Candi Ijo: A Silent Witness of Change

33 comments
Asia, Indonesia, Southeast

Candi Ijo, a 10th- or 11th-century Hindu temple in Yogyakarta

We as modern-day tourists often see ancient sites as places that inspire us, leave us spellbound, or whet our curiosity of the world we live in. We perceive them and give them attributes based on our standpoint, making them objects of our fascination. But what if we try to switch the perspective to the other side? Those very sites have been around for centuries, even millennia. They have witnessed the rise and fall of kings and emperors, countless wars, periods of calm and peace, and the wrath of Mother Nature. To them, we are insignificant within the grand scheme of things, even if our collective existence has created an epoch popularly known as the Anthropocene. And it doesn’t take the grandest monument from the past to attempt to see this from that alternative angle: the point of view of the sites themselves.

To complete a visit to three lesser-known ancient Hindu-Buddhist temples around Yogyakarta, James and I head to Candi Ijo, a 10th– or 11th-century place of worship dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. As opposed to Candi Ngawen’s location on the outskirts of the city and Candi Sambisari’s abode below ground level, the youngest of the three sits majestically on top of a hill west of the city center. When the construction of Candi Ijo was started, the colossal Hindu temple of Prambanan had already stood for about a century, and the once powerful kingdom of Medang – under the reign of its kings, many of Java’s grandest temples were built – was already in decline. Even from the beginning, Candi Ijo seemed to be destined to witness changes in this part of Java.

Thanks to its hilltop location, Candi Ijo has seen countless daily cycles from sunrise to sunset, and all facets of the moon. It has witnessed how the Kedu plain below has repeatedly been blanketed by the volcanic ash from Mount Merapi, battered by heavy rain, and shattered by strong earthquakes. It has also watched how Hinduism, which dominated Java for centuries, was gradually replaced by Islam, and along with this the abandonment of those places built for the worship of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. Maybe in the distant past, the view from Candi Ijo was comparable to Bagan in Myanmar, where towering temples rose proudly from a rural tableau. However, over many generations more and more houses were built – often on top of thick layers of soil under which ancient temples rest – followed by schools, office buildings, factories, and an airport.

We go to Candi Ijo in the afternoon, just a few hours before sunset. The warm light of the sun bathes the main temple and the smaller ancillary structures around it in a soft golden hue. Most visitors come here for the majestic view of the bright celestial disc slowly slipping below the horizon with the imposing silhouette of Mount Merapi looming to the north. In the meantime, passenger jets take off and land at Adisutjipto International Airport, which has been Yogyakarta’s main gateway to the far reaches of Indonesia and the world for almost half a century. This will soon change, however, as the newly constructed and much larger Yogyakarta International Airport is slated to be fully operational and inaugurated this April. And when that day comes, Candi Ijo will see the busy airport relegated to a much smaller role serving propeller planes only.

From outside Candi Ijo, I gaze down onto the slopes of the hill and notice some smaller structures strewn all over the place. Several have been reconstructed while others remain in ruins, waiting for their turn to be painstakingly reassembled like a 3D jigsaw puzzle. This, however, can only be done if there are enough original parts of these structures. Archaeologists believe that the Candi Ijo compound was much larger than its current size since all over this hill there have been discoveries of artifacts linked to the main hilltop temple. There might come a day when most of the original structures within the complex are restored to look as close to their original glory as possible. But whatever the future holds, this temple, thanks to its location, will likely remain a silent witness of change unfolding right before its gaze, one frame of time after another.

