Visual Symbolism

The decoration of palace gamelans resonates and partakes in the visual symbolism seen throughout the kraton, thus anchoring these sets securely in the beliefs that animate the institution. In this chapter a vocabulary of decorative elements, which later we will see utilized on the casings of gamelans, is introduced and illustrated with photographs of its incorporation into non-musical facets of the palace cultural geography–architecture, sculpture and textiles.

palace pavilion bangsal Ponconiti ceiling
These decorated pillars and support beams of the palace pavilion Bangsal Ponconiti illustrate the architectural use of the symbolically meaningful colors green, red and gold.

The colors used to decorate most of the palace gamelan sets–dark red, green, dark green, yellow/ivory, brown, dark brown, and gold–are the same colors used to paint the main structural pillars and beams of the palace’s most important architectural structures: pavilions, called bangsal and pendhapa, and buildings, called gedhong. Thus, the gamelan sets, whenever and wherever they are used within the palace context, literally blend into the woodwork and partake in the associations the Javanese who are a part of this institution make between colors and their rarefied world. To them, dark red is associated with Hinduism, the religio-cultural model that was so central to the development of Javanese statecraft and worldview between the 4th and 15th centuries CE. Yellow, ivory and gold conjure connections to Buddhism, which impacted the Javanese elite almost as early as did Hinduism. Green is symbolically associated with Islam, which came to supplant Hinduism as the state religion in the 15th century and which remains the dominant religious force in contemporary Indonesia. More indigenous links are being forged with the brownish hues used in palace structures: medium brown symbolizes the color of the skin; dark brown the color of the life-giving soil. The combining of these colors in the decorative detail of palace pavilions and buildings is said to symbolize the syncretism of Javanese court culture, a celebration of the varied currents of influence, both of indigenous and foreign origin, that have contributed to the rich and complex culture of the Javanese elite. That the palace gamelans are painted these same colors suggests that they likewise serve to project meaningful links between the palace context in which they are found and the cultural history of the Javanese people.

The casings of gamelan instruments provide the Javanese imagination with all sorts of surfaces begging to be brought to life visually through carving. Much of the open space on the casings is filled with vine-like vegetation (lunglungan) emanating from or interrupted by lotus-like flowers or buds. These motifs—the tendril and lotus bud/blossom–are old ones in Java, indeed throughout much of the Indonesian archipelago, and can be found on temples and artifacts dating back more than a millennium.

The use of vegetation motifs in no way distinguishes the palace gamelans from those found among the general public. There is, however, a small but significant set of visual forms that appear on palace sets exclusively or with far greater frequency than they do on non-palace ones. Many of these motifs are of ancient origin and can be found on centuries-old stone temples and religious and utilitarian artifacts dating from the Hindu-Buddhist era of Javanese history; indeed a few motifs clearly originated on the Indian subcontinent and traveled to Java and elsewhere in Indonesia along with concepts of statecraft and religion. In particular, Hindu-inspired mythological creatures are found on many sets: the garuda bird (the mount of the Hindu god Wisnu, a deity with whom Javanese kings have long associated themselves); abstractions of the garuda form called mirong (stylized wings, also called lar) and sawat (stylized wings and tail). Also incorporated into the decorative designs of palace gamelans past and present is the kedhok (mask-like face with ghastly bulging eyes, protruding fangs, and wagging tongue [another kedhok example]), which serves a guardian function to ward off evil forces and is strategically situated thoughout the palace at points of spatial transition such as the gateways between courtyards. The coat of arms (lambang) of the Hamengku Buwana lineage (the Sultans of Yogyakarta) is yet another symbol worked into the carving on many palace gamelans. This crest includes the mirong motif in gold framing a red field containing the interlocking Javanese letters “h” and “B” (from hamengku Buwana) in gold relief and optionally capped off with a crown-like headpiece. The above motifs are not your typical decorative fare for gamelans outside the palace.

A menagerie of other creatures, real and imaginary, appear on the casings of individual gamelans either alone or superimposed upon a background of vegetation or mirong. These, and the symbolic associations they conjure, will be introduced individually in the section of this site titled “Kraton Yogyakarta Gamelans“.

Representations of creatures appearing on palace gamelans
Representations of creatures appearing on palace gamelans include (clockwise from upper left): the crow, the frog, the flying horse (sembrani), the jackel, the Chinese qilin, the pygmy deer (kancil) and the phoenix.

Interestingly, it is not possible to associate directly the decorative motifs found on most of the palace gamelans with their respective names. However, collectively, the imagery painted on and carved into these instruments projects a coherent persona that blends smoothly with the institution of Javanese kingship (which owes much to Hindu forms of statecraft) as practiced in the Kraton Yogyakarta. In particular the colors used, the garuda and its connection with the Hindu god Wisnu, the royal crest of the house of Hamengku Buwana, and the dramatic kedhok figure are motifs and icons that are found in and on other objects and structures throughout the Yogyakarta palace. The display of such icons on palace gamelans allows these sets to partake in the rich visual symbolism that engulfs the cultural and physical geography of the palace as a whole.