Heritage is identity
Indonesia harvests at least US$10 billion a year from tourism; this crop could rocket should serious energy and acumen be applied to entice visitors beyond Bali. Only 15 per cent of Australians go outside Kuta and Ubud.
Yet next door in East Java are landscapes to challenge the adventurous and cultural riches to dazzle the curious – one magic mountain harboring a great storehouse of ancient arts and mysteries. There are plans to create a World Heritage Site. Sadly few know and fewer visit.
Duncan Graham reports from Trawas in the Majapahit heartlands.
On 17 January Nigel Bullough tumbled down a ravine. It was a defining though agonising moment in the explorer’s 44-year career in Indonesia.
The British-born historian who uses the nom d’archeologie Hadi Sidomulyo was seeking centuries-old sites on East Java’s Mount Penanggungan when he fell.
He was saved when his camera strap snagged the shrubbery. But his left arm was jerked from its socket and the bone fractured.
It took his mates five agonising hours to get him down the mountain, and a further hour in a slow drive over rough roads to reach a police hospital. A surgeon dashed from afar in the early hours.
“The treatment was excellent,” Sidomulyo said more than six months after the accident. “My arm is almost back to normal. The mountain had opened up and given us so much. It briefly revealed its secrets and now it was time to close. And next day it started to rain.
“Penanggungan was telling me that it was time to sit down and work on our discoveries.”
These have been extraordinary. More than 130 previously uncharted sites have been found by Sidomulyo and his colleagues, including Malang State University lecturer Ismail Lutfi (right)
The private University of Surabaya (Ubaya) funded the explorers, even though it has no faculty of archaeology. But it does have the 40-hectare Ubaya Training Center (UTC), with on-site accommodation in the lush foothills fronting Penanggungan where scholars can stay.
Former rector Anton Prijatno is now chair of the Ubaya Foundation raising funds for the bush campus. He was friends with the late pioneering conservationist Dr Suryo Prawiroatmodjo who lived near the mountain and knew it well. (See Breakout)
“I was drawn by his love of nature and culture,” said Prijatno (left). “I was concerned with the way young people in the cities were losing contact with their rural roots.
“We want visitors to come here and learn about our history, to draw the values of honesty, conservation and community living from the past. Archaeology isn’t just for experts – it should be for the public.
“We have to learn to live together. It’s not enough just to be an urban university.”
If Prijatno and his colleagues can get watchful locals to appreciate the importance of the riches in their midst they’ll be more likely to protect than plunder. Late last century Penanggungan was gouged by gangs beheading statues. As museum curators like to say – heritage is identity, so such thefts hurt all in the nation and beyond.
In the UTC’s basement are photos taken by explorers last century and over the past four years. The Ubaya team discovered cave hermitages, terraced sanctuaries and maybe an offering table, hundreds of ancient Chinese coins and copious shards of pottery.
Objects were exposed only because a fire had hit the mountain in 2015. Locals think it was from a lightning strike, which adds to the supernatural explanations for much that involves Penanggungan.
Flames stripped the dense bush that shrouded sites probably unseen for half a millennium. They also disclosed well-built tracks which zigzagged up the steep slopes once trodden by sandaled pilgrims and barefoot artisans.
Commented Lutfi: “Our work has shown that worship on Penanggungan had a much more sophisticated infrastructure than previously imagined.”
The rains which followed Sidomulyo’s crash regenerated the mountain, once again clothing its intimacies – though not before maps had been drawn and cameras clicked, including from drones.
Next could be excavations; the mountain has more secrets to unveil, particularly if an old settlement site can be found. New discoveries could fill the hollows in Java’s history.
However the involvement of overseas scientists working with Indonesian academics depends on access to research visas which are allegedly difficult to obtain.
At a UTC summer school organised by Singapore’s Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, Sidomulyo addressed museum curators and historians from Indonesia, Europe, Asia and the US.
He told them East Java had preserved “an historical record from the pre-Islamic period which is about four times as long as its western neighbor”, meaning Central Java, long considered the core of ancient Javanese culture.
He urged them to “just sit down before the facts … follow your intuition and don’t bother with what others think.”
Lutfi is an epigraphist, a code breaker whose singular skills have helped assemble parts of the historical jigsaw. The craftsmen who built the temples and shrines that dot the landscape sometimes marked their handiwork by applying complex codes and the Saka calendar.
