“Come, come … please. You see Museum Kereta (carriage museum),” were the words of a guide at Yogyakarta’s Kraton (palace). He was most insistent that the visitor to the Kraton also came to the nearby Museum Kereta. The walk to the museum is not far and visitors may benefit from the shade created by the kraton walls. On arrival, a huddle of men chatting pause from their conversations and cigarettes to offer warm greetings and collect small entrance fees (Rp 3,000 and, if you want to use a camera, a further Rp 1,000 is required). Once inside, a visually impressive display awaits.
In what was evidently originally a stables, there are now a sizable collection of horse-drawn carriages, ranging from the huge, extravagantly and ornately decorated (to be drawn by as many as eight horses) to much smaller and simpler single-horse buggies as Simon Marcus Gower explains.
Much of the collection, it seems, was put together by the Sultan of Yogyakarta, Sri Sultan Hamengkubowono VII. During his reign there was relative stability, as skirmishes and all-out wars were avoided. His reign was also seen as a period of relative wealth and thus the community could afford to spend money on these carriages.
The carriages date predominantly from the mid to late 19th century and the early 20th century. A significant number of them were made in the Netherlands, with one or two others made in Germany or Switzerland. Consequently the styles are European and typify designs of that period.
The craftsmanship and beauty of coach-building is apparent, and there some unusual and surprising aspects of coach-building also on display. For example, there is a suspension system for one carriage which uses large leather straps instead of the more common metal wishbone suspension system. The carriage appears to be suspended on the chassis rather like a hammock which swings between two trees. This is an unusual design, but there are also unusual things that happen to carriages on display.
It should perhaps be noted that the carriages are not just dusty old museum pieces stored away for static public viewing.
On special occasions, such as royal weddings, some of the carriages are still used in processions in Yogyakarta. There are also rituals and ceremonies which surround some of the carriages which adds another dimension to these museum pieces.
Certain carriages within the collection, like the carriage Garuda Yeksa, are considered sacred and therefore have specific cleaning or “bathing” rituals associated with them.
On Garuda Yeksa there is a small Garuda statue made of gold, but the Garuda is only cleaned on special occasions. It is believed polishing the Garuda would lead to a reduction of its weight in gold and so is only polished with extreme care, when absolutely necessary.
Other parts of carriages are cleaned, or bathed, ceremonially because they are considered to be sacred and so must be honored.
The carriage known as Kanjeng Nyai Jimad, for example, which was a gift from the King of Spain (but built in the Netherlands in the 1750s and one of the oldest carriages in the collection), is considered sacred and so once a year, in the Javanese month of Suro, it is ‘bathed’.
The belief in the sacred nature of these carriages is exemplified by the fact that once the bathing ritual is complete, people collect and keep water which has touched the carriages. It seems the mere act of bringing the water into contact with the carriages transforms it into some kind of holy water.
Other carriages in the collection are perhaps more utilitarian and simple in design, but attractive also.
One carriage was once even used for racing, being smaller and set up for one horse to draw it at high speed.
There is one carriage, however, no one would wish to see in regular use; the coffin carrying carriage purchased in the 1930s. Again, it is one of the larger and more elaborate pieces in the collection, but is also quite a gloomy looking vehicle.
Its heavy, long and boxy upper body almost look too large for the wheels on which it sits. While gold is the predominant color, the overall appearance of the carriage seems faded, dull and sad.
On the walls of the museum there are old photographs of stable-hands and occasions when the carriages were used, but these tend to suggest the carriages are relics of a by-gone era.
Some of the carriages, indeed do, sadly, look a bit relic-like with torn interior upholstery which contrasts with the well kept exteriors.
Also in cabinets in the museum are saddles and uniforms used by the coachmen and guards who would have steered the carriages and accompanied them on horseback in processions.
All told, the collection in the museum is a reminder of the regal elegance that was once present with horse-drawn carriages.