Chapter 1, Part 5
One cold Sunday, Badai, Bart, James and I were hiking in darkness, relying only on our head torches to follow the path and not get lost. We were told earlier by a man at the base camp not to stray into the wrong way up where exposed cables crisscrossed over the ground, leading to a communication tower. The thermometer read 5 degrees centigrade when we started the hike. But as we ascended the mountain we could feel the temperature dropping, and once we reached the summit of Mount Prahu where trees were scarce and the wind brought the chill to our bones. It was just a little over 2,600 meters above sea level, but it felt much colder than the higher mountains we have been.
Finally we reached the sunrise point just before 6, by that time the first rays of light started to reveal Java’s conical volcanoes, their slopes still covered in ethereal mist. The peaks of Mount Sumbing, Sindoro, Merbabu, Merapi and Slamet pierced the sky in an otherworldly setting, a realm so majestic humans often reserve to gods and celestial beings. Indeed the ancient people called this place Di Hyang, ‘Abode of Gods’, and today it is better known as Dieng, a plateau right at the heart of Java.
When Hinduism arrived on the island, introduced by South Indian traders and priests, Hindu kingdoms sprouted in the western part of Java around the sixth century AD. Gradually the influence of the nascent religion moved eastward and reached the heart of the fertile, volcanic island. In the mid-seventh century King Santanu became the ruler in coastal Central Java and a few decades later his successor, Dapunta Selendra, established a dynasty that would rise to prominence and commence an era known as the Javanese classical period.
Sailendra (also spelled Shailendra), as the dynasty is known, gradually gained control of more lands as its influence spread beyond coastal areas of northern Central Java. Shaivism (a sect of Hinduism) was the main belief of the royal family, hence the proliferation of small, sometimes two-story high, Hindu temples chiefly on the highlands of Central Java, including on Dieng Plateau.
Candi Bima (originally means temple but now candi is used in Indonesia to describe ancient Hindu-Buddhist structures) is believed to be one of the oldest of all candis in Dieng, according to the information at the local museum. There is no clear evidence indicating the exact year of construction of the candis on the plateau, but scholars agree that the constructions took place in two phases, spanning the seventh to eighth centuries AD. Candi Bima, after the second oldest of the Pandavas, has evident South Indian influences. The name itself is reminiscent of Panca Rathas and the architecture resembles a vimanam – raised structure above a sanctum where statues of Hindu deities are enshrined – with multiple kudus – arched decorations on a temple’s facade, both are typical Dravidian architectural features. Even the word for temple in modern Indonesian is kuil, from the Tamil word koil.
To the south of Candi Bima lies the main and most popular group of temples in Dieng. Candi Arjuna, the biggest of the group, sits at the south end. In front of it lies Candi Semar which looks more like the mandapa (pavilion) of Candi Arjuna than an actual temple itself. Candi Srikandi, Puntadewa and Sembadra sit south of Candi Arjuna with the former having images of Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma – the Trimurti – sculpted on its north, east and south sides, respectively. Separated from the main group by a short path, the solitary Candi Setyaki is surrounded by vegetable fields with white steam puffing into the air occasionally spotted in the background, a telltale sign of the plateau’s volcanic activity. Further south another group of temples sits near the museum with Candi Gatotkaca its biggest as well as the only candi that has been restored.
Despite its apparent Indian influence, the Javanese version of characters from Mahabharata has slight differences. Yudhistira, the oldest of the Pandavas is also called Puntadewa, ‘one whose greatness is like that of a god’. Meanwhile Sembadra is the Javanese name for Subadra, wife of Arjuna. However Srikandi and Gatotkaca are depicted quite differently in Javanese tradition compared to the original Indian version.
Srikandi, known as Shikhandi in India, was born a girl. But in Mahabharata he became a man in his adult life, a rare mention of transgender in any of the world’s epic. But in Indonesia Srikandi was always a woman, and she was also married to Arjuna – probably one of the reasons why the latter is not my mother’s favorite character. Thanks to the depiction of Srikandi as a strong woman and an excellent archer, Indonesian female athletes are often nicknamed ‘modern-day Srikandis’.
On the other hand Gatotkaca, known as Ghatotkacha in India, is always depicted as a strong, handsome hero wearing a Javanese wayang (traditional puppet) headdress and a vest with a sun emblem on it. Gatotkaca to Javanese is like Superman to a lot of kids around the world. In India, however, he is depicted sometimes as a bald half-Rakshasa (in Indonesia the word raksasa means giant), some other times with hair, but always shirtless.
However the true difference between Indian Mahabharata and the Javanese version of the story is the addition of a group of characters called the Punakawan in the latter. They are four servants, or clowns, depending on how one perceives them, to any hero. In Javanese wayang performances they usually appear between the main acts, always talk in Ngoko (the least refined form of Javanese usually used to communicate with friends) and at all times comical.
Semar, one of the characters who acts as a father figure for the other three, is a personification of a deity. My father describes him as a god who descended to earth and disguised himself by taking the form of a fat-bellied old man. Due to Semar’s unassuming appearance, the hero always takes his advice as a representation of grassroots opinion.
In the dining area at my parents’ house an image of Semar and Kresna (Krishna) is hung on the wall. “Kresna is an adviser to the Pandavas from the god’s side, while Semar represents the people,” my father explains and adds, “it’s like democracy.”
More than a thousand years after the introduction of Hinduism from India, bringing the Mahabharata, Ramayana and other cultural treasures to the new land, the characters are still very much alive in today’s predominantly Muslim Javanese community. Not for religious purposes, but rather as a contemporary philosophical source.
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.