Wednesday, 28 April 2010

A Sacred Mountain of Java

Gunung Penanggungan, East Java

Originally published in Bali and Beyond Magazine, April 2010

In the deep green forest on the slopes of the Penanggungan volcano the cool air is filled with the sound of running water and the scent of incense. At the end of a steep, potholed road, surrounded by a thicket of tall trees and tangled creepers, stands Candi Jolotundo. This Hindu water temple is over a thousand years old, but even today, long since most of Java converted to Islam, it is still attracting a steady stream of pilgrims. In the damp niches, people place Balinese-style offerings of leaves and petals; on the temple's central platform of carved basalt, men sit cross-legged in meditation. And in the bathing tanks on either side — women to the left, men to the right — people stand in the cool, clear water, bowing their heads beneath the rivulets in search of blessing and the energy of this sacred place. There are Balinese migrants, Chinese Indonesians, and a few local Christians amongst the visitors, but most of the pilgrims here are Javanese Muslims. This temple, and the steep mountain from which its eternal water supply is drawn, is still seen as a place of power today, as it has been throughout Java's history.

On a clear day you can see Gunung Penanggungan from the center of Surabaya. This 1,653-metre mountain stands like a sentinel at the edge of the volcanic hinterland that is just an hour and a half away by road from the crowded East Java capital.

For hundreds of years, Penanggungan was one of Java's most sacred mountains. According to legend, when Hinduism first arrived in Indonesia, Mount Meru the mythical home of the gods was shifted to Java. But the peak suffered some damage in transit: the base broke away to form Mount Semeru in the Bromo-Tengger Massif, while the smooth summit tumbled some 60 kilometers to the north to form Penanggungan.

It's easy to see why this peak had such a grip on the imagination of ancient Java. Rising steeply from the hot yellow coastal plain in a perfect cone and flanked by a series of smaller attendant summits, it dominates the local landscape. Under successive Hindu dynasties it was a pilgrimage destination and the focus of intensive temple building. Today the remains of some 81 temples dot the forested slopes.

Oldest is the sacred bathing place at Jolotundo on the western slope of the mountain. A facade of dark, carved basalt set into the steep hillside, it dates from the time of Sanjaya, the dynasty also responsible for Java's biggest Hindu monument at Prambanan. Built around 977 AD, Sanskrit inscriptions connect the place to Udayana, the king of the old unified kingdom of Bali who was married to a Sanjaya princess. The natural spring here, fed by pure mountain mineral water, was probably considered sacred long before the temple was built, and of all Penanggungan's temples it is the one still most venerated today.

Visit at any time and you will see people who have driven up from the nearby cities to bathe and to fill bottles with the water said by locals to be second in quality only to that from the Zam-Zam well in Mecca. In fact, you'll probably be encouraged to take a dip yourself - and you should! Mystical powers aside, the cool and clean water is incredibly refreshing. But for those serious about accessing Jolotundo's power, locals say it is necessary to visit after dark, between midnight and 2 am. Every night but especially when the moon is full this remote place deep in the forest is busy with visitors.

There is another sacred Sanjaya-era bathing place on the eastern side of Penanggungan. Follow a rising, narrowing lane off the roaring Surabaya-Malang Highway and you'll reach Candi Belahan, known locally by its more racy name, Candi Tetek, the Breasts Temple, for the obvious reasons; the supply of sacred spring-water here emerges from the ample bosom of a statue of the goddess Laksmi. This place is said to be the memorial for Udayana's son Airlangga, the last and greatest of the Sanjaya kings. Pilgrims still come here today also, and local villagers use the shallow pool that stands before the temple's brick facade as a public bath.

After Airlangga's death in 1049, Sanjaya split into two warring kingdoms, and East Java was not unified again until two centuries later under the Singosari realm, based not far from Gunung Penanggungan near the modern town of Malang.

Singosari made its own additions to the sacred geography of Penanggungan, the most striking of which is Candi Jawi, which stands southeast of the mountain in the village of Prigen. A tall tower of carved limestone; it is nonetheless overshadowed by the mountain that inspired it.

But it was under Singosari's successor, the mighty 15th century Majapahit Empire, that temple building on the sacred slopes of Penanggungan reached its zenith. The mountain's enigmatic purple cone, rising from the coastal haze, would have been visible from the Majapahit capital some 30 kilometers to the west at Trowulan. As pilgrims made their way up ancient pathways towards the sacred summit, masons carved cubes of rough basalt into plinths and statues and set them on laboriously leveled terraces all around the slopes of the mountain.

The Majapahit rule lasted less than 200 years, and in 1543 Gunung Penanggungan was captured by the nascent Islamic state of Demak. No more temples were built on the steep slopes and the more remote of the Majapahit constructions were reclaimed by the forest, only to be rediscovered by archaeologists in the 1930s. But the mystical draw of the mountain and its bathing places has endured — and continues to do so today.

Modern pilgrims can find places to stay in the nearby hill resorts of Trawas or Tretes, small towns with fine views looking out across the shining green rice terraces and stands of thick forest towards Penanggungan. But the closest accommodation to the mountain is a kilometer downhill from the Jolotundo temple at PPLH, an environmental education center deep in the forest that also has some neat little bungalows for visitors.

And this is the place to start from if you want to make your own way up to the home of the gods, the very summit of the sacred mountain. Though it's a tough and sweaty climb, Penanggungan is one of Java's most accessible peaks — a day hike rather than an expedition. After seeking blessings with a bath at the Jolotundo temple, hikers can follow a path through the steamy silence of the forest before emerging eventually in the thick scrub between the main mountain and its attendant peak of Mount Bekel. Here the trail, winding through stands of tall yellow grass, leads to a succession of small Majapahit temples before rising sharply for the final sweaty slog up the bare stony slopes to the summit.

The hard work is worth it. From the rim of the shallow crater, the view opens over the green landscape of East Java. To the north the cities of Sidoarjo and Surabaya can sometimes be made out beneath their blankets of yellow haze; the lower slopes of the mountain are cloaked with a dense green forest that gives way to the shining terraces and red-roofed villages of the farmland. And to the south the great bulk of the Welirang volcano massif towers over Trawas and Tretes. It's easy to understand why the people of old Java saw this place as the home of the gods.

© Tim Hannigan 2010

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