Majapahit, anyone?

Posted on August 13th, 2010 at 1:16 pm by Akhyari


By the time you reach Trowulan the streets are narrow, the traffic sparse and the air clean. But sprinkled about this charming rural district, on well-manicured grounds, are the ruins of temples that suggest the city that once thrived here; imagine the spaces between them filled and you get an idea how extensive this capital of the Hindu-Buddhist-hybrid Majapahit Empire was. The empire itself, at its height in the late 1300s, reached across modern Indonesia and onto the Malay peninsula.

A photo display at the entrance of the Trowulan archeological museum can help you decide which sites to visit. The museum itself houses findings from the nearby ruins and elsewhere around eastern Java. Among the spears, coins, toys, hanging lamps and shadow puppets, I was surprised to find hollow figures of pigs with slots on the top—centuries-old piggy banks. Who knew? Foreign porcelains record the empire’s wide-ranging trade, including with Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and China.

As for the ruins themselves, many are quite impressive—not Borobudur or Angkor Wat impressive, but not overrun with touts and hawkers, either. Admission is free. Lost to history for centuries before the British explorer Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles “discovered” them in the early 1800s, the temples are mostly of red-clay brick, with reliefs that provide clues about Majapahit society. Some of the architecture is reminiscent of the temples of Bali, to which the elites of the empire fled when it fell to conquest in the late 1400s.

My favorite is the elegant Gapura Bajangratu (“gapura” means gate). The steps on its base rise to a high, narrow entryway that probably led to a structure honoring a ruler’s death; it opens to nowhere now. The winged layers of its top section likely symbolize “the releasing soul or the death,” the accompanying sign proclaims in awkward English.

Echoes of the beautiful Wringinlawang Gate, looking like a giant ornate vise, can be seen today before the driveways and walkways of local buildings. Candi Brahu is a bigger, more solid structure that you’re free to climb on.

For the locals these green sites are more park than piece of history; at Candi Brahu, a group of nonchalantly smoking teens perched on its shady side. At one point I heard gamelan music off in the distance, and later the call to prayer from a faraway mosque.

A capital city once, today the middle of nowhere—an excellent retreat when the region’s current big city becomes too frenzied and mind-numbing.

—Steve Mollman is a writer based in Asia.


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