Located roughly about 50 Kilometers east of Semarang, capital of Central Java, pass the town of Demak, is the town of Kudus. Kudus not only played a pivotal part in the spread of Islam in the history of Java, but here is the birthplace of Kretek, the legendary sweet, spice-scented Indonesian clove cigarettes that has become world renowned.
Kudus takes its name from the Arabic word “Al-Quds” meaning holy and it is recognized as the only town on Java to have an Arabic name. The town was founded by Ja’far Shodiq who later became one of the Wali Sanga or the nine apostles who spread Islam across the island of Java, taking the name Sunan Kudus. Sunan Kudus was said to have been the fifth Imam (head) of the mosque of Demak and a major leader of the 1527 campaign against the mighty ‘Majapahit’, before he moved to present day Kudus. The town is inseparable from the personality of Sunan Kudus. Apart from being a great religious teacher, Sunan Kudus was also known to be a man of high religious tolerance. His legacy of tolerance remains to this day where people of Kudus do not slaughter cows or consume beef in order to honor their Hindu brothers.
The Mosque of Kudus or also known as Al Aqsa or Al Manar which dates from this period, remains a local landmark to this day. Constructed in 1549 by Sunan Kudus, the mosque is notable for its perservation of pre-Islamic architectural art such as its Old Javanese split doorways and Hindu-Buddhist influenced Majapahit-style brickwork. The main distinction of this mosque is the tall red brick minaret (popular as the Menara Kudus or the tower of Kudus) which may have originally been the watch tower of the Hindu temple on which the mosque is said to have been built. In the courtyard behind the mosque, the impressive Tomb of Sunan Kudus is shrouded with a lace curtain. The narrow doorway, draped with heavy gold-embroidered curtains, leads through an inner chamber to the tomb.
Kudus also built its reputation on the exotic fragrance of the clove-blended cigarettes unique to the country. The word “kretek” itself is an onomatopoetic term for the crackling sound of burning cloves. Bringing together tobacco from the New World and spices from the Old, kretek is a product of extraordinary historical circumstances, but its birthplace is Kudus, where the lingering traces of its distinctive aroma are an ever-present part of everyday life.
The origin of kretek cigarettes can be traced to the late 19th century. It is believed that the first person to add cloves to his cigarette was a man called H. Jamhari, a resident of Kudus. Suffering from chest pains, Jamhari attempted to reduce the pain by rubbing clove oil on his chest. Jamhari sought a means to achieve deeper relief and smoked his hand-rolled cigarettes after adding dried clove buds and rubber tree sap. According to the story, his asthma and chest pains vanished immediately. Word of Jamhari’s product spread rapidly among his neighbors, and clove cigarettes soon became available in pharmacies under the name of rokok cengkeh – clove cigarettes. Although first marketed as a medicinal product, kreteks became widely popular outside this capacity.
Around 1906 – another Kudus resident named Nitisemito transformed the cottage industry into a mass-production industry in two ways: firstly, he created his own brand (Bal Tiga) and image. Nitisemito introduced marketing campaigns the likes of which Indonesia had not seen before. Beautiful labels were printed in Japan and free gifts were offered to loyal smokers in return for used packs. Secondly, he began to subcontract work. A middleman handled the labor, while Nitisemito provided the tobacco, cloves and sauce. This practice was quickly adopted by other kretek companies and continued up until mid-20th century, when companies began to hire their own employees as a way of ensuring quality and loyalty. However, The Bal Tiga Company did not recover after the Second World War and was declared bankrupt in 1955.
Trails and traces of the Kretek history can be observed at the Kretek Museum located in Jati Kulon. Established in 1985, the Museum presents the fascinating history of the authentic clove blended cigarettes through a number of interesting photographs and tools used in the production of kretek clove cigarettes.
Kudus lies on the main highway along the north coast of Java between Semarang and Surabaya. The town can be reached in approximately 1 to 1.5 hour’s drive from Semarang. The bus terminal is about 4 Km south of the town. City minibuses run from behind the bus terminal to the town center for IDR 5,000. Buses go from Kudus to Demak which takes approximately 30 minutes.
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