Officially there is no royalty in Indonesia but many sultans and princes continue to exist and for the most part their subjects pay little attention to them. Sultans ruled local areas before and during the Dutch colonial era. There are still royal courts in Java, Bali, Borneo and the Spice Islands. Royals are still revered by the Javanese as the essence of high culture and refinement. There has been a call to bring back the sultanate system as a way of strengthening local identity.

There have traditionally been two royal Javanese courts in Java: one in Solo and one in Yogyakarta. In the late 1980s there were only a handful of sultans left in Indonesia. They have traditionally had much more spiritual attachment to the land they govern than their historical counterparts in the Middle East.

According to NPR: “Indonesia is one of the world's largest democracies and it also has a long history of kings. Yogyakartans care about the sultanate because it's known as the wellspring of Javanese high culture. That includes the rich batik cloth, the epic Hindu Ramayana ballet and the gamelan music ensembles that draw visitors here from around the world. The sultans themselves were once seen as semi-divine beings, descended from the 16th to 18th-century Mataram Kingdom, and before that, the rulers of the Majapahit Empire, who held sway over much of Southeast Asia from the 13th to 16th centuries.” [Source: NPR, December 15, 2011]

The sultans were stripped of their power and most of their property after independence in the 1940s. They continue to play various roles in public life. Sometimes some of them are named as possible national leaders, The Yogyakarta-based sultan of Mataram, a once all-powerful kingdom, still are widely respected in Java. Javanese believe he is manifestation of the "unseen forces" of the universe. Sacred objects in Yogyakarta's palaces are not allowed to be viewed by foreigners. They can only be cleansed by women past child bearing age.

See Separate Article on the SULTAN OF YOGYAKARTA

Indonesian Sultans and Culture

“Halus” (refined) Javanese culture still exits. Rooted in Hinduism, it revolves around respect for the sultanate and appreciation of the high culture and arts that are associated with it Sultans—particularly those in Yogyakarta and Solo— have traditionally presided over Muslim rituals and served as unifying symbols. They have been regarded as the focal points for art forms such as painting, batik. music and masked dance. Sultans are known officially as "Susunan"—the "Volcano" or 'Life-Giving Mountain," Every year representatives of the Sultan of Yogyakarta throws an offering of the sultan’s fingernail clippings into Merapi volcano.

Over the centuries, the various sultanates with their kraton have developed their own art forms by adapting and combining ancient Hindu-Buddhist traditions in the spirit of Islam. One of the most important sultans of the Matram dynasty was Agung (1613–1645), whose court in Yogyakarta ruled over the whole of East Java and other regions. Still existing dance forms as well as many mask and martial dances are known to have been performed at the court of Mataram.”

The symbolic features of the plan of the kraton (the sultan’s palace) clearly reflect ancient Hindu and Buddhist cosmology. The outermost parts of the kraton were reserved for the army and the court officials and their families. The interior consisted of several open administrative buildings serving various ceremonial functions. The sultan resided in the most protected central part, and, in accordance with old Hindu-Buddhist custom, he was regarded as divine. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

In the early nineteenth century the royal families of Yogyakarta and Surakarta (Solo) again divided, leading to a politically precarious situation where the two capitals were simultaneously ruled by two sultans in each. When full political power was taken over by the Dutch, the ruling families of Java concentrated their energies on refining court etiquette and on developing the arts, especially theatre, dance, and music. This led to a unique renaissance of the arts, in which the classical genres of Central Javanese theatre and dance found their present forms.” **

Gamelan Music and Beauty Products from the Javanese Court

Many Indonesians believe that many of Indonesia’s traditional medicines, known as jamu, were originally concocted in the royal courts of Solo and Yogyakarta, where health and beauty treatments were a big part of court life. These medicines were not available to the public until the 1830s when their secrets began to trickle out. One member of the royal family who started a jamu company said. “Our lives revolved around jamu. We would prepare, drink and talk about jamu from morning to night. It was an obsession.”

The royal courts employed an army of herbalists to ground and prepare the often bitter-tasting jamus. They used more than 400 different plants and often added sweeteners like cinnamon, fennel, mint and palm sugar to improve the taste. Women used an elaborate combination of lotions, potions and massage to keep their hair and skin beautiful.

