In Search of Singhasari
Two summers ago, while exploring the Central Javanese highlands of Dieng at the start of our six-month Spice Odyssey, Bama and I came upon an illustrated timeline inside a museum. It charted the evolution and development of the candi (pronounced “chaan-dee”), a catch-all Indonesian term for the ancient Hindu and/or Buddhist ruins scattered across the island of Java, and to a lesser extent, Sumatra. The great majority are quarried from volcanic andesite – whose color varies from tan to slate grey – with the most prominent examples being the UNESCO-listed temples of Borobudur and Prambanan. Bama had been to both icons several times, but as he traced his finger over depictions of their smaller and lesser-known counterparts further east, he declared with a sigh, “I’ve always wanted to visit these temples in East Java.”
Our recent break in Malang was the fulfillment of that wish. We had stopped by East Java’s largest ancient Hindu sanctuary (Candi Penataran) back in March, and this naturally became a sequel to that foray into the region’s pre-Islamic past. Four of the five sites we visited around Malang date back to the Singhasari kingdom; taken together, they deserve to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Malang’s oldest surviving Hindu temple is hidden in a residential area on the western fringes of the city. Literally “Temple of the Clown”, Candi Badut was discovered only in the early 1920s; its current appearance is the work of archaeologists who carefully reassembled the stones from a mound of rubble and earth. Some historians theorize that Candi Badut was commissioned by King Gajayana, who ruled the ancient Kanjuruhan kingdom from 760 to 789. Although this link isn’t proven, the sanctuary was eventually named for Gajayana’s penchant for jokes (mbadhut in Javanese).
Candi Badut is reminiscent of the temples at Dieng, with motifs pointing to a dominant Central Javanese aesthetic of that period, including stylized ogre heads above the lintel depicting (Batara) Kala – the Hindu Javanese god of time, destruction, and the underworld – without a lower jaw. The now-roofless temple chamber contains the Hindu fertility symbols of lingga (or lingam) and yoni, while an exterior niche is adorned with Durga Mahisasuramardini, which depicts the multi-armed warrior goddess Durga slaying the buffalo demon Mahisasura (who, according to Hindu mythology, could only be killed by a woman).
The 13th-century Singhasari kingdom may have lasted just 70 years, but it has left behind a series of impressive monuments around the long-lost capital of Tumapel. Candi Kidal – a small temple less than 11 kilometers to the southeast of downtown Malang – is perhaps the most beautiful of them all. It was raised in 1248 as a memorial to Anusapati, the second king of Singhasari, and marks the emergence of a distinct East Javanese style in temple architecture. This is most apparent in the richly engraved medallions and the fanged, full-faced Kala, flanked by two hands with index and middle fingers raised in a menacing gesture.
Read counter-clockwise from the south, the exquisite reliefs around the temple base show Garuda, the Hindu bird-like deity, saving his mother from slavery by retrieving tirta amerta, the water of eternal life, in exchange for her freedom. This legend mirrored Anusapati’s wish to rescue his own beloved mother, Queen Ken Dedes, from Ken Arok, Singhasari’s first king and the murderer of her first husband Tunggul Ametung – Anusapati’s father. Anusapati purportedly avenged his father’s death with the Javanese keris (traditional dagger) that Ken Arok used to kill him. But after 26 years as king, he too would be assassinated with the same weapon at the hands of his half-brother Panji Tohjaya, the son of Ken Arok and a previous wife.
Panji Tohjaya’s reign, however, was short-lived. The new ruler set about plotting to remove two threats to his power: his nephews Ranggawuni (Anusapati’s son) and Mahisa Campaka, a grandson of Ken Arok. Lembu Ampal, the bodyguard charged with killing the two princes, helped rouse a full-scale revolt, with most military leaders throwing their support behind the pair. Panji Tohjaya escaped but was mortally wounded in the fighting. The two princes then ruled together, with Ranggawuni taking the name Wisnuwardhana and Mahisa Campaka sharing the throne as Narasingamurti – an arrangement that meant lasting peace between the families of Tunggul Ametung and Ken Arok.
