1,200 years ago in the heart of Java, Buddhism and Hinduism grew as the dominant religions of the people, signified by the construction of a multitude of temples in the island’s mountainous regions as well as the vast plains overlooked by mighty volcanoes. Around the center of power of Medang – at that time the most important kingdom in central Java – in the southern part of the island, impressive Buddhist temples were commissioned, with new shrines more imposing than the old ones. Tarabhavanam (known as Kalasan today), Manjusrigrha (present day Sewu), and Borobudur were among the most prominent temples built under the Buddhist rulers of Medang.
Meanwhile, the Hindus who saw their influence weakened focused on constructing temples in the northern highlands of central Java. Gedong Songo, built on the slopes of Mount Ungaran, is a group of nine small shrines of which five have been successfully restored. With the backdrop of Mount Sumbing and Sindoro (Sundoro), among the most iconic volcanoes in Java, Gedong Songo was a sanctuary for the Hindus for decades before they regained their authority over the royal court of Medang, symbolized by the completion of Shivagrha (modern day Prambanan), a Hindu temple built to rival the grandeur of Borobudur.
Less known to most people today, another group of temples sits amid rice paddies in a lush valley, not too far from Gedong Songo. Constructed at around the same period as Gedong Songo, Candi Ngempon (Ngempon temple), as the compound is now called, was only rediscovered by a local farmer in 1952. One day he went to the fields with his grandfather and hoed the soil to prepare for another rice planting season. As he dug deeper, he hit solid rock which turned out to be andesite, a type of volcanic rock often used to build ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples in Java. The more he dug, the more he unearthed, from pieces of square andesite stones, to statues of Hindu deities and decorative reliefs.
In the same year, the national archaeological agency conducted reconstruction work and managed to restore three temples. The statues of Durga, Ganesha and Nandi – all suggestive of Shaivism which was the main Hindu tradition in eighth-century Java – found around the temple compound are now safely kept in Museum Ranggawarsita, the main museum of Central Java. In 2006, another structure was successfully restored to resemble much of its original look 1,200 years ago. But there are still five shrines that remain in ruins due to the lack of original stones to rebuild them.
Further studies suggest that Ngempon was once used as a center of education for literature and spiritual studies, as well as a place to train selected people to become masters in kanuragan, a supernatural power which makes the person who possesses it invincible. Its location by a river, considered to have high energy in local beliefs, probably contributed to Ngempon’s significance in the past. But today it is just a sleepy, secluded temple compound within a fenced enclosure which is only opened for several hours a day. A visit to these lesser known sisters of Gedong Songo makes me wonder how many more ancient temples there are in Java that have yet to be discovered, buried deep in the hills and valleys, waiting to see the day when the sun shines on their centuries-old stones once again.