Gamelan music reached its zenith in the 19th century in the courts of the sultans of Yogyakarta and Solo. Yogyakarta court players were known for their bold, vigorous style while gamelan players from Solo played a more understated, refined style. Since independence in 1949, the power of the sultanates was reduced and many gamelan musicians learned how to play in state academies. Even so the finest gamelan are still associated with royalty. The largest and most famous gamelan, the Gamelan Sekaten, was built in the 16th century as is played only once a year. ^^

Wayang dance-dramas and a variety of court dances are still widely performed in Java. Yogyakarta has a number of dance academies and is home to the “Ramayana” ballet. Solo also has a number of dance academies. Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy Helsinki wrote: “Most of the court dances are traditionally attributed to sultans, and many of the rulers are themselves known to have been skilled dancers. The performers were mostly close relatives of the sultan, or members of the court and the bodyguard. The dances are of a highly aristocratic character, and consequently Central Javanese dancers have usually had an exceptionally high social status. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki **]

“ Many ceremonial court dances developed in the kraton palaces of Java. They include ceremonial group dances of male dancers reflecting the influence of ancient martial arts. The most famous are the beksa dances of the kraton of Yogyakarta. They were originally performed by two groups of soldiers of the royal guard, depicting scenes of warfare with a strong military spirit. The most valued court dances of are bedhaya and serimpi. They are both slow, restrained group dances performed by women to the accompaniment of choral singing and gamelan music, and their traditions are especially linked to the kraton of Yogyakarta and Surakarta in Central Java. **

Royal Festivals

Every year fingernail clippings of the sultan of Yogyakarta are offered to Mt. Merpati volcano god and locks of his hair were offered to sea goddess of Java's southern coast. In Solo, up to the 1990s anyway, a 30-meter-high, phallus-shaped tower was erected in the palace courtyard and sultan and sultan was officially married to Loro Kidul, Goddess of the South Seas. In the upper reaches of the tower the sultan spent the night making passionate love to the goddess. Crowds waited up all night to find out the outcome. If the goddess was satisfied the equilibrium between the earth and the sea would be maintained. If not there might be earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis or floods. [Source: "Ring of Fire" by Lawrence and Lorne Blair, Bantam Books, New York]

On the ceremony for Loro Kidul in Yogyakarta, The Economist reported: “In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful,” the turbaned priest begins in the orthodox Muslim style. But that is as far as orthodoxy goes. As the annual labuhan ceremony unfolds, he blesses the various offerings the Sultan of Yogyakarta has prepared for Loro Kidul, the goddess of the surrounding seas: silk, curry, bananas, hair and toenail clippings. [Source: The Economist, May 29, 2003 |+|]

“The goddess, apparently, will be pleased with these items when they are carried in procession to the sea and thrown in, as will another local deity, who receives similar gifts tossed into a nearby volcano. The 200-odd participants, at any rate, seem happy with the proceedings: they bow their heads during the blessings, and take turns lighting incense at a curiously-shaped rock that is the focus of the cult. Later, some even charge into the foaming ocean to pluck a lucky banana from the waves. |+|

“This ritual has more to do with Java's Hindu and pagan past than with the professed religion of the vast majority of the island's inhabitants, Islam. Votive offerings, veneration of objects or idols and, above all, any hint of polytheism are anathema to most Muslims. Yet many Javanese happily describe themselves as Muslim, attend mosques and fast during Ramadan, while continuing to practice the folk religion of their forebears. The sultan himself, Hamengkubuwono X, a respected politician often mentioned as a possible president, takes pride in the preservation of local rituals while maintaining a reputation as a devout Muslim. This laxity about doctrine has given rise to the notion that Indonesian Islam in particular, and South-East Asian Islam in general, is more tolerant and less prone to extremism than that of the Middle East.” |+|

