Majapahit archaeological site
Published/Last edited or updated: 17th May, 2018
Off the radar of many foreign tourists, simply put, Trowulan is one of the most significant historical sites in the whole of Southeast Asia.
This tiny dusty nondescript rural village approximately 60 kilometres southwest of the bustling port city of Surabaya and around 14 kilometres from Mojokerto, was once the seat of the mighty, powerful and influential Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit Empire which reigned between the 13th and 15th centuries covering much of Java, Bali and Sumatra and stretched as far as mainland Southeast Asia and some believe, parts of Southern Indian and Northern Australia.
For folks interested in trivia, this great Empire is said to have being named after the large cannonball-shaped bitter-tasting maja fruit trees which grow prolifically in Java. Pahit means bitter in Indonesian, hence Majapahit. The ancient city ruins cover approximately eleven by nine kilometres and as the majority of structures were built from red brick, little remains intact. What does endure is surely not as remarkable as its past, but the scattering of temples, archaeological sites and museum are well worth the effort to visit.
Early research of the area was executed in the early 19th century under Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles when he was Lieutenant-Governor of then British Java and later continued by the Dutch. In the early 20th century, Dutch architect and archaeologist, Henri Maclaine Pont established the site museum with a view to preserving this important heritage.
The Majapahit Museum is a good place to start to grasp an overview of the area and to purchase your ticket that will gain foreigners entry into most of the sites for 50,000 rupiah. Indonesians pay only 5,000 rupiah for the museum, but pay an additional 3,000 to 5,000 rupiah at each temple. More recent and ongoing studies have revealed that this site was not only the place of royalty with a large palace, bathing pool and royal temples but a fully functioning city with dams and irrigation canals and evidence of industrial, commercial and religious activity. Many of the ancient structures contain architectural styles seen in modern Bali, which gained this influence due to the massive migration of Hindu loyalists from Java to Bali during the decline of the Majapahit empire and the rise of Islamic sultanates in the 15th century.
Set within a sculpture-dotted grassy lawn, the Majapahit Museum contains a splendid collection of thousands of artefacts that have been found in the local area as well as all over East Java, displayed with mostly Indonesian and some English language explanations. Two lower rooms of the double-storey main building house mostly dusty, but interesting relics that include ceramics from as far afield as China, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Japan indicating the spread of the Empire and its trade links; superb terracotta figurines that counts Chinese and Arabic style models, vessels, pipes and water spouts; children’s games; piggy banks; bronze religious objects; jewellery and coins among other vestiges of this great kingdom. The upper levels of the main building were closed during our visit and photography is not permitted at the museum (although that didn’t seem to deter some local selfie snappers).
At the rear, an open air pavilion exhibits an extensive assemblage of stone sculptures. The number and quality is overwhelming, but we were particularly taken by the large Ardhanari statue, the composite “half man-half woman” androgynous form of Shiva and his consort Parvati. Here you’ll also find information about the local ruins and other ancient sites in Java as well as a life-size reconstruction of a typical Majapahit village house. Interestingly you may note the similarities to the modern-day village which has undergone a renovation inspired by the past—the contemporary brick homes have been transformed with Majapahit-style facades with red brick walls, teak doors and window shutters and terracotta roof tiles. Decorative crown-like terracotta features sit along the top of red brick fences, further decorated with Majapahit sunburst motives giving the whole area a Majapahit theme-park atmosphere.
To the south of the main museum building are two covered open air archaeological digs where you can see the foundations of buildings, walls, wells and pipes. Unfortunately the impressive overhead walkways are in a state of major disrepair and were closed when we visited in 2018. This structure was the winning design in an architectural competition and obviously cost a fair sum to construct, so it is very disappointing that it is not been maintained since.
Just north and opposite the museum is the large Kolam Segaran, a man-made rectangular pool constructed of red brick, measuring approximately 175 by 370 metres and 2.8 metres deep. Archaeologists speculate as to its purpose, but we like the story that it was used as a swimming pool to entertain important royal guests, and to show the wealth of the Majapahit royals was said to be the “washing up bowl” after banquets when dirty plates would just be tossed into the water (probably the dirty plates on display at the museum from all over Asia). Sure beats the traditional was of cleaning up.
To visit the temples and sites within the area requires a little forward and backtracking from the museum, and will take the best part of a day, if you have limited time try to see Candi Bajang Ratu and Candi Tikus to the southeast of the museum and Candi Brahu and Candi Wringin Lawang to the north, the four most impressive sites.
Head south from the museum, and after around 500 metres, turn left and continue for two kilometres to Candi Bajang Ratu, which is more of an ancient gateway than a temple. The graceful 16.5 metre high red brick structure dates from the 14th century and is topped by a soaring slender pyramid-shaped roof above an open portal with stairs leading up and down the opposite side. Relief carvings can be seen around the outer walls including Kali heads on all four sides that adorn many Majapahit temples in Java and contemporary temples in Bali. Detailed images on the tiered roof depict animals and floral motives. Bajang Ratu translated from Javanese means “stunted or small monarch” and according to information at the site, tradition links the temple to Jayanegara, the second Majapahit king who according to various folklore stories was either crowned as a child-king or fell from the gate as a child, causing stunted growth.
A further 700 metres along the road, Candi Tikus is a small ritual Hindu bathing pool, a little over 20 metres square. Within the stepped sunken brick construction, a central square “island” joins the southern edge and contains miniature candi-like structures. In the northern corners two bathing areas are separated from the main pool accessed via a central stairway. These would likely have been the ablution areas, one for women and one for men. Although modest in size, this simply adorned site offers a serenity that was not even disturbed by the excursioning school group during our visit. “Tikus” means rat in Indonesian and apparently refers to rat nests found at the site during excavation not some rodent worshiping cult.
