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  • The Nusantara Bulletin

Trowulan: Remnants of the Great Majapahit Empire

(Sutawijaya, Putu. Candi Brahu. 2012., acrylic on canvas.)

The Majapahit Empire was one of Southeast Asia's greatest and most powerful empires, ruling over modern-day Indonesia all the way to Malaysia, Thailand, and the southwestern Philippines. Yet it is also one of the most mysterious, with its sphere of influence still being debated and discussed by historians and archeologists.

Despite its great power over Southeast Asia, there are only two main sources that prove its physical existence: Nagarakretagama’s poems, translated by Prapanca, and the remnants of Trowulan. Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, Lieutenant-Governor of British Java for the East India Company from 1811 to 1816, was the first to document the Trowulan archaeological site in the nineteenth century. He described Trowulan as "this pride of Java" and mentioned that there were "ruins of temples... scattered around the country for many miles."

(Image by Jovian Pangestu)

The ancient ruins of Trowulan are the only remaining city site from Indonesia’s Hindu-Buddhist classical age; it is theorized to have been the Majapahit Empire’s royal capital. Though the writings derived from the Nagarakretagama and the archeological findings of Trowulan do not match up, none of the writings mentioned by Prapanca can be directly identified with the remains of Trowulan, and none of the remains of Trowulan are recognized in the Nagarakretagama.

However, what we have left of the Trowulan is enough evidence to depict the pinnacle of Javanese civilization. Its architecture and city planning, such as how water and waste were managed, demonstrate how well-planned the empire was. Knowledge of modern structures and local wisdom were used to take the utmost care of the environment. Yosafat Winarto, Happy Ratna Santosa, and Sri Nastiti N. Ekasiwi suggested that the climate-conscious features of Trowulan are merely the Majapahit society's response to the climate, based on moral principles, social customs, and practical considerations for the surrounding environment.

(Majapahit cosmological balancing concept at the settlement by Budiarjo, 1995)

Water Management

The capital of the Majapahit Empire was developed based on the pattern of a chess board, consisting of canals and settlements shaped perpendicularly, stretching from the north to the south and from the west to the east. Though the placement of the canals was not directly parallel to the earth’s north-south magnetic axis, it had a slight shift to adjust to its geographical conditions. The complicated and highly thought-out flow of its canal system shows its previous utilization for socio-cultural activities as well as for agricultural purposes. An aerial perspective reveals that the city appears to have been shaped by the symmetry of the ancient water canals.

Significant Archaeological Sites

Scattered ruins of the city also remain all over the site today, consisting of structures such as the Gapura Bajang Ratu, the Candi Tikus, the Wringin Lawang, and the Segaran Pool.

  1. Gapura Bajang Ratu

(Image by Ivuvisual)

Gapura Bajang Ratu, or The Small (Disabled) King’s Entrance, was one of the biggest gate structures during the reign of Majapahit. This gate now acts as an entrance to the sacred building which acts as a memorial for the death of King Jayanegara in circa 1250. Though, the now sacred entrance once simply acted as the rear entrance for the palace of the kingdom. This structure has led to the Trowulan village’s custom of entering through the back door when mourning a person who has recently passed.

The name “The Small (Disabled) King’s Entrance” or Gapura Bajang Ratu is believed to have been derived from the young age of Jayanegara during his coronation as king. Based on local legends, it was also believed that the establishment of this gapura led to King Jayapura’s disabilities.

  1. Candi Tikus

(Image by

Trowulan's most recent discovery, the Candi Tikus, was discovered to be a rat breeding ground, hence its name. The temple holds one of Trowulan’s ritual bathing pools, built to form a sunken basin with a descending flight of stairs on its northern side. Water spouts shaped like lotus buds can also be found at the base.

  1. Wringin Lawang

(Image by Acang)

The Wringin Lawang, meaning "The Banyan Tree Gate" in Javanese, stands a tall 15.5 meters high just a short distance south of Indonesian National Route 15. This structure takes the shape of two split gates, with its features mirroring each other. It is theorized that the Wringin Lawang served no actual ritualistic purposes but instead was used for aesthetics, to create a sense of magnificence upon entering the next compound. Its grandeur has led historians to believe that the Wringin Lawang led to an important area within the capital of Majapahit, suggesting the entrance to Gajah Mada’s residency.

  1. Segaran Pool

The Segaran Pool was named after the Javanese word "segara," which means "sea," and was inspired by the pool's likeness to a miniature sea. There are two functions of the pool theorized by locals: one is as the city’s source of freshwater, and the other is as a recreational pool used by the Majapahit royalty to entertain guests.

Trowulan’s Unique Architectural Features

The Trowulan Village, unlike most Javanese structures, was mostly built with red brick, more commonly seen in Balinese architecture. The choice of material was unusual, given that the Trowulan location was surrounded by dark volcanic stones. Additionally, Trowulan's city pattern has no comparable parallel, as it is Indonesia's only comprehensive heritage site.

Most of Trowulan’s ruins had some similarity in their structure, with three main features running vertically: the foot, the body, and the roof. According to 15th-century Chinese sources, it was stated that the area of Trowulan was always kept clean, with standing structures more than 10 meters high.

(Candi Tikus, circa 1917)

As part of its efforts to align with Mojokerto's municipal branding, "Full of Majapahit Greatness," the Mojokerto Regency Government has made sure that construction on the Majapahit Historical Park in Trowulan will commence in 2023. Although this is projected to boost economic growth, historians and residents are concerned that the development may damage the historic site.

As of today, only about 100 square kilometers of Majapahit city have been unearthed, with considerably more locations described in the Nagarakretagama still undiscovered. With so much history and information about the empire lost to time, it has left us to wonder how something so remarkable has become such a mystery. Trowulan is home to the remnants and mysteries of a once-mighty empire that ruled over a sizable part of the continent.


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