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

Monday, November 13, 2006


© Duncan Graham 2006

Visitors to Indonesia’s second biggest city should not be misled into thinking they’ve come to the heart of modernity.

Remain undistracted by the hectares of tinted glass and columns of reinforced concrete. Do not assume that the steel communication towers of Babel pushing into the sky, the black rivers of cars, the flimsy facades of Futureland mean progress has swamped the past.

In the darkness of this 700-year old city lurks mystery and it’s not far. Only a few steps from the shrill gaudiness and crass commercialism of Mammon Central, Tunjungan Plaza, Surabaya’s most popular and central shopping mall.

It’s just beyond the remit of neon, where the shadows thicken, the street lamps are spare and their wattage dim. Peer carefully and at a three-way junction you’ll spot a thicket of old fig trees, their dangling aerial roots fingering the asphalt, seeking entrance to the underworld.

Around this coppice a low iron fence. There’s a narrow gate. A little path. A strange avenue of hammered rocks, more like headstones. These lead to a pagoda. And inside you’ll be confronted by an ancient carving of a Buddha.

If you’re fearful of the dark visit on a Friday morning for evidence of the previous night’s rituals. There’ll be yellow garlands around the Buddha’s neck, a dusting of petals, offerings of rice in wee wicker baskets, spots of hard wax dripped from candles. The little parasols will have been spruced up. A saffron shawl may have been added.

Then you’ll know you’ve found the right place. Joko Dolog, or Buddha Akshobya.

The 1.5 metre high statue of the Buddha probably doesn’t belong here, though his weathered expression gives no indication of homesickness. He’s supposed to have been moved to Surabaya by the Dutch in the 19th century.

Maybe he came from Candi Jawi near Tretes, 55 kilometres south of Surabaya, where there are tales of a missing statue.

Joko Dolog (sometimes spelt Jaka in archaeological literature) is known locally as the ‘fat boy’. Which implies he’s regarded with irreverence, though there are no signs of mistreatment.

On the contrary, for this is a worship site, special to Hindus, Buddhists and followers of Kebatinan, the traditional religion of Java.

That one statue could combine three beliefs is a tribute to the syncretism of faiths in Indonesia. It’s also a window into the past because around the base is a clear inscription in Sanskrit.

A Buddhist scribe called Nada apparently wrote this in 1289. It reports on East Java being split into two kingdoms – Janggala and Kediri - during the 11th century reign of King Airlangga.

The division followed a succession dispute when Airlangga’s daughter Sanggramawijaya chose to live as a hermit rather than preside as a ruler.

The inscription then says the lands were later reunited under a new king, Sri Wishnuwardhana. This opened the way to the Majapahit era, Java’s ‘Golden Age’ of prosperity and conquest.

The Buddha was carved to celebrate this coming together. It was commissioned by Wishnuwardhana’s son, Kertanagara.

Sadly there’s none of this information at the park holding Joko Dolog, and even less at the provincial museum known as Mpu Tantular. This has been named after the Majapahit poet who wrote of religious reconciliation and used the phrase Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity), now part of the nation’s crest.

Two years ago the museum was moved from Surabaya to Sidoarjo, a town 30 to the south of the East Java capital.

Despite having new buildings and plenty of space the museum’s collection has been badly organised. It’s a bit of a sunset home for public servants who either know nothing of their responsibilities – or if they do are unwilling to share.

There are bits and pieces of inscribed stone from the Singosari and Majapahit kingdoms, but no clear provenance. So the only way to discover more is through papers written by archaeologists.

The museum has been built on a collection assembled by a German magpie and educator GH Von Faber in the 1920s. Till recently it’s had a peripatetic life, and when its benefactor died in 1955 several critical pieces vanished.

What has survived and is well worth seeing are the photographs of old Surabaya. Unlike many other collections where the prints are blurred, these are sharp and clear. Some marvellously carved Madurese drums and a few other artefacts justify a visit – but be prepared to fill in the gaps yourself through your own research.

Some attempts at translation mar (or lift) the experience according to your sense of humour. ‘Cannon used in the war for killing the enemies and horses even though it was used in the sea war’ was a particular gem – and there are many other splendid examples.

But of Joko Dolog, surely the most important of all exhibits in Surabaya – no news. Some say he’s not promoted lest he arouse the wrath of fundamentalists who might see idolatry in the weekly worship rituals.

So find him yourself. He’s tucked away just behind the statue of Governor Suryo in the street named after the first post-colonial administrator. Doubtless he was a fine fellow, but the sculptor shows him as a stern-faced bureaucrat.

Nothing like the figure squatting among the trees 300 metres behind looking, well, enigmatic.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 13 November 06)