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Trowulan was once the capital of the largest Hindu empire in Indonesian history. Founded by Singosari prince Wijaya in 1294, it reached the height of its power under Hayam Wuruk (1350–89), who was guided by his powerful prime minister, Gajah Mada. During this time Majapahit received tribute from most of the regions encompassing present-day Indonesia and even parts of the Malay Peninsula.

Its wealth was based on its control of the spice trade and the fertile rice-growing plains of Java. The religion was a hybrid of Hinduism – with worship of the deities Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma – and Buddhism, but Islam was tolerated, and Koranic burial inscriptions found on the site suggest that Javanese Muslims resided within the royal court. The empire came to a catastrophic end in 1478 when the city fell to the north-coast power of Demak, forcing the Majapahit elite to flee to Bali and opening Java up to the Muslim conquest.

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the great British explorer and governor general of Java, rediscovered Trowulan in 1815, and though it was choked in forest, described the ruins as ‘this pride of Java’.

The remains of the court are scattered over a large area around the village of Trowulan, 12km from Mojokerto. The Majapahit temples were mainly built from red-clay bricks that quickly crumbled. Many have been rebuilt and are relatively simple compared to the glories of structures such as Borobudur, but they do give a good idea of what was once a great city. As the temples are spread over a such a large area, it’s best to either hire a becak or come in a car.

One kilometre from the main Surabaya–Solo road, the impressive Trowulan Museum houses superb examples of Majapahit sculpture and pottery from East Java. Pride of place is held by the splendid statue of Kediri’s King Airlangga as Vishnu astride a huge Garuda, taken from Belahan. It should be your first port of call for an understanding of Trowulan and Majapahit history, and it includes descriptions of the other ancient ruins in East Java.

Some of the most interesting ruins include the gateway of Bajang Ratu, with its strikingly sculpted kala heads; the Tikus Temple (Queen’s Bath – used for ritual bathing and cleansing); and the 13.7m-high Wringinlawang Gate. The Pendopo Agung is an open-air pavilion built by the Indonesian army. Two kilometres south of the pavilion, the Troloyo cemetery is the site of some of the oldest Muslim graves found in Java, the earliest dating from AD 1376.

Trowulan is refreshingly hawker-free, though as there’s a distinct lack of information on site you may want to hire a freelance guide (there’s often one waiting at the museum). Expect to pay around 70,000Rp for a half-day guide.

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