Candi Brahu, with Surya Majapahit in the foreground

Trowulan near Mojokerto is the site of the capital of the Majapahit Empire, and the only remaining city from the Hindu-Buddhist civilization in Java. It was built on a plain at the foot of the three mountains Penanggungan, Arjuna-Welirang and Anjasmara. The first research on the site was conducted in 1815 and is described in Raffles’ History of Java.

The Majapahit era was the pinnacle of Javanese civilization, and had brought high levels of refinement in the fields of spirituality, literature, technology, art, law, economy, agriculture and environment. It is from there that the most part of current Indonesia was governed for 200 years.

The city was known as Wilwatikta (wilwa = Bilva tree; tikta = bitter) in Sanskrit, which is synonymous with the empire’s name of Majapahit (maja = Bilva tree; pahit = bitter) in Javanese. This comes from the Bilva tree which is sacred to Shiva and which, according to the ancient tradition, must have been planted in the main temple, which in turn was located in the center of the city.

The site covers an area of 11 km x 9 km, spread between the Districts of Trowulan, Sooko, Mojoagung and Mojowarno. This is the size of modern Paris (around 100 square km). Researches have not yet uncovered the entire city of Majapahit as depicted in the Nagarakartagama.

The Trowulan site was used for ceremonial activities, rituals, sanctuaries, industrial activities, burials, agriculture, markets, water canals and reservoirs, all built according to the rules laid out in the Hindu-Javanese scriptures.

The city planning of the Majapahit Palace as described in the Nagarakartagama Pupuh VIII-XII is analogous to that of the Yogyakarta and Surakarta Palace. It also resembles the design of the current Balinese palace compound, showing the remarkable continuity in Javanese sacred architecture.

The structures in Trowulan are unusual for Java, because  they were mostly built using red bricks as opposed to the dark volcanic stones found elsewhere on the island. The capital city was built with thorough planning, with detailed architecture that followed traditional Javanese wisdom principles in managing the environment.

Bajang Ratu, the most ancient Paduraksa in Trowulan

Wilwatikta is a classical city settlement that can serve as a reference for studying other ancient cities in South East Asia in terms of spatial planning and environmental management.

The city is full of remains of industrial, commercial and religious activity, habitation areas, water supply systems and water canals all of which are evidence of a dense population.

Around the temples are traces of human settlement, just like in the Bawongan Temple and around Borobudur. Temples did not stand alone as a place of worship. They were surrounded by monasteries, as well as a whole local community of laymen and caretakers that ensured their functioning.

The Nagarakretagama describes how the royal compound was surrounded by a thick, high wall of red brick. The main gate into the palace was located in the north wall, and was entered through huge doors of decorated iron.

Outside the North gate was a market place and a sacred crossroads. Just inside the north gate was a courtyard containing religious buildings. On the eastern side of this courtyard were pavilions surrounded by canals where people bathed.

At the south end a gate led to rows of houses set on terraces in which palace servants lived. Another gate led to a third courtyard crowded with houses and a great hall for those waiting to be admitted into the ruler’s presence.

The king’s own quarters, which lay to the west of this courtyard, had pavilions on decorated red brick bases, ornately carved wooden pillars, and a roof decorated with clay ornaments.

The palace is said to have been enclosed within a brick wall more than 10 metres high. The houses inside were built on pillars and were 10–13 metres high, with wooden floors covered with fine mats on which people sat. Roofs were made from wooden shingles and the dwellings of the common people were roofed with straw.

The word kuwu in Nagarakretagama seems to refer the settlement units consisting of a group of buildings surrounded by wall, in which a large number of people lived under the control of a nobleman. This pattern characterized the 16th-century cities of Java described by European visitors, and Wilwatikta was probably composed of such units.

A lot of the old settlement still lie buried under several meters of mud and volcanic debris, a result of the frequent eruptions of nearby Mount Kelud, as well as frequent flooding of the Brantas River. Some settlements have undergone reconstruction.

As elsewhere in Java, volcanoes and seismic activity contributed to the 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. Ancient structures and statues are constantly being unearthed in Java. A lot still remains to be discovered.

A culture of water management

Wilwatikta City had a sophisticated canal system, with 18 large and small dams connected to an irrigation system. From the aerial view, it can be observed that the ancient water canals were symmetrically built and seemingly have shaped the city.

The Javanese had a perfect understanding of hydraulic technology (subak) – which is still in use today in Bali. The systematically built canals dissecting the city of Majapahit are the results from a wise assessment and management of resources. The high rain fall in the rainy months could not compensate for the low rain fall in the dry season.

This means the Trowulan area may experience 4 to 6 months of drought in a year. During the dry season the volume of the Gunting River and Brangkal River may shrink, and the opposite happens in the rainy season.

The extensive network of canals and reservoirs was up to 26 kilometers long, and Candi Tikus was a part of this sophisticated water management system.

