Sambisari & Kedulan: the Underground Temples

Asia, Indonesia, Southeast

The Candi Sambisari compound

Imagine an alternate world where ninth-century cathedrals across Europe and mosques throughout the Middle East and North Africa were buried deep in the ground for centuries until being rediscovered in the 20th century. People only knew a little about their existence, mostly from stories told over many generations, until the fork-hoes and plows of modern-day farmers hit something hard – the long-gone places of worship themselves – while preparing their land for the next planting season. In the real world we live in, this is in fact what happened (and will always happen) on Java, an elongated island near the equator that is peppered with more than a dozen active volcanoes, rocked by powerful earthquakes from time to time, and showered with abundant rainfall. All of this combined makes its soil one of the most fertile on the planet, and where there is fertile land, civilization thrives.

Apart from the larger ancient temples like Borobudur and Prambanan which had never been completely buried despite suffering from the brute forces of nature that have shaped and reshaped the island, most structures built in the Hindu-Buddhist period of Java had fallen into oblivion as they were hidden underneath the ground for centuries. Some of them were accidentally rediscovered by local farmers, but many are believed to remain covered by thick layers of soil and volcanic ash. One such structure that has finally been kissed by the sun and drenched by the rain again after slumbering in darkness for hundreds of years is Candi Sambisari, a ninth-century Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva, one of the principal deities in Hinduism.

In 1966, a farmer was working on a plot of land to the northeast of the city of Yogyakarta when suddenly his hoe hit a piece of stone made of andesite, a type of volcanic rock that was used in ancient Java to build Hindu and Buddhist temples. Upon closer inspection, the stone bore some carvings, and this marked the beginning of the unearthing of Candi Sambisari – candi is a term Indonesians use to call any ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples. Following strict guidelines, it took 21 years to fully excavate the site and reconstruct the temple as close as possible to its original appearance, and it was seven or eight years later when I first learned about the existence of this cultural heritage. However, it was only last year, in the middle of Java’s dry season, that I finally paid this temple a visit.

Our driver, Nur, navigates his mini MPV down small country lanes to reach Candi Sambisari. Usually when I’m approaching the site of an ancient temple in Java, its upper structure beckons from a distance, building up my anticipation. However, this is not the case with the one we’re heading to. As Nur pulls over, the ancient temple is nowhere to be seen, but this is expected since I know that the Candi Sambisari compound lies lower than the ground surface of its immediate surroundings. But I hadn’t anticipated its size. What I thought was a small ancient temple complex turns out to be much larger as James and I enter the gate and walk toward the stairs at the compound’s western approach. We go down the steps to reach the outer ancient walls, and keep walking for a few meters to get to the inner walls with a gateway which might have been adorned by an arch during the heyday of this place.

Three perwara (ancillary) temples stand to the west of the largest structure, but none of the former have been restored to their original appearance. What remains in two of them are only the lower half of the walls, while the other one has been reduced merely to its base. The main temple, however, is in a much better condition; most of its original stones were still intact during the excavation which allowed for a more complete reconstruction. At the base of the staircase that leads up to the temple’s sanctum are two Makara heads, each of them supported by a gana (a dwarf character often depicted in an almost squatting position with his two hands raised above his head). Meanwhile, the temple’s walls are adorned with floral patterns with conch shells carved at the center of some of the bas-relief panels. On the north, east and south sides of the temple’s walls are niches in which statues associated with the worship of Shiva stand, including one of Durga Mahisasuramardini (Durga slaying the buffalo demon) that is in relatively good shape. We climb up the stairs to reach the dark sanctum. Inside, a lingga/lingam sits atop a yoni, both acting as symbolic representations of Shiva and Shakti (the embodiment of Shiva’s feminine energy).

These structures were once buried in the ground for centuries

The western approach of the temple compound

Walking toward the main temple

Candi Sambisari’s most important structure where the sanctum is located

Makara heads at the base of the staircase of the main temple

Floral patterns carved more than 1,000 years ago

A bas-relief panel with a conch shell at its center

Going up to reach the sanctum

Durga Mahisasuramardini, one of the statues adorning the main temple’s outer walls

A frog’s-eye view of the temple compound’s main structure

A Naga head carved on a yoni inside the sanctum

It’s fascinating to think that for a long time generations of people who once lived in the village where Candi Sambisari is located were unaware of the existence of this beauty in their own backyard. Its location a little over 24 kilometers to the south of Mount Merapi – Java’s most active and unpredictable volcano – was the reason why this temple compound was eventually buried deep underground. The risk is still present, though, although the direction of Merapi’s lahars change from time to time. We walk inside and around the main temple before deciding to return to the stairs that take us back to ground level, more than 6 meters above the base of the temple. Prior to this trip, James, who had heard about another ancient temple called Candi Kedulan, proposed a visit this lesser-known ruin right after Candi Sambisari due to their relative proximity to each other.

