It’s the standard overseas tourist circuit: Kuta to surf and drink, Jakarta to marvel at a functioning dysfunctional city, Yogyakarta to be Borobudured and Surabaya to mount Bromo. Then back to Bali. Duncan Graham recommends adding Trowulan in East Java to the list, center of the fabled Majapahit Empire.
Whenever the late environmental educator Suryo Prawiroatmodjo spoke about Majapahit he carefully checked his audience. If he felt some were hostile he’d tone down his enthusiasm for the kingdom that ruled much of Southeast Asia from around 1293 to 1527.
According to the Nagarakretagama (right) written in 1365 by the poet Prapanca, Majapahit’s tributaries included present-day Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, southern Thailand and parts of the Philippines.
“It was the Golden Era for Java and some fundamentalists fear it may return so oppose any teaching,” Suryo once said. “Majapahit religions were Buddhist and Hindu, with the two co-existing. They pre-dated Islam – and extremists think temples and other monuments should be destroyed.”
In 1985 terrorists bombed Borobudur in Central Java, damaging stupa. There were no human casualties.
Now three years after Suryo’s death acceptance of Indonesian ancient history is gaining ground. Leaders of a pesantren (Islamic boarding school) visiting the Trowulan Museum in East Java with their young students were adamant that there were no problems learning about idolatrous faiths that once dominated the land and its people. This was not an isolated example.
There’s even a 22-meter long reclining Buddha in a nearby village that claims to be the biggest in the archipelago. Originally built for local Buddhists it’s now open to the public for a Rp 2,000 (US$0.15) ticket and attracting big crowds – the majority women wearing jilbab (headscarves) and their families.
Majapahit has moved even further into the 21st century. It’s no longer a quaint slice of history reserved for scholars. It’s becoming a marketing opportunity.
In the village of Bejijong about two kilometers from the museum, a craft village is manufacturing bronze Majapahit artefacts and souvenirs, carving statues and producing scaled-down terracotta monuments mimicking the originals.
Fancy a delicate Hindu deity dancing on your mantelpiece? If that’s too subtle by-pass the Joneses with a two-tonne figure of Vishna riding Garuda dominating your suburban garden and getting the neighbors head scratching: If that monster is ancient and precious they really must have won the lottery.
You thought the piggy-bank a European invention named after the Old English word pygg for potters’ clay? The Majapahit folk were saving their Chinese coins in similar pots long before the British arrived in the archipelago with their sovereigns - though maybe the idea came through trade.
Little pottery piggies are popular with tourists, along with life-size ones for those with enough coin.
Most products go to Bali according to Mi’un (left) who employs 11 men in his backyard workshop. They make figurines using the lost-wax method of casting in a mould made from a wax model.
“I’ve had no formal training,” he said. “I started the business back in the 1970s after watching others and then developed my techniques.”
These are basic enough and little different from those used by craftsmen six centuries ago apart from gas burners to melt the copper and zinc.
Now becoming trendy are door knockers, handles and other household fittings inspired by the Majapahit era. If you’d like your new home with air-conditioning and hot water to look like an ancient Javanese dwelling then Bejijong is the place to shop.
Sir Stamford Raffles, governor general of the Dutch East Indies between 1811 and 1816, discovered remnants of the forgotten era in Trowulan’s dense teak forests. He realised its historical and cultural importance and called it ‘the pride of Java’. It was originally known as Wilwatika and probably covered 100 square kilometers.
Mapping and restoration was continued by the Dutch, and is still underway with visitors able to peer at digs from covered walkways. A large bathing pool called Kolam Tikus wasn’t found till 1914. Nearby is the remarkable split gate Gapura Bajang Ratu.
The temples were the most substantial sites of brick and andesite, but the ordinary workers’ homes did not survive.
The original timber buildings have disappeared under meters of volcanic ash from nearby cones, particularly Mount Kelud, and flooding of the Brantas River. Much of the town was apparently razed during a war in1478.
However floors of bricks, some hexagons though mostly rectangular, wellheads and earthenware water tanks have been excavated.
Fortunately carvings on nearby temples featuring fantasy dragons and scenes from epic tales also include everyday scenes. These show the small houses used at the time, mainly for sleeping as cooking was conducted outside.
A typical low-roof dwelling would be about five by three meters. The frame was timber, the walls bamboo, the roof tiled and the main entrance a double door. These pavilions have been replicated as facades on existing homes lining the streets of Bejijong.
According to the Balai Pelestarian Peninggalan Purbakala (Archaeological Heritage Conservation Center) the craft village idea came from former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and was completed in 2014.
The Rp 16.3 billion (US$ 1.25 million) project includes other villages, but it seems little or nothing has been allocated for promotion. There isn’t even a website.
When this writer visited he was the sole outsider in Bejijong and learned of its whereabouts through a casual conversation with a museum worker.
The Nagarakretagama history has detailed information about Trowulan. It was written in spider script on long slices of papyrus leaves. It is recognized by UNESCO on the Memory of the World register and is now housed in the National Library in Jakarta. However it’s not the only indicator that Majapahit dominated the region.
Wood rots and metals rust, but ceramics survive – even under water. Porcelain plates from China, Vietnam, Thailand and elsewhere have been found at Trowulan and on display in the museum.
Majapahit, also known as Mojopahit (bitter fruit) is named after the Bael tree, or Golden Apple, common in the area and sacred to Hindus.
How to get there
Trowulan is about three hours drive from Malang in the southeast, and a similar distance from Surabaya to the north. It’s just a brief stroll off the main highway linking Mojokerto with Jombang and well signposted.
Chauffeured cars are available in both cities for around Rp 450,000 (US$ 35) a 12-hour day plus fuel and meals for the driver.
Public transport is available but best used by the adventurous with their wallets well secured. The slightly more expensive (around Rp 25,000 (US$ 2.0) big air-conditioned long distance busses are safer. The drivers drop off passengers at any point on request.
The sites in Trowulan are not in one place so best use a becak (pedicab) to get around – and preferably early as the fields get hot by noon with rain often following later. Some temples near Kediri are further afield and need a car to visit.
The museum is usually crowded with school visits during the week. The staff are friendly but few speak English. Some of the displays have poor English translations so best to research before you go.
Despite its international significance (an application has been made for UNESCO registration)
Trowulan’s potential as a must visit for overseas tourists has yet to be realized.
The upsides mean harga turis (tourist prices) are rare and visitors are generally free to roam without being hassled by bumptious officials and trinket sellers.
The excitement comes from seeing the temple carvings and realising these were people just like us, loving, building, worshipping, trading – and hoping for a pass to heaven.
It also comes from wandering a landscape which was once the center of a thriving, rich and creative civilisation knowing that a meter below the rich volcanic soils lie treasures yet to be discovered.
Pix – credit Erlinawati Graham
First published in J Plus The Jakarta Post 22 October 2016