The network of 20 to 40 meter-wide canals crossed the the city perpendicularly. It was developed based on a chess board pattern according to the principles of Vastu shastra. The perpendicular canals run from North to South and from West to East, although not exactly parallel to the Earth’s north-south magnetic axis – they had to be adjusted to the geographical condition.

The canals were also linked to a network of roads that were built either on one or both sides of the canals. The canal system also served as an irrigation facility for agriculture and were used to channel water into the five main reservoirs (Baureno Dam, Kumitir Dam, Domas Dam, Temon Dam, Kraton Dam and the Kedung Wulan Dam).

In addition to these dams, Trowulan had three man-made ponds closely positioned – the Balong Bunder, Balong Dowo, and the Segaran Pond, a large rectangular pool 800 x 500 metres in size.

Segara in Javanese means ‘sea’. The 46,875-square meter pool was built slightly higher than its surroundings and is currently used to irrigate paddy fields adjacent to the pool.

Candi Tikus (‘Rat Temple’) is a ritual bathing pool (petirtaan) which is perhaps the most exciting recent archaeological finding at Trowulan. This complex of red brick takes the form of a sunken, rectangular basin, into which a flight of steps descends on the northern side.

No longer complete, it consisted of terraced foundations, upon which would have rested a concentric arrangement of ‘turrets’ surrounding the highest peak of the building. Around its base are dozens of water spouts in the shape of makara and lotus buds, each of them finely carved from andesite stone.

The sacred pond at Candi Tikus

Waringin Lawang (‘Banyan Tree Gate’ in Javanese) is one of the oldest and the largest candi bentar (‘split gateway’) gateways from the Majapahit era. The candi bentar consists of three parts; foot, body and tall roof – evenly split into two mirroring structures to make a passage in the center for people to walk through.

Split gates have no doors and no defensive purpose but serve instead a spiritual and ceremonial purpose, before entering the next compound.

Wringin Lawang, one of the gates of Trowulan

A cultural revival

The majesty of Trowulan has attracted numerous craftsmen and artists over the years, who chose to relocate in the area to produce handicrafts and other cultural items related to the Majapahit culture. Green initiatives enrich the area, by planting rare plants in and around the Wilwatikta site.

In the village of Mojoagung, on the road to Jombang, the artisans specialize in wax bronze casting, all done in cauldrons and then molded in clay, following the exact same techniques as during the Majapahit era. This technique has been used by master bronze-makers in Trowulan since at least 300 BC. The shops also sell Majapahit-era door handles, and a whole range of bronze objects.

The reconstruction efforts have also brought traditional architects who then went on building a whole village in the style of the Majapahit houses, in Desa Bejijong.

The village’s main road connects the Mojokerto Bypass and Brahu Temple while providing access to several key destinations of the area like the Siti Inggil Cemetery, Maha Vihara Majapahit and Gentong Temple.

Bejijong village is the heart of modern-day Trowulan. The Majapahit community contains over a hundred houses spread between the villages of Bejijong, Sentonorejo and Jatipasar.

Some of the most famous art galleries in the village:

• Brass statues: Kosem Art Gallery, Bejijong village

• Stone carving: Java Sculpture, Jl. Majapahit 3, Dsn. Wates Umpak, Trowulan, Mojokerto

• Bronze: Ganeysa, Jl. Sanan Selatan 1/36, Mojoagung, Jombang

Maha Vihara Mojopahit and the Reclining Buddha

The Maha Vihara Mojopahit in Trowulan is the temple of the head of the Buddhayāna sect in Indonesia, which encompasses the three main Buddhist schools, Theravāda, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna. Therefore the main temple includes shrines to Śākyamuni, Avalokitesvara and Mañjuśrī, as well as a magnificent shrine to Mahā Brahma – in November there are festivities to celebrate Maha Brahma (She Mien Fuk).

The temple also has Indonesia’s biggest Reclining Buddha statue. With a length of 22 metres it is the third biggest in the world, behind the ones in Bangkok and in Nepal. It is in the 2 hectares park of the Maha Vihara Mojopahit monastery.

The Buddhists at Maha Vihara Mojopahit extend hospitality to anyone willing to accept their modest lifestyle. Visitors can have a silent time in the dharma room Sasono Bhakti or to study in the library. Accommodation is available. A voluntary donation is welcome.

How to get there

• By train: The closest railway stations are at Jombang (19 kilometres from the museum) and at Mojokerto (13 kilometres from the museum). They lie on the line connecting Solo with Surabaya. In Mojokerto you can take a becak to the Kertajaya bus station, from where it is a 15 minutes bus ride to Trowulan.

• By plane and car: Fly into Surabaya and take a car to Trowulan (Mojokerto regency). It is a 2-3 hours drive.

Where to sleep

There is no accommodation in Trowulan village so you will have to stay over in Jombang or Mojokerto, at about 15 kilometres distance.

• In Jombang: Yusro Hotel Restaurant, located on the border of Jombang town on the Trowulan side, close to the bus terminal.