Indonesia displays a wealth of remains dating back to prehistoric times. They can be found in northern and central Sulawesi, the Pasemah district of Sumatra, as well as the islands of Bali, Sumba, Flores and Nias. Java, too, is not lacking in prehistoric sites. Scattered remains of the so-called Sampung Culture, representing the island’s earliest agricultural communities, can be found in districts such as Tuban, Bojonegoro, Mojokerto, Pacitan and Jember. The village of Sampung itself, after which the Culture was named, lies near the East Javanese town of Ponorogo.
From the perspective of Heritage Tourism, however, there is no doubt that the megalithic monuments of Java’s far eastern region, notably Bondowoso, hold a special appeal. To begin with, Bondowoso’s dramatic natural landscape in itself cannot fail to impress visitors. On its eastern side lies the jagged summit of Mt Raung, one of Java’s most impressive volcanos, as well as the sulphureous crater lake of Ijen; while to the west rises the wild and mysterious Hyang Plateau, site of the legendary kingdom of Dewi Rengganis. Local culture includes the Madurese sport of bull fighting, which is staged regularly in the district of Tapen.
Bondowoso’s megalithic remains consist of massive stones, erected centuries ago for a variety of purposes, many of them symbolic. Among them we find menhirs (standing stones), dolmens (stone tables), sarcophagi (stone graves), stone seats and stairways, statues, household items such as mortars and pestles, as well as groups of stones known popularly as ‘watu kenong’, on account of their resemblance to the gong-like instruments of a Javanese gamelan orchestra.
In addition, the region of Bondowoso possesses a unique object known as pandhusa, which is a cross between a dolmen and a sarcophagus; in other words, a grave in the form of a dolmen. Most of the pandhusa documented up to now lie in hilly regions. One group is to be found near the curious, cone-shaped hill named Gunung Ko’ong, to the west of the town of Maesan, which according to tradition was formerly an important cultural centre. In the early 1990’s I did some exploring in the region of Maesan, notably in the villages of Dawuhan and Tanahwulan. Villagers there informed me of the pandhusa’s unique construction method, as follows. First, a suitably large rock would be selected, after which an excavation would begin beneath it. The removed earth would gradually be replaced by flat, stone pillars, resulting in a burial chamber under the rock. There the body of the deceased would later be placed, and the entrance sealed with another flat stone.
To gain some idea of the extent of Bondowoso’s megalithic remains, published figures by the Mpu Tantular Museum, based on a survey conducted 10 years ago, listed among the various items observed a total of 92 sarcophagi, 129 dolmen, and 95 ‘watu kenong’. This survey, incidently, was limited to just 5 of the regency’s 17 districts, all of which are said to contain prehistoric sites. Another report, from the National Research Centre for Archaeology in Jakarta, listed 47 megalithic sites in the plains and lower hill regions of Bondowoso, spread out over an area measuring approximately 1000 square kilometers, from Maesan in the south-west to Prajekan in the north-east. How many more sites lie hidden in the higher, mountainous districts, is anybody’s guess.
According to the report from the Mpu Tantular Museum, the locations visited in 1998 were well cared for and secure. The local government was actively interested in their protection, and caretakers had been appointed by the Balai Arkeologi at Trowulan, Mojokerto. And most important, the local population was generally supportive. The team did admit, however, that many of the “pandhusa” had long since been robbed of their contents, which presumably had ended up on the antique market. Considering the sheer quantity and extent of these prehistoric remains, it is clear that the best, indeed the only way to protect them is to encourage local awareness of their cultural value. The development of Cultural Tourism in Bondowoso would certainly help towards that end. As to the scope, as well as the practical implementation of Heritage Tours in the region, these require consultation with specialists in the relevant fields. Inasmuch as many of the megalithic monuments lie in isolated spots on difficult terrain, the possibility of organizing Adventure Tours could also be considered.