Book review: The Rakai Pikatans of Indonesian history

“A brief history of Indonesia: Sultans, Spices and Tsunamis: the incredible story of South East Asia’s largest nation” by Tim Hannigan

There once lived a man named Rakai Pikatan. He was the man who puts an end to the mighty Sailendra dynasty in Java, and in the year 856 he ordered his men to build a temple that match Sailendra’s masterpiece, the Borobudur. The temple has since been known as the Prambanan.

Few centuries later in 1357, Majapahit’s king Hayam Wuruk appeared to attempt to forge an alliance with the Pajajaran kingdom in West Java, by promising to marry princess Pitaloka, the daughter of the Pajajaran king. But when the Pajajaran wedding party arrived in Majapahit’s capital, prime minister Gajah Mada informed them that the princess would merely becomes a concubine and that they should surrender to their East Java overlord. Surrounded by hostile Majapahit forces, the Pajajaran men bravely refused and put up a fight, but they were all eventually slaughtered, including the princess.

Meanwhile, by the mid 15th century the spread of Islam had reached as far east as the eastern islands in the archipelago. With so many Muslim chiefs rulling so many tiny islands at the time, Arab spice traders began to call the area Jazirat al-Muluk (the islands of kings) – a name that eventually became Maluku.

Moreover, in 1811 the archipelago almost had its independence from the colonial Dutch. Following Napoleon’s attack on the Netherlands, the British decided to consficate and disband Napoleon Dutch’s colonial grab in the East Indies. The British originally gave the order to British governor-general in Calcutta, Lord Minto, to “overwhelm the Dutch forces, destroy their fortifications, dish out their guns and ammunition to the locals, and hand the island over to the Javanese.” But what prevent the independence was one act of disobedience by Lord Minto. He dismantled the Dutch forces within a few weeks, but then installed Raffles as his lieutenant-governor in the archipelago with free rein to rule the colony as he pleased. And the rest, as they say, is history.

History is messy, brutal, and oftentimes blurry. For many centuries to come the temples of Prambanan were buried and the locals only know the folktale version of its history – where a man built a thousand temples overnight as a condition to marry princess Roro Jonggrang – and they do not even know who Rakai Pikatan is.

Students of history in Indonesia would also likely to learn Majapahit as the peaceful empire that unite the whole archipelago. While in reality, they obtain the majority of their territories by force and in some instances even only claim them without ever setting foot on the land. And just like Srivijaya before them, Majapahit was more of a powerful kingdom claiming control to a small population of traders and port cities beyond their stronghold capital, rather than an empire.

And these misconceptions of history sums up how historical accounts are being perceived in Indonesia.

This book is about the Rakai Pikatans of Indonesian history, and not the Roro Jonggrangs. About the likes of kingdom of Majapahit (not the empire) and its day to day struggles and ugly realities. It is about the intriguing origins of many historic names, the lost opportunities and the very human decision made by the likes of Lord Minto that changed the course of history. It is in short an attempt to straightening up the facts of Indonesia’s past.

The book is also about the forgotten truth. About the equally important role Sutan Sjahrir played beside Soekarno and Hatta in the independence movement for Indonesia. About Budi Utomo that began as an organisation to lobby for more education for Indonesia’s elite class in a Dutch-controlled government, and not an anti-colonial revolutionary organisation as they usually perceived. It is about how the Japanese was sympathetic with Indonesian independence movement and was actually administering towards an independence for Java in September 1945 (with the rest of Indonesia follow suit shortly), before Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed a month before that and Indonesian revolutionaries had to take matters into their own hands for independence.

Perhaps the best feature of the book is how Tim Hannigan can bring the complex stories of Indonesia’s past into a gripping narrative. The book indeed reads like an epic novel, and it filled with deliciously detailed accounts that constantly intrigue as we read on, such as how the country’s motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika is a fragment of a 14th century poem celebrating the unity of Shiva and Buddha, or the story of how 4 ways conflict made Jakarta the capital city of the Dutch colony, or the fact that Zheng He’s magnificent fleets that came to the archipelago were commanded by 7 eunuchs.

But most of all, it is a book that explains every sequences that lead to many different realities in Indonesia today. For instance, contrary to popular believe, the Dutch were actually respectful to the local royal kingdoms during their occupation, they even forged useful alliances with some of them that mutually benefit everyone. And it was exactly these alliances that caused these kingdoms’ eventual demise, with the simple fact that since almost all of them were allies with the Dutch they resisted the national independence cause that was centered in Jakarta, that is, apart from Yogyakarta. Which is why after the independence only Yogyakarta’s sultanate survived and go down in Indonesian history as one of the heroes.

All in all, it is a well-crafted and very well-researched book, written in a careful ways so that the facts, the speculations and the myths are clearly distinguished. It is the most complete historical account on Indonesia that I have read so far, and it is the number one book I would recommend to anyone who wants to know about Indonesia.

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