Less than 100 Km west of Semarang city, capital of Central Java Province, lies Pekalongan, a quiet little port city at the northern coast of Java. As capital of the Pekalongan Regency, the city is best known for its colorful art of Batik, the Indonesian traditional fabric masterpiece that was declared as the intangible cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO in 2009.
If the Batik art of Solo and Yogyakarta from the interior royal houses beam with sophistication and grace, known as Batik Keraton or Royal Batik, the Batik Pekalongan features vibrant colors and patterns in what is known as Batik Pesisir or the Coastal Batik.
Where Batik Keraton distinguishes itself by its brown, yellow, black and blue colors, the Pekalongan batik is an exuberant expression of all sorts of colors mixed on one sheet of cloth, from the more subdued greens, pinks and blues to garish orange, purples and reds. The different styles somehow reflect the difference in culture among these cities, in which Pekalongan radiates a strong sense of coastal culture with apparent foreign influences brought by traders from China, Arabia, and Europe. Most of the Chinese influenced batik motifs depict flowers, butterflies, and other flora and fauna, which are favored by the Peranakan Chinese, those descended from mixed Chinese Indonesian or Malay blood.
The lanes along Jalan Blimbing in the north of the city form the city’s venerable Chinatown, dotted with shrines and old terraced houses. To the east, at Jalan Patiunus and the streets leading away from it make up the Arab quarters with its own distinct characteristics.
Just like the city, Pekalongan Batik is unique since the motifs are a fusion of Javanese, Chinese, Dutch, Japanese, and Arabic design influences. The wide variety of Pekalongan batik is a reflection of the rich culture and history of multi-cultural coexistence.
The best place to observe the variety of Pekalongan Batik and its long history is at the Batik Museum, which is located at Jalan Majapahit no.7A. The museum houses one of the world’s most important Batik collections, including many antique pieces, set in a stately art-deco structure which was formerly the old City Hall.
The coastal area around Pekalongan was once part of the ancient Holing (Kalingga) kingdom. The 7th century Sojomerto inscription, discovered in the neighboring Batang Regency in Central Java, showed that the area was linked to Kalingga as well as the ancestors of the Sailendra Dynasty, who built the great Borobudur temple. The exact location of the seat of Kalingga remains unclear, but it was suggested that it should lie somewhere between the cities of Pekalongan and Jepara. However it is most likely that Kalingga was in fact located in Pekalongan, rather than in Jepara, because of the similarity in name between Kalingga and Pekalongan. It is believed that over centuries the name Kalingga, shifted from Kaling, to Kalong, and finally to “Pekalongan”.
Although there are no official records on how and when Batik was first developed in Pekalongan, many estimate that it should date back to around the year 1800. But later studies say that it must have occurred after the major war that raged between 1825-1830 in the Mataram Kingdom of Central Java, known as the Diponegoro War or the Java War. After this war, the royal family of Mataram who formerly resided in Yogyakarta was forced to leave the Kingdom and spread to other lands. Some settled here in Pekalongan where they developed the art of Batik.
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