Penataran Temple: Stories in Stone
Indonesia might be a relatively young nation – both in the demographic sense and in the fact that the republic turns 73 this week – but its complex layers of history are hidden in plain sight. Brooding stone dwarapala door guardians half-kneel outside hotels and gleaming skyscrapers in downtown Jakarta; Javanese traditional dances and shadow puppetry recreate episodes from the Hindu epics; and the national language, Bahasa Indonesia, borrows a plethora of words from Dutch, Portuguese, Hokkien, Arabic, Persian, Tamil, and Sanskrit. All these point to a millennial tradition of absorbing foreign influences to create something unique to this part of the world.
In architectural terms, the best-known examples of that syncretism are the monumental UNESCO-listed sanctuaries of Borobudur and Prambanan, which draw millions of visitors each year. But the countryside of Java is strewn with ancient temples in various states of preservation, and most are bereft of the crowds that are seemingly ever-present (save first thing in the morning) at their more famous counterparts. History buffs who find themselves in Blitar would be remiss not to go on a half-hour drive to Penataran, East Java’s largest Hindu temple ruins and one of its most beautiful.
Situated on the lower flanks of active volcano Mt. Kelud, Penataran was first constructed in the late 12th century by the powerful Kediri Kingdom. Javanese royalty and commoners alike came to worship Shiva in the manifestation of Hyang Acapalat, the mountain god, and hence pacify the regularly erupting volcano. From an 1197 inscription found onsite and an Old Javanese epic poem, the Nagarakertagama, we know that the temple’s original name was Palah.
Following the collapse of Kediri, successive Javanese kingdoms embellished Penataran and left their own mark on the sacred complex. Singhasari’s final (and greatest) ruler Kertanegara added an exquisitely carved building in 1286; the structure is now known as Candi Naga, literally “Naga Temple”, thanks to the dragon in high relief that encircles its upper portions. Candi Candra Sengkala, the tall and slender “Dated Temple” from 1369, was the work of craftsmen during the Majapahit Empire. Penataran was said to have been the favorite religious sanctuary of King Hayam Wuruk, whose near four-decade reign (1350–1389) marked the height of Majapahit power. Incidentally, the Nagarakertagama states that Mt. Kelud was responsible for a series of earthquakes, ashfalls, and intense lightning while Hayam Wuruk was in his mother’s womb.
With the fall of Majapahit in 1527 and the widespread conversion to Islam across Java, Penataran ceased to function as a place of worship. Centuries of neglect took their toll; villagers quarried bricks and stones from the complex and its once proud structures became increasingly obscured by forest. It wasn’t until a brief spell of British rule in the 1810s that colonial authorities began taking notice of the island’s Hindu-Buddhist wonders. Lieutenant governor Stamford Raffles (of Singapore fame) had a keen interest in antiquities, and Penataran was among an impressive roster of archaeological sites that he catalogued in the second volume of his book The History of Java. Raffles’ infectious enthusiasm at the sight of its three-tiered main temple comes right off the page:
“I shall not enter into a detail of the sculpture which covers all the sides of the three compartments: its diversity far exceeds the bounds of my examination or description. In the intelligent visitor it excites astonishment, and displays a degree of art and of taste, equal, as far as my opportunities for observation have extended, to that of any of the other remains of antiquity found on Java.”
It is perhaps a blessing in disguise that Penataran remains such a little-known gem even among Indonesians. The more observant visitor could easily spend an hour admiring its exquisitely carved reliefs depicting scenes from the Ramayana, a procession of soldiers replete with chariots and war elephant, and the prevailing style of Javanese architecture at the time. Other exuberant details offer glimpses of 13th- and 14th-century daily life: the background of one panel shows several ducks frolicking in a pool centered on a tile-roofed pavilion. Raffles was not wrong when he proclaimed that Penataran’s main temple was “indeed a surprising and a wonderful work: both the labor required in the construction, and the art displayed in the decoration are incalculable.” ◊