Introduction to the Arts of Cirebon
Originally Published 12/04/2007 at http://www.cirebonarts.com/intro1.php
Where is Cirebon?
The ancient Javanese kingdom of Cirebon is an important cultural area within the
modern nation of Indonesia, located on the Pasisir, or north coast of the island of Java
in the modern-day Indonesian province of West Java. In the 1400ʼs a string of a dozen
or so kingdoms were established along the Pasisir by a group of Suﬁ (Islamic mystic)
saints. Due to lucrative trade with India, China and Arabia, these coastal kingdoms
prospered and gradually became important cultural and political centers.
Cirebon is the last of these Javanese Pasisir kingdoms still in existence. Its palaces are
still inhabited by the descendants of their ﬁrst Sultan, Sunan Gunung Jati. Founded in
1478, Cirebon is sometimes referred to as the “Grandfather of Javaʼs royal houses.”
Cirebon is the main city of a Javanese-speaking area on the north coast of the
otherwise Sundanese province of West Java. (See map below) Today Cirebon is a mid-
sized Indonesian city (Kotamadya Cirebon) with a population of over 200,000 people in
the Indonesian province of West Java. The ofﬁcial motto for the city of Cirebon is
Gemah Ripa Loh Jinawi, an old Javanese phrase from the wayang puppet theater
meaning “very prosperous and fertile.”
Cirebon is also the name of a regency (similar to a county), Kabupaten Cirebon, a large
area with a population of about 2.5 million people. Kabupaten Cirebon is currently in
negotiations with the government of Indonesia to possibly break away from West Java
and form a separate province - just as Cirebonʼs sister city Banten (also founded by
Sunan Gunung Jati) did in 2000.
The Kabupaten of Cirebon has its own motto as well: Rame ing Gawe, Suci ing Pamrih,
a Javanese phrase meaning “Diligent in Work, Pure of Heart.” Their ofﬁcial government
symbol includes pictorial representations of a gapura palace gateway; a magic kujang
weapon ﬂoating in the air between the palace gates; Cirebonʼs volcanic Mount Ciremai,
said to be the “guardian” of Cirebon; waves representing the all-important ocean for
Cirebonʼs ﬁshing and trade; and a garland of the fragrant and highly prized melati
jasmine ﬂowers; - all surrounded by nine stars symbolizing the Wali Sanga, the Nine
Saints who brought the Islamic faith to Java at the time of Cirebonʼs founding. One of
the nine, Sunan Gunung Jati, was Cirebonʼs ﬁrst sultan. He is the revered ancestor of
all members of the Cirebon royal family, and his shrine is a place of pilgrimage for
people from throughout Indonesia.
Whatʼs in a Name?
Throughout history, Cirebon has called by a bewildering number of names and spellings
by different groups of people: Charabom (Portuguese); Tjeribon and Cheribon (Dutch);
Tjirebon and Cirebon (Sundanese); Tjaruban, Caruban, Tjarbon, Carbon, and Cerbon
(Cirebon Javanese). The ofﬁcial Indonesian spelling is currently Cirebon (CHEE-ray-
bone), meaning ”shrimp waters”, due to the abundance of small fresh water shrimp
(“rebon”) found in local rivers (“ci”). These shrimp are the main ingredient in a popular
fermented shrimp condiment (terasi) for which Cirebon is famous, accounting for
Cirebonʼs nickname of Kota Udang: “Shrimp Town”.
The Cirebon people refer to their area as Cerbon (CHER-bone), a word meaning
“mixture” in reference to the mixture of Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic artistic and spiritual
traditions that is the inspiration of Cirebon art and culture. I tend to use the Indonesian
name, unless the context is in the Cirebon Javanese language.
Cirebon Arts: Ancient and Modern
The number of art forms in the small are of Cirebon is truly amazing. To quote Cirebon
scholar Matthew Isaac Cohenʼs 2005 article The Arts of Cirebon, “…the sheer amount
of artistic activity in Cirebon is rivaled in Indonesia only by Bali – all the more
remarkable as Cirebon (unlike Bali) has little tourist industry to speak of.”
