A Journey to Blitar

The next morning, before the drive to Penataran temple, Bama and I visit the house where Sukarno lived during his high-school years. Gebang Palace turns out to be a relatively humble affair, with several single-story bungalows connected by covered walkways. Leaving our shoes at the door, we follow a wizened guide into its various rooms, learning more about this admirable but also deeply flawed leader. His fiery, confrontational style and aggressive foreign policy brought Indonesia into conflict with neighboring Malaysia; his heavy-handed attempts at creating a planned economy brought the nation to the verge of ruin; and he was a serial womanizer. Our guide tells us Sukarno had nine wives. Nine? He begins to count with his fingers, rattling off their names in quick succession. “First it was Siti Oetari, then Inggit Garnasih, Fatmawati, Hartini …” Wife number five, Dewi, was the 19-year-old student Naoko Nemoto, whom the president met in a Ginza hostess bar while on a state visit to Japan.

In spite of his faults, there’s no doubt that Sukarno remains a venerated figure. Though he was forced out of office half a century ago, our guide refers to him as “my president.” Before we leave, he draws our attention to a faded, sepia-toned photo, purportedly showing a shaft of white light that briefly appeared in Blitar when Sukarno died in 1970. This anecdote strikes me as being very Indonesian—blurring the line between myth and reality, with a dose of mysticism thrown in for good measure.

Traditional snacks served by hotel staff in Javanese dress await each afternoon at Tugu Blitar.

Traditional snacks served by hotel staff in Javanese dress await each afternoon at Tugu Blitar.

An enormous banyan tree marks the center of the alun-alun, Blitar's main square.

An enormous banyan tree marks the center of the alun-alun, Blitar’s main square.

We later join the throngs of pilgrims on the steps to Sukarno’s tomb, beneath a soaring three-tiered roof and flanked by the graves of his parents. Most visitors kneel on the polished marble, their eyes closed and hands opened in prayer. Some toss rose petals, jasmine, and cananga flowers onto the tomb; the sweet aroma of incense wafts into our nostrils.

After touring Penataran and a brief stop at Simping—the mortuary temple of the first Majapahit ruler—Bama and I retire to Tugu Blitar in time for a late lunch. Sukarno was an ardent enthusiast of Javanese culture, and had he been alive today, he would certainly appreciate the hotel’s many references to tradition, from the waitstaff attired in Javanese dress to the snacks served every afternoon at Waroeng Jawa, a shaded, antiques-strewn space that pays homage to the humble warung food stall.

Waroeng Jawa also provides the backdrop for a three-hour cooking class led by chefs Winarno and Musinem, who showcase several Blitar delicacies. The first is nasi pecel—rice with a medley of boiled vegetables in a fragrant peanut sauce, served with a hefty slab of fried tempeh and a rempeyek cracker. We observe them preparing kotokan kutuk, or freshwater fish slathered in spiced coconut milk, tomatoes, and tart bilimbi fruit. Next up is the coastal treat tahu tek, fried tofu soaked in soy sauce and shrimp paste sweetened by palm sugar. Kue lumpur telo ungu, round “mud cakes” made of steamed taro, flour, and generous portions of coconut cream, give our subsequent meal a sweet finish.

On our final afternoon in Blitar, we return to Penataran. Once the state temple of Majapahit, it is also where the 14th-century prime minister Gajah Mada made his famous oath, the Sumpah Palapa, declaring that he would fast from spices until all the lands of the archipelago were united under Majapahit rule.

As night falls and the last visitors leave the compound, we stay behind for a specially arranged dinner on the temple grounds. Out of sight, Tugu’s chef Winarno prepares an eight-course rijstaffel meal, as a lone musician plays languorous Javanese melodies on his flute. The air is thick with droplets of mist, presumably from the slopes of Kelud, and in the darkness, flaming torches bathe the temple reliefs in a soft, otherworldly glow. I can almost hear the stones whispering their secrets.

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2017 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Blitar Bound”).

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