Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Motorcycling to the Temples Of the Singosari Kingdom

Travelling around Malang, East Java

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe, 18/02/09

Driving up to Malang from East Java’s steaming coastal plains is like coming up for air. The humidity and traffic fumes clear; expanses of rice pasture open beyond the road, and in the distance, forested hills rise into murky cloud.
People have been making this refreshing uphill journey since the colonial era, and with three days to spare I have decided to follow the well-trodden route by motorbike, stopping along the way to explore relics of East Java’s past.

My first stop is in the village of Prigen, not far from the little hill resort of Tretes. Rising through tapering tiers of cut basalt in a neat, moat-lined garden, is the 14th Century Candi Jawi temple.

Candi Jawi was built in honor of Kertanegara, the last king of the mighty Singosari kingdom that once ruled these parts. The temple, restored in the late 1930s, is imposing despite its modest size, but it is somewhat overshadowed by the nearby cone of Gunung Penaggunan, the outer bastion of East Java’s mountain core. Today the volcano is fading rapidly in the haze, and the higher peaks to the south are hidden in cloud.

The clouds follow me onwards uphill towards Malang. The town lies in a broad bowl between the vast Bromo-Tengger massif to the east, and the similarly huge Arjuna-Welirang volcano complex to the west. But today there is only heavy cloud to mark where these behemoths lurk. The mountains of Java have something in common with the ghosts said to dwell in the forests of Javanese folklore: you know they are there; you just can’t always see them.

I stop in the market town of Singosari, little more than a suburb of Malang these days, but once the cradle of the Singosari dynasty.
In the 12th Century East Java was divided between two powerful kingdoms – Kediri and Janggala. But in the following century these states were replaced by a single realm, centered here in Singosari.
Singosari was founded in 1222 by Ken Angrok, a rebellious commoner, claimed by legend to be the son of the Hindu god Siva. He rose from nowhere, murdering the king of Kediri and taking control of all East Java. The dynasty he founded ruled for most of the 13th Century, and fostered the development of the high Hindu-Buddhist culture of late classical Java.

Today there is still a fine reminder of this royal past in the back lanes of Singosari. Like Candi Jawi, the eponymous Candi Singosari is a monument to King Kertanegara who died in 1292, murdered in a palace uprising. The Singosari kingdom fell with him, but a prince, Raden Wijaya, fled to Madura, and from there set out on a campaign that, within two years, would lead to the founding of the greatest of all the Javanese kingdoms – Majapahit.

I wander around the temple, admiring the grimacing, bug-eyed shrine guardians above the doorways, and wondering what Hindu statues once stood in the vacant recesses and chambers. The place is quiet and I can hear the sound of crowing roosters and chattering children from amongst the red-tiled roofs beyond the temple garden.
I return to the road and continue into Malang as a hint of evening chill descends, and homemade kites tug upwards into the breeze above suburban rooftops.


In the cool of the next morning I clamber back onto my bike and head east. The mountains are still unseen ghosts today, and thick cloud is slipping down from the Tengger highlands.
In the village of Tumpang, 20 kilometers from Malang, stands Candi Jago. This temple was built in 1268 to commemorate Kertanegara’s predecessor, Vishnuvardhana.
It has never been restored (beyond having a large tree removed from its upper levels in the 19th Century), but it is perhaps the most interesting of all the temples of the Singosari dynasty. Candi Jago has five levels, each banded by decorated friezes. There is a world of interest in these ancient cartoon strips, and I pick my way slowly around the levels, followed by a gang of cheerful schoolchildren, demanding to have their photos taken.
I oblige, and then get back to the carvings. There are the usual fantastic creatures: pot-bellied dwarfs, demons and women with tails. But there are also glimpses of daily life in 13th Century Java. There are domestic pigs and roosters, and men reclining in the shade of simple pavilions. There are also village temples with multi-tiered thatched roofs, and long lines of women in sarongs, heads turned in conversation, offerings of fruit balanced on their heads. I feel a spark of excitement as I recognize the scene: it could be a temple ceremony in Bali today.

In the countryside beyond the temple there are apple orchards and villages of neat white bungalows. But the threat of rain has rolled further down from the hidden mountains, so I make my way back to town and take refuge in a relic of a much more recent stage of Malang’s history.

Malang came under Dutch control in the mid-18th Century, developing as an administrative centre and a refuge from the heat of the coast. There are relics of this era in the city’s cathedral, and in the fine colonial mansions that still stand on a few of the suburban avenues. But with the rain now pouring down I take shelter in another colonial throwback.
Toko Oen restaurant, not far from the bustling town centre, has scarcely changed since the 1930s – with slow-moving ceiling fans, equally slow-moving waiters, low chairs and homemade ice cream. It’s a charming place, but as I settle down to coffee and cakes, it strikes me that it seems to belong to a past every bit as distant as that of the Singosari temples.


The next morning I head back for Surabaya along the back roads. I ride to the hill resort of Batu, then turn south into a high landscape swollen with neat little vegetable plots.
The mountains that have been only a rumor for the last two days have emerged to prove their existence. Ahead of me the great peak of Welirang marks the western buttress of a ragged bank of mountains.
I cross a narrow pass then continue down into dense, green forest where leopards are still said to hunt. A little way below the pass are the Cangar hot springs. I take the opportunity for a relaxing soak in the thermally heated pools, surrounded by cool jungle – a fine place to ease the aches of three days on a motorbike.
Refreshed, I ride on downhill along a deserted road. Suddenly, I emerge on a narrow saddle of land, the forest pouring away on either side. The view across the ridges and valleys is spectacular, and rising in the distance is Gunung Penanggunan, the sentinel peak that I saw two days earlier at the start of my journey.I park my bike and sit down at the edge of the road, dangling my legs over the void. The forest below is deep and impenetrable, and I wonder idly for a moment about those leopards. The distant volcano is stark against the sky, its ribbed upper slopes free from cloud. I can make out the plains beyond it, and I can imagine the heat and congestion that I will face on my approach to Surabaya. I stretch out and decide that all that can wait for a little while longer.

© Tim Hannigan 2008

No comments: