Craftsmen of Bejijong: Trowulan, East Java

Trowulan, located some 12 kilometers south of Mojokerto regency in East Java, has long been known as a historical site. The Hindu and Buddhist-influenced temples that dot the area are evidence of a rich cultural heritage, which also includes ceramic pieces, bronze and silver art and stone carvings. But the few craftsmen still engaged in creating works of art with religious themes are diminishing, and the few still holding on to their profession are finding it harder to preserve the ancient art they inherited from their ancestors.

Bejijong, a hamlet in Trowulan subdistrict, is known as a center for bronze and silverware — but looking for a craftsman’s workshop in this sleepy little hamlet is like searching for a needle in a haystack according to Retno K. Djojo.

Arif, a man hard to track down, is the owner of a workshop specializing in bronze, gold and silverware in the hamlet.

Bronze smithing has become somewhat of a dying art in Bejijong,” said Arif, who inherited a workshop from his late father, adding he had struggled to keep the business afloat.

Arif, who is a teacher by training, said he felt obliged to continue on with the craft; a cultural inheritance that originated from way down the family line.

Leading the way to a workshop at the back of his home surrounded by a spacious yard, he explained that before the economic crises of 1998, there were some 10 silversmiths in the area.

But with a decline in the demand for bronze and silver works of art, they had all closed down business: Arif’s workshop is the last one standing.

Back in the days when his father was still running the business, the workshop employed some 20 craftsmen. But ongoing economic pressures forced the majority of craftsmen to look for work elsewhere.

For more than 25 years, Arif’s workshop has produced Buddha heads, temple bells, miniature temples and figurines of Hindu gods. Art traders sell the handicrafts produced to tourists visiting the temples in Trowulan.

Despite the misfortunes encountered, Arif said he vows to try as hard as he can to keep the business going, as he believes preserving the art will have its rewards.

In order to survive, he accepts orders placed by tourist centers in Bali and Jakarta.

Recent orders are mostly for pieces of art with classical European appeal: A smith at his workshop demonstrates his skill at shaping and welding a model of a Trojan horse.

It is astonishing to watch the smith at work producing an artwork of such refined quality, which originated from a foreign culture. A Trojan horse can fetch some Rp 170,000 (US$18) to Rp 200,000 a piece.

Aside from meeting orders from art dealers, Arif’s workshop continually produces artwork with tradition appeal. He keeps a collection of various models, like an owl paper-weight, and deer, turtle and beetle figurines.

Current economic pressure, he said, is a major threat to the existence of silver and bronze smithing, which previously offered a decent livelihood to quite a number of craftsmen in Bejijong.
Similar concerns have been expressed by a number of stone carvers in the area, who have complained of excessive levies incurred when sending consignments of statues to Bali.

It is not hard to find the workplace of those engaged in stone carving — one only needs to follow the tapping of hammer and chisel echoes along the main artery connecting Mojokerto to Jombang.

The rhythmic tapping sound guides the casual visitor to an empty plot of land where a group of craftsmen work under the shade of trees, giving shape to huge boulders using simple tools.
Their works of art, including ghost houses, Hindu and Buddhist statues as well as carvings for home decorations, lay scattered under the trees.

The craftsmen work together and seem to be able to coordinate their activities without too much conversation.

Despite a lack of formal education, the craftsmen’s skills are able to meet the demand of orders from several tourist centers.
“Craftsmen in Bali have their hands full with the huge demand from tourists there, so some of the orders are placed with stone carvers in Trowulan,” said one carver.

“We are also able to produce artwork with more modern themes, like home decorations with Hellenistic influences, statues for churches or crocodile statues like this one,” he said, pointing to a model of a crocodile some 1.5 meters in length.

Most of Trowulan’s stone carvings end up in Bali, where they are sold to buyers as far away as Australia, England and European countries.

Each of the eight craftsmen that work in Arif’s workshop earn some Rp 500,000 to Rp 800,000 a month.

Though Arif is eager to give the workers a raise, the heavy levies at the harbor in Bali drains the workshop’s income.

“It’s a pity the government does not appreciate our self-employment efforts,” he said. “Especially since economic woes still threaten our existence.”