The kids in the kampong peeked from behind broken windows. It was a poor kampong and a lot of the houses were made of just rotan and bamboo. I was lucky to have a 4×4 car, the road up the hill was steep, full of potholes and a slight rain made it slippery and even more dangerous. I brought my two nieces, who were in Indonesia for a holiday. I explained to them that the treasure I was looking for was probably worth half a million dollars. They both stared motionless and empty eyed to the slippery road in front of them. My niece Aaltje had not seen much of me in her young life, and I am sure she viewed the ‘mystery’ uncle Bartele in the Far East, even weirder now. “What is it?” she asked. “Gold?”
“No,” I replied. ‘It’s the oldest map of Indonesia – probably over 400 years old and made by Sundanese. But as it is a pusaka, or sacred relic, nobody has been able to buy it, because potential treasure hunters simply don’t know where it is.” They still looked motionless. “In China a similar map was sold recently for one million dollars”. I hoped to get more response, but they were still not impressed.
“And you are going to buy this map!?” they asked in confusion.
“I will try” I replied with a deep sigh, still not sure if the map was even there. I knew of its existence from the respected Dr. David Parry, who has studied maps from the region for a long time. Dr. Parry had never made the location of the map public, fearing the map would end up in the ends of rogue traders. I knew I had to respect this, even though somewhere in my mind I was visualising the map on display in my gallery.
After a long drive I finally arrived in the kampong where the map had been treasured for many centuries by the locals. My heart started beating faster. The Kuncen (a hereditary officeholder in the village who commands great respect) did not seem over enthusiastic when he saw these three bules on his doorstep. He quickly changed his sarong to something more official. Before saying anything, he pointed at a sign on the door of an old shed across the path from his house. It was a police order warning visitors that anybody who would enter the house would be confined to ten years in jail. The date indicated that the public order was established only one year earlier. Good news was that the old map was probably still here, bad news was that an easy buy would be out of the question.
“You need to have permission from the district police commander” the Kuncen said. “Do you have the letter? If not, I cannot let you in.” I had been driving for hours, asked a hundred people for directions and my initial euphoria of finding the kampong now suddenly turned sour. I tried to explain I had just opened a shop of antique maps and that I was really interested in seeing the old map. “We only take it down for viewing in a yearly ceremony that involves the whole kampong” he said. He looked at the faces of the still tired and sad looking travel companions, thought for a moment, and then started making a phone call. He tried to call the police commander. No. We did not get permission, but we could come to the man’s’ office on Monday to apply for special permission. And here I am, in a far away kampong, metres away from a million dollar treasure and I cannot see it? I decided to call the police commander myself. I managed with some smooth talking and the promise of a good word with people in Jakarta that I would only be in the room for ten minutes and then go out again. He agreed. The Kuncen seemed to be relieved as well.
We entered the old house. There were only some old sofas and a sewing machine. ‘You are NOT photograph’ a sign warned us foreign visitors. The Kuncen started making a fire from dry branches of a tree. As he did this in the room, a thin smoke slowly crawled up along the rotan walls to the ceiling. The two 18 year old blondes started coughing. “It is to get rid of empty spirits,” I explained. Now they started to look frightened. “There is a lot of mystique here. The previous Kuncen had suddenly disappeared and then later they found that he was already in the cemetery, neatly buried and nobody, including his wife, had any idea who had done this.”
The fire burned more aggressively, sounding like a huge kretek cigarette, while the Kuncen started muttering Arabic prayers. The girls were getting afraid. A man, probably the RT (head of the kampong), silently entered the room. He sat down opposite us, not saying anything, but silently offering us a kretek. I figured there was enough smoke already in the little dark room. Suddenly he spoke. “Bahasa Indonesia?” I nodded. Another silence followed. “Kasihan,” he suddenly said. Kasihan means pity, or feeling sad for somebody. Why kasihan? He explained, ‘The government wants the Kuncen to guard the holy relics day and night. The police now decide who can come in and out. They act like it is their possession. “Kasihan the Kuncen,” the RT repeated. “For centuries his family has guarded our kampong’s treasure and now they are taking possession.”
The Kuncen had finished his rituals and joined in the conversation while stirring the trenches a bit more. “I used to work in Bandung, had a good job. But because of this police order, I now have to stay here day and night. I have no income anymore.” A short silence followed.
“Well,” I said, ‘the government should pay you a fee then, shouldn’t they?” ‘NAAAHH,” both men instantly reacted. “Mister mengerti!” (Mister understands). “I will pay you for letting us in. Thank you,” I said. The RT nodded in agreement. The Kuncen slowly went up a bamboo ladder, carrying a coconut filled with water. Half up the ladder to the small hole in the roof he stopped and without turning his head in my direction, he said, “Bikin photo juga boleh” (you are also allowed to take pictures). He now had a sly grin on his face.
First he brought down an old wooden box, then a few big rotan bowls. He slowly opened the linen packages that were in it. He unloaded a number of very old daggers and a barrel of small brass cannon. Aaltje wanted to lift a kris (Javanese dagger), when the RT and Kuncen suddenly panicked. “Don’t touch the blade!” In shock, she quickly put it back. The Javanese know the dangers of touching the blade. Apparently some daggers have a poison on the sharp edges. Next were 17 stones, one of them with some ancient text on it. Then he unfolded a long banner, made partly of the earliest batik. It had a symbol on it, obviously old, but I didn’t recognise it. And finally, the long awaited map.
The map was drawn in ink on linen and covered almost all of Western Java. The Kuncen slowly rolled it out. I couldn’t believe it. He rolled further and further. The cloth map was at least two metres long and showed in extreme detail the former chiefdom of Timbanganten. The map had been discovered in 1858 by a Dutch official, Lammers van Toorenburg, but it was not until 1862 that K.F.Holle, a philologist, studied the map at length. (He made a copy that is at the Jakarta City Museum, but in the museum they have no clue where the original is. And I am NOT going to tell them!). It shows the names of 78 kampungs and over a hundred rivers. Two large squares near the northwest corner of the map have been identified by Holle as Sunda Kelapa (an old name for Jakarta) and Bantam (Banten). Interesting enough, it also shows ‘Gunung Tumpang’, a Stonehenge kind of rock formation on top of a hill near Pelabuhan Ratu that not many people know about. The Kuncen pointed at some holes in the linen map. The RT explained that every time they unfold the map, the holes will be at another spot, while the old holes have disappeared.
I felt sad for the Kuncen who was expected to never leave his kampong again for the rest of the life, just to protect the sacred relics. “Why not work for me?” I said. “We will display the map on the walls of the gallery, and you protect it there! Nicely air-conditioned, good food and a salary! Win-win!” While I said it, I realised there was an under-layer of greed from my side involved. I wanted to correct myself and wipe it off as a bad joke, when the Kuncen showed his biggest smile so far. “Really?” he asked hopefully. He asked for my name card. Maybe one day he will turn up at the gallery with the map under his arm. But then for sure the next visitor will be the Police, looking for me.
So for now, not much else to do then just let the oldest map of Indonesia rot away in that far away kampong. But is it really rotting away? Apparently the map can repair itself and to be honest, the map is in remarkable condition for something stuffed away that long. Let’s hope that at least a little bit of the famous Indonesian magic works for that beautiful sacred relic…
Bartele has a wide range of businesses, most notably a number of bars and restaurants under the wing of the Bugils Group. His best-seller ‘Bule Gila’ is a must-read for any expat in Indonesia. He also owns Bartele Gallery – a rare maps and antiques gallery in Kemang. Email him at [email protected]