Chapter 2, Part 9
The narrow road keeps going up, climbing the slopes of Mount Lawu, an active volcano rising more than 3,000 meters on the island of Java. We are more than 30 km away east of Solo, the city from which we departed earlier in the morning, and the rather grim-looking highway with disorderly stalls and billboards on both sides of the road has now been substituted by a sweeping view of villages and verdant fields.
Further 10 km away, on the northwestern slopes of the slumbering volcano, lies a testament to a period in Indonesian history when the once-powerful Hinduism had been gradually replaced by Islam as the dominant religion in Java. Built in the 15th century when most coastal areas of the island had been converted to Islam, Candi Cetho (also spelled Ceto) not only looks very different from other Javanese ancient temples, but also lacks the finesse of its predecessors.
A theory suggests that while remaining Hindu communities on the island fled to the highlands or the forests, the royals and their finest sculptors sought refuge to the island of Bali, separated from Java only by a narrow strait. The growing Islamic sultanates, where their subjects practiced a largely different form of Islam than in the Middle East, seemed to care less about Java’s last Hindu communities and allowed them to continue practicing their faith despite having to resort to unfavorable places.
Forgotten and neglected for centuries, Candi Cetho was rediscovered by a Dutchman in the mid-19th century. Several studies were conducted in the decades that followed. However in the late 1970s a thorough but haphazard reconstruction work was carried on by a close aide of Suharto, Indonesia’s dictator for 32 years. Some parts of the temple’s current structure are conjectural, although the sculptures and statues are mostly original, including an oversized phallus sitting right in the middle of the temple compound.
Fortunately the layout of the reconstructed temple is still true to the original, taking the shape of terraces which is often associated with the pre-Hindu megalithic culture and architecture. Indeed, it is believed that when a society is under pressure from a new religion, people often look back to their roots, usually to the culture and religion that predate their own. Before the introduction of Hinduism to the people of Java, animism was the predominant belief of the people and places of worship were built as contiguous terraces.
Hindu symbolism is apparent at Candi Cetho, including turtle statues (symbolizing the creation of the universe), a giant phallus (symbolizing the creation of human), and relief panels depicting scenes from Sudamala – a chapter in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. A sun sculpture suggests that the temple was constructed by Majapahit, albeit during its decline, as it was the official emblem of the kingdom. The main temple, perched on the highest terrace, faces the mountain suggesting the local belief that the gods reside in the mountain, not in the sky.
Afterward we follow a path going into the forest behind the temple compound to look for another temple which was built in the same period with Candi Cetho. Named Candi Kethek by the locals due to the presence of many monkeys (kethek in Javanese) around the temple in the past, its structure is hidden from plain sight by dense vegetation and green canopy. Taking the layout of terraces, Candi Kethek’s history is still yet to be fully understood for the lack of inscription or archaeological artifact around the temple.
Understanding the history of Candi Cetho is understanding how humans behave in certain circumstances. Cultures evolve, so do religions. And along the process humans leave their marks in an often remarkable and fascinating fashion, be it stepped pyramids, ornate temples, towering churches, elegant mosques, or imposing skyscrapers. The pattern keeps repeating itself, one way or another.
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.