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Heritage Hunt

Semarang in Central Java is a little known heritage trove filled with intriguing bits of history, interwoven with local myths and legends.

Words: Beverly Rodrigues   Photography: Adam Lee

The second temple complex of Gedongsongo

“She stood in the hall stark naked, and when the confetti fell, she just disappeared,” Bapak Bambang, director of the MGM said as he gazed at the grand old theatre. He was talking about Mata Hari; yes, the supposed double agent! If a local legend is to be believed, Mata Hari’s career began right here in Semarang at what was known during the Dutch occupation of Indonesia as the Stadschouwburg – an entertainment venue for Dutch soldiers and traders.

     At 18, Mata Hari (born Margaretha Geertruide Zelle) answered an advertisement placed by a veteran soldier living in the then Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) looking for a bride, and married him a year later. While living on the island of Java, she immersed herself in Indonesian dance, and adopted the name Mata Hari, meaning ‘sun’. Later on, she performed as a striptease artiste in Paris, using Mata Hari as her stage name.

     Throughout her life, Mata Hari played exotic dancer and seductive courtesan, forming liaisons with powerful men and moving in dangerous circles. Whether Mata Hari was truly guilty of espionage remains a mystery. She admitted to working for French Intelligence during WWI, but was also accused of spying for Germany. Mata Hari’s execution by firing squad in 1917 turned her into a legend, the quintessential femme fatale.

One of the gigantic ants on the MGM building

     Standing in the hall where Mata Hari once performed was quite an experience. The original roof shaped like an overturned vessel has been retained, the architect seemingly inspired by Columbus. Lining the roof are hexagonal porthole-type designs, keeping in line with the maritime theme of the architecture. What I couldn’t quite fathom were the two mammoth insects perched on top of the MGM. Instead of a roaring lion – the signature of the famous Hollywood motion picture studio – the roof houses two red ants, rather at odds with the building’s stained glass images of Snow White and her posse of dwarfs.

     This baffling blend of kitsch elements was soon explained. When Soeharto came to power, he was determined to stamp out all traces of Dutch colonialism. In the local language, red ants are called marabuntah, and Soeharto chose them as symbols of Indonesian nationalism; Red, for bravery, and ants for their spirit of solidarity. The letters ‘MGM’ boldly displayed on the theatre are merely a play on the name of the Hollywood studio; the initials stand for Marabuntah Gedung Multiguna (Red Ant Multipurpose Hall). This quirky rebranding gives the hall even more character, revealing insight into Indonesia’s fascinating history under Soeharto’s rule. 

The interior of the MGM building, now used as a function hall

A Hero’s Tribute   

Next up, I stopped by the eclectic Sam Poo Kong Temple dedicated to the illustrious explorer and sainted seafarer, Admiral Zheng He. Besides claims that the celebrated mariner circumnavigated the globe way ahead of European explorers, Zheng He is also believed to have had special powers; an uncanny proficiency with weaponry, an ability to control the sea, and best of all, the gift of teleporting using a well!

     The place where the Sam Poo Kong Temple sits today was once the harbour where Zheng He’s fleet docked during his voyages in 1405 and 1416. The water has since receded, and now the sea lies about seven kilometres away. But, traces of the maritime age can still be observed in the temple’s many fascinating elements.

A 40-tonne bronze statue of Admiral Zheng He at Sam Poo Kong Temple

     Spread out over 3.25 hectares, the temple compound built by Semarang’s Confucian community comprises splendid pavilions. The first is dedicated to the God of the Earth, and protected by statues of fierce, sword-ready guards representing the yin and yang elements. Just outside are colourful sculptures of the eight Sea Gods who protected Zheng He on his adventures, and beyond this, a temple built in honour of a captain who perished during the second voyage. Here, intricate pillars made of cement and volcanic ash from Bali’s sacred Mount Agung depict writhing dragons and swirling waves.

     Just nearby, I noticed a strange tree twined into what looked like chains and ropes. Locals believe that this 600-year-old tree sprouted from the anchor of one of Zheng He’s ships. Fascinated by this bit of trivia, I was even more amazed to see the gigantic anchor of one of Zheng He’s 12-metre long junks propped up against a temple wall. There’s even a well in a small cave where Zheng He used to pray, which functions as a sort of wishing well now.

Temple-goers burning joss sticks at Sam Poh Koo Temple

     Legends and history aside, the most interesting discovery was learning that the main temple was built facing the Holy Ka’aba in Mecca out of respect for Zheng He’s Islamic faith. Imagine, a Confucian temple built in honour of a Muslim!

     Wondering about this man who inspired such grandeur, I was glad to see Zheng He’s legacy immortalised in elaborate stone carvings depicting his many voyages. Complex reliefs tell of how Zheng He led the Ming dynasty’s expedition to the western oceans, interceded for peace between kingdoms, put an end to the pillaging of pirates, and even escorted the legendary Chinese princess Hang Li Po to the kingdom of Malacca to form a royal alliance.

     An explorer and an emissary of peace, Zheng He’s history is well worth a visit at the temple.

Celestial Marvel

Masjid Agung Jawa Tengah is reputed to be the biggest mosque in Central Jawa

Another must-see when visiting Semarang is the Masjid Agung Jawa Tengah. Completed in 2006, a culmination of five years of work, this grand mosque with its blend of Javanese, Arabic and Greek architectural influences is a vision in white.

     Built on a 10-hectare site, the mosque can accommodate some 13,000 pilgrims, and is believed to be the biggest mosque in Central Java. A set of 25 pillars inspired by Rome’s Colosseum represents Islam’s prophets, while Arabic calligraphy adorn the walls of the mosque. Reminiscent of the Al-Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina, this grand mosque even has six hydraulic umbrellas that open to shade pilgrims in the courtyard.

