The Indian Heritage of Jakarta Part II: Religion

Central room of Masjid Kampung Baru with 2 soko guru pillars. Photo credit: Fino Simarmata/IO.

IO – After the VOC (Vereinigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) or United Dutch East India Company destroyed the harbour of Kelapa in 1619 it began to build a walled city for which it needed labour. The VOC turned to slave labour and one of their largest sources for such labour was India especially from areas along the Coast of Coromandel where they succeeded in capturing several towns and establishing them as VOC trading posts. Through these the VOC could control the Bay of Bengal and therefore the Indian textile trade which it needed for the spice trade in the Indonesian Archipelago.

Two areas of the Coast of Coromandel where the VOC controlled various trading towns were what are now the states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. The Indian name for the Coast of Coromandel is Cholamandalam or the land of the Chola dynasty as this area was ruled by the Cholas at the height of their power from the 9th to the 13th century CE.

The Siwa temple at Prambanan before restoration. Photo credit: V.R. van Romondt, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Chola dynasty had a Hindu Tamil maritime empire situated in present day Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. The Chola fleet represented the height of ancient Indian sea power and through it the Chola’s influenced both Sumatra as well as the Malay Peninsula during the era of the Srivijayan Empire. The influence of Chola architecture can be seen in the Prambanan temple complex in Central Java.

The Chola Empire was Hindu however, by the 3rd century BCE Arabs traders from the Middle East already controlled the maritime trade along the Coast of Coromandel. In the 2nd century CE Tamil Sangam literature already mentions Arab traders in Tamil Nadu where they are referred to as the Yavana namely, Muslims from what is now Yemen. As this trade brought prosperity to the region the Indian rulers encouraged the Arab merchants to settle down and trade along the Coast of Coromandel especially in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Arab sailors and traders established their settlements along the Coromandel Coast in the 8th and 9th Century C.E. Many low caste Hindu Tamils living along the coast converted to Islam which did not have a caste system; others through marriage. The oldest mosque in Tamil Nadu is from 743 CE. Gradually, Tamil speaking Muslims of Arab-Tamil descent took over control of the maritime trade of the Arab merchants in South and Southeast Asia.

A map of India with the Coast of Coromandel on the east coast (Bay of Bengal) shaded in pink. Photo credit: w:user:Planemad, CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons.

When the European trading companies arrived trade became tied to political and military strength which the Arab and Muslim Tamil traders did not possess. Later when the VOC brought slaves from the Coast of Coromandel to Jakarta or Batavia as it was known then they were mostly Muslim Tamils who lived along the coast. In the Indonesian Archipelago the Tamils both Muslim and Hindus were since ancient times referred to as orang Keling deriving from the name Kalinga, an ancient Buddhist kingdom in South India. In Malaysia the term has over time evolved to have a derogative connotation although not in the rest of the Indonesian Archipelago. Meanwhile, the Europeans including the Dutch referred to them as Moors.

When the Indians first arrived as slaves in Batavia they were placed in the Malabaarse Kwartier of Batavia just south of the Bandanese Kwartier which housed the slaves from the Banda Islands in the Moluccas. Later when they were no longer slaves and had become free they lived at first inside the city walls in the area that is now close to the Pakin Canal and the flyover not far from the Museum Bahari or Maritime Museum.

A 17th century Moorish trader and his wife in Batavia. Photo credit: Voyages and Travels to the East Indies (1653-1670) by Johan Nieuhof/1682.

The VOC was in the habit of appointing a kapiten or kapitan to govern each of the different ethnic communities living in Batavia. This system was also used by the Portuguese who were influenced by what was already in usage in the port towns that they captured. In the Malacca and Banten sultanates for example there was already a system in place whereby foreign communities were given an amount of self-governance under a headman who was responsible to the government for their community. The reason that a military title was used is because most of the communities had to provide troops for the VOC and other European powers. The first Kapitan Moor was appointed by the VOC in 1753. This position continued to be registered in the annual register of the VOC and later the Netherlands Indies government as the leader of the Indian and Moorish community until 1910.

After the VOC made peace with the kingdom of Banten which lies to the west of the Jakarta, the areas outside the city walls became safer. Since 1633 many of the Muslim Indians or Moors settled outside the city wall in the area to the west of the walls now known as Pekojan. There are many interpretations of the word koja. The Dutch Orientalist scholar, L.W.C. van den Berg said that Pakojan means the place where Kojah people live and that Kojah is a word of Persian origin meaning a native of Hindustan. Meanwhile, Suresh Vaswani, Head of the Gandhi Memorial School as well as Nugraza Barley in his article Kampung Arab is a Picture of the Past Disappearing assert that in India it means a Muslim Shia. Whereas, Huub de Jong in A Divided Minority, the Arabs of Batavia maintains that the word koja is of Persian origin meaning a trader and that earlier Gujarati immigrants were already referred to as kojas.

In the Pekojan area outside the city walls the Indian Muslim community established what are perhaps the two earliest mosques in Batavia. The first is the Masjid Al Anshor which was established in 1648 and the other is the Masjid Kampong Baru which was first established in 1747.

The Masjid Al Anshor

Raising the roof level at Masjid Al Ansor and looking upwards from below. The five brown beams are still from the original mosque building. Photo credit: Fino Simarmata/IO.

The mosque is located in Jalan Pengukiran II, Pekojan. The first recorded mention of this mosque is when on the 18th of May 1648 a priest reported to the Batavia Church Council that to the west of the city walls a “Moorish temple” had been erected. Muslim Indians had built what is probably the oldest exiting mosque in Jakarta. The mosque once had grounds surrounding it with graves but this no longer exists and the mosque is now barely separate from the houses of the neighbourhood.

