In the early 20th century, Indonesia was divided into 350 greater and lesser kingdoms. Although Dutch imperialism influenced this pattern, the political history of the archipelago over the centuries had been marked by the expansion and contraction of various local spheres of influence. One of the oldest and most powerful centers of power in the sprawling Indonesian archipelago has always been located in central Java. The court of Surakarta Hadiningrat, formed in the 1740s, can trace its origins to kingdoms of the 8th century. In 1945 the ancient kingdoms were superseded by the newly-formed Republic of Indonesia.
The courts with their panoply of ancient traditions gave way to a new political ethos in which individual achievement replaced aristocratic birth as the main criteria for success. Overnight the courts were reduced to political irrelevance. Their rulers lost both inherited power and traditional sources of income. Many simply disappeared, while others clung to a precarious existence as tourist attractions or cultural centers.
Java is now home to over 100 million people, two-thirds of whom belong to the ethnic group known as Javanese. Javanese culture is known for its high degree of refinement and devotion to ideas of spirituality and etiquette. This stereotype, fostered in part by the Dutch, masks a much richer complexity. The past half-century has seen much rapid social change, usually peaceful, but more than once marked by extreme violence. The court of Surakarta continues to strive to find new ways to achieve the harmony between change and tradition which Javanese philosophy has always emphasized as one of its main goals.