Candi (pronounced chaan-dee). It is a broad term Indonesians use to refer to ancient structures dating back to a period in history when the archipelago was predominantly Hindu/Buddhist. It can be a temple, a bathing compound, a gate, basically anything even if its original purpose is unknown. Collectively, the candis in Indonesia have been a great source of fascination and inspiration for me, not only because of the incredibly fine and intricate sculpted ornaments adorning many of them, but also the fact that what we see today is just a fraction of what once was. A lot of candis were buried in thick volcanic ash thanks to the repeated eruptions of the fire mountains that have made this corner of the Earth very fertile. While dozens have been excavated, we don’t know for sure how many there are still hidden beneath our feet, forgotten but not lost.
The first time I visited the most famous ones, notably Borobudur and Prambanan, was when I was little on a trip with my mom, uncles, aunt, and cousins. I returned to these sites several years later, and again not too long after that, both on school trips. The two massive temple compounds are indeed popular destinations for Indonesian children as they offer an in-person experience in learning history as opposed to only reading about them in textbooks. I’ve cultivated such a deep interest in candis to the point where I’ve always tried to visit at least one candi every year since starting this blog in 2010. When the strict lockdown in Jakarta was partially lifted in late 2020, the first place I went to was in fact an ancient Buddhist temple compound just outside the city. Last year I was so close to seeing another candi, but the pandemic-related restrictions imposed in the area where the temple is located forced authorities to shut its gate for months.
When I told my mother that I would go back to Semarang to see her again in May this year, initially I had no plans to see a candi. But when she proposed the idea of going to Magelang – a city around a three-hour drive from where she lives – to visit one of my cousins, I instantly recalled a mental map in my head of the locations of candis in Central Java. Magelang particularly is an ideal stopover for anyone who wants to explore some of Java’s most intriguing candis, including the mighty Borobudur itself, Candi Mendut, and Candi Ngawen with its unique prancing lion sculptures. But I was looking for a candi that wouldn’t require a major detour from the road from Semarang to Magelang, and after a little research, Candi Selogriyo seemed like the best option.
Previously, I had read about a friend’s experience visiting this candi. She mentioned the hike to reach this site which she thoroughly enjoyed. There’s only a handful of other articles out there about this place, a telltale sign of how little is known about the ancient temple and the low number of visitors this site has seen. But luckily, the way to go there looked pretty easy to follow according to Google Maps.
On a fine Tuesday morning, my mother, her sister, and I left Semarang around 6:30am. As I drove on the Trans-Java toll road, it was very encouraging to see some of Central Java’s tallest peaks on the way to Magelang. The visibility was great, and I was hoping it would remain that way when I arrived at Candi Selogriyo. Two and a half hours into the journey, I followed a country road (branching out from the main route) that would take us to the village closest to the temple. What began as a flat stretch with unobstructed views of Mount Sumbing soon turned narrow with many twists and bends across hilly terrain. Fortunately, it was in good condition with very little traffic. I was more worried about my aunt in the back seat who’s usually very talkative but at this point became mostly silent. I wondered if she was having motion sickness.
At least she didn’t have to suffer for too long as 15 minutes later we arrived at the village where the trailhead is located. I parked the car near a local mosque with a shaded area where my mom and aunt could rest while waiting for me. Although my mom regularly cycles with her friends – about 30 kilometers each week – I know this hike is something she wouldn’t be able to do or enjoy doing. Let alone my aunt whose medical conditions don’t allow her to walk far and fast. It was best for them to stay in the car since I figured it would take around one hour for me to do the hike, see the temple, and go back.
As I walked past the gate to the hamlet of Campurejo, the narrow road immediately went up with a steep inclination. Google Maps said the temple was around two kilometers from here, which I knew would guarantee that I’d be drenched in sweat by the end of the hike. I kept walking along the main pathway, past some locals who smiled back at me when I smiled at them, before reaching a small ticket booth manned by a young woman. Beyond it, a narrow trail cut through a sun-kissed landscape dotted with rice terraces and verdant hills as if everything was trying to tell visitors: welcome!
I walked at a steady pace, soaking up the beautiful vistas around me while taking deep breaths of the fresh air. Since I went on a weekday, I didn’t meet any other visitors along the hike which only accentuated this place’s serene setting. Occasionally, I encountered local farmers who were diligently tending to their fields. But apart from that, it was only me and Mother Nature. Probably ten minutes into the hike, I started to wonder whether I would be able to see the temple from afar or not. There’s something exhilarating upon seeing an ancient structure emerging from the horizon, as if I were a pilgrim in an age when such an edifice was still actively used. So, naturally every time I walked past a bend I wondered, can I see the temple from here?
The answer to the same question that repeated in my head every few minutes or so was a resounding no. Candi Selogriyo, it seemed, was hidden from plain sight behind tall trees. Somewhere in the middle of the path, two pavilions jutted out from one side of the mountain slope, providing visitors with better viewpoints of the magnificent rice terraces across the ravine. I’ve read about this beautiful hike before, but I didn’t expect to see such terrific scenery. This location is a good example of how Java’s active volcanoes have rendered this land fertile where almost everything can grow abundantly. And speaking of volcanoes, the barren peak of Mount Sumbing was clearly visible from one of the viewpoints along the hike.
But where is the candi?
It wasn’t until around 20 minutes after I left the ticket booth when I finally stumbled upon something indicating the presence of a temple nearby: a stone gate that seemed to be a modern addition rather than a part of the original structures. A short flight of stairs took me near the real entrance to the temple, from which I could point out the pinnacle of the candi. And after a few more steps, voilà! The first candi I visited this year stood before me.
Standing at an elevation of 740 meters above sea level, Candi Selogriyo’s origin is somewhat shrouded in mystery. No inscription mentioning this site has been discovered, leaving experts only with questions. However, based on its architectural style and location, a widely accepted consensus suggests that the Hindu temple might have been built around the eighth or ninth century CE. If there is no written documentation about it, then how could we know that this candi was Hindu? All you need to do is walk around the structure to see the statues in the temple’s niches. While most of them have lost their heads, their discernible figures are enough to point to the candi’s Hindu origin with absolute certainty.
In 1995, a landslide severely damaged Candi Selogriyo. But fortunately, restoration work was conducted soon afterward, and by 2005 its pre-disaster appearance had been completely reinstated. Despite being among the less popular candis, this site seemed to be well-maintained. In fact, when I was walking around the temple, a man was standing on top of the structure, cleaning it from unwanted materials that could damage its delicate sculpted ornaments as well as its structural integrity in the long run. Visiting candis that are located in such difficult terrain always amazes me, for they give me a glimpse of the determination and perseverance of the people who built them long before the invention of modern equipment. Meanwhile, some of us (who have no medical conditions) today might find the hike to reach this temple quite an ordeal. I wonder if we as a species are gradually evolving from Homo sapiens into Homo otiosum, “lazy human”.
It was a little over 10am, but the day was already really hot and my mom and aunt had been waiting for me for more than half an hour. It was time to go back to the car and head to the city of Magelang to see my cousin, her husband, and their four children. My mom was shocked to see me sweating profusely, but this was such a rewarding detour on a nice day with perfect weather. I couldn’t ask for better timing.