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Alun-alun: Bandung, East Java

Alun-alun in Bahasa Indonesia is basically a town square. In Java, you will generally find a mosque on one of the sides and the alun-alun is a centre for numerous activities.

Bandung is a beautiful city located about 180 kilometres south-east of Jakarta and is easily accessible by bus, train or plane. A valley-city, it is surrounded by mountains covered in tea plantations, and is the centre of Sudanese culture.

Like Yogyakarta, Bandung is a university city with over 50 of them located there!. Bandung is often referred to as ‘Jeans city’ because of the amount of denim jeans shops so prolific everywhere you go. Culturally and historically it would be one of the most interesting in Java.

It has been a while since I was last in Bandung but I was intrigued when I read this article by Yuli Tri Suwarni and for the life of me I couldn’t remember seeing the alun-alun.

Longing for the Alun-alun in Bandung
Yuli Tri Suwarni, Bandung

For 32-year-old Asep Romli, a vendor of bottled drinks in Dalem Kaum, Bandung Square, locally known as Alun-alun Bandung, has a special history.

He left his village in Manonjaya, Tasikmalaya, for Bandung in 1985 for a better life and helped his uncle sell drinks like bottled tea and mineral water and cigarettes somewhere at the Alun-alun. Since then the Alun-alun has been his second home.

“I eat here and also sleep here when there is no rain as I have to take care of this cart. When it rains, I move the cart a little to the terrace of the Grand Mosque (on the western side),” he said.

Asep took over the business after his uncle passed away. He sells bottled drinks and cigarettes under the Angsana (Burmese rosewood) tree in front of the fountain on the western side of the Alun-alun. Earning a living there night and day, Asep is also a witnesses to the night life at the Alun-alun.

“I sell things to ‘ordinary’ people during the day but at night my customers are sex workers. Well, for me they are just customers. What matters to me most is that what I do is not something my religion forbids,” Asep said.

In 2000 the mosque and the square were renovated, causing Asep and dozens of sex workers to lose their earnings. Asep now rents a room in a narrow alley somewhere in Balonggede and has moved his small business to the eastern side of the square.

Personal histories

Nearly every Bandung resident has their own memory of the Alun-alun. In the 1990s, for example, Ronny Suyanto, 28, made this square a place where he waited for the time to break his fast during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadhan.

Together with five friends, he cycled a distance of 15 kilometers from his home to the square, just to while away their time to forget their thirst and hunger for a while at the Alun-alun.

“I cannot imagine now how cheerful we were traveling by bike over such a long distance,” he said.

Even Nurul Arifin, an actress now a legislator and a native of Cicadas, Bandung, has her own memory of the Alun-alun.

In a biography published in an entertainment tabloid she said she found her good fortune at the Alun-alun in 1982.

After praying in the Grand Mosque, she came across a pamphlet promoting a modeling competition. She took part in the contest and became a model, the first step on her way to success.
What does the Alun-alun look like today, though?

Piles of builders’ rubble, stagnant pools of water and weeds are a common sight in front of the two-floor parking building, only 25 percent of which has been completed.

This horrible-looking place seems to be isolated from the din emanating from the shopping center and the imposing office complex around it. To its west looms a grand mosque valued at Rp 36 billion.

“The two fountains that set the Alun-alun apart from other places are gone. It saddens one to see the Alun-alun now as it poses a big contrast to the imposing stature of the Grand Mosque,” Ronny said.

In fact, a plan has been drawn up to convert the Alun-alun into a parking lot with a capacity for 600 automobiles and 200 motorcycles with a one-hectare park to be built above it.

The project has not gotten of the ground, however, and Bandung people can no longer boast about the Alun-alun to their guests.

When UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and the foreign leaders and their delegations had to pass the Alun-alun on their way to the building where the jubilee of the Asian-African Conference was held in April this year, this square, then virtually resembling a lake, was considered an “embarrassment” by Bandung officials. It was cleverly hidden behind three-meter-tall boards and iron sheets bearing giant pictures of the smiling faces of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Vice President Jusuf Kalla, West Java Governor Danny Setiawan and Bandung Mayor Dada Rosada.

