From an­cient tem­ples to re­minders of In­done­sia’s found­ing fa­ther, this low-key East Ja­vanese city has more than its share of at­trac­tions for his­tory-minded trav­el­ers.


An­cient tem­ples and re­minders of In­done­sia’s first pres­i­dent await in the East Ja­vanese city of Bl­i­tar.

On the south­west­ern

flanks of Mount Ke­lud, one of the most ac­tive vol­ca­noes on Java, the bas-re­liefs en­crust­ing the ru­ined Hindu tem­ple com­plex of Pe­nataran feel as though they could come alive at any mo­ment. They emerge from the stonework in an ex­u­ber­ant pro­ces­sion of roy­alty, battle scenes from the Ra­mayana, and por­traits of ru­ral life, lead­ing vis­i­tors in slow cir­cles up and around a mon­u­men­tal three-tiered plat­form. I’ve come here with my Ja­vanese friend Harinda Bama in a bid to con­nect the dots be­tween the foun­da­tion of modern In­done­sia and the long-lost Ma­japahit Empire. If only these stones could talk.

Soon af­ter as­cend­ing the first tier of Pe­nataran’s main tem­ple, Bama stops to point out a swirling mo­tif weath­ered by more than six cen­turies of ex­po­sure to the el­e­ments, but it’s not some­thing I im­me­di­ately rec­og­nize. “You see this?” I lean in closer, my eyes trac­ing the out­line of what ap­pears to be tongues of fire. “It shows the erup­tion of Ke­lud—so this tem­ple was ac­tu­ally built to tame the mountain.”

The an­cient Ja­vanese be­lieved that vol­canic erup­tions were signs from the gods, omens of com­ing events that would for­ever al­ter the course of his­tory. A 14th-cen­tury epic poem men­tions how a ma­jor out­burst at Ke­lud her­alded the birth of King Hayam Wu­ruk, who ruled the Ma­japahit Empire at its peak. The sub­se­quent ar­rival of Is­lam and Chris­tian­ity barely dis­lodged the deep-rooted re­spect and ven­er­a­tion for In­done­sia’s fire-breath­ing moun­tains; even to­day, large erup­tions are in­ter­preted as har­bin­gers of po­lit­i­cal change.

In the early hours of May 23, 1901, Ke­lud rum­bled to life with an erup­tion so vi­o­lent it was heard more than 300 kilo­me­ters away. Two weeks later, a boy was born at sun­rise in a mod­est Surabaya home. His mother nick­named him Pu­tra Sang Fa­jar (“Son of the Dawn”), a moniker that gained new mean­ing as the child grew up and joined the strug­gle to end three cen­turies of Dutch colo­nial rule.

This post-erup­tion baby was none other than Sukarno, In­done­sia’s first and most charis­matic pres­i­dent. For his po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties against the Dutch, he served time in jail and was ex­iled to re­mote cor­ners of the ar­chi­pel­ago—most no­tably the town of Ende in Flores, where he de­vel­oped the state ide­ol­ogy of Pan­casila while con­tem­plat­ing be­neath a bread­fruit tree. Dur­ing his 21-year ten­ure as pres­i­dent, he gifted Jakarta, where I now live, with a slew of mon­u­ments cel-

ebrat­ing the rise of the new­found repub­lic. But per­haps no place in In­done­sia is as closely con­nected to the man as Bl­i­tar, an unas­sum­ing city of about 130,000 peo­ple in the heart­land of East Java. It’s just a half-hour drive to the south of Pe­nataran, and well known among In­done­sians as the lo­ca­tion of Sukarno’s child­hood home and tomb.

For all its his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance, Bl­i­tar re­quires a cer­tain amount of ef­fort to reach. The near­est in­ter­na­tional air­port, at Surabaya, is roughly four hours away by car, while trav­el­ing by train takes just as long. Bama and I end up catch­ing a do­mes­tic flight from Jakarta to Malang; the two-and-a-half hour drive to Bl­i­tar takes us through a tableau of paddy fields, worka­day towns, and vil­lages, all backed by vol­ca­noes draped in low clouds.

Just be­fore dusk, we ar­rive at Tugu Bl­i­tar, one of four mu­seum-like prop­er­ties run by lawyer-turned-hote­lier An­har Set­jadi­brata. A long ar­bored drive­way, shaded from the trop­i­cal sun by a cas­cade of vines, makes for a fit­ting in­tro­duc­tion to what may be In­done­sia’s old­est lodg­ings—and the ho­tel of choice for Sukarno each time he re­turned to visit his rel­a­tives.

Tugu Bl­i­tar is cen­tered on a white­washed man­sion from the 1850s de­signed in the Indies Empire style, with a sweep­ing front porch held up by stout Doric col­umns. The struc­ture ap­pears low-slung from a dis­tance, but step­ping in­side re­veals ceil­ings at least three me­ters high. Fur­ni­ture from the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies graces the rooms, and nine suites flank the main hall where the young Sukarno once came to dance and min­gle with the crème de la crème of Bl­i­tar so­ci­ety.

We’re stunned when the ho­tel’s op­er­a­tions man­ager, Suhar­tini, un­locks the door to the Sang Fa­jar suite. The pres­i­den­tial quar­ters are a ver­i­ta­ble shrine to the statesman, re­plete with busts, pho­tos, cab­i­nets filled with his books (along­side those of his chil­dren), and a paint­ing of a Ba­li­nese woman by Sukarno him­self. Be­low a Garuda Pan­casila, the na­tional em­blem mod­eled af­ter a Ja­van hawk-ea­gle, the teak di­van bed is the widest I’ve ever seen—wide enough to sleep four peo­ple. “All of In­done­sia’s pres­i­dents have stayed here, ex­cept for Jokowi,” Suhar­tini says. “To­mor­row, this will be your room.”

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, sepi­a­toned photo, pur­port­edly show­ing a shaft of

Above, from left: An as­sort­ment of Ja­vanese dishes—in­clud­ing lo­cal spe­cial­ties pe­cel and ko­tokan ku­tuk— served up at Tugu Bl­i­tar; Hanoman as de­picted on the Hindu tem­ple of Pe­nataran, con­structed from the 12th to 15th cen­turies un­der the Ma­japahit...

Dusk at Tugu Bl­i­tar, whose ar­bored drive­way leads to a Dutch colo­nial build­ing from the mid-19th cen­tury.

Tugu Bl­i­tar’s Sang Fa­jar suite is dedicated to the mem­ory of Sukarno.

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