Cirebon has its own unique classical architecture, batik textile, woodcarving, and
reverse glass painting traditions. Cirebon music includes (among other genres) two
kinds of gamelan: prawa and pelog; plus three archaic “proto gamelan” ensembles:
gong renteng, denggung, and gong sekati. Cirebon is also known for its ancient topeng
masked dance tradition, as well as two kinds of puppet theater: the wayang kulit
shadow puppets, and the wayang golek rod puppets, sometimes called wayang cepak
to differentiate it from the south central Javanese and Sundanese wayang golek
According to oral tradition, groups of traveling artists from East Java migrated westward
along Javaʼs north coast some 700 years ago, ultimately settling in Cirebon. They
organized themselves into artistsʼ guilds, forming the basis for artist families that have
safeguarded these arts—which they regard as pusaka, or sacred heirlooms-- to the
present day. Scholars feel the arts of Cirebon offer us a window into the past of Javaʼs
venerable artistic history. While maintaining these old traditions, Cirebon artists today
are also reinterpreting these ancient art forms, such as their dance, puppet theater,
batik and painting, in new ways—a process that has probably been going on for
But for all this unique culture and historical importance, the arts of Cirebon thus far have
remained little more than a footnote to most studies of Javanese culture. Since the
Dutch colonial era, foreign and Indonesian researchers have largely focused their
attention on the arts of south Central Java and Bali, while the arts of Cirebon remained
relatively unknown outside of their home area.
Cirebon Arts: Crisis and Opportunity
Over the last 700 years Cirebon has evolved into a virtual treasure house of Javanese
culture. Artistic knowledge was traditionally considered to be sacred, and for centuries
was kept secret within artistʼs families in Cirebonʼs rural villages or within the walls of
Cirebonʼs three Keraton, or royal courts. This closed system has sometimes resulted in
artistic knowledge not being passed on to the next generation. An alarming number of
Cirebonʼs ancient art forms now appear to be on the verge of extinction, a fact which
has recently received some notice in the Indonesian press. An increasing number of
Cirebon artists have now realized the gravity of the situation, and have decided to open
up this previously secret knowledge, as they say-- “Dari pada puna”-- rather than face
Indonesian Artists and Scholars
Among trailblazing Indonesian scholars and documenters of Cirebon arts is Pak Enoch
Atmadibrata, whose magazines Buletin Kebudayaan Jawa Barat and Kawit in the
1970ʼs and 80ʼs surveyed the multitude of traditional arts of West Java—including many
from Cirebonʼs villages and royal courts. I was lucky enough to be a guest in Pak
Enochʼs home for ﬁve months in 1976, during which time he instilled in me his
fascination with Cirebon as an ancient source of Indonesian culture.
Another luminary is Endo Suanda, an amazing polymath from Majalengka, on the
border of the Cirebon region. Pak Endo studied and mastered the arts of Cirebon
gamelan music, topeng (masked dancing), mask carving, and wayang kulit (shadow
puppet theater.) His 1983 thesis is the most comprehensive work on Topeng Cirebon to
date, and he has a dissertation on Cirebon wayang kulit in progress. Pak Endo is
currently director of an ambitious wide-ranging project of teaching art in Indonesian
schools, and is a tireless advocate for traditional artists in modern Indonesia
A slim paperback book from 1982 entitled Cerbon edited by the late Paramita
Abdurachman was very instrumental in exposing Indonesia and the world to Cirebonʼs
rich cultural heritage. Profusely illustrated and written in both Indonesian and English, it
was the ﬁrst widely-available survey of the spectrum of Cirebonʼs visual and performing
Noted Cirebon cultural expert and novelist T. D. Sudjana has written widely on the
subjects of Cirebon history, wayang, and culture. In 2001 he published a dictionary of
Cirebon Javanese. Also worthy of mention is author and scholar Lalan Ramlan, who
teaches dance at the STSI academy in Bandung. He has written about topeng Cirebon,
Cirebon religious practices, tayuban social dance at Keraton Kasepuhan and the sacred
Bedaya Rimbe dance of Keraton Kanoman.
