Candi Sawentar: Half-Buried in Ash

In terms of temples in the Blitar area, the main drawcard is undoubtedly Candi Penataran, which is easily the single most impressive temple complex in all East Java. But there are a number of lesser temples or ruins in the area and the most satisfying of these is Candi Sawentar. Though seldom mentioned in the guidebooks, this temple makes a worthwhile addition to the more celebrated Penataran complex. If you do make the effort, you are almost guaranteed to have it yourself.

We went by ojek (motorcycle taxi) which saved us the trouble of trying to work out the local minibus routes. From the centre of Blitar it took us about 10 minutes to get out to the temple, which is located just outside the city in a semi-rural area. We got down off the bikes and told the drivers to wait for us. My driver responded with a casual, unphased nod of the head; they are a laid-back bunch overall the ojek drivers of Indonesia.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this temple is its location. It is set at the bottom of a deep excavation pit, indicating that the bottom two of three metres of this temple was once buried underground. We spent the first few minutes there discussing this unusual fact and soon came to the conclusion that the temple had either been buried beneath soil from a river or, more probably, volcanic debris from a major eruption. Gunung Kelud was in the vicinity and was known to be one of the most active volcanoes on Java, so this seemed possible. Still, the thought that it could have been buried beneath the ash of a volcano that was barely within sight caused some head-shaking.

We then descended into the pit to get a closer look at the temple itself. And the main surprise was how closely it resembled Candi Kidal, the funerary temple of Anusapati, the second of the Singosari kings. The similarities were so close that I immediately wondered if this was a Singosari temple rather than a relic of the Majapahit era. Stylistically at least, it appeared to belong to the thirteenth-century Singosari kingdom. (When I checked the facts later, it turned out that the dates were subject to some debate.  In short, it was either built in the 13th or 14th centuries; a definitive date had never been found).

Candi Sawentar, possibly dating to the Singosari period
Candi Sawentar, possibly dating to the Singosari period

The temple is about 9.5 metres tall and is set on a platform which is wider than the body of the temple. This creates a small gallery around which devotees could have circumambulated during religious ceremonies. There are niches on all sides of the temple where images of Hindu deities would once have been enshrined. Today the main images are makharas, a kind of sea-demon, which are located at the base of the staircase and kalas (demons) with bulging eyes, which are above the doors. The roof of the building is very ornate too, consisting of layers of boxes, each one slightly smaller than the last.

One unusual feature of the temple that you could easily miss is the keystone in the vault. You won’t see it too clearly at the site, even if you are well-prepared enough to have brought a torch, so it is worth checking out online. The carving shows Surya, the Hindu sun- god, on top of a horse with large ears like wings. The whole carving is surrounded by the circular corona of the sun, creating a kind of medallion. In all our travels around Java, I can never recall encountering another image like this one.

This medallion shows Surya, the Hindu god of the sun
This medallion shows Surya, the Hindu god of the sun

Candi Kidal and Jago: Monuments to the God-Kings

In the villages around the modern city of Malang are a number of temples dating back to the Singosari kingdom, also known as the Singasari or Singhasari. Most of these actually served a dual function. While they were certainly sites for religious ceremonies, they were also, perhaps predominantly, funerary monuments to the Singosari kings. Like the kings of Angkor, who ruled in Cambodia at that time, the Singosari kings were ‘devaraja’, God-kings, and a magnificent funerary monument was required as a projection of their immortal, god-like nature. These temples then were an important part of a worldview which saw the Singosari kings as an essential link between Earth and Heaven, and a visit to them can lend a lot of insight into the culture of ancient Java.

Two of them, Candi Kidal and Candi Jago, are located about 7 kilometres apart to the east of Malang, and they are best visited on a single trip. The closer of the pair to town is Candi Jago but it is also the more recent of the temples, so we will start with Candi Kidal, which is located 22 kilometres from Malang in the small, semi-rural village of Rejokidal. Though taking public transport, we made it there with comparatively few hassles; the whole trip only involved a single change of angkutan (minibus). As always the angkutans were a hot and stuffy way to travel, but they weren’t especially crowded, so at least we had leg room. Admittedly, the trip wasn’t fast, but we got out to Candi Kidal in about an hour and a quarter, which was toward the more hopeful end of our expectations. And the glimpses of village life proved to be a decent pay-off for our efforts.

As always in Java, the journey is half the reason to come; on the way there we passed rice paddies, cornfields, and rows of trained beanstalks. In all the villages there were brightly painted houses with gardens full of flowering shrubs. We also gained a glimpse into the life of the locals. There were grandmothers heading to the market in colorful batik sarungs, people chopping wood and pumping water in their front yards and an endless supply of small children playing with kites or balls. It was amazing to think that these were just the pre-school children and there would be many more kids about when their school-aged brothers and sisters got home. Still, for all these colorful scenes, I was very glad when we arrived at the temple.

One thing that is very clear is that the Javanese, despite their embrace of Islam, still feel a sense of veneration for the ancient candi (temples) of the Hindu-Buddhist era. On an island on which numerous, beautiful old buildings are mouldering in every city, the candi of Java are always well-maintained. Even during Indonesia’s dog days following the 1997-1998 monetary crisis, money was found for basic maintenance of the main temple complexes. Therefore, it should not have been surprising that we found Candi Kidal to be standing in the centre of a beautifully landscaped garden of immaculate lawns, border hedges and flowering shrubs.

Candi Kidal, the resting place of King Anusapati
Candi Kidal, the resting place of King Anusapati

Candi Kidal reaches a height of twelve metres today, but it was apparently five metres taller in its original form. The original roof must have been like a truncated cone, much other East Javanese temples such as the Dated Temple at Candi Penataran or the fourteenth century temple, Candi Jawi. But even without its uppermost section, it is still one of the most elegant and eye-catching of the East Javanese temples. Elaborately worked from the base to the top, Candi Kidal is worth examining in close detail.

The temple is set on a raised platform and every level, including the base, abounds with decorative detail. Approaching from the front you see a steep staircase, which ascends to the platform on which the main body of the stemple stands.  The bottom of the staircase is flanked on either side by sculptures of the makhara, a kind of Hindu sea-monster. These makhara looked somewhat different from the ones we had found in Central Java, sporting a sharp pair of fangs and a prominent tongue.

Yet even more intriguing than the makharas are the garuda figures. The base of this temple is unusual for its proliferation of garuda reliefs, telling the exploits of this legendary bird. Tales of the garuda dominate every side of the base besides the entrance side. The gaurda was the mount of Vishnu, a god who was especially venerated during the Kediri period, which preceded the Singosari period. The garuda reliefs at Candi Kidal indicate that the cult of Vishnu remained important to the Singosari kings, even if they were more ardent in their embrace of Shivaism.

At Candi Kidal, there are three wonderful scenes of a somewhat human-like Garuda perfoming various feats. In the first one, he is shown serving three snakes, who are positioned above him. In the second, which is the crispest and most beautiful of the carvings, he is shown on bended knee, with a kendi (a kind of pottery water-jug) balanced on his head. In the final scene he is shown freeing his mother from slavery and servitude to the evil Kadru. All these reliefs emphasize the benevolent, giving nature of the Garuda, traits that can also be associated with Vishnu.

The body of the temple is also ornately worked and developed. As often in Java, the most striking is the kala masks over the doorways. Again, the ones at Candi Kidal are radically different from those in Central Java. While the kala (demon) heads in Central Java tend to be flat and two-dimensional, the ones at Candi Kidal are carved “in the round”, giving them more of a leering, life-life presence. The eyes bulge out of their sockets, creating a face that, according to Indonesian sources, is the very picture of horror. Clearly, the Singosari kings weren’t above shock and awe tactics when it came to ruling their lands.

The Garuda carvings are one of the highlights here
The Garuda carvings are one of the highlights here

Apart from the makharas, garudas and kalas, the base and body of the temple also features carved, round medallions, a feature which can also be found on the Mother Temple at Candi Penataran. There are also decorative niches where incense or votives could have been placed, and on top of it all was an elaborately tiered roof (now five metres shorter than its original form), further enhancing the impression of sensuous, richly worked detail. After all this, perhaps inevitably, the dim, cramped interior was always going to be a disappointment. Perhaps it would have been more impressive if its main feature, a statue of Shiva, had been left in place. But we were unable to give puja to Shiva at Candi Kidal, because the sculpture had been taken away and stored in a museum at Leiden in The Netherlands.

Having had a close look at the temple, we sat down in the garden for a while and discussed the history of the Singosari kings. There were two central questions which came up in our conversation at that time: Who was Anusapati and what, if any, were the achievements of his reign? I noted that his life was much less discussed than that of his predecessor, Ken Arok, but I said that I would look into it, and report back later.

As it turns out, there are two different versions of the life of Anusapati, each drawn from from one of the two classic works of Javanese literature, the Pararaton and the Nagarakretagama. The greatest area of variation is in the depiction of the family relationships involved. The family drama present in the Pararaton is far more torturous and Shakesperean. In this version Anusapati was the son of Tunggul Ametung, who Ken Arok had murdered to seize power of the kingdom. According to the Pararaton, Anusapati had used the magic keris used to kill his father against his stepfather, the usurper, Ken Arok.

The bloodiness of the Pararaton version does not end there. It suggests that Anusapati himself was murdered by a stepbrother by the name of Tohjaya. Tohjaya was the son of one of Ken Arok’s concubines, usually referred to by the name of Ken Umang. In this version Tohjaya briefly gained the throne but was soon overthrown by opposing forces and died in combat trying to save his power. Also of some controversy is the short date which the Pararaton gives for the reign of Anusapati; according to this account, he ascended to the throne for a mere 2 years from 1247 to 1249.

The Nagarakretagama offers a radically different version.  This book asserts that Anusapati was the natural heir of the founder of the Singosari kingdom; it doesn’t actually use the name Ken Arok , which is a later appellation. There is no mention of Anusapati murdering his father either. Succession is made to seem an entirely natural and peaceful process. Furthermore, there is no mention of Tohjaya; in this version, both Anusapati and his father died of natural causes. It has been suggested that this could have been a deliberate rewriting of history. The Nagarakretagama was written to celebrate the family history of Hayam Wuruk. Had its author perhaps removed all taint of scandal from the family history in order to please his patron?

But the controversies don’t end there. There is also a great discrepancy about how long Anusapati is said to have ruled for. The Nagarakretagama states that Aunsapati ruled for 21 years from 1227-1248, which makes him seem a much more significant historical figure than the Pararaton does. On this point the Nagarakretagama is also supported by the discovery of a prasasti (inscribed stone) called the Prasasti Mula Mulurang. This inscription suggsests that Wisnuwardhana ascended the Singosari throne in 1248, suggesting that the Nagarakretama dates are far more accurate.

If the Nagarakretagama dates are correct, then Anusapati was the second longest-serving Singosari king, coming behind the final ruler of the kingdom, Kertanegara. Considering that the first Singosari king, Ken Arok, was a usurper, it would seem that Anusapati did well in holding together the new polity for 21 years; there must have been forces hostile to his rule. With this in mind, it is possible to speculate that Anusapati was an important consolidator; after a violent start to the kingdom, a 20 year reign would have brought a semblance of stability and security.

And indeed this is how the Nagarakretagama presents his rule. He is described as someone who brought peace and stability to his kingdom. This being the case, we can also surmise that Anusapati maintained an effective navy, as the wealth of the East Javanese kingdoms was based on their ability to exert maritime power in the Java Sea. This enabled them to grow rich from the lucrative spice trade passing through from Kalimantan and the Malukus, acting as an intermediary between Indonesian producers and Chinese, Indian and Arab buyers. If Anusapati really did rule for 21 years, it is easy to believe the Nagarakretagama’s assertion that he was an effective monarch. Satisfied with our visit to Candi Kidal, we turned out thoughts to the next temple on our list, Candi Jago.

Candi Jago, sometimes known as Candi Jajaghu, was the second Singosari temple that we visited that day. It is the funerary monument of King Wishnuwardahana, the third of the Singosari kings. His reign was from either 1248 or 1249 until 1268, meaning that he ruled for two of the seven decades of the lifespan of this kingdom. It was presumably first constructed in the years after his death, but it was thoroughly renovated by Adityavarman around the year 1350. That means it is difficult to know how authentically this temple represents a “Singosari school” of art. Perhaps much of the surviving decoration dates from the later Majapahit period. Furthermore, the temple is best described as a ruin, with only the lowermost of the three levels surviving in reasonable condition. Local legend suggests that the upper sections were destroyed by a lightning-strike. Nonetheless, it is one of the more interesting structures from its era, and it is worth the attention of any amateur historians passing through the neighborhood.

A staue of Wisnuwardhana at the site
A staue of Wisnuwardhana at the site

When we arrived there, we were the only visitors present. There was some kind of caretaker present though. He was trimming the shrubs at the site with a pair of secateurs. There was no official ticket for the site but he brought over a donation book and asked for us to sign in. Before signing in, I had a quick flick through the book to see where previous visitors had come from. It appeared that Indonesians were not asked to sign in, as all the names were foreign. We also learned, not surprisingly, that few foreigners were interested in the site. It seemed that only a couple of tourists came here each week. There had been periods when Candi Jago went a couple of weeks at a time without seeing a Western face. When I handed the caretaker back the book and the money, he seemed content. 10,000 rupiah for two people was probably about the right amount.

We then set about having a look around the temple, starting with the base. The lower two levels are richly decorated with bas-reliefs, but the ones here are radically different to those you will find in Central Java. Whereas the ones on Borobodur and Prambanan are in high relief, offering rounded, three-dimensional forms, the ones at Candi Jago are flat, two-dimensional profiles. The forms are very similar to characters in the wayang kulit puppet shows: shallow, angular figures rendered as if on a flat screen. This shows that by the 13th century Javanese art had moved very far away from its classical Indian models. It is a reminder of what the novelist Naipul said about Java: “I see India everywhere in Java, but I don’t recognize it.”

Not all the panels are particularly clear, and for the Western tourist the fables and legends will not be familiar anyway, but it is worthwhile knowing that what you are seeing is various popular fables and legends, rendered in pictorial form. Of particular interest are the turtle scenes from the Tantri tales; these can be found in the left-hand corner. The panels depict the efforts of the wolf to distract the turtle so that he will be able to eat him, offering the moral that it is important not to be disrupted from your work.

There are three more extant bands of carvings above the Tantri scenes, conveying an impression of elaborate and sensuous detail. By paying close attention, you will see various buildings from the time, as well as the characteristic hairstyles and clothing of the period; then as now, the sarung was an important element of local dress. The higher bands of reliefs are not always as crisp, but every available surface has been carved with religious and moral  tales, providing insight into the mindset and culture of the builders. The successive layers tell the story of Kunjarakarna; the Parthayajna, featuring the five Pandava brothers; the Arjunawiwaha text, focusing on Arjuna, the third of the Pandava brothers; and a final layer, now missing, was devoted to the Krishnayana text, focusing on Krishna.

Two-dimensional reliefs from the walls of Candi Jago
Two-dimensional reliefs from the walls of Candi Jago

The uppermost of the three levels is almost completely destroyed. All that remains is a single stone doorway and parts of the surrounding walls. It is commonly asserted that the top layer was largely built from timber and thatch, just as some puras (temples) are still built in Bali today. If this were the case, it is easy to see why the top of the temple has disappeared. By and large, not even brick temples from the Majapahit era have survived until the present day; wooden structures would have had no chance at all of surviving. Nonetheless, the temple did exert a certain dilapidated charm in its ruined state, serving as an obvious symbol for a kingdom that had itself collapsed after just 70 tumultuous years.

Wisnuwardhana was either the third or fourth king of the Singosari kingdom, depending on which source you believe, but the years of his reign do not vary much between the main literary sources; we can safely say that he ascended the throne in either 1248 or 1249, and ruled until 1268. The construction of his funerary temple commenced in 1268 and was completed around 1280. But apart from these broad details, what do we know about his beliefs and his achievements?

We can fairly safely assume that Wisnuwardhana was syncretic in his religious beliefs, combining Buddhism and Shivaism. Perhaps this stance helped to unify his kingdom. It seems highly likely that both faiths were practiced in Singosari, and asserting that he was an incarnation of both Buddha and Shiva would have strengthened his legitimacy as the ruler of all the people. The temple represents this syncretic religious stance by combining both Buddhist and Hindu iconography. It has even been asserted that there were two funerary monuments built in honour of Wisnuwardhana: Candi Jago, which enshrined him as the eight-armed Amoghapasa, an incarnation of the Buddha; and another temple, which has not survived, where he was enshrined as Shiva. There is an impressive statue of Wisnuwardhana as Amoghapasa on the grounds to this day, but sadly it is headless.

As to the details of his reign, there is much that is unclear and controversial, with different sources all telling remarkably different tales. According to the literary sources, he maintained the peace of the kingdom by ruling in conjunction with another king called Narasingamurti “like Vishnu and Indra”. But the name Narasingamurti never appears on any of the prasasti from his reign, casting this aspect into doubt. However, what the prasastis do illustrate is that there was a tier of “secondary kings” (raja bawahan) in existence.

We can learn from the Prasasti Mula Malurung, for example, that Wisnuwardhana’s own son was made the second-rank king of Kediri in 1255 at the same time as another secondary king, Jayakatwang, was given control of Gelang-Gelang, an area which corresponds to the modern regency of Madiun. Though we do not understand the exact system of governance of Singosari, it appears that managing various vassal rulers was a major part of statecraft, and perhaps his deft handling of this area was one of Wisnuwardhana’s main achievements. Further, by maintaining Singosari control over the Brantas River Valley, Wisnuwardhana ensured that the most fertile croplands in all Java remained part of Singosari. By the end of his rule the kingdom was so wealthy that it was attracting regular trade ships from China. Though the details are open to dispute, there is evidence that Wisnuwardhana’s reign was a time of peace and prosperity.

The Keraton of Singasari

Situated 12 kms outside of Malang on the road to Pasuruan, Singosari is an unexceptional Javanese village in most respects. However, the humble appearance of the village today belies its great importance in history. For between 1222 and 1293 this area housed the keraton (palace) of Singosari, a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom that was the most powerful on Java in the thirteenth century. Though the great majority of its treasures have been destroyed or pillaged, just enough remains to make this an essential stop on a tour through the highlands around Malang.

In its heyday, the area must have boasted one of the most impressive ensembles of religious buildings in East Java; the remains of no less than eight Hindu and Buddhist temples have been found in the vicinity. They were built around the edge of the alun-alun (town square) which stood in front of the keraton of the king of Singasari, and they would have been a reminder to the ancient Javanese that their ruler wielded not just secular power, but also possessed sakti, an aura of spiritual and religious authority. This would have been especially important for the Singasari kings, whose progenitor, Ken Arok, was a commoner who had seized power by force.

Over the centuries the andesite building blocks of the temples had been recycled for use by locals. This process would have sped up greatly after the locals converted to Islam, causing their locals to lose their sense of reverence for the old temples. Of the eight temples which once graced the royal complex of Singasari, only one survived into the colonial era, though a number of magnificent statues from the temples remained at the site. After the area was discovered by Nicolaus Englehard, a former Dutch governor, in 1803, the colonial power started removing the best statues. They were sent to the Netherlands, where they form the core of the Indonesian collection at the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde in Leiden until the present day. One more statue of Ganesha also found its way into the collection of the National Museum of Bangkok; the Dutch exchanged that one for some ancient Thai statues.

Not all of the statues disappeared, however. There were a gruesome pair of dwarapalas (guardians), referred to in some of the literature as raksasas (monsters), which remain in situ. These colossal statues guarded the entrance to the former alun-alun, and their fearsome appearance might have been designed to scare off those with malevolent intentions. Recalling that he himself had gained the throne through murder, Ken Arok must have been mindful of threats from his many enemies. With their bulging eyes, sharp fangs, headgear inset with human skulls, and stone clubs, large enough to crush any enemies, they are both an impressive work of art and a suggestion of the anxieties of the Singsari kings. Below is a wonderful black and white photo of these guardians that was taken in the colonial era. Their appearance is little different today, except that there is no longer any trace of the brick ruins behind them.

A dwarapala, guardian of the Singasari kings
A dwarapala, guardian of the Singasari kings

Si Thep: A Former Mon and Khmer Outpost

Thailand has a huge array of temple complexes from its historic kingdoms. The best ten of these have been preserved as historical parks by the Fine Arts Department of Thailand. This list includes the former Thai capitals of Ayutthaya and Sukothai, and some of the satellite cities of the later. It also includes three historical parks featuring temples from the Khmer period. Perhaps the least known of these historical parks is one which does not fit into any of these categories- the enigmatic Sri Thep Historical Park. It was this site which had brought us out into the little-visited province of Phetchabun (“Land of Crops”) in the first place. After a night amongst the ponds and palms of Wicha Paree Resort, I headed out there the next morning.

The samlor driver turned up the next morning at nine thirty and we headed off towards the site. The road took us into the small modern town, shortly after which was a crossroads with the highway to Lopburi. From here we headed east toward Sri Thep. The driver mimed for me to cover my eyes, though at first I didn’t know why. The reason soon became apparent. There were a large number of canefields in the district and the roads were full of trucks carrying cane towards some sort of sugar factory. There was a large amount of airborne dust and as we approached the factory itself there was an unpleasant odour in the area. Perhaps not surprisingly, it smelt like sickly, overpowering rum.

About eight kilometres from the turn off, we came to the site itself, which was set well off the road. We pulled up in a modern car-park and the samlor came to a rest. I motioned for him to wait for me and he smiled and nodded. Throughout our trip to Phetchabun I was surprised by how relaxed and easygoing the Thais there were. Used to the coldness and indifference of many people in the tourist areas of Bangkok, this came as a refreshing change. The slower, mellower pace of life was one of the things that had appealed to me about South-East Asia in the first place, and I was sorry to see it going in the larger cities.

Sri Thep turned out to be a rather spread out site, but it wasn’t all that hard to negotiate. Near the car park was a visitor’s centre where the tickets were sold. Attached was a very small site museum- really little more than a few objects in a single room. There were some fragments of Buddha statues, some tools and broken pieces of pottery. Very little of it was labelled in English, so I decided my time would probably be better spent out at the site itself. I went over to the woman behind the counter and offered to pay with a 500 baht note. She said she didn’t have change and good-naturedly told me not to worry. She handed me a site map and told me to just go ahead and enjoy the place. I was left feeling that this really might have been the friendliest province in Thailand.

A minor laterite ruin near the entrance

Sri Thep, like most Dvaravati settlements, was surrounded by a shallow moat- this one formed a roughly rectangular shape. Such moats were one of the identifying features of Mon-Dvaravati settlement sites. I couldn’t get much sense of the full layout of the site, but I did notice that there were man-made waterways around it. The largest of these was set on the edge of the main monuments, a few hundred metres away from the visitor’s centre. Consisting of dark water, edged around with trees and shrubs, this ‘pond’ had straight edges and was clearly man-made. It reminded me of the water-tanks (barays) which were so common in ancient Cambodian cities, and I felt sure it was ancient. On the opposite side of the road was a large, unmown pasture, which was interspersed here and there with the bases of former buildings. Little remained now but laterite blocks, some of them arranged in rectangular shapes less than a foot tall. What these structures had originally been, I was not sure, but I would have guessed commemorative chedis of some kind. Their dark-red laterite reminded me of ruins from many  former Khmer sites, which heightened my anticipation for the main sights of the central park.

The central zone of Si Thep consists of a three main monuments, set against a parkland background. Surrounded by grass fields, with groves of trees clustered here and there, the monuments are effectively buffered from the outside world, giving the entire area a calm, restful atmosphere. When I arrived there, there was no one else around but the caretaker, which only added to the air of repose. Unlike the religious monuments of Bangkok, which are too often over-run with tour groups, these temples still lent themselves to solitary meditation.

I started with Prang Si Thep, one of a pair of Khmer prangs that have survived at the site. Judging by the large number of brick foundations at Si Thep, there would once have been many more. Prang Si Thep was a red brick shrine on a square base, reaching a height of about 19 metres. It was in a fairly dilapidated state, with no statuary or stucco remaining, but even as a shell of its former self you got a sense that this was once an impressive temple. Dating from the twelfth century, it hailed from the heyday of the Angkorian Empire, when Khmer kings ruled not only Cambodia but much of modern Thailand as well. Highways would once have stretched from here to the major ceremonial centres in what is now Nakhon Ratchisma province, and on to Angkor- then, quite possibly, the largest city in the world.

The lonely ruins of Si Thep in Phetchabun
The lonely ruins of Si Thep in Phetchabun

Through a grove of trees, there was a second set of Khmer monuments. I walked over to these and had a look from the front. Before these temples was an extensive area of brick walling and the foundations of former structures, and I readily concluded that a sizable religious complex would once have existed on the site. In its original incarnation, this site would once have been filled with priests and monks, forming part of the religious zone of a large, multi-purpose settlement.

Today the most impressive remaining building was a large, red-brick prang, Prang Song Phi Nong, the roof of which had long since collapsed. Reconstruction work had shored up the building, but like Prang Si Thep it is a ruin today. What distinguished this Khmer prang from its neighbor was a small brick building which adjoined it. Attached to the main building like a sidecar to a vehicle, this little shrine was just as roofless as its companion, but it maintained one treasure- a largely intact lintel over the door. In typical Khmer style, this revealed the god Shiva mounted atop a naga, all revealed with a crispness of detail which made it difficult to believe it was nine-hundred years old. This lintel is one of the most photographed features of the whole site.

A distance view of Prang Song Phi Nong
A distance view of Prang Song Phi Nong

But there were numerous Khmer sanctuaries in Thailand, especially in the nation’s arid Northeast. The best of them- Phimai and Phanom Rung– were far superior to anything on offer at Si Thep. What really made the site unique was their juxtaposition against the third monument at the site: the Mon-buit Wat Khao Khlong Wai. There was nowhere else in Thailand where it was possible to see Khmer and Mon monuments in a single location, and the existence of such an arrangement had a lot of clues about the early history of Thailand. It was with great anticipation that I headed over to Wat Khai Khlong Wai- one of the most unusual ancient monuments in all Thailand.

Before arriving at the stupa itself, there was one more discovery to make. Mounted in front of the monument was a large, stone chakra wheel. I had seen these in museums in Bangkok and Nakhon Pathom, but this was the only time I had encountered one in situ. It was a large, intricately carved stone wheel with a hole in the centre. In its design it resembled certain kinds of ancient coin, but really it was a Buddhist meditation device. It is said that these kinds of chakra wheels were the most telltale find from Mon-Dvaravati archaeological sites, as nothing similar appears in the archaeological record from either Khmer or Thai settlements. As such they were a reminder that Central Thailand had once nursed a Mon civilization which was quite distinct from any of their neighbors.

This impression was only confirmed by the monument which stood before it. At first glance Wat Khao Khlong Wai looked like little more than a pile of rubble, but even in this it was of some interest. The dark, grey colour of the quarried stone was a complete contrast with the red brickwork of the nearby Khmer prangs. Yet on closer inspection, it became clear that the stupa was a large rectangular platform quite similar in form to the Mon stupa we had seen at Ku Bua in Ratchaburi. Though it was not as large as its cousin at Ku Bua and nor was it as well-preserved overall, it maintained one feature which more than made up for it.

Projecting outwards from the sides of the stupa were corrugated-iron awnings, held up by steel supports. This rather ungainly roof had been added to protect the terracotta art that was preserved beneath, along on side of the stupa in particular. Along the base of the stupa there was an almost continuous frieze of animal and mythological figures, mostly in a very good state of preservation. The commonest design was a squatting figure which greatly enlarged ear lobes. But there were also buffaloes, tigers, dwarves and a number of other designs. These reminded me of the great Buddhist stupa of Paharpur, the greatest surviving ruin in Bangladesh, and I wondered if there was a direct influence from that part of the “subcontinent” on Mon art.

In the museums of Thailand (and even on online antique shops), it is possible to find a large amount of Dvaravati terracotta art. You could easily become the owner of a panel or figurine from the period for a few hundred dollars. Unlike stone statues from the Dvaravati period, let alone rare Mon-Dvaravati bronzes, terracotta art is still comparatively common and subject to much less strict scrutiny from authroties. The labels in museums usually mention that decorative terracotta was one of the defining aspects of Mon art, but it is only at Si Thep that you find the terracotta panels still attached to the underlying masonry. Everywhere else it has long since peeled away. This fact can make the remaining Dvaravati structures seem much more austere than they would originally have appeared. The example of Wat Khao Khlong Wai suggests that brick stupas cased in terracotta friezes would have been anything but plain.

Yet as interesting as the stupa was, the really interesting part about Si Thep was what the juxtaposition of the early Mon and later Khmer monuments suggested. For the newcomer to the topic, the tableau at Si Thep offers a handy introduction to the history of the entire period. Si Thep started life as a typical Mon settlement, with a oval-shaped moat, modest brick stupas and temples, and a well-developed artistic tradition in a variety of different media. By four hundred years later, it had become a Khmer city, suggesting that an expansionist Angkor had eventually decided to incorporate it into its sphere.

Yet rather than razing the city, they had maintained its existing shrines and developed it even further, adding typical Khmer temples in the heart of the city’s ceremonial zone. This suggested a desire to live peaceably with their Mon subjects, and it may have represented a common strategy of “integration” or “assimilation”: many Mon settlements lost their independence during this period, with a final Mon rump state holding out at Lamphun. What there wasn’t at Si Thep was any Thai era buildings. Once the Thais had driven the Khmers out of the area, perhaps during the fourteenth century, the site had finally been abandoned, eventually becoming a very remote, underdeveloped part of the kingdom of Thailand.

The Arjuna Temple at Dieng

The Candi Arjuna temple complex is the most photographed and visited of the surviving temples on the Dieng Plateau. Situated just a few hundred metres from the homestays in Dieng village, they are an obvious first stop on a tour of the sights in the area. Though they are far from the most imposing of Javanese temples, they are the earliest surviving Hindu temples in Central Java, so they are of great importance historically. Built a century or two before the great temples around Yogyakarta and Magelang, they mark the original phase of temple-building in central Java; therefore, they offer a rare glimpse of the time when world religions were first gaining a toehold in the region. Apart from their magnificent setting, it is this historical dimension which makes the Dieng temples a compelling attraction.

Arjuna Temple has a square layout, measuring 6 meters x 6 meters, with the door facing west. Built from slabs of grey stone, it is one the “box-like” Javanese candis which are associated with the first phase of temple-building in Central Java. The Arjuna Temple’s body walls are decorated with three niches on three sides which are empty, their statuary having been pillaged. The top of each niche is decorated with a kala’s head-without-chin ornaments and connected to a pair of makara along the niche frame. The door of the temple in the west is also decorated with a kala’s head ornament; likewise, it is connected to a pair of makara, with a parrot placed in each of their gaping mouths.

The inner sanctuary is small, dark and damp, little more than 2 metres across. A yoni remains in situ, but the linga has been removed. This is further confirmation that this was a Shivaite sanctuary, suggesting that local leaders had already embraced Hinudism and the myth of the God-king. Though their are no remains of palaces or other residential architecture remaining on the Dieng plateau, the existence of Shiva worship at Dieng strongly suggests that these temples were built by a Hindu kingdom, and that somewhere in his domain a hierarchial court culture had already sprung up in Java. The age of the keraton had arrived. As part of this new court culture, a world of elaborate ceremony and ritual would have been established. Candi Semar, the long, flat building adjacent to Candi Arjuna, is one sign of these rituals; it was probably a storing place for equipment used in temple ceremonies.

Despite its small size and rather simple, square design, Candi Arjuna was to prove an influential building during the eighth and ninth centuries in Java. While there are a variety of temple styles evident on the Dieng Plateau, it is Candi Arjuna which was the most widely imitated in the coming years. All of the temples at Gedung Songo, a complex situated high on a mountainside near the hill station of Ambarawa, are closely modelled on Candi Arjuna, as is Candi Pringapus, a small temple located between the two sites. Many archaeologists have noted that temples on the Prambanan Plain such as Candi Merak have stylistic similarities to Arjuna. Its simple but elegant design was to prove very influential until the era of Prambanan and Borobudur, vast temple complexes which sprung up in the middle of the ninth century.

Candi Arjuna and Candi Semar
Candi Arjuna and Candi Semar

Founding the Singosari Kingdom

In the villages around the modern city of Malang are a number of temples from the Singosari Dynasty, which ruled over East Java in the thirteenth century. While they are nowhere near as large or impressive as the major ruins of Central Java, they are steeped in history and legend, and for the imaginative traveller a leisurely tour of them can open a door on a fascinating and little-known period in Javanese history.

Unusually for Indonesian period, the Singosari period had been founded by a commoner, Ken Arok, who had seized power somewhere around 1220. According to legend, Ken Arok had fallen in love with Ken Dedes, the beautiful wife of a local ruler. On first seeing her, he had been struck by lightning (metaphorical of course) and had not only fallen hopelessly in love but had realized that the man who was married to her would be destined for greatness. Acting decisively, he had gained the assistance of a famed maker of a noted kind of Javanese dagger known as the keris. Mpu Gadring, the keris-maker, agreed to make a magic keris but, ever impatient, Ken Arok demanded possession of the blade before all the necessary rituals had been obeyed. Unwilling to wait any longer, Ken Arok had killed Mpu Gadring, but not before he placed a curse on Ken Arok and his descendants.

The upstart, Ken Arok, had used the blade to murder first the husband of Ken Dedes and then, through a complicated ruse, the King of Kediri, the most powerful ruler in East Java. Having seized power for himself, Ken Arok then moved the centre of power in East Java from the ancient town of Kediri, located on the Brantas River, to his home village of Singosari, about 12 kilometres outside modern Malang. Building his keraton there, he ushered in the start of the bloody Singosari era, remembered mostly for betrayal and blood-letting among Ken Arok and his descendants. All in all, the story of this dynasty continues to read like an Indonesian version of The Tragedy of Macbeth, combining palace intrigue with bloody outbursts of murder by dagger.

With no royal blood to speak of, Ken Arok tried to associate himself with the cult of Shiva. By utilizing the iconography of the most powerful god of the Hindu pantheon, he strengthened the impression that he was destined to rule. In addition, his court poets promulgated various stories about auspicious signs that had surrounded his birth. There were some “prince-orphan” tales in which it was claimed he was really a princeling who had been left drifting, Moses style, on the Brantas River. The need for such stories probably reflected a degree of resistance among the population to being ruled by a commoner.

And indeed discontent could not be suppressed forever; after just 7 years as king, he was murdered by the son of the former King of Kediri. According to legend, he was slain by the very keris which Mpu Gadring had made for him; the curse of the the famed keris-maker had begun to stalk the Singosari Dynasty.