Nur, who apparently lives not far from Candi Sambisari, takes us through small roads that connect villages as opposed to backtracking to the main artery. He claims it’s faster to take this route, and because he’s a local we trust him. Of course he’s right; it only takes us ten minutes to reach Candi Kedulan. However, no other visitors are in sight. In fact, the entire temple compound, which was also buried by lahars in the past, is still undergoing reconstruction work with its main entrance closed and a perimeter fenced off by barbed wire, probably to discourage looters. Its peaceful ambiance, however, makes up for our slight disappointment for not being able to come closer to the structures within the Candi Kedulan complex. In many ways, it reminds me of Candi Sambisari for both temples were built around the ninth century and now sit below the ground surface, thanks to multiple eruptions of Mount Merapi over the centuries. But there is one significant difference: while Candi Sambisari’s main temple faces west, Candi Kedulan’s largest structure faces east.

Everywhere I look there are signs of ongoing restoration work in this place. Semi-transparent netting usually used at plant nurseries cover the perwara temples, most likely to provide workers with protection from the sun while they meticulously arrange the stones back in their original place; a small excavator sits idly at the eastern fringe of the temple’s perimeter; and a small truck rests at the far end of the compound, probably used to transport layers of soil from the site. Candi Kedulan was discovered by local sand diggers in 1993, but it took more than 25 years for reconstruction work to begin in earnest. This makes me think of Candi Losari, a smaller Hindu temple outside Jogja which was also buried in the ground for centuries but only rediscovered in 2004. Currently no one, apart from ancient heritage enthusiasts, visits this intriguing place. But that may one day change if larger-scale reconstruction work is carried out on this site.

Both Candi Sambisari and Candi Kedulan have shed more light on the cultural scene in Java when Hinduism and Buddhism were the dominant religions on this island. I believe there are still a lot of other temples hidden deep in the ground beneath our feet. Some of them may still be intact, but some others may not be as fortunate since Java is after all the most developed part of Indonesia – houses and factories may stand right on top of some of these ‘lost temples’. However, in our next exploration of Jogja’s ancient temples, instead of going down below the Earth’s surface, we go up to a hill where a majestic 10th– or 11th-century temple compound stands gracefully on top, overlooking the city’s old airport and some of the bigger structures that were built during Java’s classical period.

The ongoing restoration work at Candi Kedulan

The east-facing main temple and the ancillary structures (beneath the netting)

The west side of the main temple

If only I had a zoom lens with me to capture those beautiful details

Candi Kedulan in the soft afternoon sun

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

27 thoughts on “Sambisari & Kedulan: the Underground Temples”

  1. As someone who’s fascinated by the history of Buddhist and Hindu cultures, I just want to say this was an excellent article with interesting photos. Considering the richness of the past cultures on Java, who knows what may lie beneath one’s feet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Much appreciated, Henry. In the past three years, there has been at least three important discoveries of ancient statues and temple fragments on Java which surely keep archaeologists on the island busy.


  2. I love the way you started this post. Much is known now about the history of that period in Asia, but so much of detail is still lost. I hope to travel to Java some time.

    I’m amazed at how beautifully Sambisari has been restored.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks I.J. Given your penchant for heritage sites, I think you would enjoy traveling across Java for it is where some of Southeast Asia’s most impressive ancient Hindu-Buddhist sites are located. And if you have ample amount of time, you can visit smaller temples like Sambisari as well.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the continuous support, John and Susan! Although writing a book is indeed one of my dreams, I don’t think it will happen anytime soon as long as I still work in a corporate setting. Hopefully one day.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Beautiful post, and so hard to believe Candi Sambisari was buried for so long. It is so well preserved but I guess this is exactly why it’s in such remarkable condition. In your photos here, as well as your last post, I can’t help noticing repeated similarities with the temples of Cambodia. I wish I had a better grasp of how much transit was happening in the region at the time and how much awareness of other complexes and cultures was shared among people of the same faith. Regardless, the entire region of Southeast Asia is endlessly fascinating and I’m always captivated by how deep you dive into it all. Thanks for another look at a temple I wouldn’t otherwise know about.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Kelly. Ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples across Southeast Asia, from Indonesia to Cambodia, Vietnam to Myanmar, do share a few things in common. When I went to the Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap, I remember reading about the past connection between Borobudur and Angkor Wat as the former inspired the Khmer rulers who would then commission the latter. On the other hand, you can find a temple in East Java built in an architectural style that resembles those in Vietnam. This is attributed to a marriage between a Javanese king with a Cham princess from a region what is now modern-day Vietnam many centuries ago. Learning about past connections among nations in this part of world is truly fascinating to say the least. I’ve been eyeing this ancient Buddhist temple in North Sumatra which, according to what I’ve read, bears relief panels depicting scenes that are similar with what one will see in Bhutan today.


