“You’re the only person I know who comes to Mojokerto to see its ancient ruins.”
Monica expressed her amusement over dinner at a modest, dimly-lit local restaurant in the East Javan city. I knew her from college and this was only the second time we met after we both graduated – the first was a coincidence as we spotted each other at Kuala Lumpur’s old Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT) six or seven years ago. Despite its compact size – with a total area of less than 17 square kilometers – Mojokerto and the neighboring regency of the same name form one of the most important industrial centers in East Java province, hosting the production facility of one of Indonesia’s largest paper manufacturers as well as that of a Japanese food and chemical company known for its MSG-related products, among other big names.
The ancient sites of Trowulan, a district about 13 km to the southwest of Mojokerto, have been on top of my wish list for quite some time. As the former capital of Majapahit, the last major Hindu kingdom based in the island of Java, Trowulan is home to ancient ruins and structures which are rather unusual for Java: they were mostly built using red bricks as opposed to the dark volcanic stones found aplenty in other parts of the island. The abundance of the latter was pivotal for the construction of hundreds of ancient temples across Java, including the eighth-century Mahayana Buddhist masterpiece of Borobudur and the ninth-century tall and slender shrines of Prambanan, both erected during the period of the Medang kingdom; the 12th-century Penataran which is today East Java’s largest ancient temple compound; and the highly-ornate Kidal and Jago built by the rulers of the 13th-century Singhasari kingdom.
Majapahit was founded in the late 13th century by Raden Wijaya who successfully defeated the invading Mongol army in Java. The first monarch of the new kingdom ruled for 16 years until the ascension of Jayanegara – Raden Wijaya’s son – to the throne. Under the reign of its second ruler, Majapahit saw the outbreak of several rebellions, weakening the central authority of the kingdom. Exacerbated by Jayanegara’s unpopularity partly thanks to his penchant for taking the wives and daughters of his subordinates as his own, in 1328 the king was murdered by the court’s healer. Jayanegara died without having any sons to claim the throne, and therefore the next in line to become Majapahit’s ruler was Raden Wijaya’s first wife. However, as she decided to become a bhikkhuni (female Buddhist monk) her daughter Dyah Gitarja was appointed to become the kingdom’s next ruler, taking the title Tribhuwana Wijayatunggadewi (or Tribhuwannotunggadewi Jayawishnuwardhani).
Under the rule of the kingdom’s first female monarch, with the loyal support of her ambitious prime minister Gajah Mada, Majapahit’s importance in the region grew and its area expanded with a series of conquests like that of neighboring Bali in the mid-14th century. It was under her rule that Gajah Mada took his famous oath – called the Palapa Oath – to abstain from spices (or other earthly pleasures) until he managed to bring the many regions of the surrounding archipelago under Majapahit’s control. After a 22-year reign, Queen Tribhuwana abdicated following the death of her mother and she was replaced by her own son, Hayam Wuruk. It was under the fourth monarch’s rule when Gajah Mada finally fulfilled his oath, spreading Majapahit’s political and cultural influence to places far beyond its core realm, including what is now peninsular Malaysia and the southern Philippines. The nature of this influence, however, has been the subject of debate among scholars and historians with some believing that Majapahit was a thalassocracy, while others argue that relations between the Java-based power with other kingdoms in the region were that of an equal partnership with a common interest in maintaining peace and security in the waters of Maritime Southeast Asia.
Regardless of which argument is true, Majapahit’s past wealth and grandeur are palpable at its former capital in what is now the district of Trowulan. Past excavations revealed the ancient canals of a city covering a total area of 9 x 11 square kilometers and unearthed ruins of settlements, an indication of the large population that once resided here. The ancient sites of Trowulan are in fact the only surviving capital of any ancient kingdom in Indonesia, although much of its structures have been forever lost – local residents recycling the ancient bricks and using them to build houses, as well as the damage caused by plantations and industrial facilities are the main culprits.
But not all is lost. Standing just off the main road connecting Mojokerto and Trowulan is Wringin Lawang, an ancient entryway built in the split gate style – known as candi bentar – which is still prevalent today in places like Bali and some cities in Java. Typically located at the outermost gate of an important complex, the twin red-brick gate now stands in solitude, separated from the din of traffic only by rows of local residents’ houses. Closer to the central compound of the purported location of the main palace of Majapahit is Bajangratu, another gate built in a different architectural style which is in fact the most ornately-decorated surviving ancient structure in Trowulan. No written documents have been found regarding the construction of both Wringin Lawang and Bajangratu, leaving Old Javanese texts like the Negarakretagama and Pararaton as the main source of information on the history of Majapahit. While the former is a eulogy written under Hayam Wuruk’s rule in the 14th century, the latter is a chronicle created between the 15th and 16th centuries. According to an interpretation of Pararaton, Bajangratu was dedicated to the second ruler of Majapahit who died in 1328. In addition to that, the presence of dragon-like bas-reliefs on the towering roof of Bajangratu also suggests that this structure was constructed around the 14th century, a period when the Yuan dynasty – one of Majapahit’s main trading partners – still controlled China.
For a more comprehensive look at Majapahit’s artistic and cultural achievements, James and I visited Museum Trowulan. Housing a multitude of richly-embellished artworks as well as regular house appliances made of stone, metal and clay dating back to the Majapahit period that occupy two chambers at the front section, the museum offers visitors a glimpse into the daily life of the former capital’s residents. Directly behind the main building, an open-air pavilion is the resting place for some of the most important statues and sculpted artifacts discovered in East Java, including those created centuries prior to the rise of Majapahit.
After walking around the pavilion and being astonished by the beauty conceived by highly-skilled artisans hundreds of years ago, I gazed upon a group of white tents to the south of the pavilion which looked deserted. We came closer and found ruins of brick structures shaded from the harsh sun which was even more scorching at the height of the dry season. Ironically, the modern structures which were built to protect the centuries-old remains of the Majapahit-era settlements underneath seemed to have already given in to the elements; their elevated viewing platforms were severely corroded, as were the access stairs, deeming them unsafe to climb. Around lunchtime we left the museum and headed back to Mojokerto, with my mind still perplexed by the state of preservation of Trowulan’s ancient sites.