(Published in the NOW! Jakarta Magazine, January 2013)



Military-look signpost road-side in Java.

Gresik, East Java

The East Java capitol of Surabaya is a great destination for the culturally inclined. An hour or twos drive in almost any direction and one finds great treats: The island of Madura, Trowulan (the one-time capitol of the MAJAPAHIT Empire), colonial era Malang and Gresik, the important port for trade with India and China from the 12th Century and the starting point for the infiltration of Islam into Java, from that time.
By the 15th century the Caliph in Istanbul (then Constantinople) had heard of Muslim Gujarati traders in Gresik whose ‘native’ wives needed religious instruction. He dispatched nine holy men, the Wali Songo, to spread the word of Islam. They started in Gresik where today one finds the most magnificent terraced-sanctuary tombs of the most important walis: Sunan Giri, his grandson Sunan Prapen. They are all architecturally splendid tomb complexes — more like Hindu temples than Islamic graveyards. Another famous tomb, is that of the first bupati (mayor) of Gresik Kyai Haji Temenggoeng Poesponegoro.


Pilgrims in front of the main cungkup at Sunan Giri’s tomb,
Gresik, East Java.

Young pilgrim in the door way of the elaborately carved (Hindu-MAJAPAHIT style) cungkup of Sunan Giri, Gresik.

Nigel Bullough in his book Walisongo Pilgrimage wrote that “Syekh Maghribi’s tombstone is of particular interest, since it was not made locally but ordered and shipped to Java from Gujarat in North Western India. The stone, carved from white marble and intricately inscribed with Arabic letters, is one of a very few which have found their way to Indonesia. Other examples are known to exist in Palembang and in the North Sumatran province of Aceh”.


Kendi water jars at entrance to mosque at Sunan Giri’s graveyard.

I started my architectural pilgrimage early morning, at Sunan Gresik’s makam — a coral and red brick-walled compound which includes the famous carved cungkup funerary vault and a gayly coloured modern mosque.
I am wearing a Sunni-green Indian kurta tunic and my little black beanie from Kudus; everyone thinks I am a reformed kafir (non-believer) and I am given a wider berth than a giant sweating pink tourist might otherwise get.
Muslim brothers from a nearby organization are filing in as I arrive: they soon set up at the feet of the glamorous cungkup and start reciting/singing prayers until they are in a sufi-like trance state.


Pilgrim at Sunan Giri’s grave, Gresik.

Mannequin of Begum Kapir in a Muslim apparel shop in Gresik.

I feel privileged to have witnessed such a performance of New Age Islam-Java mysticism, in this cradle of Islam-Majapahit architecture.
The 18th century carvings on the main cungkup tomb, done by Palembang (South Sumatra) carvers over 200 years ago, are magnificent and obviously the ancestors of all Hindu-Balinese palace carvings. The 16th century original is in the tomb of Sunan Prapen next door I am told, so I go there.
For Rp. 10,000 two-way ojek motor bike transport is available for the 700 meter road up the hill and through the bamboo groves to Sunan Prapen’s sanctuary with its startlingly beautiful lime green and canary yellow cungkup building.
I feel like I am at the epicenter of Majapahit decorativism and have found the holy grail and the golden fleece. All sorts of theories about the extravagance of Majapahit colour fall into place.


Kuncen ‘tomb caretaker’ guards donation box.

The kindly kuncen custodian of the temple-like complex explains the importance of Sunan Gresik and Prapen in the spread of Islam along the North Coast of Java (I have written about the other Wali Songo tomb complexes in Kudus and Demak and Jepara in recent columns) and he suggests I next visit the tomb complex of the important the late 14th century holy man Syekh Maghribi  near the coast.

Carved lintel on the 16th Century main cungkup door lintel of Sunan Prapen’s tomb.