This starts from 78AD and is used in India – the source of Java’s pre-Islamic culture and religions. These included Buddhism which seemed to co-exist with the worship of Shiva, the faiths at times mingling their architecture.
“Some sites use chronograms,” said Lutfi, studying a curious engraving. “In my opinion this is a sengkalan memet in Javanese. I see a Naga (deity in the form of a snake) priest biting his tail. In Javanese this is naga resi anahut iku which also means 8731.
“In the Saka system this must be read in reverse as 1378, which is 1456 AD.”
Majapahit was the powerful dynasty which ruled much of Java and nearby lands from its center at Trowulan on the rich floodplains of the Brantas River for about 250 years.
Everything ended in the 16th century when the royals fled to Bali and Islam became the dominant faith. Majapahit is still celebrated as Java’s golden epoch by hardcore nationalists.
Much of the known history of the empire comes from the 1365 epic poem Nagarakretagama written on lontar leaves. It tells of temples, places, events and the wanderings of King Hayam Wuruk – proving that President Joko Widodo’s blusukan walkabouts have a backstory.
The Nagarakretagama was returned by the Dutch in 1973 and is now in Jakarta’s National Museum. Despite this rich source there are still great knowledge gaps.
So far nothing has been discovered to confirm the stories of Ken Angrok, the 13th century king famous in boys’ comic books for his derring-do, dexterity with the kris (Javanese dagger) and Shakespearean treachery. Sidomulyo commented dryly that the “myth enjoys a status comparable to King Arthur and his knights at Camelot”.
The legend that sustained much of Majapahit worship had the holy Mount Mahameru hauled from India to nail Java into the world, what one academic labelled the “sacred geography” linking Indonesia with the sub continent.
Imagine repotting a garden plant; inevitably soil slips off and so it was with the movement of Mahameru.
The biggest lump became Semeru (3,676 meters), the highest peak in Java. The rest became Pawitra, now known as Penanggungan. At only 1,653 meters it’s a pimple but dominates the landscape south of Surabaya.
It has a vintage volcano silhouette but is classified as dead, unlike its still puffing colleagues nearby. It is also dry, which is curious as the mountain once bristled with traffic. Perhaps creeks ran when the climate was wetter. Maybe water was carried to the stone carvers and hermits in caves – which could explain the pottery shards.
The most accessible site is also the oldest discovered so far. The date prominent on the back wall (left) of the Jolotundo bathing pool is Saka 899, or 977 AD. It was probably built to honor the ancestor of King Udayana, father of Airlangga. It was first recorded by Europeans in 1815 when the British ruled the Dutch East Indies and started seeking lost temples.
Despite its great cultural and historical importance, Jolotundo is used more like a fun park and backdrop for picnickers’ selfies. The staff are bored and uninformed. Metal signs do nothing for the ambience. One tells visitors to be respectful. Few are.
It’s the same at Candi Jawi about 10 kilometers further down the hill, a curious mix of a Hindu base topped by a Buddhist stupa. It was built by King Kertanagara in the late 13th century, later damaged by earthquakes, a lightning strike and vandalism.
Restoration was halted by the war and completed in 1980 when more than 800 stolen stones were recovered.
Now it’s a favorite place for couples canoodling on its high platforms. A large glass-fronted information board is empty. A jumble of carved stones lies outside a lavatory. Others are behind bars. Their crime? Not fitting into the government’s ideas of tourists only wanting poolside drinks in five-star resorts.
Cashing in on culture
Apart from the sites recently discovered but now concealed on Mount Penanggungan, most East Java temples are accessible and within a two-hour drive of Surabaya or Malang. Not all are well signposted, so plan ahead and research well.
The most authoritative guide is Worshipping Siva and Buddha – the Temple Art of East Java by Ann Kinney.
At Trowulan there’s a large display of artefacts and masonry salvaged from nearby sites. There’s some information in English though few would think its presentations ideal. Lecturer Lutfi labels it a “warehouse” rather than a museum.
Its rival, though yet to be finished or formally opened, is the purpose-built exhibition hall at the UTC. Exhibits include a well-presented photographic display of Penanggungan sites, including copies of historical pictures from Dutch libraries and museums.
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