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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.

Candi Badut

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).

Candi Badut in the late afternoon light

The lingga-yoni (left) and Durga Mahisasuramardini (right)

Durga’s niche is on the northern side of Candi Badut

An 8th-century jigsaw puzzle

Malang’s oldest structure

Candi Kidal

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.

Candi Kidal – perhaps the most beautiful of the Singhasari temples

Garuda carrying three snakes (left) and the water of eternal life (right)

Garuda rescues his mother; a typical East Javan Kala

Meeting a friendly village cat; bands of well-preserved reliefs

Mythical beasts and monsters

Holding up the temple; faces in the stone

The cat’s name was Bino (or possibly Mino)

Checking on selfies at Candi Kidal

Candi Jago

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.

The mysterious ruins of Candi Jago

These appear to be warriors going into battle

A sculpture of Amoghapasa, an eight-armed Bodhisattva, and two fallen Kalas

Intricate bas-reliefs run all around the temple

Scenes from legendary tales and Hindu epics like the Mahabharata

A wise sage (perhaps) giving an audience

This bears an uncanny resemblance to the “kori agung” temple gateways of present-day Bali

Figures with Javanese wayang-style headdresses

Under a coconut palm; a mythical Hindu-Buddhist being

13th-century temple architecture that lives on in Bali

Schoolgirls exploring Candi Jago while on lunch break

Stories in the stones

Candi Jawi

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.

Candi Jawi takes the shape of a Hindu temple with a Buddhist crown

Chiseled corners; the steep approach to the main sanctum

The makara – a mythical Hindu sea-creature – and reliefs on Candi Jawi’s pedestal

The marks of Singhasari stonemasons

A relief of Surya, the Hindu sun god, on the ceiling of the main sanctum

A ruined red-brick structure, most likely a gateway

Candi Jawi’s tall, slender spire sets it apart from the other temples around Malang

A depiction of a “bale kambang” (floating pavilion)

A bucolic scene that has yet to be deciphered

Lotus blooms in the surrounding moat

Candi Singhasari

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. 

The two-tiered temple of Candi Singhasari

The northeast facade; taking pictures below an unfinished Kala

Offerings at the broken yoni inside the main sanctum; Agastya, a divine Vedic sage

Decorations on the upper level; one of two enormous dwarapala guardians nearby

The other dwarapala, kneeling outside a school, seems to be smiling

A club, a snake, and a necklace of skulls

One last look at Candi Singhasari

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. What a wonderful post. Great photos and a nice introduction to the history.

    September 4, 2017
    • Thanks for reading all the way through – I guess writing this wasn’t so different from making a Wikipedia entry!

      September 4, 2017
  2. Ideally we should do a road trip across East Java to explore all those temples (including Penataran and the ones in Trowulan). But given our limited annual leave, short trips like like this is what we can afford right now. Candi Kidal was just as impressive as how I imagined it, if not more. But I was blown away by the reliefs of Candi Jago. If only its upper structure were still intact, it would have been quite a sight!

    September 4, 2017
    • What struck me most about the reliefs at Candi Jago was seeing architectural designs that have persisted down the centuries in Bali. That said, the level of sculptural detail at Candi Kidal was comparable to that of Borobudur, Prambanan and Penataran.

      September 4, 2017
  3. What a fascinating place with such a long history! How do you do all your research? You and Bama always have such excellent in-depth commentary and history in your posts on the places you visit. Very impressive!

    September 5, 2017
    • I had some help from Bama – he directed me to an online resource run by the National Library of Indonesia, which had detailed explanations of all these temples in English. I don’t know how else I would have written this post otherwise!

      September 5, 2017
      • Yes it looks like it was a ton of research! Great information James!

        September 7, 2017
  4. These sites are so beautiful and it is nice to read about other Javanese highlights beyond Borobudur and Prambanan, both of which totally impressed me. Thanks for the detailed descriptions.

    September 5, 2017
    • You’re welcome, Caroline. These temples are not all that far from the popular spot of Mt. Bromo – so it’s worth budgeting two days either before or after an overnight excursion into the mountains.

      September 5, 2017
      • Thanks, that’s good to hear as i’m sure I’ll be back to that part of Java.

        September 5, 2017
  5. There’s something about these scattered sites that reminds me of the Mayan temples that pop up out of the jungle in the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico and elsewhere in Central America. Even the stone color and the shapes are reminiscent of those places. What a fascinating country you have chosen to live in and explore!

    September 6, 2017
    • Lex, I’ve been dreaming of visiting those Mayan sites ever since I was a middle schooler – if only Mexico was a little bit closer and not on the far side of the Pacific!

      September 10, 2017
      • That’s how I feel about Indonesia!

        September 10, 2017
  6. Extraordinary temples James. Had never heard of them until I read Bama’s post. Amazing isn’t it, how adopted religions and art morph into something intrinsically home-grown? Love the distinctive spires and the wonderful bas reliefs. I Googled Agasthya temples and discovered we do have a few dedicated to the sage here in India. Had no idea until now ….bad Hindu 🙂

    September 15, 2017
    • Bama is quite the expert when it comes to Indonesian temples – he always seems to find a number of lesser-known gems to explore on future trips. And everything I know about the Hindu pantheon was learned from him. The Indic influences are strong (I imagine you would pick up on all the subtle connections when you and Ravi do eventually come), but yes, the artistic/religious expression in these monuments is uniquely Indonesian!

      September 24, 2017
  7. The beauty of history never ceases to amaze me, but what you have put here in the photos and uncovering the evolution and development of the candi, it gives people like me who love to travel and itch to book a flight and immediately begin a new adventure.

    September 16, 2017
    • Much appreciated, Randall! I was lucky that these temples of different ages and time periods stood relatively close to one another – all five made for easy half-day (or less) excursions from downtown Malang.

      September 24, 2017

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