Visitors exploring the main temple

In the past, statues must have filled those empty niches

Bas-reliefs of Hindu deities inside floral-patterned frames

Stone carvings from the distant past

A lingga (lingam) and a yoni, together symbolizing Shiva

Inside the dark sanctum of the main temple

The entrance to the sanctum

A Kala head above an empty niche

The west and south facades of the main structure

Three perwara (ancillary) structures in front of the main temple

The ancillary structures and the main temple behind

Window decorations at one of the ancillary structures

Nandi, the mount of Shiva

Waiting for the sunset

More visitors streaming in to see the sunset

One of the structures on the slopes of the hill

A dark silhouette of Mount Merapi

The last light of day

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

33 thoughts on “Candi Ijo: A Silent Witness of Change”

    • It is! It’s not surprising that in the past, a ruler decided to build a temple on this location with that breathtaking view.

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  1. Your third paragraph on Candi Ijo’s hilltop location gave me food for thought, and I really enjoyed reading about this beautiful site from an alternative angle. The warm glow of the late day sun on the temple is lovely.

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    • I thought about this only after I went to Bagan. I remember being awestruck by the ancient city’s towering temples which made me wonder how the skyline was like in Java many centuries ago. I wish I had gone to Candi Ijo a lot earlier before the age of Instagram. But it was still a nice visit.

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  2. What a beautiful site, and it’s so nicely scaled compared to much larger sites like Borabodur. The smaller temples and perwara feel approachable and relatable. And that view… nice!

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    • What’s really striking about Candi Ijo is indeed its location. There are not many temples in Java with such a breathtaking view right in front of it.

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    • Thank you, Matt. Luckily the weather was nice on that day, so I could get some photos of the temple with that soft light.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Umashankar. In a crazy time like this, it becomes even more important to travel vicariously through other people’s blogs, so we can better appreciate the Earth and the different cultures living on the planet.

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  3. Thanks for jogging my memory of this place, Bama! Although it was a little crowded with self-centered Instagrammers, Candi Ijo was the perfect end to our first day in Jogja. Its hilltop location is certainly dramatic, and I loved how the rays of the late afternoon sun set the stone “alight” with a warm golden glow. The statues that would have stood in the empty niches were most probably carted off a long time ago; I’m curious about how the Nandi remained in place, along with the massive lingga-yoni in the main sanctuary.

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    • Before we went, I knew that Candi Ijo was already popular, but I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t overwhelmingly so to the point where we couldn’t take decent photos of the temples themselves. Timing is important when visiting Candi Ijo given its hilltop location and its west-facing main temple. I always love it when ancient temples are bathed in the afternoon sun, just like in Bagan. I wonder if the lingga-yoni and the Nandi actually never left the sanctuaries. Answering curiosities like this is among the reasons why at one point I had this thought of becoming an archaeologist.

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    • Jadi bisa menerawang ke masa lalu gitu ya. Keren juga sih kalau punya superpower kayak gitu, jadi seolah-olah bisa melakukan perjalanan waktu.

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  4. Lovely and reflective post, Bama, accompanied by your usual stunning photography. It’s interesting to consider the passing of time from the point of view of these ancient structures, isn’t it – particularly in light of what’s going on in the world right now. These lovely old temples will be here, long after the blip of human existence has come and gone. Thank you for another great post.
    – Susan and John

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    • To those temples, what we’re experiencing right now is indeed a mere blip. They have seen far more things than we have, and probably they’ve also witnessed the solutions for some of our problems. Stay safe, Susan and John!

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  5. So want to return to Java! I sadly missed Candi Ijo when we visited Yogyakarta, but the temples immediately brought Prambanan to mind. And then I read on to learn that it’s construction followed Prambanan by almost a century. I had thought the kingdom of Medang had already fallen by then, …but apparently, it was just about too. Amazing to think that Candi Ijo was at one time just like Bagan, but now much of it lies beneath the civilizations that replaced it. The reconstruction of these places is mind-boggling. What a puzzle! I love your putting your writing into the perspective of the temples watching time pass—beautiful images as always.

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    • I remember you once told me how much you wanted to return to Java. Glad to know that you still do today. 🙂 I might be biased, but it really is a special island, thanks to its natural landscape, ancient sites, as well as the different cultures. Thanks for your kind words, Lisa!

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