pyramidal tiled roof. It is an example of the four-pillared style of mosque which was popular in Javanese villages until the modern era. This one is distinguished by being one of the earliest extant examples. According to the signboard out front, it dates from 1490. From there, you can descend via the staircase back the car park.