Snapshot in Time: Lawang Sewu and the Javanese Railway

The history of railways in Central Java has a lavish home at Lawang Sewu. The museum’s name comes from the Javanese translation for ‘thousand doors’ in reference to the multitude of entrances characterising these Dutch-era colonial buildings that extend from a pair of domed minaret-like water towers overlooking the Tuga Muda roundabout.

Lawang Sewu, the construction of which began in 1904 and ended in 1918, is a grand, ornate place that draws attention thanks to its magnificent marble staircase and stained glass windows designed by Johannes Lourens Schouten. Pottery ornaments atop the balcony complete a scene of refined elegance. Scattered around the site lies a preponderance of trains, carriages and related paraphernalia that indicates the site’s former life as the headquarters of the private railway company Nederlandsch-Indische Spoorweg Maatschappij (NISM), which built the first railway line connecting Semarang with Surakarta and Yogyakarta. 

During the Second World War, Lawang Sewu took on a new role as a military base, first for the Japanese invaders before its reclamation by the Dutch colonists. These were not easy transitions, and the dungeons in the site’s basement, where torture and murder were commonplace, saw far more brutal histories generated. And even when Lawang Sewu reverted to the national railway company after the war’s end, the residual energy of the atrocities committed within its confines gave rise to all manner of ghostly encounters and inexplicable presences and tales of disembodied screams echoing around the site.

Such knowledge can ferment in visitors’ minds: given the supernatural lore attached to the museum and the numerous doors ensconced within, one must wonder where these entrances lead and what may choose to come through them.


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