Sukuh temple

The mountain temple

Candi Sukuh, fifteenth century mountain temple , built in the form of stepped pyramid on the slopes of Mount Lawu,  central Java,Indonesia

Candi Sukuh, fifteenth century mountain temple , built in the form of stepped pyramid on the slopes of Mount Lawu,
central Java,Indonesia

Located on the slopes of Mt Lawu just a few kilometres from the town of Surakarta, Central Java, Candi Sukuh is a small temple which has a similar structure to a pre-Columbian stepped pyramid, resembling also to the Polynesian marae or even the Mesopotamian ziggurat. Similar to some megalithic complexes built in massive style, the temple is an impressive sight, surrounded by erotic sculptures, headless winged creatures, sculptured tortoises and carved obelisk depicting scenes from the Hindu Javanese literature. Mountains in South east Asia have always been regarded as a sacred place, the source of creative and cosmic power that animates all beings. It is the abode of the spirits and throughout Indonesia a number of temples are built on the slopes of mountains – a special place where mortals could communicate with the gods and their ancestors. As the abode of the ancestors, according to indigenous belief, it is the place where souls are liberated. Sanctuaries are therefore believed to be gates leading to heaven. Mt Lawu is regarded up till this day as a sacred and mystical mountain believed to be the resting place of Brawijaya, the last king of Majapahit, whose body according to legend, vanished without trace. The temple itself is dedicated to mountain deity Batara Lawu. Still regarded as sacred sanctuaries, pilgrims would still visit the site leaving behind offerings of flowers or sesajen by the shrines.The worship of the sacred mountain is popular throughout Javanese history with the cult of the Lord of the Mountain as supreme god as mentioned in Kakawin Arjuna Wiwaha, a compilation of poems by Empu Tantular, fourteenth century poet from the court of Majapahit. The most striking part of Candi Sukuh are the reliefs and sculptures depicting adaptations of stories from the Mahabharata, the Hindu epic. Here the style is indigenous and for the first time shows charaters of an expressive style, taken from the popular Javanese Wayang shadow play – a style frequently seen in the east Javanese aesthetic styles, toward the declining period of the great Hindu Javanese dynasties. In Sukuh, headless winged figures and scenes depict the famous story of Garuda and his eternal enemies – the snakes or children of Kadru. The scenes are partley scattered on stone slabs or as isolated figures, show Garuda delivering his imprisoned mother Winata from her sister Kadru. In order to save her, Garuda has to search for Amrta or nectar of the gods. His perilous journey and amazing encounters are shown on the stone slabs. In one scene, he is shown with his wings standing on an elephant and tortoise, another scene illustrates his journey to heaven while stealing the sacred ambrosia of the gods. Another story scene tells the story of Sudamala, one of Pandawa’s brothers, who saved Uma, cursed by her husband Batara Guru because of her adulteress affair with Brahma. She was transformed into Durga, who roamed the forest for many years until Sadewa came to rescue her from the curse. In saving her from the curse Sadewa’s name is changed to Sudamala meaning beautiful garland. On some of the reliefs, new indigenous characters appear, such as Semar and the Punakawans (clowns) seen as important figures in the Javanese wayang tradition. Many of these stories relating to deliverance symbolizes the release of the soul from its material bond.

Scene from Sudamala, when Uma was transformed by Batara Guru  and saved by Sudamala.

Scene from Sudamala, when Uma was transformed by Batara Guru and saved by Sudamala.

Another important figure seen in the architectural style of Candi Sukuh is Bhima, one of pandawa brothers which has become a cult figure in the late Majapahit period prior to the arrival of Islam – A cult derived from Hindu Buddhist Tantrism and blended with indigenous Javanese belief. Sivaitic Buddhist Javanese Tantrism was popular since the thirteenth century where Tantric ceremonies were often carried out at the court. Bhima, as a cult figure is regarded in Java as a spiritual teacher, whose quest for immortality and esoteric knowledge is narrated in the poems of Dewaruci. The complex story of Dewaruci deals with the metaphors relating to spiritual enlightenment and liberation through a mystical union. There are many tales of Bhima. In one story, tells of Bhima’s deliverance of Pandu, his father from the fires of hell narrated in Bhimaswarga. His miraculous birth is also told in a poem of Lakon Bhima Bungkus where a heavenly elephant sent by Bhatara Guru broke the shell and brought the newly born baby into the world. When the elephant entered his body, Bhima’s name is changed to Bratasena. In Candi Sukuh, the lakon Bhima Bungkus is depicted on a womb-like stone structure, ending with two deer heads. Here, Bhima meets the Lord of the Heaven, Bhatara Guru, both standing on a two headed snake. Bhima is shown with his long thumb nail or pancanaka, wears the gelung wayang headdress, adorned with necklace and an ear ornament and clad with decorated poleng or the square patterned cloth. In the traditional Javanese wayang representation , a naga or serpent head is seen on Bhima’s cloth signifying his triumph over lust – desire is symbolized by this animal. In Java, Bhima is deified and venerated because of his courage as well as his mystical power – seen as the ultimate symbol of Man’s perfection to a higher material and spiritual accomplishment. Religious cult such as Tantric Bhairawa Ciwa was popular during the Majapahit era and venerated in rituals connected to salvation. It is during such rituals that Bhima may sometimes be assimilated as Bhairawa. The Bhairawas were a sect whose rituals derived from Tantrism and believed that salvation of the soul could be attained through sacred ceremonies involving black magic and obtaining supernatural power whilst worshiping ancestors and spirits.

Stone sculpture depicting the birth of Bhima, Candi Sukuh Central Java, Indonesia

Stone sculpture depicting the birth of Bhima, Candi Sukuh
Central Java, Indonesia

Centuries have gone by since the heyday of the Hindu Javanese era, and even if the mystical temple clouded by the mist of the Lawu mountain seems to have drifted into oblivion, it remains one of the world’s most impressive expressions of Indonesian spiritual art.
© Kalpana Kartik

The mountain temple of Sukuh, Central Java, Indonesia

The mountain temple of Sukuh, Central Java, Indonesia

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