My knowledge of the Majapahit Empire was confined to what I learned from history books in school many years ago. But a visit to Banyuwangi in Indonesia’s East Java made me understand and discover a lot more about the kingdom’s contributions to the world, especially in South-East Asia.
Not surprisingly, the locals in Banyuwangi are proud of their culture and heritage, and hold their ancestors in high regard.
I used to think that Indonesia’s heritage was just concentrated in Jogjakarta and Bali, but Banyuwangi showed me that there’s a lot more to explore.
I was impressed by Banyuwangi during this maiden trip, which was organised by the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. As I was touring the city in a rickshaw, the rider told stories of Banyuwangi in Bahasa Indonesia.
“Did you know that Banyuwangi was once known for black magic?” he said, while pointing to a street where a well-known practitioner lived in the 1990s. Apparently, he had taken many Malaysians to that house on his rickshaw.
Curious to know more about this “black magic”, I asked him to share some of his personal experiences, if he had any.
The rider, who was in his 50s, divulged that a form of witchcraft known as “santet” was popular back then. This witchcraft is specifically used to harm a person from a distance.
He added that several religious figures were murdered on suspicion of sorcery in 1998 by angry mobs, and because of this, a curfew was imposed in the same year by the authorities!
Today, Banyuwangi is more known for its natural beauty and cultural heritage than its dark, mystical past. And because of this, the city is steadily attracting more tourists, both domestically and internationally.
I was mesmerised by the fairyland-like rainforest at Djawatan Benculuk, a sprawling green park with ancient trees. You can spend an afternoon here taking pictures (highly recommended for folks wishing to take pre-wedding photographs) or enjoying a simple picnic.
Banyuwangi is home to some of Indonesia’s rare and endangered species of flora and fauna. It is also a good place to witness the world famous blue flame at the Ijen Crater. This is a natural phenomenon that only occurs in two places in the world (the other place is in Iceland).
The Baluran National Park is another place worth visiting in Banyuwangi. The wildlife conservation park is a standout for many reasons, but mainly because it is where you can find rare animal species like Banteng (wild buffalo) and Dhole wild dog. This “Javanese savannah” also looks like it is located in the African continent – it is so vast and beautiful.
I was told that the greenery in the city has always been preserved as the locals believe that the sun rises at Banyuwangi first before it hits anywhere else in the Indonesian archipelago.
What’s often not written about Banyuwangi is the Alas Purwo National Park. When you walk into the forest, you are instantly hit by the smell of teak wood. This place is known to the community as the “magical forest” because it is shrouded in mystery. A local told me that years ago, some people went missing in the forest and were never found. But a few years later, they “returned” unscathed, as if they had never left home.
Near the forest is the ancient Hindu temple which has been declared a heritage site by the Indonesian government.
Locals discovered the Agung Kawitan Temple by accident when they were clearing a part of the jungle in 1967. The temple is linked to the Majapahit era, so locals declared it as a sacred site and built another Hindu place of worship next to it, called Giri Salaka Temple.
I had the chance to speak to an intriguing historian named Bapak Aekano, a soft-spoken retiree who possess an insight into the city’s past. Aekano is the man who was instrumental in promoting the Gandrung Sewu, a classical Hindu dance. Initially, only men performed the Gandrung (they would dress as women) but over the years, women were allowed to take part too.
Gandrung means love, and the dance is a showcase of love and appreciation that the people of Banyuwangi – especially farmers – have for the rice goddess Dewi Sri.
The historian said that although the locals are predominantly Muslim, they respect their ancestors’ belief and preserved the ancient dance that came about during the Blambangan era, the last Javanese Hindu kingdom to exist.
Aekano also shared how Banyuwangi got its name: It is a Javanese word for “fragrant water”, a reference to a popular Javanese folk tale of Sri Tanjung. In the tale, the faithful wife Sri Tanjung is wrongly accused of cheating on her husband. To prove her innocence, she swears that if she is killed, fragrant water will flow out from her body instead of blood.
Aekano’s stories and experiences are so interesting, visitors usually don’t mind spending an afternoon with him just chatting away.
Banyuwangi left a lasting impression on me.
Citilink, the low-cost subsidiary of Indonesian carrier Garuda, now flies direct (1x weekly) to Banyuwangi from Kuala Lumpur. For more information, check out www.citilink.co.id/.
Other places of interest in Banyuwangi
G-Land, or Plengkung Beach, is a popular surf beach known to many as “The Seven Giant Waves Wonder”. It’s seven rolls of waves can reach up to 6m high! Some avid surf fans even say that the waves here is the second best in the world after Hawaii.
Lider Waterfall is about 60m high, the highest in Banyuwangi. There are five falls here – the main one and four others that are slightly smaller.
Red Island Beach
It’s name comes from a hill not far from the beach that is covered in red soil. You can easily trek to this hill during low tide. Otherwise, it’s also a good place to surf.
Osing Tourist Village
The people of the Osing tribe live in this cultural heritage conservation village. The Osing people have their own unique dialect which is fascinating to hear. Traditional houses from centuries past can also be found here. If you’re lucky, you might catch performances of traditional dances like Gandrung, Angklung Paglak, Barong Kemiren and Othek.
Rajegwesi Beach’s chocolate-coloured sand, caused by muddy sediment brought by river floods, is beautiful to look at. An old bunker, said to be from the Japanese occupation era, still stands in the area. (Source: The Jakarta Post)