Blitar: In the Spirit of Sukarno
“Don’t forget it, don’t you ever forget it, child, that you are a son of the dawn.”
So said the Balinese mother of a precocious little boy who would eventually go on to become a founding father of Indonesia and its very first president. Born at half-past five in the morning on June 6, 1901, as the first glimmers of dawn lit up the sky over the port city of Surabaya, Sukarno ushered in a new era for a sprawling archipelago that had seen three centuries of exploitation and hardship under Dutch colonial rule.
Sukarno had a remarkable gift for language and public speaking – by his late twenties he had gained a reputation as a charismatic figure whose stirring anti-colonial speeches won him broad support from the populace. Eventually, after spending a year in jail and using his newfound freedom to publish pro-independence material, the colonial authorities exiled him without trial to Ende, a coastal town on the sparsely populated eastern island of Flores. It was there that he came up with Pancasila: the five-point state ideology still invoked today to unite Indonesia’s vast patchwork of ethnic groups. And yet it is neither Ende, nor Bengkulu in Sumatra – his next place of exile – nor Surabaya that is most closely associated with the visionary statesman. It is not even the capital Jakarta, whose squares and avenues remain peppered with monuments commissioned under his tenure as president.
That honor goes to Blitar, a laid-back city in the heartlands of East Java, which possesses both Sukarno’s childhood home and his final resting place. It lies far off the tourist trail in spite of that connection and its proximity to the ancient Hindu temple of Candi Penataran. In late 2016, several months after relocating to Jakarta to start a job editing a travel magazine, I learned of a heritage hotel in Blitar that was putting the spotlight on Javanese culture and the city’s enduring links with Sukarno. But it wasn’t until last March that the idea of going there to write a history-themed article became a reality. And for once, Bama had the rare opportunity to tag along on a work trip.
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Blitar isn’t the easiest place to reach, particularly for travelers coming in from abroad. Getting there requires at least a four-hour drive from Surabaya, home to the nearest international airport, but Bama and I find a quicker route by hopping aboard a domestic flight from Jakarta to Malang, just two and a half hours up the road. The drive takes us through a landscape dominated by volcanoes shrouded in low clouds: it unfolds as a tableau of warehouses and factories, villages, paddy fields, and a reservoir backed by lush mountain forest. Blitar is astonishingly quiet, with well-tended streets lined by wooden fences and concrete walls painted in the distinctive red and white colors of the Indonesian flag. Turning left at the central square, where an enormous banyan tree rises out of an open-roofed garden pavilion, we eventually spot our home for the next three nights.
To enter the arbored driveway at Hotel Tugu Blitar is akin to going back in time. Beneath the vault of cascading vines, staff members glide past in traditional Javanese dress: the men wear batik-printed blangkon caps; fitted button-down vests known as beskap; and jarik fabric, also adorned with batik patterns, to clad the lower body. Every room and communal space has its share of antiques collected from all over Indonesia. That trait is a hallmark of the homegrown Tugu brand, whose museum-hotels and restaurants capture something of a bygone era that Indonesians refer to as tempo dulu.
We’ve arrived at the tail end of rainy season, and the rolling thunder and flashes of lightning only add to the magic as dusk begins to fall. Tugu Blitar is far deeper than it is wide, a layout that insulates the hotel from the street, and in a way its design reflects the Javanese penchant for subtlety and restraint. The main building turns out to be a single-story affair with a tiled roof and a front porch held up by stout Doric columns; it appears low-slung from a distance, but that impression evaporates as soon as we step inside and marvel at the lofty ceilings at least three meters high. “It’s a trait of Dutch colonial houses,” Bama says.
If the stories told here are to be believed, Tugu Blitar may well be the oldest hotel in Indonesia. Nine of its rooms take up a whitewashed 1850s mansion in the Indies Empire style that once housed a prominent local family before its conversion in the colonial period. It became the lodgings of choice for Sukarno whenever he came to Blitar to visit his relatives, and even in his youth, the mansion’s main hall was the place where the charismatic independence leader danced and mingled with the local elite.
When operations manager Suhartini (who, like Sukarno, goes by one name) unlocks the door to the Sang Fajar Suite, the aura of reverence is such that I instinctively feel the need to remove my footwear. It is a veritable shrine to Sukarno and his ideas. Countertops and the sturdy desk carry portraits and busts of the statesman, while a wooden Garuda Pancasila, the Indonesian national emblem modeled after a Javan hawk-eagle, takes pride of place on a wall. There are display cases and antique cabinets stocked with all sorts of memorabilia: yellowing books about the former president and his family, independence-themed posters, and an original painting of a Balinese woman by Sukarno himself. But nothing is quite as touching as a handwritten note from Kartika Soekarno, a daughter who grew up in Europe: “Last night after praying at Bapak’s grave, I have visited for the first time the room you have dedicated to him. Thank you for capturing his spirit and moments of Indonesian history.”
Through a second set of doors we find an imposing, hand-carved teak divan bed. It’s the biggest I’ve ever seen and appears wide enough to sleep four people. “All of Indonesia’s presidents have stayed here, except for Jokowi,” Suhartini says. “And later you will too.” Bama and I are flabbergasted. I knew that Tugu would waive our room charges in exchange for the print article, but to put us up in the suite normally booked by heads of state? Suhartini responds to the surprise on our faces with a beaming smile. “You can’t just take pictures; staying here will give you more stories and insights.”
After breakfast the next morning, Bama and I set out for Istana Gebang, Sukarno’s childhood home. “Istana” means “palace” in Indonesian – though in this case it really describes a series of single-story bungalows linked together by covered walkways. Surprisingly, we have the place almost entirely to ourselves. A wizened guide walks us through the various rooms, including the former kitchen and a garage containing Indonesia’s first presidential vehicle.
Sukarno might have been a shining light for Indonesians of all backgrounds during the struggle for independence, but there were deep flaws in both his personality and aggressive style of leadership. His later years brought an undeclared three-year war with neighboring Malaysia, increasingly autocratic rule, and heavy-handed socialist policies that wreaked havoc on the economy. His womanizing ways were also public knowledge. So much so that even irreverent expats in Jakarta have dubbed that city’s phallic National Monument “Sukarno’s last erection.” It is an indisputable fact that Sukarno had nine wives, and here at Istana Gebang, the guide begins to count with his fingers, rattling off their names in quick succession. “First it was Siti Oetari, then Inggit Garnasih, Fatmawati, Hartini…” Wife number five, Dewi, was the 19-year-old arts student Naoko Nemoto, whom Sukarno first met at a Ginza hostess bar while on a state visit to Tokyo. Kartika Soekarno was born from that union in 1967, although their happiness was short-lived. Within a year the president had been deposed and placed under house arrest by Suharto, a general who would rule Indonesia for the next three decades under a corrupt and repressive military dictatorship backed by the United States.
Before we leave Istana Gebang, the guide motions for us to inspect a sepia-toned photograph atop a wooden cabinet. It shows a shaft of white light that purportedly appeared in Blitar the day Sukarno passed away in 1970, illustrating the Indonesian penchant for seeing mysticism in major events.
The mood at Sukarno’s mausoleum is one of admiration and respect: it’s thronged with pilgrims but everyone speaks in hushed tones. His tomb lies next to the graves of his parents below a pyramidal, three-tiered roof soaring above a raised platform, where we remove our shoes before climbing the steps. A cheerful caretaker welcomes me with a firm handshake and asks if I’ve been here before. Referring to Sukarno with beliau, the honorific for “him” or “her”, he adds, “His mother was Hindu, from Bali. His father was from Java.” Most visitors sit cross-legged or kneel on the polished marble. Some have their eyes closed and hands opened in prayer; the sweet aroma of cempaka incense hangs in the air as pilgrims toss white and purple rose petals, fragrant jasmine, and kenanga flowers onto the tomb.
Later that day, after photographing two of the area’s three ancient Hindu temples, Bama and I return to Tugu Blitar for its Javanese fare. Sukarno might have been intensely modern but he did have an appreciation for traditional arts, food, and culture. Had he been alive today, I imagine that he would have enjoyed afternoon tea at Waroeng Jawa, a shaded, rustic space recalling the informal street-side eateries beloved all over Indonesia. Against a backdrop of delightfully weathered walls, antiques, and a bamboo rack hung with dried corn, shallots, and rice stalks, we are served boiled peanuts with an assortment of sweet treats: a pandan-flavored green jelly called talam jagung, fluffy steamed kue mangkok in an eye-catching shade of pink, sticky diamond-shaped kue wajik, and deep-fried banana (pisang goreng) topped with shredded coconut and palm sugar.
Waroeng Jawa also provides the setting for a three-hour cooking class led by chefs Winarno and Musinem. The latter, it turns out, is a veteran of the hotel kitchen. “She started working here before marriage,” Suhartini explains. “Now she has four grandchildren.” Bama and I watch intently as the chefs prepare two Blitar specialties, nasi pecel – white rice with a medley of boiled vegetables in an aromatic peanut sauce – and kotokan kutuk belimbing wuluh. The long-winded Javanese name describes a meaty freshwater fish (snakehead murrel) that is deep-fried before being slathered in coconut milk, various spices, tomatoes, and tart bilimbi fruit. “People usually substitute catfish for this,” Musinem says. “Kutuk is more expensive and rarely available – it’s caught from the swamps.”
I can’t be certain that these were two dishes Sukarno grew up eating in East Java, but in this easygoing city of 130,000 people, his spirit of inclusiveness is alive and well. ◊