Once upon a time in ancient Java when Hinduism flourished, the story of a mighty bird who saved his mother from slavery lived on – a tale of how far a son would go, even putting his own life at risk, to end his mother’s suffering. Legend has it that a rishi (sage) called Kasyapa lived in reclusion with his wives: Winata and Kadru. The two women were in fact sisters, but they competed against each other to win their husband’s attention. Both of them were very desperate to have children for they believed their offspring would bring Kasyapa closer to them. One day a god came and gave both of them eggs, two for Winata and a thousand for Kadru. The god told them to take good care of the eggs he had entrusted them, and both women willingly obliged.
As time went by, serpentine creatures called the Nagas hatched from Kadru’s eggs. Winata, growing uneasy as none of her eggs had hatched yet, cracked one egg open only to find a child whose lower body parts had not yet developed. The prematurely-hatched son was so furious he cursed his mother to be enslaved by Kadru one day. Later on Kadru and Winata were involved in a life-changing gamble where whoever lost would become a slave of the winner. Cheating her way into winning the absurd bet, Kadru successfully forced Winata to become her slave. As Winata’s distressing days began, her second egg hatched and a mighty bird called Garuda emerged. He looked for his mother only to find out about her enslavement by her own sister. He then came to the Nagas and asked them what he could do to free his mother. There was indeed a way for Garuda to save Winata, but it appeared to be an almost impossible task, a suicidal mission to be precise, as he had to bring the Nagas tirta amerta (amrita), or the elixir of immortality.
To get to the elixir, Garuda had to fly to the abode of gods, a heavily-guarded realm above the sky. A ring of fire was the first obstacle he had to overcome. He collected water from many rivers into his mouth and extinguished the fire with it. But then came the second trap: a mechanical contraption of sharp rotating blades. Garuda shrank his body and crept past the blades unscathed to finally reach the elixir which was guarded by two gigantic snakes. He managed to defeat them and took the elixir straight to the Nagas. On his way back to earth, he encountered Vishnu who, instead of fighting the brazen thief, offered a deal to Garuda: he could make the bird immortal even without drinking the elixir, but in exchange Garuda had to agree to become Vishnu’s mount. After agreeing to the deal, Garuda moved on and presented the Nagas with the elixir, securing Winata’s release from slavery.
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In 13th-century Java, when the island’s political and cultural center gradually shifted to the east, a series of bloody power struggles took place as a new kingdom rose to prominence. Ken Arok, an attendant to Tunggul Ametung, the ruler of Tumapel – one of two main powers in the east of Java – killed his master with a keris (Javanese traditional dagger) and took Ken Dedes – Tunggul Ametung’s wife – as his own. Her beauty was often compared to Pradnya Paramita (Prajnaparamita), the Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom in Mayahana Buddhism, so much so that a man was willing to kill to get her. Soon Ken Arok proclaimed himself the new ruler of Tumapel and waged a war against Kediri, another regional power, which he won. He then founded a new kingdom called Singhasari (Singosari), whose dominance would encompass regions far from its capital in the heart of eastern Java.
After ruling his kingdom for five years, Ken Arok’s reign was brought to an abrupt end when Anusapati – Ken Dedes’ son with Tunggul Ametung – avenged his father’s death and stabbed Ken Arok with the same keris the king used to kill Anusapati’s father. Anusapati then ascended the throne and became Singhasari’s second king. His rule lasted for more than two decades and dramatically ended at the hand of Panji Tohjaya – Ken Arok’s son – who killed the king also with the same cursed keris. Upon his death, a mortuary temple was constructed for Anusapati, a beautiful work of art known today as Candi Kidal. At the base of the temple, exquisitely-carved reliefs depict the story of Garuda’s quest for tirta amerta to save his mother from slavery, purportedly picked to symbolize Anusapati’s struggle to free his mother from the hands of Ken Arok. Considered a prototype of East Javanese architecture, the temple bears the usual menacing Kala – the guardian of a temple’s sanctum – but with a distinctively East Javanese style: fanged with two raised fingers on each hand, a gesture believed to thwart evil spirits.
Panji Tohjaya ascended the throne and became Singhasari’s third king, albeit only for a few months. The new ruler, upon realizing the possible threats from Ranggawuni – Anusapati’s son – and his nephew Mahisha Champaka (a grandson of Ken Arok), instructed his bodyguard, Lembu Ampal, to kill the two princes. However, instead of obeying the king’s order, Lembu Ampal helped Ranggawuni and Mahisha Champaka stage a revolt which forced Panji Tohjaya to abdicate. The two princes then ruled together, with Ranggawuni taking the name Wisnuwardhana and Mahisha Champaka as Narasingamurti, effectively bringing the long bloody feud between the families of Tunggul Ametung and Ken Arok to an end. The pair ruled together for two decades until Wisnuwardhana’s death. Kertanegara, Wisnuwardhana’s son, then ascended the throne and ruled Singhasari for more than 20 years. Under his rule, the kingdom reached its peak with its sphere of influence spreading out to Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula and the remote islands to the east.
In the year of Wisnuwardhana’s death, a new Hindu-Buddhist temple was commissioned to pay homage to the deceased co-ruler of Singhasari. Believed to be around 15 meters in height upon its completion, Candi Jago, as the ancient temple is known today, now stands only partially-restored since it lacks too many original stones for complete restoration. Built as a three-tiered structure, Candi Jago (originally called Jajaghu, which means “greatness”) was adorned with ornate reliefs depicting Hindu and Buddhist stories suggestive of the Tantric syncretism of Hinduism and Buddhism practiced in Singhasari. On the lowest terrace the stories of Kamandaka and Kunjarakarna (both native to Java) emphasized the importance of being a good person in society. Upstairs, the stories of Parthayajna and Arjunawiwaha from the Hindu epic Mahabharata were carved around the second terrace with the latter also depicted on the third terrace of the temple. Elsewhere at the temple the story of Krishna’s fight against Kalayavana was added to the already richly-embellished monument.
Following the curves of coconut trees, tall and slender figures, and epic battle scenes immortalized on the relief panels at Candi Jago, I explored the exquisite temple’s walls and noticed pavilions and towering temples which are also depicted at Candi Penataran. The remarkable resemblance of those structures with what people can see today on the island of Bali is astonishing, a testament to the living ancient culture on the Indonesian “Island of the Gods.” In front of Candi Jago, a supposedly big statue was conspicuously absent on top of a large pedestal encrusted with lotus petals. Not far from it, a headless eight-armed Amoghapasa was flanked by two fallen Kalas. Today Candi Kidal and Candi Jago serve as a reminder of Singhasari’s highly-skilled sculptors who continued the longstanding tradition of stone sculpting in Java that had brought the stories of Hindu epics and Buddhist teachings to life on numerous temples across the island.
Under the rule of Kertanegara, Singhasari flourished in the decades that followed Wisnuwardhana’s death. The new king brought his kingdom to its peak, influencing lands far away from Java, which was exactly the reason for a powerful nomadic empire from the far north to covet the Java-based kingdom as part of its growing realm. Suddenly Singhasari faced the most critical moment in its history.