Candi Gayatri: A Queen’s Forgotten Shrine

Tulungagung (literally “The Great Water-Source”) is a regency of East Java, situated to the south of Kediri. This region is well off-the-radar of travellers and only a handful of Western travellers are likely to pass through each year; in numerous trips through Java, it never made it onto our itinerary. But there are some minor sites from the Hindu-Buddhist era, and one of these sites is related to the Singosari kingdom, which I have been blogging about a great deal in recent posts, so I thought I would dedicate a post to this ruin, Candi Gayatri– an intriguing site that I have yet to visit.

Candi Gayatri is located in Boyolangu, a small village located about five kilometres from Tulungagung town. We know that the village dates back to at least the Majapahit era, because it is mentioned in the 14th century poem the Negarakertagama as the site of an important shrine (presumably Candi Gayatri). In 1914 villagers digging into a mound of earth accidentally re-discovered the site. It appears that what they discovered was the funerary monument of Gaytri, also known as Sri Rajapatni. Gayatri was the daughter of King Kertanegara, the last king of Singosari. Like all the other daughters of King Kertagama, she became the wife of Raden Wijaya, the first king of Majapahit, after her father was killed in a revolt by a restive vassal. She was the grandmother of Hayam Wuruk, the greatest of the Majapahit kings, and it was during his reign that a funerary temple was built here in her honor. According to Mpu Prapacna, the author of the Negarakertagama, the scared building that he built in her honor was known as Prajnaparmitapuri. It was very likely the ruins of that tomb complex which are known today as Candi Gayatri.

At the site there are the ruins of three temples: a main temple (candi induk) and two satellite temples (candi perwara). All that remain are the foundations of the temple, portions of which are in reasonable condition. In one section the walling is decorated with diamond motifs. This may well be some kind of Buddhist motif, as the diamond shape was sometimes used as a meditational device. It seemed likely to me that there had never been a roof on top of these foundations. Instead, they would once have held up a wooden roof on carved pillars. Such a structure would have been similar to the pendopo pavilions, which can still be found in association with royal courts and government buildings throughout Java. There is an especially beautiful example at the Keraton Kesephuan in Cirebon. The purpose of these structures would have been as shrines in a royal cult. The proof of this is in the main statues which remain at the site.

Queen Gayatri was known as a devout Buddhist and is sometimes even described as a bhiksuni– a female monk or asectic. This association of the queen with Buddhism is further reinforced by the main statue which is enshrined in the mother temple (candi induk). The main statue here is more than one metre wide and long and reaches a height of 1.2 metres. Sadly, it has been decapitated by looters. The queen is seated on a giant lotus blossom in the lotus position and to her left, he see the stem of a lotus plant rising sinuously. Yet clear as the Buddhist iconography is here, Hinduism and Buddhism were complexly interwoven in the Majapahit era. Therefore, it should not have come as too much of a surprise that the satellite temples (candi perwara) enshrined statues of Hindu figures such as Ganesha (the god of knowledge) and Nandi (the mount of Shiva). The two religions co-mingled peacefully, with both being sponsored and revered by the royal family.

While the temple ruins at Candi Gayatri are relatively scant, they do offer a window on a fascinating period in history. They show the close relationship between the royal families of Singosari and Majapahit and they also show how Buddhism and Hinduism peacefully co-habited during the Majapait era. It is also interesting to see how religious piety was used to justify political authority in 14th century Java. This mixing of religious and political authority is still a feature of Indonesian society today. Few Indonesian politicians would want to be seen as slack in the area of religious observance. Understanding the old Indonesian kingdoms can be quite illuminative about features of modern Indonesia too.

Candi Penataran: State Temple of Majapahit

None of the temples of East Java get anything like as much attention as the main complexes in Central Java. That is understandable to an extent, as Borbodur and Prambanan are amongst the most impression temple complexes in all South-East Asia. But even allowing for the very strong competition in the area around Yogyakarta, East Java’s temples are still seriously neglected by international travellers. There are towns in Thailand and Malaysia, for instance, that have very modest attractions but still manage to draw a steady flow of travelers. In contrast, there are beautiful ancient temples in East Java which sometimes go for weeks without seeing a single foreign tourist. This neglect is most unfortunate in the case of Candi Penataran, which is by far the most important Hindu temple in East Java. We have visited here twice, first in 2001 and again in 2007. On both occasions it impressed us as one the most enticing historical sites in Indonesia.

When we had gone there in 2001, it had been on a day-trip from Malang, a city about 80 kilometres further to the east. We had gone by bus, which had taken about two and a half hours to get near Blitar and then a few kilometres out of town, we had seen a turn off to Candi Penataran. We had hopped off the bus on the main road and had planned to walk from there; the sign had indicated that it was only four kilometres away. But when we got to the function, we had found some ojek drivers there and they had offered to drive us there for five thousand rupiah each. At that stage we had never ridden by motorycle taxi before, but we decided to take the risk of a ride without a helmet.

In the end I was glad we did. The back road to Candi Penataran took us meandering through some beautiful countryside. Most of the area was covered by rambutan orchards, and I while I had often seen the ‘hairy’ red fruit in the markets of Indonesia, this was my first time seeing rambutan trees. The fruit was coming into season and the bright green shrubs, mostly about three or four metres high, sported large numbers of the reddening fruit. The whole scene was made much more beautiful yet by the backdrop of Gunung Kelud, a 1900 metre tall active volcano which dominated the entire area. Its peak was covered in cloud, but even this added to the mysterious appeal of the place. There seems little doubt that the ride to Penataran by ojek put me in a very receptive state in which to view the ruins. As one writer on Java observed, the ancient Javanese had a genius for location; and the foothills of fiery Gunung Kelud was indeed a wonderful spot to build a state temple.

The temple complex itself is set in a village at the edge of the greater urban area of Blitar. It is a quiet, mellow spot where life seems to unwind at a much slower pace than most other parts of the modern world. This was our impression in 2001 and nothing much had changed when we returned in 2007. There was no traffic about and the midday heat had kept just about everyone indoors. Considering it is the most important temple in all of East Java, the area about the temple was also remarkably low-key. There were no souvenir markets or tour buses; in fact, there was only a single old woman trying to make a living off the temple. She sold bottles of cold water out of a plastic icebox. There wasn’t even a formal ticket that you had to buy; a site caretaker merely brought out a book for us to sign and asked for a donation. He seemed very happy with our ‘contribution to upkeep’ of Rp 10,000. Cynics that we are, we assumed that none of it would go to conservation of the monument.

The temple offers a number of different monuments: there are 4 main temples, a number of pavilion bases and a few pieces of free-standing sculpture. If they form a rather random impression, this is probably because they were never conceived as a single architectural ensemble; the temple complex was added to and reconstructed over a period of almost two and a half centuries. The earliest date found on monuments at the site is 1194 and the final date is 1456. The earliest date belongs to the reign of Srengga, a king of the Kediri kingdom, and the final dates belong to the later period of the Majapahit Empire. In between, the kingdom of Singosari controlled the sight for about 70 years during the 13th century. It is said that the ashes of the kingdom’s founder, Ken Arok, were kept here at one point. The rather random layout of the site is perhaps more comprehensible once we realize that control of it changed hands between three different kingdoms. Having said that, almost everything that remains today dates from the Majapahit period, so there are broad stylistic similarities between the buildings, even if they were built by different rulers and probably rebuilt at several points.

Wonderful carving on the Naga Temple
Wonderful carving on the Naga Temple

With this long history in mind, we set off to see the site’s exotic mixture of attractions. First of all came an intriguing pair of statues; just like at several other temple sites in Java and Sumatra, Candi Penataran is ‘guarded’ by a pair of dwarapala figures. These demonic figures have bulging eyes and long fangs and they carry heavy clubs in their hand, ready to pound any evil interlopers who try and invade the sacred space. Viewed in this sense, they may be rather benign of purpose, despite their fearsome apperance. These particular dwarapalas also notable for an inscription on the pedestal which says that the temple was known as ‘Palah’ (the original name for Candi Penatran) and that it was declared the State Temple of the Majapahit kingdom in 1320. This inscription revealed the great symbolic importance of the temple; it could said to have a symbolic significance above any other East Javanese temple.

This impression is also reinforced in ancient manuscript by the court poet Mpu Prapanca. It reveals that the temple was often used by Majapahit King Hayam Wuruk, one of Java’s greatest kings, to worship the mountain’s god, Girindra. The location of Candi Penataran on the slopes of Gunung Kelud is surely of no coincidence then. It is often thought that the great Central Javanese kingdom of Mataram was undone by a huge volcanic explosion. Perhaps it was fear that Majapahit would meet the same fate which had led its kings to build their highest state temple here in its shadow as an act of propitiation.

The next sight are some beautiful pavilion bases. Visitors to Java or Bali will recall a kind of structure which consists of a raised platform with an open-air structure built on top. In the tropics, temperatures are typically very hot. These airy pavilions enabled people to sit under their shade to do their work (or relax) during the scorching ‘siang’ (middle of the day) period. While the timber pavilions have long since rotted away, the bases still remain. Only reaching waist-high, these do not appear very impressive at first, but upon closer inspection they are inset with beautiful bas-reliefs. These carved scenes from folklore and mythology reveal high skill and it is worth taking the time to see these intricate depictions of people, animals and plants.

Ahead, in the central region of the site, is the first of the main three temples, the so-called Dated Temple. A stone found here bears the date 1194, revealing that the site was already a sanctuary during the Kadiri kingdom, the predecessor of Singosari and Majapahit. Candi Penataran is entirely unique in the sense that it has strong links with all three of the great East Javanese kingdoms. In this sense, it really does earn its name, which means “The Central Temple”. The date notwithstanding, the current structure does not date to the Kediri period. It is probably from the Majapahit period, as it has the tall, slender appearance of Majapahit temples such as Candi Jawi. It has a kala-makhara arch around the door (another demonically themed motif) but inside it houses a fine statue of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of knowledge.

The Dated Temple at Candi Penataran
The Dated Temple at Cand Penataran

The next temple worth seeing is the Naga Temple. This little stone temple is now without its roof, but it still worth close inspection due to the unusual relief decoration on its walls. It is known as the Naga (Dragon) Temple because of the dragon frieze which runs around the top of it. The massive, scaly body of this dragon is held up by human figures, three on each side. It droops down between each of the figures, almost reaching the top of the reddish-brown round medallions which are inset in the middle of the temple walls. These medallions feature beautiful floral and animal reliefs designs, with a background of delicate ‘foliage’ in the background.

Finally there is the Mother Temple, easily the largest of the structures at the site. This is a terraced temple like Candi Jago or Candi Borobodur, this particular example having three levels. The restoration of this temple was never completed and the uppermost section of it is assembled alongside on the ground. The walls of this ‘temple mountain’ are richly decorated with medallions. Some of these are still marvelously crisp, even though they are now 600 years old. These images of exotic wildlife and plants made me think that Java was then still very much a jungle-clad island teeming with elephants, tigers and banten (a kind of wild cow). It also has another pair of dwarapalas just to itself, and is also noteworthy for the temple-shaped ornaments at the corners.

After climbing up this terraced temple, we finished our tour with a quick view of the nearby ancient pool. Its stone walls still retain some ancient reliefs. We sat there for a while and looked out over the back fence of the site to the verdant rice fields beyond. Further back again were the rising slopes of Gunung Kelud, which, according to local legend, the god Girinda slept beneath. This was definitely a place where Java’s Hindu past could be very vividly felt. Perhaps nowhere else in all of East Java is its former grandeur so readily accessible.

Candi Badut: The Oldest Temple in East Java

Candi Badut, the oldest surviving structure in all of East Java, is a dated temple; according to an inscription on the temple body, it was completed on the 28th of November in the year 760. This date is now used as the official ‘birth date’ of Malang. During our visit in 2009, there were signs all over town commemorating the 1249th birthday of the city of Malang, with the year 760 being the starting point. From the viewpoint of historical accuracy, this was clearly a rather arbitrary designation. There is no real proof of continuity between Candi Badut and the city of Malang. When the temple was rediscovered by an archaeologist in 1923, it was little more than a pile of rubble and it had clearly been abandoned for many centuries; it is by no means apparent that the area had been continuously settled since 760.

