Friday, 16 October 2009

A Pilgrim on the Holy Slopes of Gunung Penanggungan

Climbing Gunung Penanggungan, East Java

Originally published in the Jakarta Globe, 06/10/09

The forest was silent in the gray pre-dawn light and the stone slabs at the edge of the bathing tank were slippery underfoot. Someone had been here ahead of me, for there was already a scent of incense in the air, and a fistful of pink petals in the green niche beside the waterspout, but for now I was alone. I undressed and dropped into the icy, chest-deep water. This was the sacred bathing place at the Jolotundo temple on the forested western slopes of Gunung Penanggungan. Suppressing a shiver I did what countless pilgrims before me had done and bowed my head under the stream of cold, clear water pouring from mouth of an algae-covered gargoyle, then clambered out, dressed and set out uphill towards the summit.


Gunung Penanggungan stands sentinel on the northern fringes of East Java’s volcanic hinterland; on a clear day you can see its smooth purple cone from the shopping malls of Surabaya. This 1653-meter mountain was long considered one of Java’s most sacred peaks. According to legend, when Hinduism arrived in Indonesia Mount Meru, the home of the gods, was shifted from the Himalayas to Java. Unsurprisingly the mountain suffered some damage during transit. The base broke away to form Gunung Semeru, Java’s highest peak, while the top fell 60 kilometers to the northwest to become Penanggungan.
My journey – by motorbike – had begun the previous day at another sacred bathing place, Candi Belahan, on Penanggungan’s eastern slopes. This temple dates from the late 11th Century, and is said to be the memorial of the great King Airlangga of the Sanjaya Dynasty. To find it I had branched off the howling Surabaya-Malang highway, and within minutes was deep in the Javanese countryside. The temple’s rather racy local name is Candi Tetek, the “Breasts Temple”, and the reason is obvious: the water that feeds the shallow pool here emerges in two ceaseless streams from the ample bosom of a statue of the goddess Laksmi. When I arrived a pair of truck drivers were unashamedly soaping themselves under this ancient power-shower.
“Come on mister!” they called to me; “take a bath, the water’s good here!” To their disappointment I only dipped my toes in the pool before heading on along rising roads through the little hill resorts of Tretes and Trawas. To the south the towering slopes of the Arjuno-Welirang volcano massif swept away into dark cloud; to the north Penanggungan itself stood stark above the concertinaed rice terraces.
At the end of a steep, potholed track through the trees I came to Candi Jolotundo. This temple is the oldest and most sacred on the mountain, and also the best starting point for the climb to the summit. Built in 977 AD, Sanskrit inscriptions suggest that it was the royal bathing place of Airlangga’s father, Udayana, king of the old unified Balinese kingdom that once held sway over east Java.
I could smell the incense and hear the sound of running water even before I saw the temple. It was set into a steep, forested hillside behind a pool full of huge, slow-moving fish. In a deep, walled-in tank three men were bathing, but they were not merely washing themselves like the truck drivers I had seen earlier. They stood upright, heads bowed and palms pressed together in prayer. Incense sticks fumed in the damp recesses of the fa├žade and an offering of petals floated in the water. On the temple’s central platform a young man in a white tee shirt was meditating, eyes closed, the afternoon sunlight slanting through the forest behind him.
One of the bathers emerged shivering from the tank.
“Is it cold?” I asked
“It’s not too bad if you jump straight in,” he replied. His name was Rozi. He lived in Surabaya and often came to the temple with his friends. “The water is good,” he said, “and it’s a good place to meditate. You can be close to god here.”
Another man, Aji, sitting in the shade of a pavilion nearby said that he drove up here from his home in Sidoarjo almost every day. He had a problem with his shoulder, “But after bathing here, it doesn’t hurt,” he said. Both Aji and Rozi were Muslims.
“This used to be a Hindu place,” said Aji, “but now it’s universal.” Nonetheless, the incense and the petals were still a strong echo of Hinduism.
“You should take a bath,” said Aji; “it will make you strong!”

I would need my strength to climb the mountain the next day, so I decided to take his advice. I spent the night a kilometer downhill from the temple at PPLH, an environmental educational center which also has eight neat little bungalows for visitors, and then, after that strengthening early morning dip at the temple, I headed for the summit.
The trail led through cool forest, then across a stretch of terraces studded with pale green banana plants. Ahead, the bald yellow summit of the mountain rose; to the left was the rocky outcrop of Bekel, one of Penanggungan’s four smaller outlying peaks.
Beyond the patch of farmland the trail rose into dense undergrowth. I was dripping with sweat by the time I came to the first temple. This was nothing more than a pair of small masonry stumps, but further on I came to another temple, this one a series of five basalt platforms rising to a crooked altar. Still higher up, on the saddle of land between Bekel and the main mountain, I found another three ancient places of worship. Struggling through the undergrowth I felt a little like Indiana Jones, but all of these places were well cared for. The surrounding vegetation had been cleared, and petals and ash showed that someone was still worshipping here.
There are at least 81 temples scattered around these slopes. Most date not from the time of Udayana and Airlangga but from the later Majapahit Kingdom. After the collapse of Majapahit the mountain was captured by the nascent Islamic state of Demak and the temples fell into disuse. They were “discovered” by European archeologists in the 1930s, though local villagers had always known about many of them.
Beyond the last temple – Candi Sinta – the scrub fell back. The trail here was a steep, ragged thread of yellow soil across slopes blackened by a recent wildfire. I had been hiking for almost two hours now and the sun was high overhead. Glancing back I could see the forests and fields of the lower slopes fading into a sea of yellow haze. A hot wind was whipping the dust into the sky and high above a dark-winged eagle turned on a thermal.
The slope grew steeper and steeper, and the ground rougher and rougher, but finally, sweating and gasping, I made it to the summit with its sunken crater. The mountain was adrift in the haze, but as I sat catching my breath the faint, dreamy sound of a traditional gamelan orchestra drifted up from what must have been a village wedding somewhere in the trees below.
The summit was a bleak and windy place of dry yellow grass, marked with the empty cigarette packets and burnt-out campfires of other hikers, but sitting there, listening to the distant gamelan and thinking of the cool water pouring into the pool at the Jolotundo temple – where I would certainly be taking another bath after my descent – the ancient idea that this was the home of the gods didn’t seem quite so farfetched.

© Tim Hannigan 2009

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