Cirebonʼs Royal Courts
Visitors to Cirebonʼs ancient keraton (royal courts) sometimes have the sense they have
stepped back in time. The visual impact of the palace architecture is startling. With their
dramatic gapura split gates and numerous ornately carved pagoda-like pavilions
surrounded by mortarless red brick walls with inset Ming Dynasty Chinese plates, the
Cirebon Keraton seem much closer to colorful Balinese Hindu temples than to the staid
Muslim palaces of central Java. This is not surprising since they date back to the last
days of Javaʼs Hindu era in the 1400ʼs. In fact, scholars believe Cirebonʼs royal courts
are a kind of “missing link” to Javaʼs Hindu past.
Since ancient times the rural villages surrounding Cirebon have been the living centers
of the traditional arts, a fact that is still very true today. In addition, as Cohen mentions in
his 2002 article Multiculturalism and Performance in Colonial Cirebon, “There is ample
evidence demonstrating that the kraton (royal courts) were important centers for the
reﬁned arts in the past”. In the last century or so the artistic activities of the Cirebon
palaces decreased, due in part to “their desperate ﬁnancial straits.” Recently however,
all three of Cirebonʼs keraton have once again become active in the perpetuation of
Keraton Kasepuhan is generally considered the oldest of Cirebonʼs three palaces.
located at the site of the 15th century Pakung Wati, the palace of Cirebonʼs ﬁrst sultan,
Sunan Gunung Jati. The palace maintains an impressive museum displaying the
sultansʼ iconic royal carriages (kereta kencana), heirloom keris daggers, dazzling
woodcarvings, and several gamelan orchestras, the most important of which—the Gong
Sekati, or Sekaten—is played twice a year in one of the numerous ancient Javanese
pavilions on the palace grounds. The Yayasan Keraton Kasepuhan organization under
P.R. Arief Natadiningrat has embarked on various programs to help promote and
preserve Cirebonʼs cultural heritage, including hosting Cirebonʼs participants in the
periodic national Keraton Festival.
Keraton Kanoman is walking distance from Kasepuhan and boasts equal claims to
antiquity and cultural importance. Along with its ancient Hindu-Javanese pavilions and
gateways, Kanoman too has a museum displaying ancient Cirebon carriages, keris and
gamelan, although their venerable Gong Sekati orchestra is not on public display.
Keraton Kanoman has an active sanggar (art group) called Klapa Jajar, under the
direction of Pangeran Agus Djoni.
But it is the smallest and youngest of the Cirebon three royal courts—Keraton
Kacirebonan—that has really taken the lead in opening up and preserving Cirebonʼs
previously restricted royal cultural treasures. The late Pangeran Haji Yusuf
Dendabrata, more well-known as Elang Yusuf, was a virtual renaissance man of
Cirebon culture. In addition to being the Lurah Seni (Arts Director) and Patih (second in
command to the Sultan) of his palace, Elang Yusuf was personally active in the revival
of the Cirebon arts of gamelan music, traditional dance, wood carving, glass painting,
batik cloth, Cirebon architecture, and shadow puppet theater, performing as dalang
(puppet master) in the Kacirebonan Palace shortly before his death in 2000.
Elang Yusufʼs eldest son, Pangeran Haji Tomi Dendabrata, is the current Lurah Seni
and Patih of Keraton Kacirebonan, and has continued in his fatherʼs footsteps. Haji Tomi
is the founder of the Sanggar Sekar Pandan, whose members are ubiquitous at
performances in all three of Cirebonʼs keraton, as well as at other venues in Cirebon.
Haji Tomi has been placed in charge of numerous events featuring Cirebon arts,
including the Cirebon group in the Festival Keraton Indonesia showcasing the arts of
Indonesiaʼs 23 recognized royal courts. He has been very active in getting ofﬁcial
support of the Cirebon dialect of Javanese, Jawa Cerbon, in the curriculum of local
schools. As a choreographer with a degree in traditional dance, he has created new
court dances for his palace. Haji Tomiʼs other projects include helping to revive the three
ancient gong ensembles of Cirebon: gong renteng, denggung, and gong sekati.
Haji Tomiʼs younger brother Elang Iyan Arifudin, in addition to being a prominent
member of the palace sanggar, is actively involved in documenting and preserving
Cirebon arts. He is currently studying the art of Cirebon-style batik in the “batik village”
of Trusmi, and has apprenticed himself to the ofﬁcial court puppeteer at Keraton
Kacirebonan, Ki Kurnadi. Elang Iyan had his “pengukuhan”, or ofﬁcial debut as a
dalang, at Keraton Kacirebonan in August of 2006.
