Madura Is Steeped in History
FEBRUARY 07, 2012
The island of Madura gets a bad rap on Java. The stereotype is that all Madurese are crass, ill-mannered and quick to anger, while the island itself is hot, dirty and simply not worth visiting.
The Javanese prejudice against Madura has knocked the island off the list of destinations for most domestic tourists, who in turn discourage foreigners from visiting. But as is the case with most stereotypes, not everything people say about Madura is true.
Located just northeast of Surabaya in East Java, Madura is easily accessible by boat across the Madura Strait. Since 2009, it has also been accessible by road, thanks to the Suramadu Bridge connecting the island to mainland Java.
But local accounts differ as to how long it actually takes to get across to the next big town. I checked four car rental places in Surabaya, and each gave different estimated travel times, ranging from six to 12 hours for the trip between Surabaya and Sumenep, in Madura’s east. One operator explained that the trip takes 12 hours whenever the cattle market is open because of the resulting kilometers of congested traffic.
The island is divided into four regencies: Bangkalan in the west, Sampang and Pamekasan in the middle and Sumenep in the east, and the island itself is under the administration of East Java.
Crossing Suramadu Bridge at full speed, I found that it only took only 20 minutes to reach Madura. With a crossing fee of Rp 30,000 ($3.40), the bridge has separate lanes for motorcycles (which are often loaded with big sacks) and four-wheel vehicles. Another option is to take the public ferry from Tanjung Perak harbor in Surabaya to Kamal harbor in Bangkalan, which takes about 40 minutes.
During the first two-hour trip through Bangkalan regency, I saw nothing but abandoned, unfertile-looking terrain, and understood why many Bangkalan residents choose to search for jobs off the island. We passed two cattle markets in different locations, which took up half of the main road with parked motorcycles and pick-up trucks, leaving the commuting buses and cars stuck in traffic.
Cows, goats and lambs are sold in this kind of crowded cattle market. Cows are important in Madura, which is known for its popular cow-racing festival. The goats in the market were very young, some as young as 4 months old. The driver told me that a popular local dish is sate kambing muda (young goat satay).
Looking at the young and tender goats, I was excited to taste it for myself.
Entering the crowded market, I had the peculiar sensation of being a foreigner in my own country. The people there were speaking in their strong, local dialect, and I didn’t hear any Indonesian words nor understand a thing that was said. The men were dressed in traditional sarongs and conducted their business solely in cash.
Continuing on the southern route, we passed several decent-looking kampungs (dense neighborhoods), and some very nice, big houses (the bigger concrete abodes were coated in brightly colored advertisements for mobile phone providers).
The first big town we passed was Sampang, the main street of which was lined with government offices, schools and public facilities. But beyond the main street was nothing but kampungs and open terrain. Looking at the dry soil, I had a flashback to geography lessons at school, where we were taught that the staple in Madura is not rice but corn, because is it more suited to the soil.
The dry terrain did eventually open up to a clear view of the sea, and the turquoise water of the Camplong Beach was very enticing. It is a popular recreation spot for locals, but also an area known for sand fields and salt production. Since colonial times, Madura has been an important salt-producing region, known in Java as the Island of Salt.
When we arrived in Pamekasan, I was surprised to find the main road bustling with commercial activity. Contrary to the stereotypes, it was also a very clean city, with a well-maintained Catholic church facing a grand mosque just across the street — apparently coexisting in peace, despite the island’s chaotic reputation.
From there I proceeded to Sumenep, an area known for its tobacco production. I also saw several assembling factories as we drove through, giving me the impression that the area is quite economically well-developed.
Entering the main town (after a three-hour drive), I found Sumenep itself to be clean, cultured and affordable. I made the obligatory visit to the Grand Sumenep Mosque, the town’s best-known attraction.
The structure, built in 1779, showed a fascinating combination of Chinese, Javanese, Indian, Portuguese and Arab influences in its architecture. The interior of the mosque likewise displayed the influence of those cultures in the ceiling, wooden windows, pillars and mihrab. But the most beautiful part of the mosque is its concrete gate, which has a European touch.
A few hundred meters to the east of the mosque is Kraton Sumenep, the sultan’s palace and the only one of its kind in East Java. The palace is said to have been established in 1269, when its authority covered all of Madura, as well as the many islands scattered around it. The head of the kadipaten, or sultanate, was known as the adipati.
Unlike Yogyakarta’s kraton in Central Java, the kraton complex in Madura is no longer occupied by traditional families serving the adipati (the last sultan ruled in 1929). The complex surrounding the palace was built in 1762 by Adipati Sumenep Tumenggung Ario Notokusumo, or Panembahan Somala (1762-1811).
He enlisted the famous Chinese architect Law Piyango to design both the kraton and the Grand Mosque on the 12 hectares of his property (Law Piyango’s family escaped from Semarang, Central Java, because of the bloody unrest there).
In front of the kraton there is a pendopo, or open-air pavilion, which is now used for government events. For Rp 2,000 (22 cents), visitors can tour the kraton museum, which previously served as the adipati’s office.
The museum holds artifacts like utensils used by the royal family, royal robes and heirloom weapons. One piece of particular interest is a handwritten Koran penned by Sultan Abdul Rahman (1811-1854).
Like in any kraton in Java, a big banyan tree can be found growing in the courtyard. There is also a taman sare, a pool used for bathing by the princesses. Locals still believe in the spiritual power of the pool, and bathe there in hopes of receiving blessings.
Across from the kraton complex is a building now used to keep the royal thrones and carriages, one of them a gift from the United Kingdom. Pictures of the various adipatis of Sumenep are also displayed, but the presentation is poor.
My trip to Sumenep changed my view of Madurese people. What I experienced was totally different to what I had previously imagined; the people were not unfriendly and the towns were not dirty.
Erfandi, a guide at the Sumenep Kraton Museum, put my impression into words: “I know that people are reluctant to visit Madura because they think it is dirty and the people are rude and foul,” he said.
“But as you see, Sumenep is a fine destination with many attractions. And, most importantly, it is very cheap.”