Monday, 5 January 2009

Semarang and the Gedong Songo

The attractions of North Central Java

Originally published in Bali and Beyond Magazine, January 2009

As the orange glow of the sunrise gradually spreads to the east and the wisps of mist clear from the steep pine forest-covered slopes, a spectacular view opens. Below the red rooftops of the hamlet of Duran the mountainside falls away through terraces of cabbages and onions – exotic vegetables here in Indonesia which only grow in the high altitude cool. Through the pale haze that cloaks the valley below, palm-lined ridges and amphitheatres of green rice can be made out, and further to the south the Rawa Pening Lake catches a dulled reflection of the morning sky. Beyond that, rising stark above the streaks of cloud that blur the landscape of Central Java, is the great purple cone of Gunung Merbabu, a 3000-metre high mountain. Loitering behind it, it is just possible to pick out the smoking summit of Gunung Merapi, the most active volcano in the area, while to the right another pair of huge conical mountains, Gunung Sumbing and Gunung Sundoro, seem to float on a sea of white haze. Closer at hand the sunlight begins to streak through the pine trees, lighting the intricately carved stonework of the ancient Hindu temples, known as the Gedong Songo, that lie scattered across this high hillside.

While the World Heritage Site temples of Prambanan and Borobudur in the southern part of Central Java attract hundreds of visitors every day, fifty kilometres to the north the older temples of Gedong Songo rarely make it onto visitors’ itineraries. They might be small in stature compared to the splendours to the south, but those who make the effort to follow the steep road through the cabbage fields will be amply rewarded. The Gedong Songo occupy one of the finest positions anywhere in Java, high on the rugged slopes of Mount Ungaran looking out over that mighty vista of volcanoes. And while Borobudur and Prambanan swarm with sightseers from first light every day, if you visit during the week, chances are you’ll have the Gedong Songo to yourself.

Gedong Songo means “Nine Buildings” in Javanese. The name might cause modern visitors to scratch their heads – there are only six temple groups spread over the slopes above Duran village, and though some of the groups contain several individual structures, no count will reach a tally of nine. It seems that the early Dutch surveyors who first mapped the site in the 19th Century made a mistake and the name that they gave the “nine” buildings was later translated into Javanese for local maps. But the locals around Gunung Ungaran had another more evocative, and more accurate, name for the place: Candi Banyukuning, the Temples of the Yellow Water.
The Gedong Songo temples were built in the 8th Century and are some of the finest of the early Hindu temples in Java. Their design – rising tiers, an inner chamber, and decorated facades – was a prototype for the classic Javanese architectural style that reached its greatest heights at Prambanan, two centuries later. And in their remote location, up in the cool pine forests, the Gedong Songo temples have survived remarkably well for more than 1200 years.

The temples lie at the end of a narrow lane some seven kilometres from the pleasant hill resort of Bandungan. A path leads from the entranceway with its cluster of simple cafes serving tasty sate kelinci (skewered rabbit kebabs with peanut sauce) and hot coffee sweetened with condensed milk, up through the narrow terraces where hill folk work tending plots of vegetables. The first of the temples is a bulky building with a yoni – cosmic symbol of femininity – in the gloomy inner chamber (its male counterpart, the lingam, is missing). But the best carvings are further up the hillside at the second and third temple groups. Here there are carvings of the elephant-headed god Ganesh and the goddess Durga looking out from niches in the walls, the craftsmanship still obvious after more than a millennium. The backdrop of pine-clad slopes makes an atmospheric setting, and the faint scent of sulphur in the air adds to the otherworldly atmosphere.
The source of the smell is in a nearby ravine where geothermal energy from the active volcano behind the temples sends acrid smoke hissing from cracks in the rocks and brings yellow-tinted water bubbling to the surface in shallow, steaming pools. The colour of this naturally heated water is the source of the old local name for the temples. A small swimming pool has been built at these hot springs. The waters are said to have healing properties and on weekends locals from the coastal city of Semarang and beyond make the journey up into the pine trees to bathe here. On a weekday afternoon though, you can enjoy this natural spa treatment alone for the princely sum of 5000 rupiah.

The other temples stand beyond the hot springs, on a steep ridge surrounded by trees. This is where the early morning sunlight first falls after dawn, and it is from here that the bird’s-eye view across the valley is at its best. There are more fine carvings, and inside some of the buildings you’ll find offerings of leaves and petals and a little pile of incense ash, a sign that long after the great Hindu kingdoms of Java faded from the scene, someone still venerates these sacred places. With their stunning, atmospheric location it’s easy to see why.


You can get to the Gedong Songo temples from the popular tourist town of Yogyakarta, less than three hours to the south. But the nearest city is Semarang on the north coast, just 45 minutes away. Semarang is often overlooked by guidebooks and tour routes. It is true that the city has none of the royal palaces and artistic highlights of Yogyakarta and Solo, but it is one of the oldest cities in Indonesia, and it is a good place to see traces of a different side of Java’s history.
Semarang was an important trading city in colonial days, and in the narrow streets around its winding river there are some of the finest examples of Dutch architecture anywhere in the country. Sprawling in either direction from the thoroughfare of Jalan Jendral Suprapto are alleys lined with old shops and warehouses with stocky columns and high shuttered windows. Red-tiled roofs and arched doorways still offer a faded echo of the older quarters of Amsterdam. The finest of all the old buildings is the 18th Century Immanuel church, better known as Gereja Blenduk, the Church of the Dome.

One of the most atmospheric of all Semarang’s colonial relics is the venerable Toko Oen restaurant. Inconspicuous on a busy street, once through the doors you are back in the 1930s – the decade when the place first opened. With old wooden furniture, slow-turning ceiling fans, top-notch ice cream, and tasty homemade cakes and biscuits from tall glass jars, it’s the perfect place for afternoon tea.

Elsewhere in the city there is a sprawling Chinatown, dotted with temples full of red and black tones, pungent incense smoke, and old women praying before gold statues of the Buddha – and needless to say there is some fine Chinese food.

Semarang might not offer the instant attractions of Yogyakarta, and the Gedong Songo might not rank among the wonders of the world, but this little-visited corner of Central Java is well worth a detour to escape the crowds – and to see some of the most beautiful landscapes in Java.
© Tim Hannigan 2008

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