Trowulan: Beauty in Red Brick

33 comments
Asia, Indonesia, Southeast

Walking down to Candi Tikus

I am standing in front of Candi Tikus, its red brick structure almost entirely below ground level as if the earth was purposefully dug out so that it could fit inside. A flight of stairs made from the same material acts as the only entrance way to this centuries-old site which might have functioned as a bathing place or a setting for purification rituals, although scholars have differing opinions on whom this structure was built for: the royal family or common people?

I walk down the ancient steps toward the bottom of the compound which is water-less at the height of the dry season – images I’d seen on the internet show the site filled with knee-high water. No written document or inscription has been found regarding this structure, but from its architectural style experts believe it was constructed between the 13th and 14th centuries, a time when the Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit kingdom controlled this part of Java.

During its heyday, Majapahit’s namesake ancient capital (on the site of Trowulan) had an extensive network of canals and reservoirs which together measured up to 26 kilometers long, and Candi Tikus was a part of this sophisticated water management system. Inspired by Mount Meru – the sacred peak in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology – Candi Tikus’ main tower stood above four smaller pinnacles. Around its base are dozens of water spouts in the shape of makara (a mythical sea creature in Hindu-Buddhist culture) and lotus buds, each of them finely carved from andesite stone as opposed to red brick which made up the rest of the compound. This beauty, however, would have to fall into obscurity as the once powerful Majapahit grappled with its own demise.

Encountering the same fate that befell other Hindu-Buddhist temples and edifices as Islam gradually became the dominant religion on the island, Candi Tikus was eventually forgotten. Some ancient sites were left unattended which gave way to Mother Nature to slowly reclaim them; it was not unusual for the Europeans to discover these structures partially or entirely covered with moss and shrubs during the colonial period. Java’s volcanoes and seismic activity also contributed to the complete abandonment of these sites. Many centuries- or even millennia-year-old sites ended up buried in the ground, slumbering in darkness for generations until their rediscovery – even in the 21st century a number of ancient structures and statues are still being unearthed on Java.

For hundreds of years, Candi Tikus was hidden from sight until. However, its rediscovery in 1914 was anything but suggestive of its past glory as a beautiful bathing temple. As the local farms were infested by rats, the 20th-century residents of the village of Temon in Trowulan traced back those rodents to a mysterious mound where, upon further inspection, it was revealed that an ancient brick structure was buried underneath. The rats – tikus in Indonesian – have unfortunately been associated with this structure ever since. Excavation and reconstruction were subsequently carried out by the colonial Dutch administration, and in the 1980s the Indonesian government conducted a thorough restoration of the Majapahit-era compound.

For centuries this structure was buried and forgotten

This flower finally saw the sun again in 1914

Ornate water spouts around the base of the structure

The bathing compound’s staircase

Inspired by the sacred Mount Meru

Candi Tikus in the morning sun

Water spouts modeled after makara

Among the few parts of the structures that were not made from red brick

Candi Tikus, a final look

Roughly five kilometers to the northwest of Candi Tikus, passing modern-day houses, shops, roads, corn and sugarcane plantations, lies another ancient structure, a survivor from the East Javan classical period many centuries ago. Standing tall in solitude, Candi Brahu is the highest temple in Trowulan, although the lack of information on it has left scholars broadly estimating that it was built between the 10th and 15th centuries. The contrast between this imposing edifice and Candi Tikus’ below-ground-level structure couldn’t have been starker, but the two, like most ancient sites in Trowulan, were made from the same material: red brick.

The locals believe that Candi Brahu and nearby Candi Gentong I and II which are now in ruins once belonged to the same compound. “The smaller of Candi Gentong was a bathing temple used to purify the body of a deceased king, while the bigger Candi Gentong was where the body was laid before being moved to Candi Brahu,” a young caretaker of Candi Gentong explains to James and I. “At Candi Brahu the body was then cremated,” he adds. Despite that popular local belief, no remains of hydrocarbon (or ash) have ever been found within the latter’s sanctum, leaving people today guessing the true purpose of this tall structure.

Unlike other ancient Hindu-Buddhist temples or structures that I have visited in Indonesia, Candi Brahu is devoid of any reliefs on its façade. Its rather austere look, however, is compensated by the curiously curving outline of its midsection, achieved through the application of layers of brick with different lengths and widths. Upon closer inspection, this part of the ancient temple wouldn’t look out of place today in a world where modern architecture is the preferred style for anything from houses to offices and restaurants. Going up to the large niche on the temple’s west façade is unfortunately not allowed, probably to preserve the entire structure for some people still sadly resort to vandalism – mainly engraving their names on ancient bricks or stones as has happened to a few smaller temples across Java.

Thanks to the direction its main sanctum faces, the afternoon is the ideal time to visit Candi Brahu, when its red bricks are beautifully bathed in softer hues of the sun. We stay until closing time, marveling at the band of luminous bright ocher cascading down the western face of the temple. Upon leaving I wonder how Trowulan must have looked like had most, if not all, the structures dating back to the Majapahit period survived to this day. Maybe it would have reminded me of Bagan, albeit with a more modest skyline.