Masjid Al Anshor like so many heritage buildings in and around Kota Tua or what was once the intramuros area of the Old Town suffers from annual flooding. This is probably the main factor in the deterioration and renovation of heritage buildings there. The effects of the flooding on heritage buildings is then further exacerbated by the way the Ministry of Public Works deals with such flooding namely, by simply raising the level of the roads so that the roads are not flooded. The Ministry appears not at all concerned that this causes flooding to the buildings on either side of the road and forces the owners to raise the levels of the floors and eventually the level of the roofs. It renders restoration impossible. In fact it is not just heritage buildings that are affected but all buildings in the area.

Original windows at Masjid Al Anshor with Moorish balusters. Photo credit: Fino Simarmata/IO.

Half of Jakarta is now below sea level. Many claim that this is simply due to climate change causing rising sea levels however rising sea levels account for only a small part of the rising water levels in the city. Like many coastal cities land subsidence exceeds absolute sea level rise up to a factor of ten. Jakarta is sinking and this is mostly due to the illegal extraction of ground water by residents and industry. Jakarta’s high rise buildings including government ministries are said to extract the most ground water. The pumping of ground water in Jakarta is causing parts of the city to sink by as much as 10 inches a year. Draining the aquifers and causing land to collapse is known as land subsidence. Many other cities in the world face similar problems for example Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok, Dhaka, Shanghai and Tokyo however, most of them deal with the problem of subsidence rather than merely blaming climate change.

Unfortunately, due to regular flooding in the area surrounding the mosque, it has had to be extensively renovated in the twentieth century although the stewards of the mosque have made an effort to keep the style of the central area of the mosque in keeping with the original style of the mosque. First the floor levels had to be raised and then the roof which resulted in the replacement of the original materials. The guardians of the mosque have maintained the original Javanese architectural style of the mosque with its four soko guru pillars at the centre of the building and the Javanese joglo style roof.

The Masjid Kampung Baru

The joglo style roof of Masjid Kampung Baru. Photo credit: Fino Simarmata/IO.

This mosque is situated on Jalan Bandengan Selatan number 36, Pekojan, West Jakarta. The second mosque built by the Moors stands near the Kali Blandongan canal which was formerly known as the Amanusgracht. The Kampung Baru Mosque was built in 1747. Although this mosque has had some renovations done to it especially during the 20th century, its main original building still exists in the centre of the mosque. It once had a beautifully carved wooden rostrum or pulpit (mimbar) which was moved to the History of Jakarta Museum in Taman Fatahilah where it is on view.

The official name of the mosque is now Masjid Jami Kampung Baru Inpak. Not much is known about who originally built the mosque other than that it was built for the Indian Muslims in the 18th century. During the Muslim celebration of Idul Fitri it is said that some of the descendants of the Muslim Indians who live in Jakarta still gather for Id prayers at the mosque in memory of their forbearers.

As noted the central enclosure of the mosque has remained intact with its four soko guru pillars and pyramid shaped two-tiered joglo roof. The joglo roof is the iconic Javanese roof style and in the very hierarchical Javanese society it was used by the Javanese aristocracy for their houses and pavilions.

Under a joglo roof there are pillars that gradually increase in height as the eye moves towards the central area under the roof. At the centre are the four inner most pillars known as the soko guru pillars which support a vaulted ceiling in the form of a tiered pyramid which is the highest point of the roof. The pyramid however has two points rather than one. The space created between the four soko guru pillars has always been considered a sacred space by the Javanese. In the past this space was left empty and traditionally incense was burnt here once a week to honour either the harvest or Rice Goddess Dewi Sri or Nyai Loro Kidul, the Goddess of the South Sea. It is also where the bride and groom were seated during the marriage ceremony.

Looking up at Masjid Kampung Baru ceiling in the central soko guru room is like looking up a pyramid from inside the pyramid. The balusters and glass are visible here. Photo credit: Fino Simarmata/IO.

In the Kampung Baru Mosque the four soko guru pillars which would have originally been of wood were replaced with concrete pillars in the 20th century. When looking up at the roof and ceiling above the space between the four soko guru pillars it is rather like looking up from the inside of a pyramid. This area has remained intact although originally there would have been a partially open area with air coming through the wooden balustrades allowing a natural air circulation to cool the mosque. These have been closed with wooden stripes placed between the balusters. The balusters are still in what is known as the Batavia Moorish style; a style which shows European influence that the Moors and Arabs living in Batavia during the 18th and 19th century were partial to. However, the balusters were probably replaced in the 19th century with similar ones. The glass used in the ceiling and roof is thought to be original and probably from an early period of the mosque though not necessarily from 1747.

It is interesting that the architecture of both the Al Anshor as well as the Kampung Baru mosques follow the Javanese architectural style. A useful feature of such buildings is that the size of a joglo-style building can easily be enlarged by simply adding more of the outermost pillars and extending the roof. This has been very useful for mosques in the 20th century as their congregations have steadily increased necessitating a larger prayer area which has been the case with the Masjid Kampung Baru.

Although its architectural style is Javanese, the mosque has retained the old Moorish style of balusters. Similar shaped baluster can also be found on the 17th and 18th century furniture carved by the Muslim Indians from the Coast of Coromandel. These have also been replicated for the windows of the new outer enclosure of the mosque.

Although the two mosques are small and simple in design they are part of the living history of the Indian Muslims who helped to create the Jakarta of today and well worth a visit. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

If you enjoyed reading this article you may also enjoy Part I of the article by the same writer: