Trundling into History in Trowulan (Part 3)

Wringin Lawang Temple

Time flies. We hear this saying a lot. For me, this is especially true when you read history books and find how easily numbers dart from one century to another. Having said that, I can’t help but be in awe in realizing that the web of life once introduced one culture to another, not to intermingle like it had with Hindu, Buddha, and Islam during the Majapahit era, but to allow one to try to reconstruct the other, just around 300 years after the latter deteriorated into ruins and tales. It must be like a future (a short future, I’d like to imagine) smart-phone user seeing words printed in books for the first time.

In 1815, an army surveyor and engineer named Johannes Willem Bartholomeus Wardenaar was assigned to research into the existence of archaeological remains in Mojokerto. Two years later, the results were included in Sir Stamford Raffles’ book History of Java. Over 30 years later, a team of archaeologists conducted a further research to collect data for their book Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia. Several more researchers representing the “Western” authority and interests came and more texts about the “not so ancient” (it had only been over 300 to 500 years ago, right?) life in the capital city of the Majapahit Kingdom (if we exclude the “slightly” older Kediri and Singosari) were produced.

It was only until the beginning of the 20th century that a born-and-bred Mojokertonese by the name of R.A.A. Kromodjojo Adinegoro, who happened to be Mojokerto’s regent, conducted serious researches and excavations in Trowulan. In 1924, with a Dutch architect named Henry Maclaine Pont, he co-initiated the building of Oudheeidkundige Vereeneging Majapahit (Majapahit Information Center), the beginning of a huge project that is now known as Majapahit Museum.

We’ll get into more details about the museum later. Now let’s trundle on from where we left off in Part 2. Read also Part 1.


9. Maha Vihara Majapahit

the largest Buddha statue in Indonesia

Even if you plan to only take photos of the main spots of interest in Trowulan, one day is definitely not enough to visit them all. Especially if you’re planning to do it on foot, like we did. After visiting Trowulan’s Troloyo Cemetery, we realized that we had to conclude our day there. We headed to Pacet that night, and then to Surabaya the following day. Lucky for us, this wonderful lesbian couple who let us stay the night at their place in Surabaya had always wanted to see Trowulan. They agreed to accompany us there by car the next morning.

The first spot the four of us visited was Maha Vihara Majapahit. The Buddhist monastery compound may not be directly related to the great empire, but it stands as a reminder of how Buddhism once flourished in Majapahit. At some point during the kingdom’s golden period, the faith was inseparable from a state of harmony — a zenith of the natural tantra or interweaving of life’s highest truth — now commonly referred to as Hindu-Buddhism. In fact, Indonesia’s national motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, meaning “unity in diversity,” is taken from a line in a collection of epic poems called Sutasoma by a great Majapahit teacher named Mpu Tantular, who promoted tolerance between the kingdom’s Shivaite Hindus and Buddhists through the same words.

Different guardians in Trowulan told us that for years now many pilgrims from Bali have come to the different temples and grave sites here to perform Hindu rituals. Every year, Buddhists flock to Brahu Temple, located not too far from the monastery, to celebrate Vesak. These examples seem to be a rather quiet continuance of the once palpably felt convergence between the two great “paths.”

a head-shot of the giant Sleeping Buddha statue, which at its utmost points lies at 22 meters in length, six meters in width, and 4.5 meters in height

When we came here, the monastery was crowded with local tourists hoping to see the giant statue of Buddha in a sleeping position, said to be the third largest in the world after the ones in Thailand and Nepal. Local vendors’s tents, circling a square before the monastery’s entrance gate, were making more than usual during the long Eid holiday.

Initiated by Mojokerto’s Buddhist monk Viriyanadi Mahathera in 1985 and opened officially four years later, the building of Maha Vihara Majapahit, or the Great Monastery of Majapahit, originally served as a place of worship for subscribers of the different schools of Buddhism. But the initiator also had the spirit of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika in mind when he opened the compound to tourists of any denomination who wish to have an appreciative grasp of Buddhism. As the monk once said: “I want us to always remember that the Majapahit Empire brought the archipelago together. That spirit of unity is what we wish to show here.”

photos at Maha Vihara Majapahit by Odino:

one of our lesbian friends placing an incense in front of the main prayer-chamber as a gesture of respect

a Hindu-style relief outside the main prayer-chamber depicting little Buddha

Inside the main prayer chamber. Next to the central altar where Buddha Shakyamuni sits are two more altars for followers of the other schools of Buddhism to pray.

one of the prayer pavilions within the compound showing a Javanese architectural style

A maja tree growing in the monastery’s garden. Majapahit is believed to be named after this plant, which bears extremely bitter fruits. In Indonesian, bitter translates as pahit.


10. Brahu Temple

Located north of the monastery in Bejijong Village, Brahu Temple stands grandiosely at nearly 26 meters tall and almost 21 meters wide. An ancient stone inscription dug up not too far from this temple mentions the name of a sacred building called waharu or warahu. The word was then used to name this temple. The inscription itself was issued by a ruler of Medang Kingdom in year 939. This fits with history books that describe Medang as a kingdom that was first located in Central Java in the 9th century and then moved to East Java in the 10th century. So if it’s true that Brahu is the sacred building mentioned in the inscription, then this temple is not from the Majapahit era after all, and is much older than the rest of the grand, old structures that have been renovated in Trowulan.

