It is a paradise for unorthodox travellers – rugged individualists who relish the seacrh for obscure but exquities, or the breathtaking views from the rims of desolate volcanic craters.
Geographically and historically, the province may be divided into three regions: the north coast (including the island of Madura), with its old Islamic trading ports; the Brantas River Valley, with its ancient monuments and colonial hill stations; and the eastern salient (known to history as Blambangan), wiyh its spectacular volcanoes, secluded nature reserves and unparalled scenic beauty.
The broad Brantas River traces a circular path through the ancient and fertile riceland of eastern central java, around several adjacent peaks – Mt. Arjuna, Mt. Kawi and Mt. Kelud. For five centuries after 930 A.D, this valley was the undisputed locus of power and civilization on the island. The great kingdoms of this period Kediri, Singasari and Majapahit – have bequeathed a rich heritage of temple art, literature, music and drama.
With the arrival of Islam as a political force in the 15th century and the great florescene of the spice and textile trade, a truggle aroes between the rice growing kingdoms of the interior and the new Islamic trading powers of the coast. The Brantas valley was conquered by Muslim forces circa 1527, and many Hindus then fled wastward to Blambangan and Bali. Even today, the highland Tenggerese tribes around Mt. Semeru claim to be the living descendants of these Indo – Javanese exiles, and of course Bali’s most powerful rulers trace their genealogies back to the 14th century kings of East Java’s Majapahit empire.
Surabaya – City of Heroes: Up until the turn of the century the East Javanese capital of Surabaya was the largest and most important seaport in the archipelago. It still ranks second (after Jakarta’s tanjung Priok), and with more than 400 years of colourful history behind it, one would expect to find much interest here, though unfortunately, this is not so.
Surabaya’s rise to prominence began around 1525, when her rulers converted to Islam and then rapidly subdued all neighbouring coastal states. However, in the final years of the 16th century the Central Javanese kingdom of Mataram expanded eastward and joined a bloody and protacted struggle with Surabaya for control of the area. Dutch descriptions of the city in 1620 paint her as a formidable adversary surrounded by a canal and heavily fortified bastions measuring some 37 kms (23 miles) in circumference. And her army is said to have numbered 30,000. In the end, Surabaya succumbed (in 1625) only after Sultan Agung’s armies had devastated her ricelands and diverted her mighty river.
In the mid 18th century, Surabaya was ceded to the Dutch, and soon developed into the greatest commercial city of the Indies – the chief sugar port and rail head on Java. Immortalized in many of Joseph Conrad’s novels, this era was characterized by square riggers in full sail, wealthy Chinese and Arab traders, eccentric German hoteliers and lusty seamen brawling over the likes of Surabaya Sue (who really existed).
Today’s reality is mundane by comparison – Surabaya is a hot, sprawling city of almost 4 million. It is known as the “City of Heroes” because of the momentous first battle of the revolution, fought here in November 1945. Though the ragtag Indonesian rebels were driven from the city at this time by better equipped British troops, they inflicted heavy casualties and proved to the world (and themwelves) that independence could be, and would be, fought for.
The most interesting areas of Surabaya are the old Arab and Chinese quarters at the northern end of the city, not far from the harbour. Spend some time wandering the narrow lanes to the east of Jl. K.H. Mas Mansyur, around the mosque and the Holy Grave of Sunan Ampel, one of the “nine saints, “who propagated Islam on the island. Many stalls around the mosque sell handmade textiles from all over Java.
Just to the south of here, at Jl. Dukuh II, is the Hong Tik Hian Temple. where Chinese hand puppet (potehi) performances are put on daily for the benefit of the assembled deities. And just across Jl. Kembang Jepun, on Jl. Selompretan, stands Surabaya’s oldest Chinese shrine the 18th century Hok An Kiong Temple – built entirely of wood in the traditional manner by native Chinese craftsmen. The temple’s central deity is Ma Co, the protectress of sailors.
From the Chinese quarter, walk west ward along Jl. Kembang Jepun to the famous “Red Bridge” straddling Kali Mascanal. This lies at the very heart of the 19th century commercial district, where many dilapidated Dutch warehouse and office buildings still stand.
–> Read Also : East Java and Madura – Fat Boy and a Dragon