Merak. In your language this word may or may not mean something, but in Indonesian it refers to the peacock, one of the most extravagant-looking birds whose visually-arresting plumage varies from metallic blue to bright green. It also happens to be what a candi (ancient Hindu/Buddhist structure) deep in a Central Javan countryside was named after. First discovered in the early 20th century in a ruined state, the temple is believed to date back to the eighth or ninth century CE when this part of Java was still ruled by the powerful Medang (Ancient Mataram) kingdom. Experts came to this conclusion based on some of the temple’s architectural elements which are commonly found in other candis from the same era.
Despite its relatively modest size, restoring Candi Merak as close as possible to its original look proved to be a long and slow process. While preliminary research had been conducted in 1925, the first reconstruction was only carried out in 2007 which focused on the base and the sanctum. The structure’s crown – among the most ornately decorated parts of the temple – was installed four years later. The pinnacle, however, is still missing, leaving our imagination to picture how it must have looked in the past.
“Where is the peacock?” my mom suddenly asked me as the two of us and James were visiting this candi situated amid a tranquil setting of a typical Javanese village. It was almost 8:30 in the morning and the sun was already quite high. However, the trees to the east of the temple compound were so tall they blocked the sun that would have otherwise cast its rays on this beautiful structure. Luckily, prior to seeing Candi Merak in person I had read about the origin of the name so I didn’t have to examine each of the temple’s decorative elements – relief panels, statues, and sculpted walls and lintels, among other things – to look for a peacock. The name was in fact attributed to the existence of the birds around the temple upon its rediscovery. Also found in the vicinity were Terminalia bellirica trees, a large deciduous tree species commonly found in South and Southeast Asia. I have seen an image on the internet of a blue peacock (Pavo cristatus, which is native to the Indian subcontinent) perching on a branch of this particular tree. Was this a common sight around Candi Merak back in the days? Quite possibly, although it must have been the green peacock (Pavo muticus) that flocked to the trees around the temple.
While the intricate details – or what remain of them – were in shadow, the absence of direct sun made walking around the temple rather pleasant. Then how can we tell whether a candi was Hindu or Buddhist? you may ask. Just look at the statues. Candi Merak is adorned with depictions of Durga, Ganesha, and Nandi, all associated with Shiva, one of the principal deities in Hinduism. However, if you’re not familiar at all with any of these, you will still find something interesting about this candi. The sculpted figures at the base of the main structure’s stairs, for example.
Makara is a mythical sea creature that is often present in Hindu and Buddhist temples across Asia. In Indonesia, its variations are often placed at the base of the main entrance to a temple’s sanctum. It is typically depicted with an open mouth, inside of which a small beast is usually present, with its elephant-like trunk curled above its head as can be seen here (from Candi Sambisari) and here (from Candi Ngawen). However, the makaras of Candi Merak are markedly different for the presence of a serpent’s head at the tip of the trunk in a position that resembles a standing cobra.
So, no peacocks on the day we went, only snakes – petrified, fortunately.