Interestingly, a radio carbon analysis on charcoal remains found in the temple’s closed chamber came out with the result that the charcoal came from between the 15th to the 17th century. Is this temple from the Medang or the Majapahit era? Was its significance as a sacred place during the Medang period extended throughout the Majapahit time? One thing many experts agree on is that this is a Buddhist temple. The conclusion is based on the round shape of the remaining decorative element on one of its top corners, presenting the possibility that the temple once supported one or more stupas. Many Buddhists come to this temple during full moon of every May to celebrate Vesak, the day commemorating the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha Gautama.

photos of Brahu Temple by Odino:


11. Gentong Temple

The gate to this temple, which is only a few hundred meters from Brahu, was closed when we got there, so we couldn’t explore all of its sides. However, standing from outside was enough for me to see how the remains in this location, like in several other spots of interest in Trowulan, also looked like an ancient settlement. Except it wasn’t. Also pointed out by Maclaine Pont based on Nagara Kertagama and excavations, the old bricks discovered in the area are the remains of a large complex consisting of three temples, with Gentong being just one of them. Seen from the way the temples must have been lined from west to east, and based on findings of Buddhist relics at this site, it is believed that the compound’s layout used to be a mandala stupa. That’s another way of saying that there used to be a smaller version of Borobudur made from red bricks standing here.

BEKABULUH photo: Odino da Costa


12. Majapahit Museum

Majapahit Museum, also known as Trowulan Museum or East Java’s Ancient Heritage Conservation Center

Despite the fact that brick-making has been a local industry for hundreds of years in Trowulan, the activities within and around the ancient Majapahit city are now threatening this important archaeological site. It is not surprising since the thousands of simple brick factories tend to dig as deep as three meters to collect dirt and clay as raw materials, with no regard whether or not ancient remains are hidden beneath. According to archaeologist Mundarjito, as quoted by Antara news agency in this article, there are about 4,000 factories operating around Trowulan, creating about 75% of damage to the total area of 99 square kilometer in Trowulan and Sooko subdistricts in Mojokerto, as well as in Mojowarno and Mojoagung subdistricts in Jombang Regency. If they did find ancient artifacts, according to Mundarjito in the same article, the common practice is to keep or sell them in the black market for extra income.

Turning the whole quarter into a cultural heritage site is among the options that can be taken to stop further destruction, although that would mean that the current settlement and other businesses in the area might be subject to such a ruling. But it isn’t just the local brick makers that have destroyed the ancient city’s remains. The government through East Java’s Ancient Heritage Conservation Center (Balai Pelestarian Peninggalan Purbakala) created a brouhaha in 2009 when it decided to build Trowulan Museum, also known as Majapahit Museum or East Java’s Artifacts Preservation Center, on a spot believed to be an important location during the Majapahit era. Just to give you an illustration of how important the spot used to be, and what kind of building might still remain as ruins underneath the museum, here is a 1924 reconstruction sketch of the Ancient City of Trowulan by Maclaine Pont, one of the initiators of the first Majapahit Information Center. See where the museum is located within the sketch that was based on the ancient text of Nagara Kertagama and a series of excavations.

Having determined the area in green (my editing) as the main palace compound, Pont placed the settlement complex for Majapahit’s ministers in the turquoise area, where the museum is now located. The building of Majapahit Museum was also problematic because it wasn’t prepared with neither a license for construction nor an environmental impact assessment, as reported in this article.

Allow me to continue my rant. When the four of us arrived at the museum, we were told to fill the guest book and pay whatever amount of money we wished to give. The guard called it uang sukarela, or voluntary entrance fee. I really don’t mind paying some money to get to museums. In fact, I would feel more assured that the guards were doing their jobs if I knew what the rate was and how the entrance fee was managed for the betterment of the museum, despite all the damage it’s done to the site. My fear would soon become a reality. Passing through the side path to get to the back of the museum, where a hallway and a garden containing thousands if not millions of artifacts were stored, we found signs saying that no photography and no touching of the relics on display was allowed. But not only were some visitors taking pictures, one of them even let her child ride on the back of a big stone relic, which I could tell was a statue of Nandi the bull, the mount of Shiva and the gate keeper of the god’s abode. All of these were happening when the guards were around.

the boy after riding Nandi and having his picture taken

To check if they were aware of all the violations that were happening, I decided to violate the no-photography rule myself. I roamed around and stood in spots where the guards would be able to see me clearly when I took pictures of the artifacts. No one called out. No warning. Nothing. I then walked out of the open hall to the surrounding garden, where even more stone artifacts from the area and other locations in East Java were exhibited. No guard was seen here. So had I suddenly gone insane and grabbed one or more of the smaller relics and put them in my bag, there was no one to spot and report me to the authority. Cases of missing items from museums are quite common in this country, and that day, I wasn’t surprised.

