So much to see – and lose
Of the 2.5 million tourists who visit Borobudur every year, only six per cent are foreigners. Yet the spectacular Central Java Buddhist monument is internationally known as Indonesia’s premier attraction.
Could more be done to promote the nation’s cultural jewels? Duncan Graham reports from East Java in the heartland of decaying monuments:
The threats are clear. No need to kneel, no magnifier required.
The ground is spongy and in places waterlogged.
An exposed web of tree roots thrusting under the structure threatens to undermine the soggy foundations of sun-dried bricks. Above, wind and rain have fretted the waist of an already top-heavy building.
A barbed wire fence makes the place look like an internment camp, though offset by manicured lawns and geometric shrubs better suited to a villa.
Nearby high voltage powerlines and smokestacks show this isn’t a pastoral plain. Close, too close, is the 450 hectare Ngoro Industrial Park (NIP).
Candi (temple) Bangkal is 50 kilometers south of Surabaya, the nation’s second biggest city, yet the caretaker cannot recall any visits by foreigners and few by locals.
It is one of the Republic’s treasures, a precious irreplaceable link to a splendid past and it’s suffering from such neglect that its existence is in jeopardy. It’s officially protected but the care is passive.
Its history is a mystery. “You won’t find Bangkal in the guide books and there’s little information about it elsewhere,” said environmental activist and conservationist Suryo Prawiroatmodjo (below)
“However we can be sure of one thing. It’s definitely from the Majapahit era.”
The proof is hard to spot but seems decisive, though whether early or late is another question. First scramble across the loose bricks and up an uneven staircase to enter the inner chamber through a narrow doorway. The grotesque kala (guardians) puff their eyeballs at each entrance.
Strange symbols on the walls challenge the visitor. What do they mean? The puzzles add to the charm.
Here and there are niches where statues probably stood. Where now? In museums and private collections here and overseas, for East Java’s much admired antiquities have been brutally plundered.
Inside a gloomy cone of flat bricks steeples to a central plate high above. Look, there, peering down! The eight-pointed Majapahit sun symbol with a galloping horse and flogging rider at the center, straddling what appears to be a mound – or dragon
Perhaps it’s something else – a rider triumphant carrying a banner-topped spear? Or, more likely, the sun god Surya.
Universitas Indonesia student Nurmulia Rekso Purnomo has researched Candi Bangkal but found nothing that confirms its purpose.
So assumptions have been made on architectural styles similar to those used in dated relics. His work claims the temple shape is similar to those built during ‘the golden ages of Majapahit, when ruled by Hayam Wuruk’ (1334-1389) the fourth king.
References to a glorious Hindu-Buddhist past with expectations of a return worry the superstitious, and are considered a barrier to preservation. Suryo, who serves guests with meals known to have been prepared in the era on Majapahit-style pottery, doesn’t shout his enthusiasm but works to promote wider interest.
Apart from Majapahit meals and music he’s also recreating the wayang (puppets) of the time.
There are at least 32 known temples and scores of other royal shrines of the Singosari (1222 – 1292) and Majapahit (1293 – 1527) eras in central East Java. Not all are as bad as Candi Bangkal. Some are worse.
Most are clustered around the 320 kilometer serpentine Brantas River that heads south, turns west and then north.
The watercourse was once so navigable and the floodplains so rich the people who nurtured its volcanic soils had time to create and advance. This wasn’t subsistence living. Ceremony, art, expansion and innovation were exercised before the kingdoms mysteriously crumbled.
Now toxic Brantas is silted and vile, one of the world’s worst polluted waterways, carrying sickness, not life. This sad, black mess once brought sea-faring craft deep into the hinterland to trade with the rest of Asia.
On Mount Penanggungan near Trawas (seen, below, from Suryo's house) remnants of the holy Indian Mount Mahameru magically flown to Java to keep the island intact, are at least 81 recorded sites spanning five centuries.
Only those on the lower levels of the 1,650 meter mountain can be easily accessed. Others, yet to be revealed, lie smothered by vegetation, alive and dead. Local villager Tri, who has climbed the mountain several times with his children, said he’d seen signs of previously unknown sites near the summit.
On the other side of the NIP, past a smoldering rubbish tip and dozers ripping up more forest, is Gapura Jedong where inscriptions indicate it may have been built at the close of the 10th century.
This site has been given a make-over including shaved lawns and pretty bushes, fading and boring information - but no indications of the lives of the people who built the monument.
We know the names of the kings and generals, little of the folk who worshipped, worked here and built a powerful nation state that dominated Southeast Asia.
Also missing is a third gateway. It was there early last century – it isn’t now. In this area you have to be quick: If the pollutants and developers don’t get you, the vandals will.
Too late to fix?
So maybe Candi Bangkal is only 650 years old. Hardly worth the worry or expense of preserving.
Yohannes Somawiharja (pictured, right) doesn’t agree. He’s the academic director of Universitas Ciputra and an engineer by training so should be getting his kicks sucking diesel fumes while dozing down the past.
Instead he’s turned cultural historian and trying to decide how this fits with his Surabaya campus’ vision of ‘creating world class entrepreneurs’. Can innovative thinking turn the past into profit?
“Just feel the peace of it all,” Yohannes said squatting in the shade of an Ixora. “This is where my heart lies.
“Look around and experience the magnificence of the culture that built this. The Javanese are very spiritual and out of this has come great beauty.”
Ixora is normally a shrub. Its red flowers are used in Hindu worship. Here it’s a full tree, big enough to hide a man as in a story in the Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana. Could the tree be as old as the temple it seems trying to undermine?
“Almost all historical sites in East Java are not well preserved,” Yohannes said as the academic team he brought to the site pondered the possibilities.
“Perhaps it’s time for the private sector got involved, perhaps through corporate social responsibility. Let’s start with something small, maybe involving the performing arts and tourism.”
While studying in the US, where he led student protests against the Soeharto regime late last century, Yohannes was impressed with the way the possibly prehistoric Serpent Mound site in Ohio had been preserved and developed, though far less spectacular than Bangkal.
“They made history live,” he said. “It had a gift shop, museum and regular school visits.
“This site is good because it’s so close to Surabaya and accessible. Perhaps it could be adopted and developed.
“But first there has to be a plan. We need the right approach with Hindus and Muslims. We don’t want our intentions misunderstood.”
(First published in The Sunday Post 6 January 2013)