Foreigners active in the ﬁeld include Dr. Michael Richard Wright, whose seminal book
The Music Culture of Cirebon (1978) gave the ﬁrst detailed analysis of the classical
gamelan traditions of Cirebon. (It was he who introduced me to my teacher, the late
P.H.Yusuf Dendabrata.) Dr. Wrightʼs writings were preceded by the work of the Dutch-
born Bernard Suryabrata, who lived in the Cirebon area and wrote numerous articles
on Cirebon music.
Pamela Rogers-Aguiniga (who ﬁrst introduced me to Cirebon gamelan and topeng in
1974), studied Topeng Cirebon with the legendary Bi Dasih of Ciluwung village in the
1970ʼs, and later with Pa Sujana Arja—the dynamic dalang topeng from Slangit village.
Her 1986 thesis is a detailed documentation of the Slangit version of Topeng Cirebon.
Dr. Michael Ewing, currently a professor of linguistics at the University of Melbourne,
Australia has published several works on the Cirebon dialect of Javanese. A long-time
student of master topeng dancer Pak Sujana Arja, he learned to perform all ﬁve of the
classical Topeng Cirebon characters. In addition to his professorial duties, Michael is
leader of the Cirebon gamelan and dance ensemble ”Putra Panji Asmara” in Melbourne.
Chad Bailey Nielson has studied gamelan music at Seattleʼs Cornish College of the
Arts and at the College of Santa Fe in New Mexico, which possesses a 150-year old
Cirebon gamelan. In 2005 he travelled to Cirebon to record and document one of the
last living players of the rapidly disappearing Cirebon gendér. Chad recently launched
the website www.gamelancirebon.org as an online resource devoted to the classical
gamelan of Cirebon. It includes an illustrated list of the instruments of the gamelan, as
well as a glossary of Cirebon gamelan terms.
Dr. Matthew Isaac Cohen is probably the most proliﬁc writer on Cirebon today. His
numerous articles and books (over 30 at my last count!) shed new light and help clear
up many misconceptions about the place of Cirebon in the context of Indonesian
culture. His doctoral dissertation on Cirebon wayang kulit is a virtual encyclopedia of
Cirebon cultural detail. Matthew is an accomplished Cirebon shadow puppeteer, and is
currently a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Drama and Theatre at the Royal
Holloway University of London.
Cirebonʼs artist families, realizing that their culture is under threat of disappearing, are
now opening up to outsiders to an unprecedented degree. This challenging and
dynamic time for Cirebon culture is a rare opportunity for musicians, dancers,
puppeteers, woodcarvers, painters or other artists or scholars--Indonesian and foreign--
to learn about and participate in these previously inaccessible art forms.
A series of photo essays on the ancient and colorful arts of Cirebon are currently in
progress. (See below) Please visit www.CirebonArts.com as these essays begin to take
shape. If you have any comments or suggestions please feel free to contact me at
It is hoped that exposure to the depth and variety of Cirebon arts will help stimulate
interest and encourage studies of these rare and in some cases endangered art forms--
and will help in some small way to give Cirebon artists the recognition and support they
need to help keep their rich but fragile culture alive. Matur kesuwun.
17 November, 2007
Santa Barbara, California, USA
Photos essays in progress:
The 3 Royal Palaces of Cirebon: Kasepuhan, Kanoman and Kacirebonan
Cirebon Batik Textiles
Lukisan Kaca: Cirebon Reverse Glass Painting
Keris: The Magic Dagger of Cirebon
Sacred Architecture of Cirebon
Classical Gamelan Music of Cirebon
3 Ancient Cirebon Gong Ensembles: Gong Renteng, Denggung & Gong Sekati
Topeng: Cirebon Masked Dancing
Cirebon Puppet Theater: Wayang Kulit and Wayang Golek
Other Future Articles:
Cirebon: Javaʼs Last Pasisir Kingdom
P.H. Yusup Dendabrata: Cirebon Renaissance Man
A Cirebon Gamelan in Yogyakarta: Kyai Mega Mendung
Kereta Kencana: The “Golden Carriages”, Icons of Cirebon Culture
The Historic Gamelans of Sumedang
The Gender of Cirebon