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

Sunday, January 21, 2007



Modern Indonesians have mixed feelings about the Majapahit Era, the so-called Golden Age of Java. This was the period about 700 years ago when much of the archipelago, and some nearby countries, were ruled by a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom based around Trowulan, East Java.

Why the ambiguous emotions? Some seem to think that centuries gone are countries best left unvisited. Religious fundamentalists fear ancient predictions forecasting the return of the Majapahit may yet come to pass. Let sleeping eras lie.

A few are proud that Java has such a rich and magnificent past, but most seem indifferent. Maybe because the teaching and presentation of history is so often pedestrian.

Those who’ve had the privilege of living in major cities overseas know museums don’t need to be forbidding and archaeology a bore. The non-profit Indonesian Heritage Society (IHS), a repository of such illuminati, is now doing its best to bring sunlight to the statuary, appreciation to the artifacts.

The Society’s latest venture together with the Japanese-Indonesian cultural organization Nihindo is Majapahit / Trowulan, a glossy well-presented A4 plus book in Indonesian and English bringing much of the known information up to date.

In his happy / sad foreword Jero Wacik, Minister of Culture and Tourism writes that the involvement of foreigners “stirs emotion because those not owning our culture still give it serious attention, sometimes more than we do as inheritors …”

This is no new event; interest in the history of Java started with Stamford Raffles during the 19th century British Interregnum. It continued with the Dutch once they tired of plunder and turned to scholarship.

The new book complements another accessible text – Memories of Majapahit - published by the East Java Government in 1993 and now hard to find. Since then more discoveries have added to our knowledge, particularly on the lifestyles of ordinary people.

Also new is thinking about the way the two Indian-sourced religions co-existed in Java. ‘Syncretism’ has yielded to ‘coalition’ and now ‘parallelism’. Ugly terms, but you can see how interpreting the past is a plastic art open to all.

Memories was written in English by one person. The new book is a collection of essays and updated research by Indonesian experts and well translated into English. A politically correct decision, but it doesn’t make for smooth reading. Academics everywhere, whatever their discipline, reckon they communicate with clarity; few can.

Some see the Majapahit story as a collection of dates, names and references. Wrong. This is a lusty tale of vile kings, scheming rogues, devilish plots, inventive artisans, clever courtesans, sinister omens, disasters natural and unnatural - all wrapped in myth and magic.

Unpacking this parcel of wonders requires the special skills of storytelling. Poets are needed, not pedants. Some contributors have the talent to touch the reader with their awe. Others are more concerned with fluffing up their own erudition.

The IHS members involved in this splendid project must have aged decades in getting it together, prodding laggards, soothing the affronted, placating the pompous. If entertainers strut their egos, archaeologists put theirs on pedestals and expect others to polish. (If you doubt this, check the academic brawls over the hobbits of Flores.)

Adding to the explorer’s delight is that there are few reliable records of this extraordinary period, leaving hectares of space to exercise the imagination. This book is not the last word - inscribed pots that may tip over long-held interpretations are probably being exposed by farmers’ ploughs, even as I write and you read.

The people of Majapahit were literate, creative and sexy; their water pots are sensuous and erotic, their ‘modesty shields’ appropriately enticing. They were frugal cashed-up traders who loved piggy banks. When they weren’t goldsmiths they were hydraulic engineers.

They built dams, dykes and drains that helped control floods and conserve water to keep crops growing in the dry. Their bricks were like a good marriage – they stuck together by being rubbed together – no cement needed. They were the masters of terracotta.

They were also skilled in the arts of war and administration – creating tax-free zones and a robust cash economy using coins, many from China. They did big business with Vietnam and were open to ideas from everywhere.

What brought these smarties down? Why did the survivors flee to Bali and the uplands of Mount Bromo? The arrival of Islam, internecine strife, natural disasters or something else? Pick a theory, gather the evidence. It’s all here in Majapahit / Trowulan.

So are photos (stylish, but too few), and maps. Sadly these don’t enhance the text. Some are blurred, others too small. Publishers should know that the same care and cash that’s put into words and pictures needs to be spent on cartography.

Like its topic this book is too complex to use as an instant guide to Trowulan; it needs to be read first and annotated (there’s a glossary, but no index), before exploration. This is best done by pedicab because some sites are distant. Fortunately the land is flat.

The staff at the Trowulan museum are helpful, but not all are knowledgeable. Many pieces on display lack provenance and other useful details. Nor is this the only place to see Majapahit relics as the site has been mercilessly plundered and the finds scattered to private and public collections here and overseas.

I hope this book will be available and on sale at the museum in Trowulan for foreign visitors. At Rp 200,000 (US $22) it’s a great buy and an ideal memento or gift for anyone who wants to know more about this astonishing archipelago.

But it’s too dear for the average local student so getting copies into school libraries will be an essential part of making history anything but bunkum – and help the next generation find pride in their heritage.

(Majapahit / Trowulan has been published as a ‘companion book’ to The Grandeur of Majapahit exhibition at the National Museum in Jakarta. For more details check )

(First published in The Sunday Post 21 January 2007)


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