Candi-bentar Gunung Lawu Candi Cetho

The temple seems to float high above Java. The distant sweep of the plain lies beneath a veil of lavender haze, and to the west the smooth peak of Merapi rises into a fiery evening sky.

This is Candi Cetho, a 15th century relic from the dying days of the Majapahit Kingdom perched on a pine-studded point on the northwest flanks of Gunung Lawu.

But I am not here to explore the mute stones of a lost era. I have heard stories that the village that clings to the slopes below Candi Cetho is itself a relic, an ancient Hindu community […]. And it seems that the stories are true: At a homestay near the temple gates, the young woman in charge, Yuni, confirms that she herself is a Hindu, as are virtually all of the people in the hamlet.

Dusk is falling as I slip out of the temple through a side gate. The sweet scent of incense wafts from a little warung (food stall) in a grove of pine trees.

Three men in black head scarves are hunched over a pile of strange objects — ceremonial daggers, gemstones and tiger claws. They call me to join them. Two are visitors from Jakarta; the third lives here at the temple. His name is Mbah Porol, and he is an expert in mystic matters.

Porol confirms that the people of the village are Hindu, just like they have been since the time of Majapahit. According to legend, Porol says, the last absolute ruler of Majapahit, Brawijaya V, fled to Gunung Lawu when his kingdom fell to the early Moslem state of Demak. Here, among the mists and pines, Brawijaya built temples and places for meditation, and steeped the peak with an aura of intense mysticism that continues to this day.

candi-cetho

“When it comes to sacredness, all the other mountains in Indonesia were defeated by Lawu,” Porol says. “We know this from the unwritten history.” There is something unusual about Porol — though he has lived here for 20 years and is an expert in the mystic religious traditions of Java known as Kejawen, Porol is neither Javanese nor Hindu.

“I am originally from Padang (West Sumatra),” he says, “and I am a Moslem, but I follow the “adat”, the customs, here.” In the glistening sunlight of the morning I wander the temple grounds. The upper terraces were brutally restored in the 1970s, but the lower levels still show the original weathered grey volcanic rocks.

This was one of the very last Hindu temples built in Java around 1470, and it’s easy to detect the traces of an eroding era in the fertility symbols and lewd ogres. Refined Indian-inspired classicism seems to have given way to earthier local traditions.

But this leaves me puzzled. While everyone claims that the people here have been Hindu since the days of Majapahit, I remain skeptical. Brahman priests from Bali sometimes visit, and the local district government has installed a new statue of Saraswati, but there doesn’t seem to be any constant Hindu practice here.

There are small offerings at the foot of the statues, but that practice is also typical among traditional Javanese Moslems. Also, “Hindu” is a modern designation; the faith that dominated pre-Islam Java was known locally as “Buda (Budaya).”


Down in the village, the chatter of voices rise from a family compound. It is a preliminary ceremony for a wedding, and the bridegroom-to-be, a man named Joko, calls to me. […] Joko claims that the people here have always been Hindu.

“But we are Javanese Hindus; we’re different from Balinese Hindus,” he added. “They are pure Hindus, following India, but here it’s mixed with Javanese traditions. Our adat is Kejawen.” Joko points out that religious affiliation is not important. “It’s like Candi Cetho itself — there are many different paths, but they all end up at the temple,” he said.

I am ushered to a bare room where the village’s elders are sitting cross-legged. I cannot understand their dense Javanese language, but it’s clear they are not discussing trivial matters. The conversation is like a roster of Javanese history and legend. Exalted names echo around the room: Brawijaya, Majapahit, Raden Patah, Semar, Kanjeng Ratu Kidul, Senopati …

I finally interrupt. Why, has this community remained Hindu when the hamlets below converted to Islam? A man named Supatno explains that the villagers here have a connection to the legacy of Brawijaya, so they remained Hindu.

Still unsure, I try a different tactic: In East Java, I say, there are villages where people were supposedly Moslem until the 1960s, but converted to Hinduism, regarding it as a better fit to their Kejawen customs. Wasn’t it the same case here?

There is a pause, and finally the rumble of agreement. It’s true, they say, that half a century ago, most of the people here were indeed “identity-card Moslems” — they were Moslems in name only. “Moslems who didn’t know how to pray,” one elderly man says grinning as a chorus of throaty chuckles fill the room. “But Hindu customs were always stronger here,” Supatno says.

An old man in a frayed black cap leans forward and adds: “It started in 1965, people started to return to Hinduism.”

I finally have the truth — 1965 was a watershed year in Indonesia, the point when vigorous anticommunist sentiment became the official watchword. As a consequence, the demand for full commitment to an officially-sanctioned faith became intense. Given their heritage, the people chose Hinduism, to which they had belonged, over Islam.


A few kilometers below Candi Cetho, in a shady crook of the hillside, I come across another place of Hindu worship. It is a modern Bali-style temple called Pura Kalisodo. An old man with cropped grey hair wanders through. His name is Surowiyono. He is a Hindu, he says, but Moslems are the majority in these lower communities.

The temple was built 15 years ago. Next to it stands a small hut smelling of incense. “This hut, Surowiyono says, is a sacred place that is much older. Actually the temple is for the Hindu congregation, and the hut is for Moslems and Christians,” he says, adding that Gatot Subroto, a senior military figure in Indonesia’s struggle for independence, came here to pray for success in 1945.

Naturally, orthodox Moslems and Christians should not be meditating in mountain bamboo groves, but long before the modern temple was built, this was a place of spiritual significance for all local Javanese.

Further down the mountain I come to another modern temple on a hilltop. The place is deserted, and the midday prayer call is rising from the mosques below. […] I sit on the steps outside.

I came to this remote region after hearing stories of a surviving Hindu community, a relic of Majapahit, but now I suspect that what really exists here is a bastion of the Kejawen traditions that are indigenous to these green hills.

The concrete statues and imported Sanskrit are as alien as any minaret or Arabic text, but a pragmatic decision by local families to change religions a half a century ago has allowed old ways to survive, even if the younger generations believe that they were always Hindu.

Back at the bottom of the hill I meet a local Moslem, heading home from his fields. I ask what was here before the temple. “Nothing,” he says. “It was just a hill.” After a pause, he adds, “There were some sacred stones; a place for meditation.” “For Hindus?” I ask. He pauses again: “For Javanese people.”

Via: The Jakarta Globe