Check out the following photos to see how easy many of the items at Majapahit Museum can go missing.

a statue of Ardhanari welcomes visitors to the hall

Can you spot any security camera?

“Let’s put all these statues outside and see if anyone’s interested in giving them a new home.”

“The giant’s head is surely too big for your bag, but what about Ganesha over there?”

“Any of these items would go very nicely on my coffee table.”

“What a keeper!”

“Allow this Feng Shui consultant to suggest you to have a Garuda in your study for an extra sense of power and liberation.”

“These broken clay pots don’t look that worthy of a display case. Shall we just scatter them behind the museum?”

On the southern side of the museum are two large modern structures consisting of steel columns, staircases, railings, and a roof used for protecting and for visitors to observe two excavation sites. When I asked one of the guards if I could go up, he warned me to be careful as the stairs’ wooden steps were crumbly. Oh well, so they wasted money on making these structures by using cheap quality timbers. Perhaps they are going to wait until someone gets hurt before the wooden parts of the buildings are repaired.

an excavation site near the museum

Another excavation site near the museum. So can they really say that the museum is not standing on an important ancient site? If you’re wondering what happened to the case, it just fizzed out.


13. Princess Champa’s Grave

There is a cemetery compound on the north-eastern side of Segaran Pond that is filled with mystery. It is said that several important people during the Majapahit era are buried there. Many pilgrims from various corners of Indonesian come to these graves to perform a certain ritual involving flower petals, burning incense, and staying up all night, if not night after night, to attain powers or ask for divine guidance. When we got here, one of the site’s guardians by the name of Mariam pointed us in the direction of what is probably the cemetery’s most popular grave, namely that of Princess Champa.

Champa was a kingdom in the 7th through to the 19 century located in modern day Vietnam. It used to be a tributary under Majapahit, and young women of nobility from this kingdom were often offered to become brides of Majapahit rulers and high officials. One of these princesses is now simply known as Putri Campa (Cempo in local dialect). The princess from Champa, according to Babad Tanah Jawi, a long historical text containing short biographies of important names in Java’s ancient kingdoms, was the wife of Majapahit’s last ruler, Brawijaya.

Many would tell you that they have seen an apparition of this queen, or heard her whispers, when they perform a ritual here. Which is funny, because if this is really the grave of Brawijaya’s queen, then the headstone of the particular grave shouldn’t show a date referring to a time when Majapahit was still a fledgling kingdom. Well, that’s what some books say. When we got there, the headstones were covered by white cloths. But the old cemetery compound itself was charming and deliciously breezy that we spent a long time taking pictures and resting there. We forgot that on our first day in Trowulan, a man had advised us to meditate at Makam Panjang, or the Long Grave, also located in this compound.

“It’s even more effective to do rituals at Makam Panjang than at Putri Champa’s grave. Easier to get your wishes to come true,” he said. “People have seen a white tiger appear there several times. I did too, once, when I was a kid. It stayed put, covering its face with one paw, before it disappeared. Go and try it for yourself.”

photos at Princess Champa’s Cemetery Compound by Odino:


14. Wringin Lawang Temple

We arrived at this place at the perfect time. The clear, blue sky was gleaming with yellow and purple, and the stinging heat gradually subdued. Gone are all my crankiness for being lost trying to get to this place due to some posters of politicians blocking the big direction sign to this spot. All that was left in me was the anxiety that we might not produce photos that are awesome enough, since the sun was quickly sinking exactly across from the temple. Truly, the site was fabulous. The garden around the 15.5 meter high structure in bentar or split-gate style had to be the best compared to the gardens at the other temples. It was fringed by a vast sugarcane plantation on the eastern side. The swaying of the long, green leaves in the zephyrs added to the place’s dreamy feel during the golden hour.

Wringin Lawang is believed to be the gateway to a complex of buildings. A series of excavations unearthed bricks, probably the remains of a surrounding wall or base, on the northern and southern sides of Wringin Lawang. Also discovered here were 14 cylindrical and square wells on the southwestern quarter of the gate. An old banyan tree — beringin in Indonesian, wringin in Javanese — stands near this temple, lending it half its name, while the other half means “door.” One local belief has it that any government official should not pass through this gate if they wish to keep their job. After the Kudus Tower, this was my next chance to ensure that I would never work for the government.

photos of Wringin Lawang by Odino:


Those are the fourteen spots we visited in Trowulan. We realized after we returned home that we had skipped several other interesting spots around the location such as Menak Jinggo Temple, Siti Hinggil, and Klinterejo Site. We should save them for next time we visit Mojokerto. As for now, we hope this three-part report has enticed you to go and check out Trowulan to see the wonders of the ancient city and to unravel its secrets for yourself.

Don’t forget to Try These Special Trowulan Dishes.


6 responses to “Trundling into History in Trowulan (Part 3)

  1. Pingback: Try These Special Trowulan Dishes | BEKABULUH·

  2. Pingback: Trundling into History in Trowulan (Part 2) | BEKABULUH·

  3. dudee this is awesome..! I! Was in East Java pretty frequent last year, and didnot got any time to visit this amazing historical site!!! Thanks for sharing!

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