JAKARTA (JP): Once a glittering sultanate and bustling seaport, the past glory of Banten on the northwest coast of Java is now fading.
Banten, once the center of the Pakuan Padjadjaran Hindu kingdom and one of the most powerful Islamic sultanates in Java, was a major gateway to theisland of Java between the 16th and 17th century.
Business in Banten at this time thrived. Traders coming from China, India, Turkey, Britain, Portugal and the Netherlands were frequent visitorsto the old Banten harbor in the present-day village of Karangatu, north of Banten.
Spice, silk, Chinese ceramics, gold, jewelry and other Asian goods attracted European merchants. Banten was a pioneer in international trade. Banten, which covered present-day Serang, Pandeglang, Lebak and Tangerang, was also known as an educational center for Islamic studies.
Hasan Muarif Ambary, professor of archaeology at the National Archaeological Research Center, believes the past triumphs of Banten can betraced through folklore, ancient manuscripts, religious books and cultural materials, including architecture, technology, the arts and the social patterns of the Banten community.
""Banten owns very rich archeological remains, both from the pre-Hindu, Hindu and Islamic periods. These remains show how important the area was inthe past,"" he said.
In a comprehensive study of Banten, included in his book Menemukan Peradaban, Jejak Arkeologis dan Historis Islam (In Search of Civilization, Archeological Traces and Islamic History), Ambary divided the history of Banten into several periods: the Hindu era, also called the Banten Girang period; the Islamic sultanate; Dutch colonialism; Japanese occupation; andcontemporary Banten.
From the 12th to the 15th century, Banten was part of the Hindu Kingdom of Pakuan Padjadjaran, which was centered in Banten Girang in what is present-day Serang.
The indigenous Baduy in Banten are said to belong to the ancient Padjadjaran people.
The Islamic period started in 1525 when Sunan Gunung Jati, one of the Wali Songo (ten respected Islamic leaders who spread Islam in Java), and Maulana Hassanudin from the Demak sultanate brought Islam to Banten and other areas of West Java.
Ambary said that during this period, Banten experienced an intense religious and cultural transformation from Hinduism to Islam. Power shiftedfrom the Padjadjaran kingdom to an Islamic sultanate led by Maulana Hassanudin. The capital city was moved from Banten Girang to Surosowan, andBanten grew as a megalopolis during the reign of Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa.
""Evidence shows that Banten was an important place in the past, especially during the Islamic period,"" Ambary said.
Its treasures, including the Grand Mosque, the ruins of the Kaibon and Surosowan palaces, the Tasik Ardi lake complex, the octagonal minaret, the Klenteng Chinese temple and many other precious legacies, are a mixture of East and West.
""Banten was an open place with broad-minded leaders who accepted culturaland religious differences,"" Ambary said.
The mixture of Islam and Hinduism, and East and West are clearly reflected in the architectural legacy, he said.
Tasik Ardi lake, believed to have been a place of seclusion for Banten's sultans and a source of fresh water for the community, is one such example.The landscape and buildings surrounding the lake are a rich blend of Hindu and Islamic architecture. The gate to the lake was built in the form of a Bentar, a style of Hindu architecture.
The Kaibon and Surosowan palaces also show an intense combination of Hindu and Islamic influences.
The mix of Eastern and Western styles also enrich Banten's architectural heritage. Tiyamah and an octagonal minaret in the great mosque of Banten clearly demonstrate the meeting of local, Chinese and Western influences.
Tiyamah was designed by Portuguese architect Lucazs Cardel, while the 30-meter-high minaret was designed by a Chinese named Cek-ban-cut.
""All these material things actually manifest the social and political patterns of the people of Banten during that period,"" Ambary said.
His study shows the Muslim sultans were progressive and tolerant toward non-Islamic communities. They allowed ""foreign architects"" to design buildings for religious activities. They also allowed Chinese residents to build their own places of worship, including the Klenteng Chinese temple and Vihara Buddhist temple. A Hindu community also existed in Banten duringthe Islamic sultanate period.
Banten was a melting pot of various ethnic groups, including the indigenous Sundanese, the Javanese, the seafaring Bugis from South Sulawesi, the Madurese and native Chinese.
According to the late archaeology professor Kuntjaraningrat, Banten was once an advanced royal territory with highly cultured people.
The capital city of Surosowan was a well-ordered urban center, with 33 distinct communities divided according to the profession of community members.
The Banten sultanate began to crumble with the landing of Captain Cornelis de Houtman and the first Dutch ship in Banter harbor in l596.
The then multinational trading system was destroyed by the monopolistic practices of the Dutch traders. In the early l8th century, Dutch governor General Daendels dissolved the Banten sultanate and divided it into three small regencies.
The Dutch then took control of the economic and social structures of Banten.
""Political intervention from the Dutch angered the people of Banten and planted in them the seed of hatred toward outsiders, the Dutch especially,""Ambary said.
Since this time, the people of Banten have been plagued with disaster andanguish. They have been involved in wars and conflicts with the Dutch. The eruption of Krakatau volcano in the early l9th century and Japanese occupation made matters worse for the people of Banten.
""Because of these ongoing traumas, a lot of people from Banten are stern,defensive and reticent,"" he said.
Some sought alternative forms of mysticism, while others retained their strong Islamic belief.
""The long history of Banten has shaped the lives of its present-day residents, who now play less important roles on the current social and political stages,"" he said.
In facing the era of industrialization and globalization, Banten should revitalize its past achievements or it will continue to be excluded from development.