The carving on the exterior of the cungkup of Sunan Prapen was identical to that of Sunan Giri except more exquisitely coloured. Inside the vault-like ‘gedong’ the colour scheme changed to a more somber charcoal grey, red and white — one of the great colour schemes of ancient Java, and Mughal India for that matter. Indeed along the North Coast of Java, from Gresik to Kudus, one feels the influence of Gujarat  in some of the house fronts and front doors, and of Central Asia in the rich colour schemes and vibrant medallion-like carvings on the tombs.


Enchanting garden and Islam-MAJAPAHIT style gates at the tomb of Kyai Temenggung Pusponegoro 1, Gresik.

The most Moorish and picturesque of all the North Coast tomb complexes is that of the first bupati (mayor) of Gresik, Kyai Temenggoeng Poesponegoro I.  The white plaster gates and vaults — precursors to pretty Balinese architectural elements of the 18th century — are arranged, formally, in a multi-courtyard pleasure garden alive with plumeria, codaeums and cordylines, all Javanese graveyard staples.
In the tiny-ante chamber of Poesponegoro’s tomb building I found a young man whose father, the last custodian, had recently died, having been custodian for over 60 years.
“He told me I had to continue,” said the doe-eyed junior caretaker with an air of benign resignation.
Leaving the graveyard we passed a crowd of young pilgrims in white, all sweeping out of the mosque, all keen to kiss the hand of their guru Kyai Haji Avani at least three times. Avani was here to celebrate the anniversary of Syeik Mahgribi’s death.


Kyai Haji Avani

Celebrity clerics — Avani was in Yoko Ono sunglasses — seem as  established a tradition in Java today as they were in the era  of the Wali Songo.
Due to the fervor and solemnity  which accompanies anything to do with the great Muslim saints of Java their exquisite Islam-Majapahit era tombs — most built in the 16th century — survive today as a testament to the architectural might of the great Hindu-Majapahit empire, the precursors to much of today’s palace and temple architecture in Bali and  West Lombok.

For a more detail look at these tombs see my video: http://youtu.be/Cu17qeIyK4M.

On the way back to Surabaya we stopped briefly at the oldest Islamic tomb in Java, the mysterious 11th century tomb of Nyai Siti Fatimah. The vaulted central chamber building, built out of the local limestone, has a magnificent stepped ceiling, and three fancy plastic wall clocks in the Dutch colonial style — must have accessories for the time-conscious Muslim pilgrims.
Adjacent Siti Fatimah’s tomb, in low-walled compound in the bamboo forest,  are a series of ‘long graver’ — some 7 meters long — of the type also found on Karimun Island off the coast of Jepara; these perhaps date from an earlier, ancient era when important personages were buried in such graves.

Far from feeling moribund, all this grave visiting left me elated at the marvelous monuments from the ‘medieval era’ of fine architecture and garden-worship.
From Gresik I travelled back to Surabaya to the Bumi Hotel a haven of Majapahit-style garden splendor in the middle of Surabaya and hit Tunjungan Plaza the city’s oldest and most user-friendly mall.
T.P., as it is known, is home to the boutique Fiesta Madura which sells well-tailored shirts made from the distinctive Pemekasan Madura batiks the Nigeria pyjamas of conservative Indonesian day wear. They look particularly good on the Hindu Balinese who can take a bit of bold colour.

1 December 2012: Indokrupuk Jakarta-Sanur youth now have a second home base in Bali — “D’Senggol, near the Bali Hyatt
When the daughter of Sanur tourism legend Wija Waworuntu first opened Café Batujimbar in Sanur some 15 years ago it was an instant smash hit with the Jakarta-Bali Aga crowd, many of whom live in Sanur. Now there seem to be hundreds of Wawo-runtu grandchildren and it’s time for a second family venture.

This time it’s Yaya Wawo-runtu and his son Arif who have created a budget boutique, all Indonesian food, night market themed version of the famous Indonesian pasar senggol.


Lead singer in the keroncong band at the opening of D’Senggol, Sanur.

Tonight le tout Sanur are out in force to celebrate the opening including Ibu Endang, the Jayne Mansfield of the Keroncong music world and a host of Latin hotties, all hovering around the super-svelte young Wawo-runtu ladies. 


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