     To get a better view of the mosque, I took a high-speed elevator up the Menara Asmaul Husna. Standing 99 metres tall, the height reflects the 99 attributes of Allah, and also proffers fabulous views of the mosque, as well as the surrounding landscape.

Restored Gem

The Lawang Sewu building, said to mean ‘a thousand doors’ in Javanese

One of the most thrilling sites I visited in Semarang was the Lawang Sewu – a popular landmark designed by architect Prof. Jacob F Klinkhamer as the head office of the national railway of the Dutch East Indies in the early 1900s. Once crumbling, today the art deco building is undergoing massive restoration. And, if rumours are to be believed, the Lawang Sewu will be declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2012. This status would mean an influx of heritage buffs, as well as fans of the macabre, intent on spotting a ghost or two lurking in its long passageways. Pausing to admire the beautiful stained-glass windows depicting the goddesses of luck and prosperity, I couldn’t imagine the atrocities committed underground.

The stained glass masterpiece at Lawang Sewu

     Donning galoshes, I joined a tour into the bowels of Lawang Sewu. The tunnels, which run for some 75 metres, were constructed to collect rainwater as a means of cooling the building. During the Japanese occupation, however, they were used for sinister purposes. It was here that Indonesian freedom fighters were drowned by their captors. My guide pointed out tanks and standing prisons used to confine grown men in cramped quarters while the water rose. Splashing around in the darkness with just a torch light, I felt an oppressive energy in the air.

     During Soeharto’s reign, the Lawang Sewu remained a chilling place. It’s only now that restoration work is in progress that the people of Semarang are beginning to take tentative steps into this heritage building.

Ancient Ruins

Mother Mary’s grotto at Gua Maria Kerep

The last stop on my heritage trail took me south of the Semarang municipality to Ambarawa. Travellers are familiar with Borobudur and Prambanan, but Central Java has many other unexplored gems like the Hindu temple Candi Gedongsongo.

     Built of volcanic stone during the Sanjaya dynasty from 730 AD to 780 AD, Candi Gedongsongo predates its more celebrated sisters. In fact, this temple that sits on the slopes of Mt. Ungaran, and 1,200 metres above sea level, is believed to be one of Java’s oldest Hindu structures.

     Legend has it that the temple complex was commissioned by Queen Shima of Kalingga, who was instructed in a dream to build a prayer house closer to God at the mountain peak called Suro Loyo. Bringing along her artisans, Ki Hajar Selokantoro and Ki Hajar Watangrono, the queen travelled for 40 days till she reached this spot. Once the temples were erected, she returned to Kalingga with Ki Hajar Selokantoro, while Ki Hajar Watangrono stayed behind to meditate, and eventually ascended to heaven. Another legend tells of how a dispute between the artisans over the exact location of Suro Loyo led to a bitter feud with each artist plotting to destroy the other’s temple.

Javanese peacock dancer

    Today, only five of Candi Gedongsongo’s nine temple complexes remain. These showcase plinth and cornice moulding, and reflect Queen Shima’s many teachings and philosophies on life.

     Whatever its origins, there’s no denying the allure of Gedongsongo. This ancient spiritual site continues to attract jasmine-bearing pilgrims every full moon, as well as visitors hoping for a refreshing dip in the healing waters of its natural springs.

The Hunt Continues…

Semarang’s treasures are deep and vast; the histories and legends here may overlap and contradict, but therein lies the excitement and mystery. Semarang is a heritage trove waiting to be explored.

A sleeping Buddha at Vihara Buddhagaya

Visitor Info


Open: Daily, 24 hours

Entrance fee: For temple compound, Rp10, 000 for foreigners and Rp 3, 000 for locals. For the temples, Rp30, 000 for foreigners and Rp20, 000 for locals. (Special photo op in period costume for an additional Rp75, 000, inclusive of two photos. Closed on Mondays)


Open: Mon-Wed: 8am-5pm, Thurs-Sat: 8am-midnight, Sun: 8am-6pm.

Entrance fee: For compound, Rp10,000. Additional Rp10,000 to enter building. For guided walk inclusive of tunnel tour, Rp30,000.


Open: Daily, 6.15am-5.15pm

Entrance fee: Rp25,000 for foreigners and Rp5,000 for locals. (Horse riding packages up to temples and hot springs cost between Rp35, 000 and Rp70, 000.)


Open: Daily, 24 hours

Entrance fee: Free

Side Attractions

Learn about the powers of traditional Indonesian health tonics called jamu at Nyonya Meneer’s Taman Djamoe Indonesia. www.nyonyameneer.com

Take a refreshing dip at Curuk Tujuh Bidadari, a waterfall named for its seven tiers where angels are said to bathe. www.central-java-tourism.com

Visit the Vihara Buddhagaya in Watugong to see the beautiful Avalokitesvara Pagoda or Metta Karuna that houses statues of Kwan Yin in her many forms.

Savour Robusta coffee at Kampoeng Kopi Banaran, where it’s said to be extra creamy and bubbly. www.kampoengkopibanaran.com

Make a pilgrimage to Gua Maria Kerep where there’s a grotto for Mother Mary designed after the natural one in Lourdes, outdoor prayer spaces and a little chapel. www.central-java-tourism.com

GO Semarang!

• Semarang City Tour (approx. 6 hours)

• Pure Paradise Karimunjawa (overnight package)

• The sky Spa (approx. 6 hours)

• Atmosphere & Aromas of Tlogo & Ambarawa (approx. 5 hours)

Visit www.airasiago.com to check out the full range of tours.

Getting There AirAsia flies to Semarang daily from Kuala Lumpur. Go to  www.airasia.com for flight details.