Sun, 20 Jul 2003

Kudus -- A lively blend of religious traditions

Jock Paul, Contributor, Kudus, Central Java

Besides making sure that chain-smoking Indonesians get their fix, the town of Kudus is nurturing one of the richest and most alive histories in Java.

Kudus, although now famous for clove cigarettes, lies about an hour east of Semarang, in the middle of the area know as the cradle of Javanese Islam. The town's rich history, influenced heavily by a unique blending of Arabic and Hindu influences, is evident not only in the town's historical buildings but also in the people's daily lives.

The name of the town -- Kudus is the only town on Java with an Arabic name, deriving from Al Quds, meaning holy city, the Muslim name for Jerusalem -- and the fact that Kudus is the resting place of one of the nine wali, the propagators of Islam in Java, speak of the Arab influences on Kudus.

Yet probably the town's oldest tradition, which is also unique in Java, is an old prohibition that the people of Kudus observe against the slaughter of cows, the sacred animal of the Hindus.

The best place to see the melding of these influences in the town's center piece, and one of the busiest places in this otherwise laid-back town, the Menara Mosque. A pedicab, the preferred way to get around Kudus, will take you to the mosque from most places in Kudus, including the bus station for less than Rp 5,000.

On the Monday afternoon that I visited the mosque, it was full of men socializing, lounging about smoking and, of course, praying. The tall tower and green courtyard provide a welcoming and sociable atmosphere and lots of shade. Outside, and at the market in front of the mosque, people were shopping and socializing.

Around and inside the main building, rebuilt in 1933, are ancient red brick structures, whose design, if not the objects themselves, clearly derive from the Majapahit period, making this mosque unique in Java. The most remarkable of these is the tall minaret, whose base is in the shape of a candi or funerary monument.

Set atop it in an open pavilion is a bedug (large drum) that is used to call the faithful to prayer, instead of a muezzin. The minaret and other objects throughout the mosque suggest that the Menara Mosque has incorporated a pre-existing Hindu-Javanese structure.

The mosque was founded by Kudus' famous wali, Ja'far Shodiq, later known as Sunan Kudus. An inscription on a rock, which some say he carried from Mecca, above the mihrab -- an indicator for the direction to Mecca -- says that Ja'afar Shodiq founded the mosque in 1549. The venerated wali lies buried in an elaborately carved mausoleum behind the mosque, and his family is buried neat him.

Before leaving this part of Kudus it is worth checking out one of Kudus' oldest and best preserved teakwood houses, hidden in the narrow lanes of the Kauman district. Turn left as you exit the front of the mosque and keep an eye on the buildings on the left hand side.

Turn left into the second small walkway you come to, it is about 50 meters down from the mosque and does not have a name. About 25 meters down the pathway on your right hand side is a beautifully carved teakwood house.

Kudus has always been an important craft center and this house is constructed entirely of teak. The front of the house is intricately carved from top to bottom with distinctive floral patterns. The house is still very much lived in. An old man sitting outside welcomed me to have a peak inside, but did not want any pictures taken of the house.

His desire for privacy is understandable: There used to be more of these houses to see, but a number of them have been bought in their entirety and disassembled and brought to Jakarta, where they are incorporated into homes, or even the penthouse of the Le Meridien hotel.

The town's prohibition on the slaughter of cows means that beef has to be brought in from neighboring towns. This offers an interesting opportunity for those looking to try something new; water buffalo satay and soto (soup) are readily available throughout Kudus. Or for the less adventurous or vegetarian, try the local specialty nasi tahu, tofu served with peanut sauce, fried shrimp and rice.

These staples of the town can be found at sidewalk stalls throughout Kudus, and in the evening many stalls are set up along Jl. Sunun Kudus, in the area locals refer to as Pekoja.

Yes, kretek (clove) cigarettes are still a big part of the economy of "Kota Kretek", the town famous for cigarettes. Javanese businessman Noto Semito invented clove cigarettes here in the early 1900s. By the 1920s, his Bal Tiga (three circles) cigarettes were the most popular in the country and Kudus had become the nation's biggest producer. Now over 25,000 people work producing clove cigarettes in Kudus.

If you have time to spare Kudus' cigarette history is showcased at the Museum Kretek. Dioramas and various objects -- old packs of Kudus-made cigarettes and the tools used to make them -- are on display.

Kudus is about an hour east of Semarang on the road to Surabaya. Buses leave Semarang from the Terboyo bus station and take about an hour and a half to get to Kudus. It's Rp 3,000 for the regular, non-AC service, Rp 4,000 for AC.