The Majapahit Empire used to rule Indonesia with an iron fist and the chance to experience some temple ruins from the era was a great 1 hour journey from Surabaya.
I don’t think it’s any secret that I am fascinated by ancient civilisations. I cannot say I am an expert (yet), but when I am travelling I try to learn a little about the sights I am seeing. Before I had visited Indonesia for my backpacking trip, I had not even heard of Trowulan, a site which comprises a group of architectural remnants from the Majapahit Empire.
Having visited the ancient sites of the Pagan Empire, Angkor Empire, Srivijaya Empire, Cham Empire, and Sukhothai Empire, it seemed like a trip to some ruins from the Majapahit Empire was in order, and being in the Mojokerto Regency not too far from Surabaya, I thought this would be a good opportunity for another South East Asian history lesson. I was in the Surabaya area mainly as a base to visit Mount Bromo, and while the city itself is actually extremely boring, it is good to know that another cool day trip can be made when in the area. So, Trowulan, here I come!
Unlike other ruins and temples in Java – I am thinking specifically of Borobudur at Magelang and Prambanan in Yogyakarta – there will not be any mass tourism here at Trowulan, because, like me beforehand, not many people know about visiting here. The guidebooks will no doubt inform you to make the train journey from Yogyakarta to Surabaya (which I did!) and then head straight to Mount Bromo for a sunrise tour (which I also did, kind of). Not many people will advise you to come to Trolwulan. So I hope you can continue reading my blog, because I will recommend it…
In fact, in the 19th century, a certain Sir Stamford Raffles (then Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies, although you will know him mainly as the guy who colonised Singapore for the British) referred to Trowulan upon its discovery as “ruins of temples…scattered about the area for miles and miles”, and later, upon partial excavation from the rainforest as “the pride of Java”! I think that is quite some compliment!
I took a car from Surabaya for 650,000 Rupiah to the archaeological site, and the journey was a fairly straightforward one hour drive. The Trowulan ruins are contained within this archaeological site that covers a whopping 100sqkm. It is easy to imagine what Sir Stamford Raffles must have seen 200 years ago, even though now all before you is in a state of partial ruin (though not anywhere near as ruinous as, say, My Son in central Vietnam, which is a site that I would certainly call a waste of time). Some of the ruins contained within the Trowulan site here in Java are of resplendent temples, abandoned tombs, and even outdoor baths! Most of these are made with striking red brick, which sort of reminded me of the non-standard Khmer style of Banteay Srei in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Archaeological relics are to this day still being unearthed at the Trowulan site, although progress is often hampered by the frequent eruptions of the nearby volcano, Mount Kelud, as well as flooding of the adjacent Brantas River. There is a famous sleeping Buddha statue at Trowulan, and this is unquestionably one of the highlights of the site. Unlike some of the temples, the Buddha looks to be in good condition, so you would presume that considerable restoration has already taken place here. There are many intricate carvings and bas reliefs around the base of this Buddha statue and this takes me back to the tale of Ramayana being told around the Prambanan site, in the sense that pictorials are used to tell the story.
Pretty much like the Bagan temples in Myanmar, I got around the site here at Trowulan by bike, and there were no shortage of guides on hand to give you their knowledge. Some of them were a little too pushy, and began to cling on to me a little, which I didn’t like. However, a firm “Tidak, Terima Kasih” and a shake of the head seemed to do the trick. Now, I just want to mention a couple of my favourite locations during my half day tour:
Candi Tikus literally means “Rat Temple”, and this is because during its excavation the archaeologists believed it to be an area intended for breeding rats! I thought that was a really cool and weird story, but the temple itself was discovered in 1914 and restored to its current state at the end of the 1980s. This sunken, rectangular basin was a ritual bathing pool and access was gained by using the stairwells at either end of the pool. Candi Tikus was apparently designed in the style of the legendary volcano Mount Mahameru.
Bajang Ratu was probably the favourite ruin from the entire Trowulan site. A lot of people I have spoken to have said how amazing the gardens are that surround Bajang Ratu, and as you can see from the pic below, even in somewhat overcast weather, it still looks extremely beautiful.
As a daytrip from Surabaya, I cannot recommend enough that you head over to Mojokerto to seek the opportunity to check out the memoirs of the Majapahit at Trowulan Archaeological Site. Neither my pictures or words cannot do it justice; you need to see it for yourself before it gets too touristy!