Wisnuwardhana, Anusapati’s son, has his own memorial temple some 15 kilometers to the east of Malang. The monument is referenced in old Javanese court literature: both the Pararaton, or the Javanese Book of Kings, and the epic Nagarakertagama poem name this site as Jajaghu, meaning “greatness”. Built on higher ground atop a massive three-tiered pedestal – perhaps a reference to the megalithic pyramidal shrines known as punden berundak – Candi Jago would have been a magnificent sight in its heyday. Construction took place under the command of Wisnuwardhana’s son and successor, Kertanagara, from 1268 until 1280. All three tiers of the temple boast intricate bas-reliefs, encrusted with scenes of coconut trees, a boar being led to the sacrifice, and pagoda-like meru that bear an uncanny resemblance to those found in modern-day Bali.
Alongside Candi Kidal, Jago is mentioned in Thomas Stamford Raffles’ two-volume treatise The History of Java. As Lieutenant-Governor during the British occupation between 1811 and 1815, Raffles personally inspected many of Java’s ruined Hindu-Buddhist monuments. A statue of the Buddhist goddess Mamaki, taken from Candi Jago by Raffles himself, is now housed at London’s British Museum.
Like his father, King Kertanegara subscribed to a Tantric blend of Hinduism and Buddhism. The powerful monarch ordered Candi Jawi’s construction as a place of worship, creating a Hindu sanctuary crowned with Buddhist ornamentation. The Nagarakertagama names this temple as Jajawa, and even today, it remains a towering presence on the lower flanks of Mt. Welirang, about 90 minutes’ drive (44 kilometers by road) from Malang.
Candi Jawi is unique among Javanese temples for its use of both white and dark stones. The latter were employed at the base, while white stones formed the midsection and the roof used a mix of both. Old Javanese literature recalls a “Fire Shooting Day” in 1253, when the temple suffered a lightning strike. Candi Jawi was rebuilt the following year, presumably using white stones that were quarried from Java’s north coast or the neighboring island of Madura. After Kertanegara’s death in 1292, it was eventually dedicated as a memorial temple for the king, with some of his ashes enshrined within.
The most accessible and well-known of East Java’s Hindu-Buddhist monuments, Candi Singhasari lies off the main road leading north from Malang. This two-tiered structure was built as a funerary temple for Kertanegara himself, the last ruler of Singhasari. His 24-year reign (1268–1292) saw the re-emergence of Java as a regional power, with armies dispatched on overseas conquests in Borneo, Sulawesi, and distant corners of the archipelago. Singhasari sacked Jambi and Palembang, the twin spokes of Sumatra’s declining Srivijaya Empire, while Javanese ships sailed to south-central Vietnam to forge an alliance with Champa, a fellow Hindu-Buddhist realm.
In The History of Java, Raffles describes how the temple was badly damaged by careless Dutch collectors, particularly one Nicolaas Engelhard, whom Raffles identified as the former governor of Semarang. But he still found plenty to admire: “The devices, ornaments, and general style of this temple are not very different from those of the great temple at Brambánan [sic]: the cornices and mouldings are no less rich and well executed.” Just how much of those wondrous details have been carted away is unknown; perhaps the best preserved is a sculpture housed in Jakarta’s National Museum, believed to show Queen Ken Dedes as Prajnaparamita, a Bodhisattva personifying “the Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom”. But there may be another reason for a general absence of reliefs: the four Kalas adorning the structure’s lower level suggest that it was never finished.
Roughly 300 meters to the northwest of Singhasari temple stand two enormous dwarapala guardians, weighing about 40 tons each and measuring almost four meters from head to toe. Historians speculate that these sentinels may have marked the entrance to Kartanegara’s royal palace. Despite the fanged teeth, bulging eyes, and skulls adorning their costumes, the pot-bellied giants appear more jovial than fearsome. ◊