Rival Sultans of Kanoman

Sultan Djalaludin was the 12th sultan of a kingdom called Kanoman, which is centered around Cirebon and came into existence about 300 years ago. After he had already been married twice he married a commoner—a young girl 15 years is junior, who he once spied taking a short cut across palace ground, when he was 33. His decision to marry this girl, the daughter of a restaurant owner meant, he was banished for a time from the royal palace and paved the way for a battle over his throne after he died in 2002. [Source: Alan Sipress, Los Angeles Times, July 2004]

Saladin, the son of the beautiful commoner wife, was installed as sultan in March 5, 2003. Emirudin, the son of his royal wife, a cousin he married after the commoner, was installed as sultan on March 6, 2003. The two rival sultans grew up together in the palace and were good friends. Their mothers it is said also were good friends. Saladin was clearly the one that Djalaludin wanted to be sultan. Emirudin, by contrast, was a recluse.

Even though the sultans have little power and wealth, the title is still highly valued and sought after. After Djalaludin died a document was produced that declared Saladin as heir to the throne. Many members of the royal family protested and declared the document a fraud, with some declarinf that Emirudin was the true heir. Although both Saladin and Emirudin have declared themselves sultan neither can rightfully take the throne until they take possession of the sacred dagger of the Kanoman, which have been locked away until the dispute is settled. In the meantime that Kanoman court has declined to such a degree that some phone service has been cut off and the electric company has threatened to shut all power unless its bills are paid.

Sultan of Solo

King Sultan Pakubuwono XII is the last king of Solo. The descendant of a royal family that has lived in Solo since 1745, he was crowned in 1945 but served only one month. He inherited the thrones in the closing days of World War II but was unseated after Indonesia declared its independence.

As of the late 1990s, Sultan Pakubuwono XII had closely cropped hair and liked to smoke menthol cigarettes. He had six wives and 37 children and occasionally presided over royal ceremonies and rituals. He preferred to spend his final days in a hotel coffee shop, where waitresses looked after him, rather the palace which he regarded as too secluded and ill kept.

Solo (65 kilometers northeast of Yogyakarta) rivals Yogyakarta for the title of the most Javanese and culturally riche city in Java. Home of the two royal houses, the Kratons and the Mangkunegrans which ruled Java surprisingly enough together, this city remains distinctively Central Javanese. Also known as Surakarta, Solo was founded in 1735 on a spot voices told sultan Pakubuwono II that Allah had decreed to be great city. For centuries its status was as high as that of Yogyakarta but during the independence struggle Yogyakarta emerged on top and remains in that position today.

The two-century-old palace of King Pakubuwono, Kraton Surakarta, has a beautiful art gallery and a collection of ancient Javanese weapons and royal heirlooms. Some of the buildings have European-style ornamentation. Others have been rebuilt after a large fire in 1985. Most are off limits to tourists. The royal residence of Prince Mangkunegoro is in Puri Mangkunegoro. Many say it is better than the Kraton Surakarta. It has lovely Javanese style architecture and an interesting collection of masks and wayang orang costumes, images from the Japanese zodiac, gold-plated dresses used by royal dancers and a gold penis cover for the king and gold genital cover for the queen.

History of Rivalry Between the Sultans of Yogyakarta and Solo

Solo was a center of power in Central Java before Yogyakarta was. In 1745 the Mataram court was transferred here from Kota Gede, and, since then, the city has built on its reputation as a cultural hub. The Mangkunegaran rule in Surakarta was established through a long, bitter and intricate historical process. The seed of its establishment was planted in the late era of the Mataram Sultanate , at the arrival of Dutch forces which t created political havoc in the area. After the death of Amangkurat IV of the Mataram Sultanatein 1726 , Mataram became overshadowed by Dutch intervention who managed to put Adipati Anom (bearing the title Pakubuwana II) to the throne, rather than the rightful heir, Prince Arya Mangkunagara who fiercely opposed the Dutch . Through cunning political moves, Arya Mangkunegara was exiled to Ceylon in 1728, and finally sent to Kaapstad at the most southern-end of Africa. [Source: Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy, Republic of Indonesia ^]

