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Ruins of Majapahit capital in Indonesia saved

Publication Date : 17-11-2013


Its empire once dominated much of Southeast Asia, but up till a few weeks ago, the ruins of the Majapahit capital in Trowulan, Indonesia, were under threat - from a steel mill.

Residents launched a "Save Trowulan" campaign and held demonstrations in protest over its planned construction.

In response, the central and local governments ordered a halt to work there and revoked the company's permit late last month.

The Indonesian Ministry of Education and Culture pledged to make the area, some 60km south-west of Surabaya in East Java, a cultural heritage conservation site.

That would regulate development in the area and penalise offenders with up to 15 years in jail.

"Trowulan is a national icon, and Majapahit gave us concepts like the national motto 'Bhinneka Tunggal Ika' (Unity in Diversity)" said veteran archaeologist Professor Mundardjito of the University of Indonesia.

"Once we protect the site legally, we can develop it in a sustainable way and let it be a venue to educate future generations," he told The Sunday Times.

The episode has revived concern over the dire state of Indonesia's historical sites, and archaeologists and heritage activists are pressing for Trowulan to be listed as a Unesco world heritage site.

While there are signposts and a museum in the area, such recognition would boost visitor numbers beyond several hundred a day. The world-famous Borobudur, by contrast, attracted more than three million visitors last year.

The Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit empire ruled what is today East Java and Bali for over two centuries from here from 1293. Old Javanese texts say its tributaries extended as far as southern Thailand and the Philippines, and Majapahit coins have been excavated at Fort Canning in Singapore.

But the kingdom was weakened and defeated in the early 16th century, and Trowulan was abandoned until its ruins were publicised by Thomas Stamford Raffles, then governor of Java, in the 1810s.

Today, politicians and aspiring presidential contenders cite Majapahit as an example of Indonesian potential. But they are aware that its remnants need fixing.

Most of the old capital remains buried, although the government restored several structures for the 700th anniversary of its founding 20 years ago.

The historical site covers some 100 sq km. Archaeologists have uncovered an elaborate system of temples and gateways as well as canals, reservoirs, and thousands of domestic tools.

Several gapura - or ornate gates - from the period have been designated national cultural items.

The trouble, say observers like Asep Kambali of heritage group Komunitas Historia Indonesia, is that local authorities lack understanding of conservation.

"Heritage preservation requires planning for the long term. When you think of just a five-year term, that's an issue," he said.

In 2009, the then culture and tourism ministry decided to build an information centre on the site. But it was soon discovered that this would affect artefacts, and the project was relocated.

In the case of the aborted steel plant, the Mojokerto regency government had issued a permit to the company, which was planning to invest some 70 billion rupiah (US$6 million), in June.

The company protested against the about-turn, but the local administration is looking for an alternative site for the mill.

Heritage expert Dr Tamalia Alisjahbana welcomed this but said longstanding brickmaking industries near Trowulan are also destroying the ruins, and could be relocated.

Last month, the New York-based World Monuments Fund placed Trowulan on its list of sites at risk, saying: "Much remains to be discovered about Trowulan."

Indonesia has four cultural sites on the separate Unesco world heritage list: The ninth-century Borobudur and 10th-century Prambanan Temple compounds, both near Yogyakarta, the early man site in Sangiran, central Java, where hominid fossils were discovered, and Bali's Subak system of rice terraces and water temples.

Indonesia has many other sites in need of preservation, including the ruins of Old Banten, west of Jakarta, and traditional houses and settlements in Eastern Indonesia.

Mundardjito believes greater attention on sites like Trowulan will also improve the livelihood of local residents and get them interested in conservation.

"They can run homestays and create souvenirs, and feel empowered to preserve the area," he said.


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