A Journey to Blitar

From ancient temples to reminders of Indonesia’s founding father, this low-key East Javanese city has more than its share of attractions for history-minded travelers.

On the southwestern flanks of Mount Kelud, one of the most active volcanoes on Java, the bas-reliefs encrusting the ruined Hindu temple complex of Penataran feel as though they could come alive at any moment. They emerge from the stonework in an exuberant procession of royalty, battle scenes from the Ramayana, and portraits of rural life, leading visitors in slow circles up and around a monumental three-tiered platform. I’ve come here with my Javanese friend Harinda Bama in a bid to connect the dots between the foundation of modern Indonesia and the long-lost Majapahit Empire. If only these stones could talk.

Dusk at Tugu Blitar, whose arbored driveway leads to a Dutch colonial building from the mid-19th century. All photos by James Louie.

Dusk at Tugu Blitar, whose arbored driveway leads to a Dutch colonial building from the mid-19th century. All photos by James Louie.

Soon after ascending the first tier of Penataran’s main temple, Bama stops to point out a swirling motif weathered by more than six centuries of exposure to the elements, but it’s not something I immediately recognize. “You see this?” I lean in closer, my eyes tracing the outline of what appears to be tongues of fire. “It shows the eruption of Kelud—so this temple was actually built to tame the mountain.”

The ancient Javanese believed that volcanic eruptions were signs from the gods, omens of coming events that would forever alter the course of history. A 14th-century epic poem mentions how a major outburst at Kelud heralded the birth of King Hayam Wuruk, who ruled the Majapahit Empire at its peak. The subsequent arrival of Islam and Christianity barely dislodged the deep-rooted respect and veneration for Indonesia’s fire-breathing mountains; even today, large eruptions are interpreted as harbingers of political change.

In the early hours of May 23, 1901, Kelud rumbled to life with an eruption so violent it was heard more than 300 kilometers away. Two weeks later, a boy was born at sunrise in a modest Surabaya home. His mother nicknamed him Putra Sang Fajar (“Son of the Dawn”), a moniker that gained new meaning as the child grew up and joined the struggle to end three centuries of Dutch colonial rule.

An assortment of Javanese dishes--including local specialties pecel and kotokan kutuk--served up at Tugu Blitar.

An assortment of Javanese dishes–including local specialties pecel and kotokan kutuk–served up at Tugu Blitar.

Hanoman as depicted on the Hindu temple of Penataran, constructed from the 12th to 15th centuries under the Majapahit Empire.

Hanoman as depicted on the Hindu temple of Penataran, constructed from the 12th to 15th centuries under the Majapahit Empire.

This post-eruption baby was none other than Sukarno, Indonesia’s first and most charismatic president. For his political activities against the Dutch, he served time in jail and was exiled to remote corners of the archipelago—most notably the town of Ende in Flores, where he developed the state ideology of Pancasila while contemplating beneath a breadfruit tree. During his 21-year tenure as president, he gifted Jakarta, where I now live, with a slew of monuments celebrating the rise of the newfound republic. But perhaps no place in Indonesia is as closely connected to the man as Blitar, an unassuming city of about 130,000 people in the heartland of East Java. It’s just a half-hour drive to the south of Penataran, and well known among Indonesians as the location of Sukarno’s childhood home and tomb.

For all its historical significance, Blitar requires a certain amount of effort to reach. The nearest international airport, at Surabaya, is roughly four hours away by car, while traveling by train takes just as long. Bama and I end up catching a domestic flight from Jakarta to Malang; the two-and-a-half hour drive to Blitar takes us through a tableau of paddy fields, workaday towns, and villages, all backed by volcanoes draped in low clouds.

Just before dusk, we arrive at Tugu Blitar, one of four museum-like properties run by lawyer-turned-hotelier Anhar Setjadibrata. A long arbored driveway, shaded from the tropical sun by a cascade of vines, makes for a fitting introduction to what may be Indonesia’s oldest lodgings—and the hotel of choice for Sukarno each time he returned to visit his relatives.

Tugu Blitar is centered on a whitewashed mansion from the 1850s designed in the Indies Empire style, with a sweeping front porch held up by stout Doric columns. The structure appears low-slung from a distance, but stepping inside reveals ceilings at least three meters high. Furniture from the late 19th and early 20th centuries graces the rooms, and nine suites flank the main hall where the young Sukarno once came to dance and mingle with the crème de la crème of Blitar society.

We’re stunned when the hotel’s operations manager, Suhartini, unlocks the door to the Sang Fajar suite. The presidential quarters are a veritable shrine to the statesman, replete with busts, photos, cabinets filled with his books (alongside those of his children), and a painting of a Balinese woman by Sukarno himself. Below a Garuda Pancasila, the national emblem modeled after a Javan hawk-eagle, the teak divan bed is the widest I’ve ever seen—wide enough to sleep four people. “All of Indonesia’s presidents have stayed here, except for Jokowi,” Suhartini says. “Tomorrow, this will be your room.”

Tugu Blitar's Sang Fajar suite is dedicated to the memory of Sukarno.

Tugu Blitar’s Sang Fajar suite is dedicated to the memory of Sukarno.

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