Meanwhile in 1742, a Chinese uprising, known as Geger Pacinang broke out in Batavia (present-day Jakarta) in reaction to the Chinese genocide directed by Dutch General Governor, Adriaan Valckenier. The remaining survivals fled to take refuge east, where they ultimately joined forces with Mataram peasants who suffered a similar fate under the oppression of the Dutch as well as by their own rulers. The oppressed Mataram peasants were led by a valiant warrior prince called Raden Mas Said, who was the son of the exiled prince Arya Mangkunegara. The combined forces managed to tear down the walls and completely destroyed the Palace at Kartasura, forcing Sultan Pakubuwana II to retreat to Ponorogo in East Java. ^

During this era, Raden Mas Said married Rubiyah who would ultimately become the leader of the brave female legion, and was thereafter given the title Matah Ati. Six months later, with the aid of Dutch forces, Pakubuwana II managed to quell the uprising. But when he found the Kartasura Palace completely destroyed, the Sultan was forced to move the capital to Surakarta. His policy to directly involve Dutch forces in the war cost the sultanate to cede Mataram territory stretching from Rembang in northern Central Java all the way to Surabaya, Madiun and Madura in East Java. The policy even stripped the ruling Pakubuwana II of all his power as he became merely a Leenman or “Borrower of Dutch authorities”. ^

In 1746 Raden Mas Said joined forces with his uncle, Prince Mangkubumi, younger brother of Pakubuwana II, in a guerilla warfare against the Dutch-Mataram forces deep in Yogyakarta in what most historians refer to as the Java Succession War III. Rade Mas Said later married for the second time with Prince Mangkubumi’s daughter, Raden Ayu Inten, and began to use the title Pangeran Adipati Mangkunegoro Senopati Panoto Baris Lelono Adikareng Noto. In the midst of the War, Pakubuwana II fell ill and eventually passed away in 1749. Before he died, he submitted sovereignty of the Sultanate to the Dutch Eastern Coast Governor, Baron von Hohendrof. The Dutch authorities eventually inaugurated the son of Pakubuwana II, Raden Mas Suryadi, as Successor, bearing the title Pakubuwono III. At the same time, upon hearing that Pakubuwono II had passed away, Prince Mangkubumi was also crowned Sultan of Mataram in Yogyakarta, bearing the same title of Pakubuwono III. The event escalated the heat of war between the two factions. In 1752 the coalition between Raden Mas Said and Prince Mangkubumi broke down due to the dispute over the single undivided supremacy over Mataram. Prince Mangkubumi turned against his own son in law and waged war against Raden Mas Said. After several failed attempts to defeat Raden Mas Said, Prince Mangkubumi subsequently turned to the Dutch and Pakubuwono III. ^

Finally, through the Treaty of Giyanti , signed in 1755 between Pakubuwana III, Prince Mangkubumi, and Dutch representative, Nicolas Hartingh, the dispute between Pakubuwono III and Prince Mangkubumi was settled. The charter also marked the official end to the unified and independent Mataram Sultanate since The Giaynti Treaty divided the Mataram Sultanate into the Yogyakarta Sultanate ruled by Prince Mangkubumi (who later took the name Hamengkubuwono I) and the Kasunanan Surakarta under Pakubuwono III. The Yogyakarta Sultanate then established the Keraton or Palace of Yogyakarta. The charter also formed a new coalition between Surakarta, Yogyakarta and Dutch forces against the relentless Raden Mas Said. Under the Sumpah Paworing Kawula pledge: Tiji Tibeh, Mati Siji Mati Kabeh, Mukti Siji Mukti Kabeh (Death to one and Death to all, Glory to one and one Glory to all), Raden Mas Said and his forces continued his revolt against the Dutch orchestrated coalition. Three great battles were recorded during the course of 1752-1757 that dubbed Raden Mas Said as Pangeran Sambernyawa or The Prince of Life Taker, since he always brought terror and spread death in battlefields. ^

