The lines of the houses and temples are as simple as they are timeless, ending with gently curved lines on either side of the structure.
Intricate carvings of gods, Buddhas and ceremonies are etched on its sides, portraying ancient Hindu and Buddhist rituals and the way of life of the Majapahit empire that once held sway in Java, Bali and other parts of Southeast Asia. Those halcyon days of Indonesia’s history may be long gone, but they still live on in innumerable temples throughout Java and Bali, like Borobudur and Prambanan, or sturdy teak joglo houses that make up the keraton royal courts and private residences.
This is no less the case with the arched gapuras that make up the gateways of the keraton or less regal housing complexes, whose graceful “wings” on the corner are made to remember the souls of the departed. As ubiquitous as the structures may be, knowledge of their origins are relatively obscure.
But landscape designer Michael White, better known as Made Wijaya, is determined to shed light on these legacies of Majapahit, a quest he recounted in his book “Majapahit Style Volume One.”
“[Majapahit Style] had its inspiration about eight years ago, particularly during a visit to parts of Java that I haven’t seen in awhile. The trip made me look at much of the structures in a new light, and made me wonder how they came about,” Wijaya said at his book’s recent launch at the Aksara bookstore in South Jakarta’s Pacific Place mall.
“I noticed that the Hindu structures of the Majapahit era in Java and Bali are different from their South Indian counterparts. [While researching] this book, I found that Hindu structures and rituals in Java and Bali are based on their Austronesian origins, making them distinctive.”
Wijaya, whose landscape designs were used by five-star hotels chains like Le Meridien and the Sheraton in India, Singapore and Spain, noted that Majapahit’s maritime empire enabled its architecture to draw on external influences, most notably the Chinese styles found in Cirebon, while others, like Yogyakarta or Solo and the Kutai Kartanegara kingdom in East Kalimantan, are influenced by areas like Champa in present day Vietnam.
He adds that Majapahit’s influence can also be seen in less heralded cultures throughout Java, among the reclusive Badui people of Banten.
Aside from the architecture, the book explores other aspects of the Majapahit’s legacy, among them its origin, which was used by Sukarno in his structuring of the Medan Merdeka thoroughfare in Jakarta.
But the Australian sought to shed light on a hitherto little known part of Majapahit, namely its ceremonies.
“While many works have been done on Majapahit architecture, little has been done on its ceremonies. Those that we have seen are mostly found in Bali, where they are carried out in the temples or in cities on a nearly daily basis,” said Made, who acquired his Balinese name from the Brahman family who welcomed him and introduced him to the intricacies of Balinese Majapahit culture.
Although Made’s assertion as to the paucity of scholarship on Majapahit ritual would likely be contested by the late anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who might point to his monographs “Negara” and “Local Knowledge,” Made’s contribution to the field has yet to be fully assessed.
“Much of the ceremonies in Bali was done as a ritual tradition, because for them, tradition is more important than religious belief. While they do provide a sense of continuity, much of its meaning is lost because [people] don’t dwell on it.
“On the other hand, Javanese Majapahit rituals are more deliberate, as [participants] know the reasons behind them. They are also more stately, in contrast to the frenzied, hysterical style of their Balinese counterparts.”
Made also sought to alter conventional wisdom about the spread of Islam across the archipelago, particularly in its relation to fostering of Hindu ritual in Bali.
“The continuation of Hindu Majapahit rituals in Bali has more to do with the migrations of peoples throughout Indonesia. The spread of Islam in Indonesia was carried out by the Wali Songo by grafting local beliefs, rites and traditions among the Javanese people.
“Traditional culture [is] being endangered with the encroachment of fundamentalist Islam in Java and other parts of Indonesia. Balinese Majapahit traditions, like its architecture or rituals, are also threatened. This has more to do with modernization and the dynamics of Balinese life, which in the latter’s case is an ongoing tradition dating to the 16th Century.”
Wijaya says culture change is accelerated by development of Bali’s tourism.
“This ongoing process continues to endanger Majapahit traditions in Java and Bali. One of the reasons I made this book was to spread awareness about Majapahit culture, and maybe preserve it for posterity, should it fade away.”
Made’s “Majapahit Style: Volume Two,” will focus Bali’s Majapahit roots.