Sunday, July 13, 2014

Surabaya: Trowulan, Ancient Capital of the Majapahit Empire

Wrigin Lawang, the Banyan Tree Gate
The main reason I wanted to visit Surabaya was to tour Trowulan, the ancient site of the Majapahit Empire. Most people have never heard of either the site or the empire (including me until recently), but Majapahit was one of the greatest Southeast Asian empires, ruling over much of Indonesia and Malaysia during its heyday.

It's had an immense influence in the region: Indonesian art, architecture, and literature are all directly traceable to Majapahit, including most of Balinese culture. The Indonesian national flag is derived from Majapahit's royal colors, for example.

The capital of Majapahit was Trowulan, which is located an easy drive away from Surabaya. It was destroyed in 1478, and today only ruins remain, surrounded by rice fields and countryside. Excavations are still underway: the government has submitted the site to UNESCO for inclusion on the World Heritage List and hopes to make Trowulan into a major tourist destination. When I visited, though, I was the only Westerner and even the Indonesian tourists were few, despite it being a Saturday.
Candi Tikus
Candi Brahu

Bajang Ratu
There is a small onsite museum, though English captions are few (and in fact captions/explanatory text is general was rather sparse). The museum as a whole definitely needed some infusion of professionalism: it was not really ready for international visitors despite the sweet staff. Even finding an English map of the site was a challenge.
The museum building
Grounds with reliefs collected from the site
I thought they were quite beautiful
Reconstruction of a typical commoner's house

The ruins themselves, while highly interesting to me, are not spectacular in the way that, for example Borobudur or Prambanan are. Perhaps as the excavations continue, more will be unearthed and a fuller picture of what the ancient city looked like will emerge. More explanatory text or printed guides would also be helpful and add to the experience.
Some of the excavations
More ancient walls
I was happy just to be on the site of the ancient city and to use my imagination to reconstruct the past: if this is not one of your pleasures though, Trowulan currently leaves something to be desired. I hope that the government's efforts result in a more appropriate showcasing of this very important site.
Happy as a clam at my favorite activity, ruin viewing


  1. Wow, this looks beautiful. I learn about such great places on your blog.

    1. I have really liked traveling in Indonesia so far, yet it's surprisingly untouristy (there isn't even a really good travel guide for the region, at least in English) It's so diverse and has a very rich, deep culture. I do wonder what other places there are for me to discover: exciting!