    • It varies depending on the country. Some places, including South Korea and Hong Kong, are hit particularly hard. But where I live so far there are only two confirmed cases.

      Liked by 1 person

    • If only there was a way to travel back in time to see how life was like when these temples were still used as places of worship. Sometimes I imagined when local architects designed those structures, then instructed local artisans to carve out certain patterns onto the andesite stones, and when builders began stacking up one fragment after another until each temple’s completion.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This is truly amazing. I can’t imagine the painstaking work involved in the excavation and restoration of such a large complex. Your post certainly gives me pause to think about the remaining treasures that may be hidden beneath the ground. I have visited Borobudur and Prambanan and now have a new appreciation for how these magnificent structures have withstood nature’s forces.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed. Visiting smaller temples like these will give us a better appreciation for those massive structures built over 1,000 years ago on Java — although it’s hard not to be impressed by Borobudur and Prambanan, really. I hope to see more discoveries in the coming years, and hopefully what have been restored will stand another 1,000 years for future generations to marvel at and learn.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Stories like this always remind me of how much I wanted to be an archaeologist when I was younger! The idea of a farmer’s hoe (or my little shovel back in the woods of Pennsylvania!) hitting a structure that allowed us to flesh out a history was always so intriguing to me. Now that I know more about the day-to-day life of an archaeologist, I fear I would not have the patience … 21 years to see the restored temple, in this case! Still very engaging to me as a reader and a traveler, though! Your story was so well-told; I felt the excitement of what did lie and what may still lie under the ground in Java!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know that feeling, Lex. I kept that dream of becoming an archaeologist for a long time until reality hit — Indonesia is not the best place to be a scientist due to the low pay in general. You’ve got to be very passionate about one particular subject so much so you’re willing to be underpaid. This is why now I have so much respect for those who dedicate their lives studying these ancient ruins so that we understand more about our ancestors and learn one thing or two from them.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Your photos and the descriptions make for a very interesting post. You make such a good point about the fertile soil leading to density of civilization. Once you point it out, it makes sense.. Beautifully written and I did so enjoy all the details in your photos of the various sculptures and architectural features, also the site in progress. It made me think of a site we visited in Peru, Chan Chan, a temple complex which was built completely out of sand ~ much simpler than this style but equally enchanting.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Peta. Actually it’s places like Chan Chan — which is often overshadowed by a country’s more popular ancient sites — that make me think of how interesting it would be to explore lesser-known temples across my home country. Java itself has dozens of such sites, and I believe many more are still waiting to be discovered and unearthed.


  7. I love stumbling on sites where the restoration work is still in progress like Candi Kedulan. It gives such a wonderful glimpse of the long and painstaiking process which is so hard to imagine when one visits sites which have been completely restored. My driver, on the day I visited Prambanan, stopped at many smaller sites, including Candi Sambisari, so I enjoyed reading your detailed description of it, Bama.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It also gives us a glimpse of the daily life of an archaeologist, which makes me appreciate their work even more. This is why it makes me angry to see the damage caused by irresponsible people to some of the ancient sites in Java, after all that painstaking work carried out by those who care about the country’s cultural heritage. After this, I’m going to write one more post about another ancient temple in Yogyakarta which is quite different from those mentioned in my latest two posts.


  8. It’s fascinating that around the world entire buildings/temples/pyramids have been buried for centuries! I wonder about the chain of events that started the burial process – were the temples already standing empty? If so, why? What happened to all the people? It would also be most interesting to know what might be buried beneath these. Thanks for a great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • In the case of the temples in Java, most likely they were buried over time by multiple volcanic eruptions. But were they already abandoned prior to these events? No one can tell for sure. Today, our knowledge of the past keeps evolving as we unearth more and more of such sites. Thanks for reading, Marilyn!


  9. Pingback: Candi Ijo: A Silent Witness of Change | What an Amazing World!

  10. It never ceases to amaze me that long-lost ancient temples are still being discovered even today in the Javanese countryside. I remember you mentioning Sambisari when we were in Jogja back in 2015 during the Spice Odyssey – how you wished we had the time to see it then. So I was glad we were met with such fine weather on this occasion. Like you, I did not anticipate just how big it was and how much earth the archaeologists had to excavate to reveal Sambisari in its entirety. The makara heads flanking the steps to the main temple, the floral patterns, and the Durga statue in the niche were all so exquisite. I’d love to revisit Candi Kedulan once the restoration and reconstruction work is complete.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There is one particular site which was only recently discovered that is very intriguing to me: Adan-adan in Kediri. The archaeologists working on it unearthed a tall statue and a very big makara, among other things. These probably indicate a large temple around this area that once stood or might have never been completed before the eruption of Mount Kelud that buried all of these artifacts.

      Speaking of Candi Sambisari, it surely did not disappoint. And I also hope one day we can go back to Candi Kedulan.

      Liked by 1 person

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