Sunday, 6 June 2010

Healing Waters

The Jolotundo Bathing Temple, near Trawas, East Java

Originally published in Asian Geographic Magazine, May 2010

The clearing, deep in the forest on the steep western slopes of the Penanggungan volcano, is full of gentle sound – insect noise, bird calls, and the ceaseless rush of running water. A scent of incense cuts across the earthy smells of the jungle.
The temple, a fa├žade of mildewed basalt fronted by a shallow pool, is set into the steep green hillside. Clear, cool water, straight from the heart of the mountain, pours from spouts in the masonry, just as it has done for more than a thousand years.
This place, Candi Jolotundo, two hours south of Surabaya, the seething capital of East Java, was built in 977 AD under the great Hindu Sanjaya kingdom, the same dynasty that built the more famous Prambanan temple in Central Java. Today, long since Sanjaya faded from the scene, and long since the Hinduism of old Java gave way to Islam, the temple is still known by local people as a place of power, pilgrimage and healing.

Jolotundo was always a bathing temple, and the modern pilgrims who make their way up the steep, potholed track through the forest from the hot, dusty cities of Sidoarjo, Surabaya and Mojokerto say that its water has healing properties.
Drawn from underground springs, the water is cool, clear and sweet. Some of the most regular visitors to Jolotundo are people with health problems.
A man named Ajianto, from nearby Sidoarjo, says he has come here almost every day since suffering a stroke several years ago. The stroke affected his speech and his balance, but, he says, regular dips in the chilly, stone-lined bathing tank at the temple help greatly to relieve his symptoms. Other visitors echo his story with tales of back aches and asthma cured after bathing here.
The water – both in its drinking quality and its healing power – ranks with the best in the world. One local man, Syafik, says it is bettered only by the water of the Zamzam well in Mecca, and the source of the Ganges in the high Himalayas.

This easy referencing of both Islam and Hinduism is central to Jolotundo’s enduring attraction for Javanese people in the 21st Century: this is a key place for people who follow the tangle of Hindu concepts, Islamic formulas, ancestor veneration and spirit appeasement known as Kejawen, the traditional Javanese religion and the counterpoint to modern Islamic orthodoxy.
Many of Jolotundo’s visitors are followers of Kejawen. For traditionalist Javanese people the concept of sacred energy, kesakten, contained in people, places and objects is important, and Jolotundo is a place of great power.
Pilgrims bring offerings of petals, known as sesajen, in little trays of woven paper or leaves. They light slim red incense sticks, and settle themselves to meditate on the temple’s central platform. Meditation, known as semedi, is the way to access the power of places like Jolotundo, and the best time to do it is at night.
Remote and isolated though the temple is – it lies several kilometers beyond the nearest village – there are people here every night. The time when the healing power of the water is said to be at its strongest is between midnight and 2 am. The power is particularly intense, pilgrims say, in the early hours of Friday morning, and still more so on the night of a full moon or a Kliwon Tuesday, when the second day of the seven-day week meets with the last day of the five-day Javanese calendar.
“On those nights it’s really busy. You have to queue to bathe, for two hours sometimes,” says a local stallholder named Sembodo.
One midnight visitor claims that in the darkness Jolotundo becomes a gateway to another world, while another whispers more tails of healing: a woman from Sidoarjo had been trying for a baby for years, he says, but only had her wished-for son after bathing here at midnight on a Kliwon Tuesday.
In the intense, cocooning darkness, filled with the sound of running water and marked only by the orange pinpricks of incense sticks and the meandering green sparks of the fireflies, even a skeptic might believe such stories…

© Tim Hannigan 2010


praccus said...

Inspiring. I've just been to Jolotundo and roundabouts. Many more weekends to come also, since I live in Sby. In case yr interested in some of the other old Kakawin manuscripts and stories. This one has to do with with the genesis of Suro-buyo etc.

Tim Hannigan said...

Hi praccus, glad you enjoyed the piece. In case you missed it, here's a more detailed take on Jolotundo. It's a place that quietly obsesses me:

That's an interesting piece on the Joyoboyo prophecies. Some of them, I think, are a little dubious in veracity. They seem to get stirred up periodically and then they rattle around in Chinese whisper fashion, so some of the more striking "predictions" may not date from Joyoboyo's own time. But still, they're fun...

I hope you're enjoying living in Surabaya. It's a great and earthy city.