Spicy Muscovy duck for lunch

Pink frangipani on the grounds of Candi Gentong

The smaller structure of the Candi Gentong compound

A Javanese-style roof protecting the fragile ruins underneath

The larger Candi Gentong

One of many Majapahit-era structures in Trowulan that remain in ruins

Adenium, found in abundance around Candi Brahu

Candi Brahu’s western façade

Curves from the past

The temple’s unusual shape makes Candi Brahu look rather modern

Just before closing time

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

33 thoughts on “Trowulan: Beauty in Red Brick”

  1. And it getting more beautiful when it closer to the dusk. :))
    In Yogyakarta, we have Candi Sambisari that like Candi Tikus. It is under the land. And Candi Tikus was made by bricks, like some Candi’s at Jambi. Is there any connection between them?

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    • Candi Sambisari is among the ancient temples I have yet to visit — hopefully in the near future! About the similarity of the construction material of the structures in Trowulan and in Jambi, what I understand is it was purely because of the fact that both regions didn’t have andesite stones in abundance, therefore they resorted to red brick.

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  2. Whenever I travel southeastwards, I’m amazed by the wonderful medieval brickwork. Thanks for posting these photos. That duck is just that little extra which makes it an even more attractive place to travel to.

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    • There are more of such sites on the island of Sumatra (the seat of the once powerful Sriwijaya empire which was defeated by the Cholas), but I haven’t been to any of them. I remember reading about how those centuries-old bricks are in fact more durable than the ones created today, which made me think why many ancient sites tend to withstand the elements relatively better than their modern counterparts, except in the case of natural disasters.

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  3. Candi Tikus feels as if it’d been made in Minecraft!

    My biggest surprise in this post is the Javanese roof that has been erected over Candi Gentong’s ruins. I can all but imagine a house like that, white walls and dark wood, with hammocks and frangipani trees… Ah, marvellous!

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    • I never play Minecraft but I just googled it and I get what you mean. You know how the same idea can be conceived by two men who never communicate with each other and are unaware of the other’s existence — an example is the fact that both Egypt and Mexico have ancient pyramids.

      A Javanese house is indeed built for the comfort of the people who live in it without being too ostentatious to outsiders. Even you can feel that way just by looking at it! 🙂

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  4. Superbly written account of the many often buried Hindu-Buddhist temples on the island of Java! You photos give a good impressions of the splendours of the past, Bama!

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    • Much appreciated, Peter. No one knows how many more ancient structures dating back to the Hindu-Buddhist period are still buried on Java, but they are slowly being rediscovered. Centuries ago I wonder if the ambiance of Java was quite similar with in India given the abundance of temples in both places.

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  5. We were so fortunate to visit Candi Tikus at the height of dry season – I had no idea about the intricately carved water spouts lining the walls and was expecting the lower portions to be flooded. It’s such a shame that so little of Candi Gentong’s two structures survive. We can only imagine what they might have looked like at the height of Majapahit power.

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    • The water spouts were exactly what I was expecting to see the most at Candi Tikus, so you know how glad I was to see them dry. A few decades ago there were more structures like Candi Gentong in Trowulan, but some of them had been irreversibly damaged. It does seem like the attitude of the locals toward these heritage sites has gradually changed for good.

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    • Terima kasih, Trees. Unlike my trip to Malang last year which, despite being in the middle of dry season, was mostly cloudy, this time in Trowulan the sun didn’t shy away from shining upon those beautiful ancient structures.

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  6. It would be cool to get in a time machine and see these places in the past. Twenty-six miles of canals and a skyline like Bagan’s would have been impressive. Good to know rats have uses from time to time.

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    • I believe Trowulan would have appeared so beautiful had we got a time machine to travel back to centuries ago when this part of Java was still ruled by Majapahit kings and queens. I wonder where the cats were back then — Candi Tikus would have been called with a different name today though.

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  7. Bama, there are a couple of things new for me in this post. I’ve never heard of a “bathing temple” and I’ve didn’t see any temples on Java that looked anything like these, particularly the red brick. But, fired clay bricks are very resistent to weathering, and this temple is proof. It’s funny that an infestation of rats lead to the discovery. And is it just me, or does Candi Brahu look like it’s built with huge legos? 🙂 ~James

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    • As you might have noticed, the color of Java’s ancient temples is usually similar to that of Borobudur and Prambanan, two of the island’s most popular of such sites. The technique of firing clay bricks is actually still used in many parts of Indonesia today. However, in general people think that for some reason the bricks made centuries ago can withstand the elements much better than those produced today. Candi Brahu does have a unusual look, doesn’t it? It’s surprising that despite lacking ornamental reliefs and sculptures, this temple is among the most unique I’ve ever seen.

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  8. Bama I am with James it does look as though it has been built out of Lego bricks.All such places with precision and attention to detail. It is hard to imagine the incredible effort required to build such a glorious temple.

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    • … and the amount of time the sculptors spent to create those pieces of art. I can imagine if such structure is to be built today it will cost a huge sum of money.

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  9. I was hypnotised by the facade of the Candi Brahu. I tried looking for an image hidden somewhere on it. You know… this kind of pattern can create some sort of optical illusion 🙂 At first, I thought these temples might relate to those in My Son because they both made of red bricks. But a closer look reveals differences, especially in the style of the towers and the decoration.

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    • Hypnotizing is indeed another way to describe Candi Brahu. The ancient temples in Trowulan despite having been constructed from red brick do look different from those in Sumatra and Vietnam. Although one particular temple called Candi Pari (which I’ve never been to) bear some resemblances with Cham temples, a proof of past connections between Champa and Majapahit.

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  10. Pingback: Trowulan: Beauty in Red Brick — What an Amazing World! – nelsongondotcom

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