Facing the fact that simply nobody could defeat Raden Mas Said, Nicholas Hartingh, the Dutch ruler in Semarang, urged Paku Buwono III to invite Raden Mas Said to diplomatic talks. Raden Mas Said accepted the invitiation for as long as it would not involve the Dutch authorities. Eventually peace was restored in 1757 through the Salatiga Charter, which was later acknowledged by the Yogyakarta Sultanate as well as the Dutch authorities. The Charter stated that Raden Mas Said was inaugurated as an Adipati Miji or Independent ruler over the Praja Mangkunegaran or the Independent district of Mangkunegaran. Taking the title Mangkunegara I, Raden Mas Said ruled over Kedaung, Matesih, Honggobayan, Sembuyan, Gunung Kidul, Northern Pajang and Kedu. He eventually set up his own palace near the Pepe River, known today as the Pura Mangkunegaran. ^

Reviving Long- Dormant Indonesian Sultanates

In “Return of the Sultans,” Gerry van Klinken wrote: “The government of Indonesia as of December 2007 decided that ancient culture and royalty must be recognized. Hence, the Indonesian government has officially recognized the important contribution of the former small monarchs in their history and are registering the present heads of the ruling families as representing the former kings and sovereign princes who ruled their land. Apparently about 100 of about 300 have been screened so far as valid claimants. However, some have too many claimants as royal heads of heir particular branch and therefore may not be included among the honored. But this recognition is a great milestone for these ancient royal families. [Source: “Return of the Sultans,” by Gerry van Klinken]

The last sultan of Pontianak, Syarif Hamid II Alqadrie, was jailed for 10 years in 1953 for siding with the Dutch army against the Indonesian Republic during the revolution of 1945. When he died in 1978 the throne was left empty. His palace remained a somewhat run-down tourist attraction by the Kapuas River. In January 2004 a new sultan was installed in the Qadriah palace, a nephew of Sultan Hamid II. At the celebration to mark the occasion, golden umbrellas adorned the palace, and thousands of well-wishing guests dressed in traditional Malay finery feasted on food set out in long rows on mats. Massive cannon shots boomed over the river and Air Force Skyhawks performed acrobatics over the palace. The man who said the prayers almost choked on his tears; his father had taught the Koran to the entire Alqadrie family years ago. It seemed as if the past was not gone after all.

Long-dormant sultanates are being revived all over Indonesia. My own list, no doubt incomplete, contains about 24 of them in Kalimantan, Sumatra, Java, and Maluku. That does not count the 40 or so sultans and non-Islamic kings whose roles have not changed appreciably. Figures such as the sultan of Bima and the king of Kupang have always been respected as informal local leaders.

The governmental climate that has allowed this change is that a new governmental focus on: Autonomy has brought not merely new administrative arrangements but a new kind of political struggle requiring new (or newly reinvented) symbols. The autonomy laws are focused on the districts (kabupaten), not on the provinces. The boundaries of these districts often reflect the numerous small kingdoms that were incorporated into the Netherlands Indies by Dutch colonists, some of which were described by Joseph Conrad in his stories, including Lord Jim. Areas ruled indirectly covered more than half the archipelago outside of Java. It should be no surprise that these kingdoms have now become symbols of district identity. The message to Jakarta is: don't underestimate us, we have a magnificent history.

It is important to remember that the sultans are symbols lacking real power. There is no question of them becoming real sultans; they are weekend sultans who hold regular jobs in the city, not the 'off with his head!' sultans of another era. Exactly what the symbols mean is more difficult to determine. There is no doubt that Indonesia's sultans are well liked and the notion of kingship remains a popular one. The royal families I have spoken with in West Kalimantan say their leadership is meant to bring different ethnic groups together. They point out that their forefathers married into many different groups in order to extend their influence, as kings have always done. The Mempawah royal family has Bugis and Dayak blood as well as Malay in its lineage, making the sultanate a symbol of an all-embracing unity. However, these symbols can become divisive if turned to real political power.

The royalty are now represented by 3 organisations: FKKAS (for Sulawesi only), FKIKS (the oldest one) and FSKN (this last one is the most succesful and is seen as the official one, but it has some political problems in it's history). The organising of royal festivals can be a way of showing royal culture to outsiders and especially to their own people, who with amazement sees the rich culture, which was pushed back for such a long time [since 1945]. [Source: Donald Tick]

Trillionaire Emperor of Indonesia and China?

