Swirling tongues of fire welcomed erstwhile royal families and priests who ascended the stairs of Palah, a late 12th-century Hindu temple located on the southwestern slopes of Mount Kelud. The volcano was so active and unpredictable that a temple was deemed necessary to appease Acalapati, the mountain god, so he would spare the surrounding settlements from his erratic wrath. Inspired by Krishnayana (Krishna’s life told in an epic poem), the upper walls of the temple were encrusted with bas-reliefs depicting scenes from the epic. One panel portrayed Krishna’s escape from Kalayawana (Kalayavana), a ruthless king who was killed by Muchukunda through his burning gaze (another version of the story refers to Wiswamitra/Vishvamitra as the killer of Kalayavana). The flames were indeed a metaphor for Kelud’s volcanic eruptions.
More than eight centuries later, I find myself looking at the same weathered relief, carved on andesite rock on the second level of the stone platform. The motif itself is not instantly recognizable, but on a closer inspection the outline of the flames is clearly the centerpiece of the ornately-carved panel. Penataran, as Palah is known today, was commissioned by the king of Kediri, a kingdom that emerged as a prominent power in eastern Java during the mid-11th century.
Two centuries before the construction of Penataran, Java was already home to great Hindu and Buddhist temples, including Borobudur and Prambanan, both built by the Central Javanese rulers of the Medang kingdom. As the center of power on the island gradually shifted to the east in the decades that followed, new temples were commissioned around the new capital. However, unlike most Central Javanese temples which followed a concentric layout (also known as mandala, representing the Hindu-Buddhist universe) with the most important structure located at the center of the temple compound, Penataran – the largest Hindu temple in East Java – was constructed in a linear layout where the sanctum is situated at the back of the compound. This centuries-old layout is in fact still used in Bali to build Balinese Hindu temples known as pura.
For three centuries since its completion, new structures were added to Penataran temple complex by different rulers of East Java. Candi Naga, ‘dragon temple’, was commissioned in the 13th century when this part of Java was controlled by the kingdom of Singhasari. Named after its distinctive serpentine carvings, held by nine figures clad in opulent costumes, the temple is believed to have functioned as a reliquary for sacred weapons. In front of Candi Naga lies Candi Candra Sengkala, a 14th-century tall and slender addition to the temple compound. Constructed in a typical East Javanese architectural style, the temple was built under the rule of Hayam Wuruk, the greatest of all Majapahit kings. Majapahit itself was the last great Hindu kingdom to ever rule much of Java.
Following the decline of Majapahit as more and more people on the island converted to Islam, Penataran’s importance gradually diminished until it was completely abandoned. In the span of centuries, neglect and natural disasters caused heavy damage to the formerly imposing temple. The rediscovery of Penataran is credited to Thomas Stamford Raffles, a British colonial governor at a time when Java was briefly occupied by the British. The ruins of the temple were first mentioned in a 1815 account, although reconstruction work did not begin in earnest until many years later.
Further studies revealed that the lower walls of the three-tiered main temple were adorned with stories from the Ramayana, one of the greatest and most well-known Hindu epics alongside the Mahabharata. The Ramayana had inspired ancient Javanese sculptors to immortalize figures, animals, plants and other motifs from the epic on andesite rock – widely available in volcanic Java – which were then used to decorate a plethora of Hindu temples on the island. However, Penataran’s medallions – depicting real and mythical animals – are unique to the temple as they aren’t found on any Central Javanese temple.
In front of Candi Candra Sengkala is Batur Pendapa, where it is believed that devotees once placed offerings in religious ceremonies. Modern-day visitors would likely notice the strange look of the main sanctum, Batur Pendapa, as well as Bale Agung – also located at the front part of the compound – for they all seem to have lost their upper structures. Believed to be made from perishable materials – possibly wood and ijuk (palm fiber) – these structures have long succumbed to the power of nature. Fortunately some relief panels at the lower part of the main temple suggest how the whole structure used to look, which unsurprisingly reminds me of some Hindu temples in Bali given the fact that many Javanese royals fled to the neighboring island following the decline of Hinduism in Java.
Apart from the architecture, what stays the same is the activity of Mount Kelud itself. Unlike most accounts about volcanic eruptions across the archipelago which were exclusively written by the Europeans during the colonial period, Kelud’s eruption was mentioned in a 14th-century epic Javanese poem. The volcano erupted in the same year when Hayam Wuruk was born, perceived by the locals as a divine sign of great things the baby would accomplish in his life – Majapahit was in fact at its peak during Hayam Wuruk’s rule. Interestingly, centuries after the island’s conversion to Islam and the arrival of Christianity from Europe, the Javanese reverence toward volcanoes has barely changed.
In 1901, Kelud erupted again with a mighty explosion (heard hundreds of kilometers away) and an ash cloud that reached as far as West Java. Two weeks later, a baby boy was born, and as goes with tradition, the locals saw this as an omen of something great about to happen to him. Less than five decades later, the same boy had grown up to become none other than the first president of Indonesia. Even in the 21st century, volcanic eruptions are often interpreted as a prelude to major political events. But when no such thing occurs following an eruption, the locals will still tell you stories about Mount Kelud with a sense of veneration, pride and astonishment.
“When Kelud erupted in 2014, Yogyakarta was covered in thick ash,” a local tells me in reference to Kelud’s latest major eruption which paralyzed the city, more than 200 km away to the west of the volcano. The ash forced the closure of major airports across Java, causing weeks-long travel disruptions. “But strangely, Blitar was safe,” he adds, referring to the nearest city to the volcano. As tempting it is to explain the phenomenon from a scientific perspective, to him and many other people Penataran seems to serve its purpose after all. It has been protecting the surrounding areas from the wrath of the mountain god, more than eight centuries since its completion.