Published in Now! Jakarta, February 2009

Candi Bajangratu: I imagine that the Majapahit tradition of landscape excellence has travelled down through the ages, inspiring the present day team in their topiary pursuits. The maintenance is immaculate!

Last month I went back to Trowulan in East Java to continue my hobby—researching Majapahit architecture. The famous Hindu-Javanese Majapahit Kingdom (roughly 14th – 16th centuries) was the first to ‘unite’ the archipelago; its ‘domain’ extending well into Thailand and Cambodia. The Majapahit colours—red over white— were eventually adopted by Soekarno as the flag of Indonesia. (Soekarno himself a Majapahit descendent through his Blitar father and Balinese Brahmin mother).

During Indonesia’s 350 year colonial era the Dutch tried hard to obliterate all memories of the might of Majapahit: the name was erased from all maps and the magnificent brick-based architecture reduced to rubble, with the help of Mother Nature.
Travelling with Dutch scholars I discovered a lot about the ‘make-up’ of old Majapahit.

The Siti Inggil in the Keraton Solo was supposedly inspired by the panggung in the Keraton Majapahit during the 16th century!

Even the rubbish boxes at Candi Bajangratu are artful, in a colourful, Chinese way.

I learned that Islam was prominent in the kingdom—which had quite a cosmopolitan make-up of Chinese merchants, Arab traders, Indian Buddhist priests and Balinese warriors—for at least 100 years, before the ‘fall’ of Hindu Majapahit.
I learned that Majapahit was a quite a matriarchy: founded, in effect, by four princess from East Java’s Singosari Empire. And I was told that both the Solo and the Jogya kratons, as well as the Puri Klungkung in Bali, are ‘off shoots’ of the old Kraton Majapahit.

Shuffling around the tomb-temple Makam Puteri Champa I had a revelation about the depth of Chinese/Vietnamese decorative influence on Majapahit (Champa an ancient Hindu-Vietnam), and thus Bali. All the bright, contrasting, Chinese colours and sexy finials are remnants of an era, one imagines, when Chinese art and architecture held huge sway over the Malay archipelago!

A lock on the main shrine of the tomb if Puteri Champa, the Vietna-mese Princess, at Trowulan. (Note the Chinese design character).

Young Trowulan lovers schmooch behind the Pendopo Agung in the town’s centre (an ancient Hindu-Javanese tradition).

A ‘long pavilion’ bas-relief carving in a pile of Candi Minak Jinggo ruins: the architecture of Java of this era (13th century) inspired the Balinese architecture of today!

From one of the Dutch Schoolars I learned that Islam was regarded as ‘the liberator’ by the Javanese peasantry, and by many of the nobles; so strict and oppressive were the strictures and the taxes of the Hindu God-King systems in place!
At the Troloyo Royal Graves I admiring the beautiful Hindu and Islamic inscriptions on the gravestones: evidence of the overlap between the Hindu Majapahit and Islamic Majapahit eras.

• • •

Walking around the ruins my Dutch friends, the magnificent of Majapahit court ritual during the ‘Golden Era’ (15th century) was brought to life for me: I was shown the stone stella to which white elephant’s feet were tethered adjacent the king, it was explained, during important Durbar and reviews.
Was it possible I fantasized, that the expression ‘white elephant’ comes from this ritual (the poor elephant’s didn’t have to do much!!)??
I wondered also if the elephant’s depicted in 16th century lithographs of processions at the royal court of Klungkung, in Bali, were perhaps gifts from the King of Majapahit.
One can only wonder.

The gate of the Puri Kedaton in Denpasar is remarkably similar to gates in Trowulan near the Candi Kedaton complex.

A detail of a shrine inside the main temple of the Kedaton district in East Denpasar.

• • •

We stayed on the main highway at the losmen/restaurant/home of legendary Srimulat (Javanese comic opera) star, Asmuni. The East Javanese specialities—Nasi Rawon, Pecel Lele, Soto Ayam—were sampled while watching the extended family go about their daily routines, and the staff preen and pet on benches. The prettiest Asmuni-daughter would pop out of the family ‘quarters’ regular, like a cuckoo clock, when her favourite song (“Rub me all over in the royal graveyard”) was on MTV. The mostly female staff in form-fitting uniforms took turns in pressing the thighs of the three stud-muffins with elegant coifs; but only when their hand-phones weren’t raised in the “Asian salute’ (hand-phone at eyelevel in left hand).


• • •

Our drivers lolled around on plastic sofas in the losmen’s lounge: filling the ashtrays as fast as they could.
In fact chain-smoking is next to godliness in Trowulan.
We visited three ‘kramat’-style tombs—tombs where pilgrims spend a night or two, to sharpen their spirituality—I noticed pile upon pile of big bamboo ashtrays, and sensed a general excess of Carbon Monoxide in the air.
Tar stains striped the banyan tree trunks; cagey old care-takers dispensed oral traditions through nicotine stained-teeth.
My love affair with Gudang Garam Surya started all over again.

• • •

Author/Historian Nigel Bullough (Hadi Sidomulyo).

Returning to Bali I looked up my old chum Nigel Bullough, band-member of Indonesia’s first rock-band, ‘Prophesy’ in Bandung in 1969. Nigel is an expert on East Java and Majapahit, having written over ten books on the subject during the past thirty years, including the marvellous ‘Historic East Java – Monuments in Stone’.
Nigel is a living treasure of sorts: his understanding of Ancient Java, combined with his practical knowledge of modern Java, plus his passion for colonial history, are very impressive. He is not bombastic and blinkered, like so many scholars, but demure, in a warm Scottish way.

Images Courtesy of Nigel Bullough

He recounted to me the history of the ‘Minto Stone’—the last stone inscription of Central Java’s classic Hindu era (9th – 11th century)—with particular relish. It appears that a Scotsman, a Colonel Colin Mackenzie discovered this ‘stella’ and gifted it to the then Governor of Java, Sir Stamford Raffles, who presented it to Lord Minto, the Viceroy of India based in Calcutta. Lord Minto who took it home to Scotland where it remains on the Minto estates!

Candi Bajangratu gardener adopts Wayang Wong pose for a candid snap.

Back in Bali I started seeing Majapahit and Chinese-Majapahit influence everywhere—in the magnificent brick architecture of East Denpasar, in the dance costumes and woven temple decorations, and even in the faces of Balinese nobles, who all trace their ancestry back to the East Javanese kingdoms either Daha (Kediri) or Majapahit.


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