Majapahit Style by Made Wijaya

Majapahit Style by Made Wijaya

Regarded as the Golden Age of Indonesian history, the maritime empire of Majapahit reached its apogee in the 14th century. Though it thrived for only 300 years (late 13th C. to early 16th C.), Majapahit was Indonesia’s greatest state, the last in a long line of Buddhist and Hindu Javanese kingdoms. Islam had ostensibly erased Indian cultural traditions by the 16th century, yet Buddhist-Hindu traces can still be seen in the rituals and architecture of the kraton courts of Bali and central Java and innumerable motifs and styles of the earlier Hindu culture are found everywhere in Indonesian art.

Made Wijaya’s new Majapahit Style addresses two overriding questions: how much of a role has Majapahit played in Javanese and Balinese history and how much influence does Majapahti still exert in the Indonesia of today? Though Wijaya may not be a professor emeritus in Asian studies or the first to shine multihued light on the diverse connections between the Majapahit and present-day Java and Bali, this gifted amateur is certainly one of the most passionate guardians and torchbearers in this highly specialized field of study.

Only a handful of scholars, for the most part tottering nonagenarian Dutch retired academics, are still alive today who have attained this level of erudition on the subject. The only other book published on Majapahit cultural history is Majapahit Terracotta by Soedarmadji Jean Henry Damais. We have had hundreds of scholars who over centuries have sung the praises of Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilization, but few who have ever championed one of the greatest maritime empires the world has ever seen. Wijaya stands as the foremost ambassador of this glorious civilization’s legacy in modern times. He is the Gibbon of the Majapahit.

This book represents not just the work of a Balinist like Coast, Covarrubias, Friend or Spies, but unifies and synthesizes disparate elements from all of the archipelago and Southeast Asia. Finding reinterpretations and variations of pavilions, rice barns, timber meetinghouses, dwellings, longhouses, as well as patterns, motifs and traditions repeated endlessly and mirrored in countries as far afield as Indonesia, Taiwan, Cambodia and Vietnam, the whole region is tied together by common historical and cultural threads.

Nowhere else is Majapahit’s influence seen as clearly and undeniably as it is in Bali. Instances are too innumerable to list, but a few of the most obvious are the Siwa-Buddhhist religion, the implements, costumes and rituals of Bali’s Brahman priests; the Baris Gede dance, the warrior princes descended from Majapahit nobles; the complicated death rituals of the aristocracy; the high court language; names like Mayoen, Agung and Luwur; architectural forms such as hundreds of temples and shrines bearing the name “Majapahit;” the split gate (candi bentar) and the exotic red brick construction of gateways, temples and royal tombs (now sadly disappearing).

Above all, Majapahit Style is a picture book nonpareil. The vast number of illustrative material of anything that is remotely apropos to the subject is staggering. Over decades Wijaya has spontaneously taken photos of virtually any object that tickled his fancy, which means anything that presented an artistic, compelling appearance. The painstaking work of collecting and organizing appropriate images – in all shapes, sizes, subjects –to propel his argument forward required not only an impressive photo archive but a prodigious mental filing system. Remarkably, the vast majority of the photographs is the author’s own or borrowed from individuals and not institutions.

Though there is a distinct bias towards striking and highly ornate objects with black, red and gold decoration, the book also meticulously records patterns in structures and motifs that keep recurring. Mindboggling collages of demonic and godly faces decorating the endpapers is a fitting example, as are book pages crowded with like images of terracotta, elephants, meru roofs, tombstones, decorative pinnacles (mustaka), Hindu stone motifs, phallic statuary and a wonderful collection of stately palace gates scattered all over Java.

A wealth of vintage black & white photographs, many unfortunately not dated, provide evidence of Majapahit’s roots extending deep into the past: neolithic worshipping grounds, tribal ceremonies on Savu and Alor, grass thatched Austronesian villages, stilt-houses in the Philippines and Vietnam. Some images are astounding. Where did Wijaya ever find that image of a phallic lingga sculpture in the staunchly Islamic Minangkabau countryside of West Sumatra? A splendid full color panorama of the Panataran temple complex shows how idyllic the site was before it was smothered on all sides by kampung.

Wijaya has been researching this subject for 40 years. Dubbing himself an “amateur archaeologist,” a “lay scholar” and “architectural historian,” he was trained in classical Balinese temple and palace architecture. His total immersion in Bali’s culture, religion and architecture, writing from an architect’s perspective and using the language of an architect, attending hundreds of temple festivals and ancestor-worship rituals, he has chronicled his observations in books and scores of articles and videography.

Living six years in a Brahman house, his exposure to Majapahit-era artifacts and rituals has given him a sharp-eyed sensitivity, making him peculiarly qualified to be able to instantly make out a Balinese-style thatched shrine in an ancient weathered Javanese bas-relief or recognize the relationship between the water gardens of East Java and Bali’s own Tirta Empul temple. What a Java scholar would call a “carved element” on an artifact, Wijaya instantly recognizes a decorative base for a holy water (tirta) vat found in all Balinese Brahman houses today. What the rest of us see as just an old carved and painted timber pavilion in on the east end of Madura, Wijaya sees a building style identical to those found in old palaces and temples of Bali.

In many aspects – dense academic language loaded with nuanced insights, rich and multifarious illustrations – Majapahit Style is a technical and scholarly work, a treatise on the erudite archaeology of Java and Bali. It is an archival catalog of endangered Hindu Javanese architectural forms, carvings, decorations, art work, stone and wood statuary and other precious historical objects before they are destroyed by fire, age, erosion, neglect or demolition.

Demonstrating with overwhelming evidence, the book is a one-volume encyclopedia on the evolution of Balinese architecture and decorative arts and Majapahit empire’s influences on the civilizations and dynasties around the archipelago and Southeast Asia. The author’s “Balinese eye” enables him to spot similarities between Javanese and Balinese architecture.

Though not light reading, Majapahit Style nourishes the mind with imaginative conjecture and surprising and delightful images, some haunting. In the end, the message that this magnificent vanished kingdom has not disappeared but has been absorbed, modified and assimilated into the fabric of the cultural life of present-day Indonesia is the book’s most valuable contribution to the scholarship of a long-neglected and little understood subject.

Majapahit Style by Made Wijaya, Wijaya Words 2014, ISBN 978-602-713-670-0, hardcover, 337 pages, index, glossary, bibliography. Available for Rp1,770,000 (Rp770,000 softcover) at Ganesha bookstores.

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