Furthermore, it seems almost certain that the people who built Candi Badut had been living in the area for many years before they constructed this temple. At that time building stone temples would have required a large workforce of surplus labour; therefore, we can assume a rather stratified kingdom was in existence at the time it was constructed. A kingdom had probably been developing in that region for many years prior to 760, because the transition from village-based government to polities (petty kingdoms) would typically have taken many decades, or sometimes even centuries. According to the Prasasti Dinoyo (inscribed stone), which is now housed in the National Museum in Jakarta, Dinoyo was the capital of the Kajurahan kingdom, and its king was called King Gajayana; it was this obscure monarch and kingdom which had built Candi Badut. Based on this we can safely say that Dinoyo was founded some time well before 760 and, furthermore, that was not a direct predecessor of Malang. The smooth history of 1249 years implied by the signs around town were more legend than fact.

Nonetheless, what they did tell us was that Candi Badut now formed an important part of the origin myth of the city of Malang. True or not, the legend of the city’s founding was tied up with the construction of this little temple, so it seemed important that we see it before leaving Malang. Located in the outer suburbs of the growing city, it was not marked on the maps of either of our two guidebooks. Not trusting our sense of direction, we decided just to take a taxi to the site. Obviously it was not one of the better-known landmarks in the city, as the taxi driver had to call for directions on the wireless. When we eventually arrived at the site, we were surprised to find it located on a block of land in a middle-class suburban neighborhood. There seemed something rather incongruous in an ancient temple being hidden out here in the suburbs; perhaps no other antiquity in Java had so inauspicious a location.

We told the taxi driver not to wait for us and went over to view the temple. But once we reached the perimeter fence, we realized that the gate was locked. We looked through the bars at the stone temple at the centre of the garden, wondering how we were going to inside, feeling that surely someone would appear at any moment with a key. But then a few minutes passed and it became clear that the temple really was locked and no one else was around. I went to the house alongside, knocked on the front door and asked if they knew where the key-holder was. A young man opened the door and shook his head with a rather incredulous look upon his face. At that point I finally realized that for once we were out of luck and our efforts to see this temple were in vain. Once I put this view to Cameron, however, he offered a more optimistic view. He said that we were really only a few metres away from the temple and that we could get a fairly decent sense of it from where we were standing.

Based on the view through the bars, as well as what I have read elsewhere, I offer the following description. The temple is set on a square base, which is a couple of metres high; it retains its body but not its roof, a fact which gives the temple a squat, block-like appearance. The whole thing is constructed of grey stone called andesite, which lends it a somber, dignified air. The temple of the body is narrower than the square base, so there is a narrow ambulatory around the temple; perhaps devotees would once have wandered around this ledge, gazing at the sacred images housed in the niches set in the temple walls. In the present day no carving or sculpture was present from the fence besides a kala-makhara arch over the entrance. This demon and sea-monster motif was common to most of the early temples in Central Java, notably the 8th century temples of the Dieng Plateau, and overall Candi Badut so closely resembles these, especially Candi Arjuna, that some commentators have suggested that the builders of Candi Badut were refugees from an 8th century war in Central Java.

Whatever the true of the ‘refugee from warfare’ thesis, the temple was clearly dedicated to the god of war, Shiva. We didn’t get to see the interior of the shrine, but it is said to contain a lingga and yoni– clear indications of the cult of Shiva. Therefore, we know that by the eighth century Hinduism was already established in at least one part of East Java. Yet this intriguing fact raises many unanswered questions. What was the relationship of Kajurahan with the Central Javanese states of Holing and Mataram? What had happened to Dinoyo and Kajurahan after the construction of Candi Badut? Why were no more major temples built in the Malang area until 400 years later? Had this kingdom eventually been snuffed out by the upstart state of Kediri in the 10th century? Though these questions were certainly compelling, we had no chance of answering them while staring at the temple through metal bars. We took our leave and went off looking for a becak back into town.

The enigmatic shrine of Candi Badut, located in the suburbs of Malang
The enigmatic shrine of Candi Badut, located in the suburbs of Malang