Elisabeth Oktofani & Florencia Margaretha Taruli Toruan
Yogyakarta Palace is a symbol of Javanese culture. It is also the home of Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono X and his family.
About 3,000 abdi dalem — which loosely translates as royal servants — serve the sultan and his extended family. In return, they receive a minimal monthly salary ranging from Rp 8,000 to Rp 62,500 (90 cents to $7).
But for these royal servants, their work is not about money, but about upholding and honoring ancient Javanese traditions.
The royal guards, who are among the abdi dalem, dedicate their time to Ngarso Dalem, a term they use to refer to the Yogyakarta sultan.
Aji Triman, 43, who is dressed in kain pranakan — a dark blue fabric with a pattern of three vertical lines typically worn by the royal guards — said he was inspired to become an abdi dalem after having recurring dreams.
“One night, I dreamed about GKR Hemas,” Aji said, referring to the current sultaness of Yogyakarta. “In my dream, I helped her catch a very big fish in the pond.
“After I gave her the fish, she said, ‘Would you like to help me find one more fish?’ I said yes and left to find another fish. But when I left, I suddenly woke up. The dream was a sign for me to dedicate myself to the sultan’s palace and his family.”
Bekel Djoko Tjermo, 57, has been working as an abdi dalem since 1985 and believes that his path in life has nothing to do with how much money he earns.
“I can feel the blessing from Ngarso Dalem, which makes my life easier,” Djoko said. “That is what I earn, actually.
“Every month, I get paid Rp 8,000 by the sultanate. I work twice a week, in two three-hour shifts,” he said.
Along with his Rp 8,000, Djoko added that the money he earned from his small business and from presiding over traditional Javanese weddings was sufficient to cover his family’s needs.
“In fact, it is a lot. I can send my children to university, I own a house and I can also feed my family three times a day.”
Ngabehi Margowikarto, 78, has been registered as an abdi dalem since 1990, when he retired as a civil servant for the railway company.
Margowikarto, who is also known as Djumakir, said he enjoyed his duties as an abdi dalem more that his previous job with the railway company.
“Actually, I cannot really sit still at home and do nothing. I want to dedicate myself to Ngarso Dalem, find new activities to do and make new friends,” said Djumakir, adding that one of his favorite duties is to help tourists who visit the palace.
Gusti Bendoro Pangeran Haryo Joyokusumo, who is in charge of paying the abdi dalem, said the Yogyakarta Sultanate is currently working on a new salary scheme for the servants.
“The salary of the abdi dalem actually cannot really be called a salary, but rather it is an ucah dalem [the term for salary or stipend in the palace] because it does not reach the regional minimum wage rate for Yogyakarta, which is Rp 745,694 per month,” Joyokusumo said.
“Some abdi dalem, do not spend the ucah dalem from the sultan’s palace, but keep it as a talisman for luck.”
Joyokusumo explained that under the new structure of ucah dalem, the sultanate is planning to hand out allowances based on each abdi dalem’s duties and length of service, which will affect how much they received for transportation, for their families, as well as for their daily fees.
But in order to implement the new system, the sultanate has to determine the rank of each of the 3,000 abdi dalem.
“The only problem that we have right now is that we need to register all the abdi dalem electronically. [Currently], the manual registration logbook is still being used,” Joyokusumo said.
“Once we have them computerized, we can give them the new ucah dalem based on their individual professional levels. As guardians of Javanese tradition, the abdi dalem receive a quality education in Javanese culture,” he added.
Joyokusumo said the sultanate recruited new abdi dalem twice a year and all Indonesians could apply, as long as they were willing to learn, understand and implement Javanese culture and tradition.
“We have two grades of education for abdi dalem. First grade is an introduction of general knowledge about the Yogyakarta Sultanate and Javanese tradition, while the second grade concerns leadership,” he said.
According to Joyokusumo, each grade consists of eight training sessions and the abdi dalem receive career advancement as well as additional ucah dalem after successfully passing each level.
However, it can be difficult to sell a job that pays Rp 8,000 month, especially to young people.
Heirwid Benny Sulistriono, 23, a student at Gadjah Mada University, said that while he would like to be an abdi dalem, the low salary was an issue.
“To be realistic, how can you live on less than $10 a month? Let me say that I have priorities in my life,” he said.
“My priority at the moment is once I graduate, I want to get an enjoyable job that provides a good salary, enough for meals, to have a house to live in and also to enjoy myself,” Heirwid said.
“This doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t want to be an abdi dalem if I was asked to be one. I could be an abdi dalem if the work hours were flexible. Perhaps, if I only had to work on the weekends, then I would not be bothered by the low salary.”
Febrianto Valentinus Situmeang, 22, a recent graduate from Atma Jaya University in Yogyakarta, said he had lived and studied in Yogyakarta for the last four years, and had absolutely no interest in becoming an abdi dalem.
“Yogyakarta has a special character due to it being a cultural center. But I am Batak, not Javanese,” he said.
“Even if I were Javanese, I don’t think that I would want to be an abdi dalem because it requires a high level of personal dedication.”
Joyokusumo is not worried, however, that the palace will run out of willing abdi dalem anytime soon. He said there was no lack of applications from young people who wanted to preserve Javanese tradition by becoming abdi dalem despite the low remuneration.
“It might appear that most of the abdi dalem are old,” he said. “But fortunately, every time we open recruitment, we always have young applicants between the ages of 24 and 30.”