Emma Natalya Stein, Freer|Sackler curatorial fellow for Southeast Asian art, shares scenes from her recent journey to Indonesia.
December 11–13, 2017
Although the city of Surabaya began as a modest port, today it is a densely populated urban sprawl that ranks as Indonesia’s second largest metropolis. An international conference, “River Cities in Asia: Water Space in Urban Development and History,” brought me to Surabaya in December—my second time in Indonesia in 2017 (read about the first trip).
When the conference concluded, I explored Surabaya’s relics of colonial-era architecture, which range from the elegant Hotel Majapahit to local residences and graves.
Dutch colonial-era residence and Muslim tombs, Peneleh, Surabaya
Surabaya itself was not a political epicenter during the period of East Java’s greatest prominence. However, the city’s present-day accessibility by road, rail, and flight makes it a great point of departure for visits to temples and archaeological sites in the region—and there are many.
Sacred sites mentioned in “Indonesia Intrepid I and II”
From the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, East Java flourished as a major courtly religious center under two ruling kingdoms, Singosari and then Majapahit. The East Javanese rulers fashioned themselves after India’s legendary kings, because it was from India that Hindu-Buddhist courtly culture had been imported centuries earlier.
Although the Indian traditions became locally adapted and at times were radically transformed in Indonesia, the motherland continued to hold significant status. This was perhaps especially true for members of the royal elite, who regarded India as a source of power and prestige.
December 14, 2017
My first destination was a group of sacred sites on the slopes of a sleek volcano. Mt. Penanggungan is situated 40 kilometers to the south of central Surabaya. Its unique shape, with four peaks around the higher central corona, makes it particularly sacred even for Indonesia, where all volcanoes are considered gods.
Indonesia’s sacred sites are built in relation to features of the natural environment. They are situated on riverbanks, carved directly into living rock, or positioned to align with mountains. Whether constructed or rock-cut, sacred sites are generally referred to as candi, meaning “shrine.”
December is Indonesia’s monsoon season. The rains rolled in like clockwork every day around 3 or 4 pm, making the landscape particularly lush and green. I traveled by car, departing early in the morning to maximize time for site visits.
Candi Jolotundo (977), East Java
At the foothills of Mt. Penanggungan’s western slope is Candi Jolotundo, a sacred bathing place built into the side of a cliff. Constructed in the tenth century, according to a prominent inscription on the rear wall, Jolotundo is among East Java’s earliest archaeological sites. Two plunge pools that now divide male and female visitors flank a central shrine, which once held a large sculpture. Water streams into the pools through multiple apertures, filling the air with constant sound.
Leaving this early Hindu site, I was reminded that today Indonesia is a Muslim nation. As I walked along the narrow road that leads up the mountain, the call to prayer rang out across the terraced rice paddies. Listen to it below.
Higher up on Mt. Penanggungan’s eastern slope is Candi Belahan, a second sacred bathing place. Unlike Jolotundo, Belahan retains its original sculptures. The two figures of goddesses serve as the fountains, the water streaming from their palms and breasts.
Bathing place at Candi Belahan (1049), East Java
Candi Belahan was not only a bathing site, but a vast temple area. The main gate to the complex has been restored, and remains of additional structures can be found if you know where to look in the jungle.
Main gate and remains of Candi Belahan (1049), East Java
I finished the day with a long car ride along the single main road that connects Surabaya with the city of Malang. Where Surabaya’s southern sprawl ends, Malang’s northern sprawl begins, and the single road is clogged with traffic. The rain arrived, and the sun went down while I was in the car.
December 15, 2017
From Malang the next morning, my primary destination was the royal Candi Singosari, the most important temple-complex of the Singosari dynasty (built circa 1300). Singosari was originally an entire complex of sacred structures, including multiple shrines housing some of the greatest East Javanese sculptures. Today only a single building and a handful of fragmentary sculptures remain to mark the site. Indonesia’s excellent archaeological service protects the landscaped monument, which is easily accessible by a well-paved road.
Many of Indonesia’s sacred establishments are now archaeologically protected monuments like Singosari. However, there are still more sites to discover across the Indonesian landscape. They often hover on the banks of rivers.
As I was planning my trip, a friend in East Java alerted me to a sacred bathing place that had recently been excavated not far from Malang. After asking Singosari’s monument attendants for directions, I headed off to find it.
Pathway to the archaeological sites, Ngawonggo Village
The village of Ngawonggo is situated just 20 kilometers outside Malang, but it feels like a different world. Houses are small and made of semipermanent materials, their backyards spilling into the jungle. I disembarked where a dirt pathway passed between two houses and soon encountered a young man and his younger brother, who greeted me with an element of surprise.
The two boys seemed to know what I was looking for. They led me into the jungle, down toward the rushing river. At a bamboo bridge we passed a poster, mounted against a tree, which showed pictures of the excavation team and their exciting findings.
As we crossed the bridge and continued along an irrigation channel on the opposite side of the ravine, I heard the jungle coalesce around me:
Bathing pools, Ngawonggo
The site was extensive. I was able to discern at least three distinct bathing areas carved at various elevations in the ravine. The interior walls were ornamented with relief carvings and figures of deities, and fragmentary sculptures lay scattered along the edges. The style of floral and geometric reliefs corresponds with motifs from the Singosari period. This suggests that the Ngawonggo site likely dates to the twelfth or thirteenth century—the same period as the royal temple-complex I had visited that morning.
Archaeological sites, Ngawonggo
As I made my way through the site, my guides patiently pointed out the different elements and made sure I saw the full scope of the excavated area. Unfortunately, the site has yet to be brought under the protection of the archaeological service. Until that happens, Ngawonggo is especially vulnerable to looting.
A sculpture and its absence, Ngawonggo
The boys showed me a picture of a sculpture that had been stolen just a few days earlier, as well as the precise place where it previously stood. The sculpture was a goddess kneeling and holding a pot, which served as a fountain that streamed into the pool below.
It was midday when I reached the village, but already thick clouds had been hovering around the sun. Suddenly my guides pointed to the sky. Sure enough, moments later thunder clapped, and thick droplets began to pound. Listen below.
We waited out the storm inside a thatch-and-bamboo house that served as a kind of temporary residence for the older boy, whose name is Muhammed. As we sat and watched the rain, he pulled out his phone and put on some gamelan music. Although my hosts spoke no English and I only limited Bahasa Indonesia, Muhammed showed me that we could engage in a meaningful conversation through typing in Google Translate.
I learned that the boys were local residents who informally tended the site. They had played there since childhood, but the bathing place had only come to the attention of archaeologists a mere seven months before my visit. Over the years, many statues and architectural materials had been removed, including the figure of a goddess that had been stolen so recently.
The storm lasted close to an hour. Eventually, the thunder was right upon us, and the torrent reached the apex of its arch. When the raindrops gave way to a discernible rhythm, we took our leave, slipping along the muddy pathway to the road where the car, and then the city, awaited.
December 16–29, 2017
During my remaining week in Indonesia, I visited sites in East and Central Java and Bali, returning to some places I had been before and exploring others for the first time. See below for a selection of highlights from the journey.
Artist Tatang Elmy Wobowo specializes in batik paintings using natural pigments, which he makes at his studio in Tembi village, near Yogyakarta, Central Java.
Candi Cetho and Candi Kethek, esoteric temples on Lawu Mountain, near Solo, Central Java
Misty sunrise at Candi Borobudur, Central Java
All-night shadow puppet performance (wayang kulit), Tembi Rumah Budaya, near Yogyakarta, Central Java