Thursday, 28 February 2013

Exploring Lawu's Sacred Slopes

The sights and legends of Gunung Lawu, Central Java


Originally Published in Bali and Beyond Magazine, March 2013

There is a soft scent of incense on the cool mountain air, and the black basalt stonework of the temple is cool to the touch.  The roofs of the inner shrines rise in shaggy cones of black thatch, and on the weathered thresholds stand little leaf trays loaded with petals, the offerings left by worshippers at first light.  The wind runs swiftly through the surrounding pine trees, and a cockerel crows somewhere in the little red-roofed village at the temple gates. 
Below, the land tumbles away in a series of interlocking ridges, swaddled in the green blanket of the tea gardens. 

            This enigmatic place of Hindu worship, perched high on the flanks of a sacred mountain, is not Besakih, or some other temple in Bali’s mountainous hinterland.  It is Candi Cetho, a 15th century relic from the days of the Majapahit Empire, looking out over the heartlands of Central Java from the slopes of Gunung Lawu.
            Gunung Lawu is one of Java’s preeminent mountains.  A great volcanic hulk, it straddles the border between East and Central Java provinces, its 3265-metre summit swimming in the bruised clouds of the tropics.  Today, some four centuries after most of Java converted from Hinduism to Islam, it remains a place charged with a profound spiritual energy in local folklore.  For adventurous travelers, meanwhile, the mountain’s slopes offer a wealth of hidden corners, relics of lost empires, and places of living faith, nestled in the pine trees above the tideline of history.

            The grand old city of Solo is the starting point for travelers heading for Gunung Lawu.  Though it plays second fiddle these days to its better known royal cousin, Yogyakarta, Solo has a more venerable royal pedigree – this was once the center of Mataram the last great Javanese kingdom before the 18th century rise of Dutch colonialism.  It has its own Kraton, or royal palace, still the seat of the reigning Susuhunan, direct descendent of the kings of Mataram, and its own rich, courtly culture of art, dance, and sumptuous batik. 

            Built by the king Pakubuwono II in 1746, Solo was deliberately situated at a place of profound mystical energy – it lies exactly halfway between the summits of Merapi and Gunung Lawu, the two most sacred mountains of Central Java. 
Today, you can head east from the city along a rising road through the town of Karanganyar.  The air cools and clears, stepped rice terraces slant away on either side, and Gunung Lawu looms ahead, waiting to divulge its secrets.

            The first stop on a journey around this sacred mountain is the spectacular Candi Sukuh, one of the most unusual of Java’s myriad classical temples.

            The temple stands in the forest at the head of an almost impossibly steep road.  It may not have the scale of Borobudur or Prambanan, but it certainly has a heart-stopping setting – settled on a buttress of level land, 900 meters above sea level, and looking right down onto the flatlands around Solo. 
            And then there is the temple itself.  Dating from middle of the 15th century, this was one of the last Hindu temples to be built before Java turned to Islam, and wandering its quiet levels, it is hard not to trace the echoes of an ending epoch.  The control and refinement of earlier centuries seems to have given way here, and Sukuh is a riot of lewd statuary.  There are winged figures like something from an Aztec nightmare, potbellied demons, and overt fertility symbols. 

            The place was first recorded by the British, who ruled Java for five years between 1811 and 1816.  The first full survey was conducted by Dutch archeologists in the 1880s, and the place was given an unusually sensitive restoration in the early years of the 20th century.
            Wandering between the weird and wonderful stonework at Sukuh you will usually come across little heaps of petals and the curls of burnt-out incense sticks.  Many local Javanese, though officially Muslim, still come to places like this to make offerings, and to meditate in search of the sacred power said to run deep in the island’s rich volcanic soils.  But at another sacred spot, still higher up the slopes of Gunung Lawu, there is a place where the original Hindu faith still endures.

            Candi Cetho tops even Sukuh’s stunning setting.  To get here you must follow a winding road through the tea gardens, bending up ever steeper slopes until the tropical vegetation begins to give way to an alpine world.  The temple, dating from the same fin-de-siècle era as Candi Sukuh, and featuring similar phallic symbolism and turtle-shaped altars, occupies one of Java’s most spectacular spots.  The thirteen levels rise up a slanting slope, and look out on the full breadth of Central Java.

            What makes this spot so very special is that it is not just another relic of a lost age – the temple was so high and remote, at 1496 meters, that the little community clustered around it somehow escaped the shifting currents of history.  Half a millennium after the fall of the Majapahit Empire, the few hundred families who live in the attendant hamlet of Gumeng, which clings to the slopes below the temple like a mussel-bed on a half-tide rock, are still Hindu.  Cetho is a living temple, and beyond the restored upper terraces there is a modern Balinese-style puri, dedicated to the goddess Saraswati, and a more ancient stone-line pool, Sendang Pundi Sari, where worshippers bathe in the cool, clear spring-water.
            As well the local Hindus, Cetho draws in pilgrims from far and wide.  During important festivals Balinese worshipers travel here, and those Javanese Muslims who still follow the older traditions of mysticism and meditation come here at auspicious times.  Even the former president, Suharto, was reportedly a regular visitor – and he chose a burial place for himself not far away, in the crinkled green foothills of Gunung Lawu at Giribangun.

            There are several simple guesthouses in the village outside the great split temple gates, and there are paths through the forest to other places of hidden power, like the nearby Candi Kethek, an ancient pyramid of stone, in a grove of whispering trees.
            For more sophisticated accommodation on Lawu’s slopes, you’ll find the little hill resort of Tawangmanggu.  This is the place where weekending Solo residents come in search of pine-scented breezes, but if you visit on a weekday you’ll have the place mostly to yourself.  There are walks through the woods, to the towering Grojogan Sewu waterfall, and simple bamboo stalls where you can feast on rabbit sate with peanut sauce.

            Tawangmanggu is the jumping off point for those wishing to go all the way to the top.  Some ten kilometers uphill, along a road that leads across a misty pass into East Java, is the trailhead village of Cemoro Sewu, the starting point for the seven-hour trek to Lawu’s sacred summit.

            According to legend, the last king of Hindu Majapahit, Brawijaya, retreated to the mountaintop when his empire fell to Islamic Demak in the 16th century.  Today those seeking the spiritual power he left behind take to the trail – usually setting out in the hours of darkness – along with trekkers with more temporal ambitions of a sunrise view from a windswept summit.  The climb is a hard one, but once you find yourself floating high above the history-laden heartlands of Java with the great bulk of Lawu’s mysterious form beneath you, you’ll be glad that you made the journey…

©Tim Hannigan 2013


Anonymous said...

Nice article you have! It's interesting to read another source about this mountain. I also read this link

Cause i thought not so many people will recommended this site to visit in Indonesia...

Tim Hannigan said...

Thanks for the link - that is an interesting piece. There is some good stuff on the Jakpost travel site. There's another piece of mine about the Hindu community around Candi Cetho here: