Candi Ijo: Yogyakarta’s Highest Temple

Archaeologically speaking, Central Java is by far the richest part of the vast Indonesian archipelago. This is mostly due to a single kingdom, Mataram, which flourished when Europe was in the Dark Ages. Apparently some 280 ancient temple foundations have been located in the province, and it is believed that many more are buried under the volcanic soils of this geothermally active region. And the kings of Mataram were not just prolific temple builders; they were also artistically inspired. They left a stunning architectural legacy which includes two of the region’s finest monuments, Prambanan and Borobudur.

Though these temples are scattered as far west as Mount Slamet, near the edge of the Javanese cultural realm, by far the greatest concentration is in the area around Yogyakarta. There are more than 100 temple foundations in the Yogyakarta area, meaning that it was probably the centre of Mataram at least for part of the history of that kingdom. The area also includes the single greatest temple complex of the Mataram kings, Candi Prambanan, and the impressive palace complex of Ratu Boko, which was inhabited over a period of seven centuries. This indicates that this part of Java, which is regarded as a repository of authentic Javanese culture to this day, has been a ceremonial centre for the Javanese for the past 1200 years.

In recent years domestic tourism has been booming in Indonesia, and many locals have been taking a much greater interest in cultural tourism. This is a promising sign, and it holds out some hope that the long and sorry neglect of Indonesian cultural remains might finally becoming to an end. Since 2010 two major temple complexes in Central Java have been restored. One was Candi Merak, in the regency of Klaten, just outside Yogyakarta but an even more impressive temple is Candi Ijo, literally the Green Temple.

Candi Ijo has by far the highest altitude of any temple in the Yogyakarta area, set just below the peak of a 427 metre-high hill, with remarkable views across the plains. The panoramic views it affords are likely to make this an increasingly popular tourist sight in the coming years, and I expect that once word of it has got out, it will become a regular feature on the Yogya tourist circuit. Long an overgrown ruin, it has now been completely restored, making it much more photogenic for the average tourist.

The original conception of the temple was as a whole cultural landscape, with terraces and pavilions set on 11 different levels up the hillsides. These might have been resting places for pilgrims to Candi Ijo, with them praying and meditating at each level on their way up to the main sanctuary. Nowadays nothing much remains of these temples on the terraces. Most of them are little more than temple bases, but there are enough traces of reliefs and statues to reveal that they were once much more substantial structures. Most visitors these days just completely ignore these lesser ruins and head straight for the main temple complex on the peak.

The aerial view of Candi Ijo

This complex features one candi induk (Mother Temple) and three candi pewara (satellite temples), all set in a row. The main temple has a square design, measuring 13 metres squared, with an impressive projecting porch. Within the cella is a large yoni and lingga, indicating that this was a Shivaite shrine. The whole structure is topped by a sloping pyramidal roof, which must have given the sense of a man-made mountain to the ancients. This, of course, was no coincidence; Hindu temples were intended as a symbolic representation of Mount Meru, the abode of the gods. It is also worth checking out the side walls, which feature elegant niches topped with delicate carving.

It is also worth paying careful attention to the satellite temples (candi pewara). For many years they were in a very dilapidated state, but they have now been thoroughly restored, and are just as beautiful as the main temple. These elegant buildings bring to mind the shrines of the Dieng Plateau, the kala-makhara arches around the doorways offering crisp and intricate carving. Moreover, the interior of one of them offers a pleasant surprise: an intact statue of Nandi, the mount of Shiva. This is the best remaining piece of sculpture at Candi Ijo. Whether you come here for the views or the ancient art, this has now emerged as a major sight in the Yogya area.

The three satellite shrines at Candi Ijo
The three satellite shrines at Candi Ijo

Candi Pringapus

Candi Pringapus from the front
Candi Pringapus from the front

Central Java is easily the richest part of Indonesia in terms of archaeology, offering Prambanan and Borobudur- two of South-East Asia’s finest monuments. It also offers a wealth of lesser monuments for those who like getting away from the crowds. The opportunities for temple-spotting have even expanded in the last few years, with a number of lesser temples finally being restored. Prominent examples include Candi Merak and Candi Ijo in the Yogyakarta-Klaten region. But there are also several older temples which have never become popular tourist sites. One such temple is Candi Pringapus, and it offers an off-the-beaten-track alternative to some of the region’s more popular shrines.

Perhaps the best way to fit this temple into your travel itinerary is as part of a back-roads jaunt between  Yogyakarta and the Dieng Plateau. The temple is in the regency of Temanggung, the main town of which is some 25 kms from Magelang (home to Borobudur and the Diponegoro Museum). From here the temple is a further 22 kms, situated on the lower slopes of Gunung Sidoro, a dormant volcano. From Candi Pringapus, it is another 41 kms onwards to the upcountry town of Wonosobo, known as the gateway to the Dieng Plateau.

When you get there you will find a small, intact temple which is reminiscent of the candi (Hindu temples) at Gedong Songo and on the Dieng Plateau. Like these small temples, the door opens to the west only, and it has a large kala head over the door. The entrance doorway is especially beautiful here, with the kala decoration still crisply carved and two makhara heads depicted on the left and right hand side of the door. Together they form a fine example of a kala-makhara arch. The outer walls also depict various angelic beings with the background filled in with intricate foliage.

This is clearly a Shivaite temple, as inside the temple you can see both a lingga and a large statue of Nandi, the mount of Lord Shiva. The three-tiered roof will also be familiar to visitors to other early temple sites from the Mataram kingdom. This one has been restored with many of its original stone antefixes, which considerably adds to the beauty of the roof. Interestingly, this candi was not the main temple of the complex. It was a candi perwara, or satellite temple of a larger sanctuary. Some stones of this ‘mother temple’ have come down to the present day, but they were mostly pillaged by villagers in previous centuries. It is only this small satellite temple which has survived reasonably intact.

Candi Merak: 9th Century Javanese Temple Restored

Klaten Regency, situated just outside the royal city of Yogyakarta, has long featured on tourist itineraries, as it is home to Candi Prambanan, regarded by many as the finest ancient Hindu temple in all of South-East Asia. However impressive Prambanan is, it’s just one of many historical remains in this part of Java; dedicated temple-oglers will also find much to enjoy in sites such as Candi Kalasan, Candi Sewu and Candi Plaosan. To this impressive roll-call can now be added Candi Merak, the restoration of which was completed in 2011.

Candi Merak is a ninth century Shivaite temple dating to the kingdom of Mataram Kuno (Old Mataram). It is the contemporary of both Prambanan and Borobudur, Indonesia’s most magnificent ancient temples, and is a fine lesser example of Classical Javanese temple art. The main temple, known locally as the candi induk, or ‘Mother Temple’, is now restored to its former glory, featuring an elegant projecting staircase which is reminiscent of Candi Srikandi on the Dieng Plateau and a pyramidal roof which brings to mind the Arjuna Temple at Dieng. The fact that this is a Shivaite temple can be inferred from the female yoni receptacle within the temple and the presence of a headless Nandi statue amongst the rubble of the lesser surrounding temples. Nandi, which looks like a recumbent cow to us lesser mortals, was the mount of the great Hindu diety.

Apart from the temple itself, the appeal of this site is increased by the presence of other Classical Javanese sculptures in the round. There is a winsome statue of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of learning (unfortunately his trunk has been snapped off), and you can also a headless statue of Durga, a Hindu goddess with a reputation for violence and destruction.

The name Candi Merak translates as The Peacock Temple, and this is a rather whimsical name resulting from the fact that a peacock had once roosted among the rubble of this temple when it was still an overrun ruin. The temple is located in Karangnongko village. Perhaps the best way to get here is to rent some kind of transport from Yogykarta. A cheaper option would be to get a minibus or train to Klaten and rent an ojek motorbike taxi service from there. It can easily be combined with a trip to the nearby ruins of Candi Karangnongko, which are located a mere 800 metres away.

A wide-hipped statue of Durga

Candi Gunung Wukir

candi perawa
The scant remains of Candi Gunung Wukir

This temple site rarely appears on the itineraries of Western tourists but it is of some historical importance due to its links with the formation of the Mataram kingdom. At this point, the best internet sites about this temple are in Indonesian, so I have chosen to offer a short introduction to it here.

It is thought that this temple dates to the year 732, making it the first structure attributable to the old Mataram kingdom, which ruled Central Java from 732 to around the middle of the tenth century. The temple remains, which are built from andesite, cover an area of about 2500 square metres and are located on top of a small hill. It was here that the important Prasasti Canggal was discovered in 1879. This inscription proclaims that King Sanjaya had established a kingdom by subduing his enemies and had mounted a lingam in commemoration of his victory.

At Candi Gunung Wukir (which is also known as Candi Canggal) you can indeed find a stone yoni, a receptacle representing the creative power of the goddess, inside a small stone temple where a lingam, represrenting the god Shiva in the form of a phallus, was once mounted. The yoni is still in situ, but the lingam has also been transferred to Jakarta. It is interesting that the formation of the Mataram kingdom is linked with Shiva worship and the subjugation of enemies. It is often thought that the spread of Shiavism (replacing worship of the more benevolent diety Vishu) marked a period of increasing warfare and conquest in South-East Asia at this time. It is also worth mentioning that the rise of Mataram may have been achieved by conquering Holing, an earlier kingdom thought by many to have been located in Central Java. Candi Gunung Wukir is a small but important reminder of this phase of Javanese history.

Who Built Candi Srikandi?

There were once thought to a hundreds of stone temples on the misty Dieng Plateau. This being the case, it must once have been one of South East Asia’s great ceremonial centres. There would have been a sizable settlement of Hindu priests and brahmin here, and the rites performed here must have attracted pilgrims and devotees from over a wide area of Central Java and perhaps beyond. We know of at least one Chinese pilgrim who visited Java in the seventh century and studied at a renowend Buddhist monastery in a Central Javanese polity called Holing. That monastery would have been a contemporary or near-contemporary of these shrines, though it cannot be conflated too closely with the Dieng shrines, as they are Hindu.

Set at over 2000 metres above the sea level, the plateau is cold and misty at all times of year, and the traveller is likely to be drizzled upon during their stay. The area is also highly geothermically active and you will sending hot springs and steaming pools craters on a visit here. The moody weather and geothermal activity add to the romantic appeal of the place, and it is easy to see why the ancients decided to built a temple complex in the vicinity: they would have felt close to the spirits in this misty, mysterious landscape.

There is a debate about whether the major temples here were built in the seventh or eigthh centuries, and which kingdom built them depends on how you answer that question. If you fancy the earlier date, these temples were built by the Holing kingdom, which was Central Java’s first historical kingdom. Soekomo is one historian who has favored this earlier date. But if you accept Vogler’s view, then these shrines were built in the early years of the Mataram kingdom, who went on to create the magnificent Prambanan temples. One of the disputed temples is Candi Srikandi, which is less visited than nearby Candi Arjuna, but is more elegant and graceful to my eye. It features carvings of the main Hindu trimukti on its walls and is worth checking out for travellers who enjoy getting off the beaten track.


The front view of the shrine
The front view of the shrine