A Malaysian-born Dutch citizen claims he is the Emperor of Indonesia. Philip Golingai wrote in The Star, “A Tanjung Malim-born Dutch citizen claims he is a descendent of the Emperor of China and that his bloodline is linked to royal families in India, Java and Siam. It is not every day that you get to meet a trillionaire. So when I was invited to interview Kamal Ashnawi, a person I've never heard of, I said yes.Wearing a baseball cap, long-sleeved shirt and jeans, he sauntered over to our table. The two aides bowed, pressed their palms together to their forehead as if greeting royalty and kissed his hands. “We call him Tuanku as he is a sultan from Indonesia,” one of the aides whispered to me. [Source: Philip Golingai, The Star, 2012 ^^]

“According to Kamal, he is a Dutch citizen born in Tanjung Malim, Perak, on Jan 1, 1964.“I'm a descendent of the Emperor of China and in a history that went haywire, my family fled from China to Kedah. I traced my bloodline to the royal families of China, India, Java and Siam,” claimed the man who is also known as Raden Mas Prabhu Gusti Agung Ki Asmoro Wijoyo. “I grew up in Tanjung Malim and my family here is very simple and ordinary. Nobody in my family talks about our royal blood and wealth. But my grandmother once told me: “You are special and, when the time comes, you will know.” ^^

“It was in Holland in the late 1980s that Kamal “found out who he really was”. A member of an Indonesian royal family, kicked out of the country by president Sukarno, told him he was of royal blood. In London in the early 1990s, a lawyer told Kamal about his royal family's massive wealth. Unconvinced, he told the lawyer to prove his claims. He and the lawyer flew from London to Hong Kong to meet the “keeper of the royal treasure”. From there, Kamal and the keeper travelled to Kunming in China. They hiked up a mountain for four hours and reached a cave guarded by an old couple who, Kamal says, are immortals. “If you tried to pass them without their blessing, you would cough blood and die,” he said. Inside the three-metre-high cave, Kamal saw gold bars stacked like a pagoda, US$15mil (RM46mil) in jade and US$10mil (RM31mil) in diamonds and stacks of US dollars. “I took a gold bar and knocked it on a rock. It was really gold. The treasure is the wealth of the dynasties that ruled China. Their wealth was also kept in other mountains and in vaults all over the world,” he said. ^^

“About three years ago, when Kamal watched Nicholas Cage's movie National Treasure, he laughed. “The treasure in the movie was small compared to the wealth I saw in the mountain,” he said. Next, Kamal told of his meeting two years ago in Kuala Lumpur with Dr Wong Eng Po, a royal physician from China. Dr Wong placed his hand on Kamal's bald head, then immediately bowed in front of Kamal and ordered his five followers to do the same. “He said I was the reincarnation of Emperor Nurhaci (1661-1626) of China. He felt an energy on my head which was superhuman because an emperor, unlike an ordinary human, has to think more. ^^

“I'm the reincarnation of two emperors of China,” Kamal added. He elaborated that a few years ago, the royal family decided he would be the sole administrator of the royal wealth kept in secret accounts in about 1,000 banks worldwide. “This means that 86.7 percent of the world's money belongs to me,” he said. Taking out several folders, Kamal said: “You're lucky, I brought documents.” He produced an A4-sized paper with the photographs of the national treasure, the immortal couple and several “official-looking” letters allegedly from HSBC certifying he has an account of five trillion euros (RM20tril). “That is a small amount. I have more money in other banks and institutions,” he added. ^^

“I could not authenticate his documents since the bank was closed for Chinese New Year. Kamal has not made any withdrawal from the account as “it is not money that you can move just like that”. “The money is under the control of Indonesia, Germany, Britain, the US and the Euro Central Bank and I've got to go smooth with them,” he said. “I can't use the money directly but I will invest in certain projects. Like three trillion euros (RM12tril) to green a desert in China.” Curious, I asked what was the difference between a billionaire and a trillionaire. He replied: “A billionaire needs to show he has the money. But for me, I don't need to show that I got money. I can travel in a bus. I can wear slippers.” Born in the year of the dragon, Kamal believes 2012 is his year. In March, he says he will negotiate with institutions such as the IMF to be recognised as the Emperor of Indonesia.” ^^

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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