Backtrack to the corner, and if you’re feeling hungry stop at Warung Pojok Bu Tikah to try the local specialty, sambal wader, fried small fish served with a tomato based sambal—fishy, spicy and crunchy! If local food doesn’t appeal, pack a lunch box as most of the sights are surrounded by beautiful manicured gardens that would make a lovely picnic spot.
Two hundred metres south, the Pendopo Agung a sizeable modern joglo-style open hall is said to be built on the site that the formidable 14th-century Majapahit Prime Minister, Gajah Mada, swore the “Palapa oath” (sumpah Palapa), which goes something along the lines of “I will not taste any spice until I succeed in unifying Nusantara (modern-day Indonesia)”. The Pendopo is nothing more than a shady spot to take a rest, but head behind and within a red-brick walled enclosure is a shrine that the local attendants said was a rock forced into the ground by Gajah Mada himself. This hexagonal phallic shaped pillar juts out at an angle and the local legend is that like Arthur’s sword, it can’t be removed by mere mortals. The rock is shaded by temple umbrellas and covered in offerings of flowers and coins. Beyond the shrine, a small Muslim graveyard sits shrouded by the forest and another modern small tiered-roof building lays further beyond. Pendopo Agung requires a separate entrance ticket of 3,000 rupiah.
Continue south from Pendopo Agung for 500 metres, then turn right where a cluster of archaeological sites includes the foundations of Candi Kedatan and within the same covered enclosure, Sumur Upas “Poison Well”. Adjacent to this an open-air site, Umpak Tujuh Belas, contains the stone foundations of what may have been a wooden pavilion, probably similar to the Pendopo Agung. Across the road, Situs Lantai Segi Enam (Hexagonal floor site) is simply a dig that reveals hexagonal floor tiles within the former structure. Unless you are keen on archaeology, this area looks very similar to the untrained eye to the other dig-sites in the region, and we found the completed temples of greater interest.
Backtrack past the museum and Kolam Segaran, crossing over the main road and continue from the corner 700 metres to the turnoff to Candi Gentong (270 metres) and Candi Brahu. Candi Gentong is another incomplete covered dig, stop if you’re keen or continue to Candi Brahu, a further 370 metres.
Fourteenth century Buddhist Candi Brahu is the largest remaining temple at Trowulan, standing over 25 metres. Sitting on a wide square base, the stupor-like curved temple is similar in shape to Candi Jabung, another Majapahit temple near Probolinggo. A doorway high above an incomplete stairway looks like it leads to a small chamber that would have likely have contained a statue. Although little is known, it is suggested that Candi Brahu may have been a royal mortuary shrine.
About one kilometre south of Candi Brahu, turn right for Siti Inggil, the tomb and pilgrimage site of the first Majapahit king, Raden Wijaya. The site is a modern structure and probably not much interest to the passing tourist, however it’s a very sacred place locally. Look for the Juru Kunci, the keeper of the key who will unlock the shrine that wraps an ancient Banyon tree. Inside you’ll find marble Muslim-style grave markers for Raden Wijaya along with four smaller graves. Nearby a grey stone rectangular shaped structure rests on a marble topped plinth. The Juru Kunci encouraged us to climb to the top of this to meditate. If you visit, leave a small donation for the Juru Kunci.
Head back towards the main road and continue in the direction towards Mjokerto, a turnoff to the east will lead to Candi Wringin Lawang, an impressive 16-metre tall split gate or “candi bentar”, that these days leads nowhere. The name of this candi translates to “Banyan Tree Gate” and it is popularly believed that it led to Gajah Mada’s palace.
Additionally the area holds other grave sites and temple ruins, and no doubt with further archaeological work more will be discovered. Nearby the modern sleeping Buddha at Maha Vihara Mojopahit (they spell it with Os not As) seems to be the most popular local attraction and is surrounded by souvenir stalls and food sellers. The gold painted Buddha erected in 1989 at 22 metres long is the largest in Indonesia. Entry will set you back 3,000 rupiah.
Trowulan has been submitted to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is currently on the tentative list. This underexposed cultural site is an easy day trip from Surabaya, but is rarely visited by foreign tourists, although don’t expect the likes of Borobudur or Angkor Wat, it’s nonetheless impressive and worth your time. Note that contemporary Buddhists and Hindus (as well as Muslims) regard this as a religious site, so modest dress is appreciated.
Trowulan can be reached by bus from Surabaya’s Terminal Purabaya or Mojokerto and buses and trains connect to both Surabaya and Mojokerto from many destinations in Java, but unless you want to slog it on foot, you’ll require private transport around the temples. Motorbike taxis can be found near the terminal, but you will have to bargain.
The area is flat and would be excellent to explore by bicycle, but unfortunately unless you bring your own there are none for hire. We hired a car and driver direct from Surabaya for 500,000 rupiah for the full day trip and the journey between Surabaya and Trowulan took around one and a half hours each way. If you’re travelling to Malang visit the temples of the 13th Century Singosari Kingdom, considered to mark the beginnings of the Singosari-Majapahit era.
Sally spent twelve years leading tourists around Indonesia and Malaysia where she collected a lot of stuff. She once carried a 40kg rug overland across Java. Her house has been described as a cross between a museum and a library. Fuelled by coffee, she can often be found riding her bike or petting stray cats. Sally believes travel is the key to world peace.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.