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Indonesian city waits for real king to reveal himself
By Seth Mydans
SOLO, Indonesia, February 15, 2008 - Pop quiz: How many kings are there now in the ancient sultanate of Surakarta?
Answer: There is no correct answer.
When King Pakubuwono XII died four years ago, he left six mistresses with 35 children, but no wife, no heir and no instructions about the succession.
He might have guessed what would happen. Two half-brothers each claimed the ancient crown, and the family split into two bitterly feuding factions.
The oldest half-brother and his nine full siblings took control of the palace, a fortress-like complex called a kraton. He barred his 25 half-siblings - the children of the other five consorts - from entering and evicted those who had made their homes within its walls.
Except for one shouting match when the expelled half-siblings stormed the palace and had to be removed by the police, the two factions have not talked to each other since.
Now people are asking what will become of the centuries-old sultanate.
Also known as the Sultanate of Solo, it has had no political power outside of its thick, whitewashed ramparts since the Republic of Indonesia stripped all royal families of power in 1946.
But the kraton here sees itself as a keeper of Javanese tradition - of purity, refinement and cosmic spirituality - and has continued to perform court rituals and to hold regal processions through the city.
Its royal family, meanwhile, continues to behave as royal families so often do.
"Palaces have many intrigues, you know," said one of the evicted princes, Dipokusumo.
Shortly after their father died, on June 12, 2004, both contending brothers had themselves crowned King Pakubuwono XIII. One coronation was held inside the palace, one outside, at the mansion of a friend.
When the time came to commemorate their father's death, palace insiders say, the princes carried out separate tomb-sealing rituals - two teams of masons, two teams mixing cement, two solemn ceremonies.
The joke around this central Javanese city is that with all this parallel activity, there might as well be one sultan of Surakarta: Pakubuwono XXVI.
Or perhaps there are none.
When the older prince, Hangabehi, 60, expelled the younger one, Tejowulan, 52, a sister who was the keeper of the keys was exiled from the palace along with him, Prince Dipokusumo said in an interview. With the keys out of reach, neither those inside the palace nor those outside could open the giant padlocked doors of the chamber where palace treasures and ritual objects are kept.
As a result, neither coronation included all the rites and relics needed to anoint a Surakartan king, said Soedarmono, a professor of history at the State University of Indonesia here, who has made it his business to follow the palace intrigues.
"There is no king," said Soedarmono, who like many Indonesians has just one name. "Neither one is king. When you write about them, you can just call them Mister."
As the last king lay dying, Soedarmono said, several of his children drew up a document in his name appointing the younger prince as his successor. They entered the king's hospital room and pressed his thumb onto the document for an official print. When the police examined the document, however, they could not verify the thumbprint because it was smudged and unclear, Soedarmono said.
Until his expulsion, Prince Dipokusumo was the accountant for the royal family, and he said the government had remained neutral, dividing an annual stipend between the two feuding princes.
Apart from that stipend, those members of the family who have an income customarily support those who do not, said Marlene Heins, a Dutch anthropologist who is close to the palace.
One brother supports himself partly from ticket fees to the palace museum; one from fees for the use of its public lavatory; one from parking fees at the nearby market, she said.
In balancing the current ledger of Surakartan kings, Prince Dipokusumo sounded a bit like an accountant through a looking glass. Either Hangabehi is king, he said, or Tejowulan is king, or both are king, or neither one is king.
"Who has the truth?" he said. "The truth will reveal itself."
Four years after the death of the patriarch, that truth remains obscure. The prince in the palace, Hangabehi, does not speak to outsiders. Members of the exiled branch of the family say they do not even have his telephone number.
The other prince, Tejowulan, does make himself available, chain-smoking Marlboros through a late-night interview. But he couches his words in regal enigma.
"Maybe Hangabehi should give up his position and devote himself to spiritual matters," he said. "But please note that I am not asking for Hangebehi to step down. No."
Tejowulan may have let slip a hint of his strategy when he talked about the scandal of the day - the apparent theft of ancient statues from the museum that is controlled by the palace. A number of artifacts from its collection have appeared on the international art market, said Soedarmono, the historian, and several statues appear to be missing.
In a humiliation for the royal family, Hangabehi has been questioned by the police about the thefts, though so far only as a witness.
"I am certainly hoping that the legal process does not go further, no," the younger brother said. "But I believe that the law must take its course. No one is above the law."
Source: International Herald Tribune