Nineteenth-century town planning

Historically, the Alun-alun, a park built in the center of the city where grass grows and thick trees stand round it, was a landmark of Bandung when this city was first laid out in 1810.

The layout of the city was based on the Javanese cultural philosophy of Catur Gatra (four aspects), namely a palace, a mosque, a market and a square.

According to the history of Bandung, it was regent Wiranatakusumah II (1794 – 1829) — considered the founder of Bandung city — who laid out the area when the capital of Bandung regency was moved from the flooded area of Karapyak (Dayeuhkolot) to the side of Cikapundung River, or the present-day Alun-alun.

The regental capital was moved on May 25, 1810, at the instruction of the Dutch Indies governor General Daendels, who hoped that the new area would be better for the future development of Bandung.

The Alun-alun, as a center, was located in the middle while the official residence of the Bandung mayor (now a position assumed by Dada Rosada) was located to its south. The Grand Mosque of Bandung lay to the west of the square and Pasar Baru market to the south-western side. Besides, Banceuy Penitentiary was also built to the north of the Alun-alun.

Harastuti, chairperson of the Bandung Heritage Association, said that all Bandung residents felt the loss of the Alun-alun as the municipal administration will turn it into a parking lot, making it no more than the concrete yard of an imposing mosque.

“We have opposed this plan from the very beginning. However, there is a much stronger political interest to which our love for history must give way,” she said.

When noted Muslim cleric Abdurrahman Wahid was president, the regional administration tried to give prominence to the Islamic character of Bandung.

Giving character to the city

In 2000, ulema and regional administration officials invited Bandung Heritage, the only association concerned with the conservation of culture in Bandung, for a discussion on the plan to renovate the Grand Mosque, a building constructed in 1812.

It was then, said Tuti, the name by which Harastuti is more commonly addressed, that the Alun-alun began to be considered as just a complement to a mosque, without the slightest consideration for its place in the history of this city, now populated by over 2.5 million people.

“We differed in opinion with the ulema but lost the debate. They wanted only the glory of Islam, while we wanted them not to forget the city’s history and identity,” Tuti said.

In fact, Tuti noted, the Alun-alun has a strong philosophical and historical bond with Bandung residents in particular.

Before the place was “demolished,” nearly every year the mayor or the governor expressed their best wishes for the new year to the residents who gathered there to celebrate. Long before prostitution became rampant there, the Alun-alun was a means of direct communications between the rulers and the people.

“In the pendopo (veranda) there is a bell, which in the days of yore was sounded to summon people to gather at the Alun-alun for an important announcement about policies, disasters and so forth. During the times of struggle for independence, the Alun-alun was used as a site where soldiers were assembled,” she said.

If the Alun-alun were turned into the yard of the mosque, Tuti said, the communication gap between the people and their ruler would become greater. Besides, this would also give the impression that the Alun-alun was only for the majority Muslim population.

In fact, the Alun-alun is there to minimize differences as anybody can go there freely.”I’m Muslim but I don’t agree to the idea of making a public space look as if it “belonged” only to a particular group although this group is the majority,” said Tuti, who teaches architecture at Parahyangan University.

“Well, our hope has remained just a hope. Everyone is impatient to see the outcome of the conversion, which has been delayed due to financial constraints,” she said.”Perhaps a new history will evolve there, replacing the old one, which older people like me will not forget easily,” Tuti said.

Note:

In its present condition, Alun-alun Bandung forms a contrast with the imposing Grand Mosque. The plan to build a parking lot and a green park in front of the Grand Mosque to replace the Alun-alun has been delayed for quite some time, making it a slum area full of weeds, stagnant pools of water and piles of rubble.

(Yuli Tri Suwarni/Bandung)