Indonesia Expat
Featured History/Culture Observations

Splashing Out on Culture

modern wayang
modern wayang

Can history be used to coin cash in a country where citizens would rather tramp malls than museums and reckon culture is something to do with yoghurt?

Yes, according to two East Java entrepreneurs who have dipped more than their toes into separate and distinctly different high-cost ventures coupling the past with the present.

Dwi Cahyono

First is businessman Dwi Cahyono. The culture booster has built an impressive complex close to the town of Tumpang, population 15,000. Here are two known Hindu temples and probably many more waiting to be discovered under the volcanic dust that hides and enriches. Tumpang is about 15 kilometres east of Malang, a city with a written history starting in 760 AD.

Among lush fields of rice and corn, and alongside a small stream is Museum Panji. It’s named after the legendry derring-do prince who’s the inspiration of much traditional dance, art, and the wayang kulit (shadow puppet) performances.

Prints of ancient illustrations at Panji Museum

The stories boil with unrequited love, dangers, battles, family fall-outs, curses, and quests – the ingredients for all great and enduring literature whatever the country or language. Shakespeare used the same fermenting mix.

Panji tales have spread from East Java through much of Southeast Asia, so a museum dedicated to the culture should draw international visitors once borders re-open. In the meantime, Cahyono has to rely on domestic tourists who love theme parks provided they have dinosaurs and Disney characters.

There’s neither at the museum. Instead, the walls and ceilings in the auditorium are covered in the 19th century and earlier prints Cahyono has found through research in Indonesia and the Netherlands.

A layout used by airports to fleece passengers’ overweight with cash forces the sheep to walk to the departure lounges through a labyrinth of shops selling alleged duty-free goods, particularly booze and baccy. At the museum gift store, shelf space is only used for local crafts, masks, paintings and clothing related to eras past.

Through the turnstile after collecting Rp25,000 tickets, families can get to what the kids really want – a picnic ground and swimming pool. This is modelled on the 1,000-year-old Candi (temple) Jolotundo, the royal bathing pool on sacred Mount Penanggungan about 100 km northwest.

Forgotten the fried rice and cool drinks? There’s a restaurant with plenty on the menu, for Cahyono’s family is in the catering business. Until the pandemic hit they ran the Inggil (Javanese for “high”) restaurant in central Malang close to the City Hall.

When the children get bored with splashing and feasting their elders can set them wandering the displays starting with the arrival of our ancestors in the archipelago. The early human fossil tagged Java Man and found last century on a bank of the Bengawan Solo River could be more than 700,000 years old.

Then comes wet-rice farming, the rise of many kingdoms, Dutch colonialism, the Japanese occupation and the Revolution. This display includes a life-size model of first President Soekarno at the 1947 Komite Nasional Indonesia Pusat (KNIP) or Central National Committee of Indonesia Congress in Malang.

Building a museum has long been Cahyono’s dream. As a student in Sydney, he saw how the city, founded in 1788, was crazy about preserving its past – and not inside glass cases.

Although he’s visited museums in China, Vietnam and elsewhere to glean ideas, it’s those in Singapore that he finds most inspiring. Favourites are the Asian Civilisations Museum, the Malay Heritage Centre and the Peranakan Museum – a celebration of Straits Chinese-Malay culture.

Absent from Panji Museum are the DILARANG (Do Not) notices, followed by a list of fines for transgressors, prominent at nearby temples controlled by the government. Also, not-to-be-seen are advertisements, for this is a commercial-free zone.

That’s not the situation with another venturer’s bid to capitalise on the past. In the otherwise plain village of Randugenengan, about seven kilometres from Trowulan the capital of the 14th century Majapahit Kingdom, local businessman Mulyono (one name only) has built a giant concrete statue as a centrepiece for a hotel and home industry.

If size trumps facts then this is a splendid engineering achievement, reportedly the tallest of its kind in Indonesia.

The 23-metre high monument is supposed to represent the much revered Mahapatih (prime minister) and military tactician Gadjah Mada who served under King Hayum Wuruk.

The giant Gadjah Mada

We have no idea what GM looked like, though the museum in Trowulan has a small plump-cheek bust of the man who created a Javanese empire covering much of Southeast Asia. He had many remarkable achievements, but he probably never gave the thumbs-up selfie sign to his troops when driving out Chinese invaders, as he does in his effigy.

Maybe aliens seeking landing spots for their flying saucers look like the Randugenengan monster. If so we have much to fear.

A restaurant and gift shop sell products made from the fruit of the cocoa bean trees in the complex behind the Big GM. As the man has been dead since 1364, and the empire he built fell apart around 1527, the right to brand chocolates “Majapahit” and use the eight-point sun emblem of the kingdom is beyond copyright control.

Like the Museum Panji, there’s a large pool and plenty of diversions for the kiddiewinks, including a flying fox and water slides. When Indonesia Expat visited, there were hundreds of splashing schoolers exhausting their energies. Whether they exercised their intellects to the same extent with the rich history of their nation is questionable.

For the elders, there’s a large convention hall and plenty of drawings of artefacts used half a millennia ago implying antediluvian. Yet the scythes, straw brooms and hoes in the pictures remain commonplace in villages, suggesting our hand-tool technology hasn’t improved.

Other explanations are that the Majapahit era inventors were well advanced, or that the artists weren’t told to research first and paint later.

Looking at the original temples and the distinctive red-brick split gateways known as Bentar, it’s clear the people who thrived on these rich plains aeons ago were talented architects, creative artists and skilled builders.

Some Randugenengan residents are knocking up similar entrances to their properties to enhance their status – or make the ‘Majapahit Village’ instigated by Mulyono look old and genuine.


Imitation isn’t always flattering. Much modern work fails the standard of centuries ago with some walls perforated with gaps which save on air-conditioning. Although the craftsmen of yesteryear lacked laser levels, computer-assisted displays and power tools, the takeaway from both museums is the same: Never say our ancestors were “primitive”.

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