Eminence of the Majapahit

MerdekaArriving in Surabaya by air from Yogyakarta you can see, before landing, why one has a small town feel and the other quite the opposite. Surabaya spreads itself over a considerable amount of land and with all the new construction seems to be pushing its limits further and further like an unrestrained juggernaut.

The city is high energy, flashy, and alive. It’s also ethnically diverse, a center for trade and education, and steeped in history of monumental proportions to both Dutch and Indonesians.

Nestled as an oasis amid the throbbing progress and construction is the Hotel Majapahit (formerly Hotel Oranje). There are several moments that will take your breath away for any who travel through Java and Bali and this hotel is one of them.

Arrive in the early evening, just as the entrance lights begin to shine and douse the century old hotel in a warm golden glow. Enter and be struck by the Art Nouveau foyer. The upper reaches are encircled by a continuous series of imported and colorfully stained glass windows while the rich white marble floor stretches out in front escorting you around the lounge and onto reception. 

Stunning grandiose opulence and colonial luxury are descriptions that fail to truly capture the essence of the Majapahit.

It is unusual for me to be in a state of awe over a hotel but this one is special.

Leaving the foyer through a set of dark wooden double-doors you are delivered directly into the past; into another era where imagining fully starched white shirts with stiff collars and cuffs, bow-ties and top hats, seem like they should be the norm.

My outfit completely out of context, resulting in the niggling discomfort of under-dressed embarrassment.

From here on in the architecture changes from art nouveau to art deco.

The gardens are so perfectly manicured that each blade of grass appears to have been measured before receiving a trim.  The palm trees soar to unbelievable heights with leaves and branches cascading in a variety of patterns depending on how the light falls.  The sound of water fills the gardens as it dances and flows from fountains positioned among the tropical flora. It’s a symmetry that is not only aesthetically pleasing but functional in a “how do I cool myself while taking in all this beauty” kind of way.

The hotel itself is only two stories tall with 144 rooms. It expands deep rather than high. You meander your way down long corridors with rooms on one side and open arches exposing the gardens to the other. The white marble floors with black inlay designs navigate you through the grounds taking you to areas and rooms of historical importance.

During WWII the Japanese took over control of the hotel renaming it the Yamato and used it as a transfer station for women and children who were being sent to internment camps in Central Java.

At the wars conclusion the Dutch returned to Surabaya and their regional office occupied room 33. On September 19th, in the early morning, they raised the red, white, and blue flag of Holland over the hotel to symbolize their return to power.

By 6:30 am a distraught crowd of Indonesian revolutionaries assembled.

Inside room 33 an impromptu meeting was taking place between the Dutch official and one of the leaders of the independence movement to resolve the flag situation and perceived insult. An argument erupted and the Dutch official was killed leaving the revolutionary to make his escape over the rear wall of the hotel.

The crowd outside rushed the hotel and ripped the blue stripe off of the Dutch flag. Remaining was the red and white; the crowd chanted Merdeka; freedom.

Today room 33 is know as the Merdeka Room and the official flag of Indonesia boldly displays only two colors; Red and White.

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6 thoughts on “Eminence of the Majapahit

  1. There may be many ghosts haunting Surabaya and the hotel. If you dig deeper into the independence history, you will find an ugly period right after the Japanese capitulation. The flag incident was the beginning of the period called the Bersiap, during which thousands of men, women and children with Dutch ancestry were brutally murdered by groups of Pemuda (Indonesian youth). Many others were forced to remain in or return to internment camps where they had been previously held captive by the Japanese occupation. This time the same Japanese soldiers were now forced by the Allied governments to keep them safe from those youth. To this day there has been no acknowledgment by the Indonesian government of this shameful period. So when you see the painting of the red and white flag, keep in mind that it wasn’t as simple as just ripping the blue strip off.

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    1. Thanks for bringing this up Ellen. I am very aware of the Bersiap period as my mother and grandparents lived there and were interned during the war and the following upheaval. In a post that will be coming out soon I talk about this and other aspects of life in Indonesia during this period of colonialism to independence.

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  2. I have been to The Hotel Majapahit and your description is most definitely not an embellishment. It’s beauty and overwhelming sense of historical luxury cannot be described, but your photos do a great job of highlighting the general ambiance of this very special hotel. It is all that one would imagine and hope to find when entering a hotel in this place and of this era.

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  3. What a rich piece of history! A little spooky that there was a murder right there in Room 33. Any talk of ghosts walking those halls? The hotel looks magnificent…I don’t wonder that you were awed by it.

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    1. No talk of ghosts Jacquie. I think the spooky factor is overwhelmed by the beauty of it all. It’s kind of like an oasis. Plus it provides a real sense of pride for Indonesians as this was the stepping stone to gaining independence from the Dutch.

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