The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, August 23, 2005


DO-IT-YOURSELF TOURISM © Duncan Graham 2005

If you’ve been bumped in Borobudur, pressured at Prambanan and fleeced at both don’t despair. There’s one place left where the splendid history of Java can be savored in solitude. Duncan Graham reports from Trowulan:

The problem with this story is that it’s giving away secrets; fortunately readers of The Jakarta Post are discerning. I know you’ll treat this information as exclusive and will only pass it on to the right people.

Trowulan is a little village about an hour’s drive from Surabaya. It’s now of no economic or administrative importance but it was once the capital of the mighty kingdom of Majapahit whose power is said to have extended beyond the present boundaries of Indonesia.

Although this Hindu-Buddhist golden age lasted for almost 1000 years, the apogee was probably during the 14th century reign of Hayum Wuruk. However the architect of the might of Majapahit was his Machiavellian prime minister, Gajah Mada. His specialities were palace intrigues, regicide and military ambush mixed with diplomacy and manipulation – all essential ingredients for success.

Volcanic explosions, family feuds, internecine brawls, the coming of Islam, disastrous wars and plain lousy management after Gajah Mada’s death all contributed to the kingdom’s downfall. The survivors fled to Bali and by 1520 the Big M was no more. A century later when the Dutch arrived most Javanese were Muslims.

Fast-forward to the early 19th century and the brief British rule of the more refined Stamford Raffles. His interest in history and culture helped uncover many of the lost treasures smothered by ash and overgrown by jungle. Some, like Borobudur, have since been grossly trampled into commercial submission. So far Trowulan has escaped that curse.

But there are downsides; no hawkers harassing you with glossy publications – but no English texts to explain the past. No hustlers with kitsch trinkets – but no minibuses with AC to take you hither and yon. The infrastructure of the hospitality industry is absent; Trowulan is strictly Do- It-Yourself Tourism.

That’s really no problem. Here are some tips: Base yourself in Surabaya where the hotels are plentiful and excellent value, particularly during weekdays. (Up to half the price of Jakarta and the service is better – but don’t spread it around.) There are no hotels in Trowulan and those in nearby Mojokerto are mainly for commercial travellers.

A good quality hire car with AC and driver will cost about Rp 250,000 for a 12-hour day, or you can use public transport which is more fun, cheap and certainly fast. (It’s also scary, but keep that to yourself.)

Arrive in Trowulan around 7 am and hire a becak. You have to bargain but rip-offs are rare; budget Rp 25,000 plus meals for a half day. The major sites are scattered with an average gap of three kilometres between ‘tourism objects’ as the clumsy official guides say.

There are 16 attractions. The land is level and the silent ride along shady lanes flanked by fields of corn is pure delight. By car there’s no chance to catch the smells of fresh produce and feel the early morning breeze; by the time you’ve spotted a warung serving thick Javanese coffee your vehicle has whizzed on.

Where to start? The choice is yours. There’s the robust and well-weathered Candi Brahu which may hold the cremated remains of a Brawijaya king or kings, or the marvellously slender red-brick Candi Bajang Ratu. Built around 1350 this is a professionally preserved winged gateway standing 16 metres high and in a lovely landscaped setting.

Just down the road is the sadly named Candi Tikus or Rat Temple. This has little to do with rodents other than the fact that the site was discovered when a rats’ nest was excavated. This was once a ritual bathing place and it has been competently restored.

The people who built Trowulan were skilled hydraulic engineers who constructed dams and canals to control floods and deliver water through terracotta pipes during droughts. Opposite the museum is a 6.5-hectare artificial lake; the legend claims the kings of Majapahit entertained royal visitors here and when the meals –served on plates of gold – were finished the dishes were tossed overboard.

Understandably this gesture mightily impressed the visitors. (‘You’ll never guess what! That Majapahit mob are so-o-o rich they can’t even be bothered to do the dishes! Better not get on their wrong side.’) Once the guests had left to spread the awesome word divers were hired to recover the well-rinsed plates.

The museum (entrance fee Rp 2,500 at Trowulan – US$ 10, or about Rp 100,000 at Borobudur) is worth a couple of hours and the friendly guides are proud of their collection even if its provenance is not always clear.

If you can’t speak Indonesian recruit an English-language student to act as interpreter. There’s no harga bule (foreign visitor surcharge), no touts or souvenir sellers to mar the experience and the inevitable busloads of school kids are never the suffocating size of those encountered around Yogya.

One of the many joys of Trowulan is to wonder at the advanced metal, wood, stone and ceramic technology of the age, sometimes called the terracotta era. In the fields nearby hand-made bricks are still being produced using the technology of 800 years ago. To lay these with precision required a thorough understanding of mathematics, physics and measurement.

The cattle plodding the padi still ring their presence with bells designed by the Majapahit. The riders of local ponies push their feet into the same style of stirrups found on the museum shelves. These artefacts sit alongside clay piggy banks and water pots identical to those in the town market. Also for sale in the town are bronze handicrafts – another skill from the past.

The word candi is widely used and usually translated as ‘temple’; in fact it’s now a label for almost any historical site. Some, like Gentong are still being excavated; their original purpose is not always clear. Although the houses of common people made of wood and bamboo have not survived, the museum has ancient clay models of these structures along with figurines of the folk.

Some features are clearly Arab and Chinese, indicating a multi-cultural society. The few remaining original sculptures of Gajah Mada show a plump-lipped round-faced fearsome figure. To the outsider he bears little resemblance to modern Javanese, but to the friendly locals he’s one of them, and a national hero.

Whether these are factual portraits or artists’ flattery will never be known; what is for certain is that this brilliant politician united the many islands of the archipelago through force or treaty to create a major power equal, some claim, to the Roman Empire.

The seat of this grand epoch is still accessible and unspoilt – at Trowulan.

(First published in The Jakarta Post, Saturday 27 August 05)

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