Located on the often misty western slope of Gunung Lawu, at a site 910m above sea level, lies the ruins of a mysterious and somewhat bizarre Hindu temple – Candi Sukuh. The date of its construction have been estimated to be around 1437AD, as the final flicker of the formerly glorious Hindu empire faded. As Majapahit got blown away and Islam reigned over its ashes, Candi Sukuh became scavenged and abandoned.
It was not till 1815 that Candi Sukuh was rediscovered by a British resident by the name of Johnson. The discovery was reported to ST Raffles who ordered its restoration.
Bearing a curious resemblance to Mayan cultural sites in Mexico and Inca cultural sites in Peru, Candi Sukuh has little in common with the Hindu shrines in other parts of Indonesia. Another striking difference is the direction of Candi Sukuh. Extremely unusual for a temple that worships Lord Shiva, it faces the west instead of the east, so the best time for photos is in the late afternoon.
One explanation offered for such irregularities is that Hinduism was well into decline by then and Javanese builders reverted to their animistic origins. I find this explanation illogical. If they could not recall something as recent as the golden age of their culture, how could they have recalled the culture of their distant ancestors? The influence must have been recent to the time of construction. The temple is still replete with sculptures depicting Ruwatan stories from Hindu epics with familiar features like Garuda statues, turtle altars and images of Sudamala (ritual purification).
What’s truly intriguing about Candi Sukuh is its sexual theme. While it is common for phallic symbols to appear in Shiva temples in India, the depiction is usually discreet. Candi Sukuh is explicit if not downright vulgar.
In fact, there was once a phallic statue 1.8m high on this site. It has been removed and housed in a museum in Jakarta. What is the purpose of such explicit images? It may be the Javanese answer to Khajuraho, but there is nothing kamasutra about all this. Another group of researchers suspect that Candi Sukuh was used as a place to ward off external and internal evil. Again, I don’t see how they arrived at that.
Structure and Relief of Candi Sukuh
The temple complex covering an area of 5,500 m2 is surrounded by the typical greenery of lower tropical highlands. The entire temple complex, in its restored form, has three levels or terraces. The original temple could have had more.
The “first” terrace of Candi Sukuh is recognized by the main gate. It sits on a mound, so there could have been other terraces below it. The blue gate you see at the top was built after its restoration to protect an image on the floor.
Carved out in stone on the floor, is an image of a lingam and yoni on the verge of penetration. This explicit display gives the visitor a most impactful introduction to the theme on which Candi Sukuh was built. According to one legend, insecure Javanese men who had been away used to force their wives to jump over this image.
If her sarong fell off, it meant that she had not been faithful. Apparently, even Muslim men dragged their suspected wives here. That is my calculated guess for the rationale of this sexual theme park. If I could guess what was on the mind of Prawijaya V, the whole idea behind this bizarre and anomalous structure is to make the Muslims forget that it’s Hindu.
Of course this fidelity test is not practised today anymore. Otherwise, someone would be getting rich at the entrance, selling safety pins.
Most parts of the second terrace cannot be found. Like most ancient temples, the bricks must have been carted away and used for building homes. There could have been an archway. There could have been a complete step pyramid.
Aligned on the left side of the temple, is a disjointed row of somewhat incomplete stone reliefs depicting scenes from Javanese wayang kulit or shadow puppetry. The stories can be very bizarre and out of this world. The relief below shows a goddess whose face was suddenly deformed when a curse was placed on her.
The relief below shows sorceress Sadewa tied to a tree by demons. In front of him stood the demoness Batara Durga brandishing a sword and escorted by a group of demons. Actually, Batara Durga was the goddess Uma. She and other deities had been cursed (for being unfaithful) and they took on the appearance of demons.
When Sadewa struggled to free herself, she managed to dispel the curse on Durga and her followers. The group loss their demonic faces and regained their former appearances as deities. Durga was actually goddess Uma.
As a reward, Sadewa was conferred the title of Sudamala (purifier) by the goddess Uma. The relief shows that the goddess Uma and her followers had recovered as gods. Sadewa paid her respects to them.
The relief above depicts a scene from a meeting between Sadewa and her follower with the blind priest Tambrapetra from Prangalas and his son Ni Padapa with a clown.
Goddess of Uma instructed Sadewa to marry the priest’s son. After they got married, Sadewa cured the priest of his blindness.
In a somewhat unrelated scene, the last relief shows a giant named Kalantaka raised and stabbed by Bima, Sadewa’s brother. The Javanese inscription says that this relief was completed in 1449.
Anyone who is familiar with Javanese antiquities would quickly notice that these carvings and sculptures are like kindergarten drawings compared to the highly sophisticated and detailed artwork at Prambanan and Borobudur. The obvious explanation is that the Majapahit raja were rapidly losing their master craftsmen as Islam forbids the worship of devas.
Going further up to the 3rd terrace, the explorer enters the main courtyard of Candi Sukuh. This concourse is decorated with reliefs on the left and statues that dominate the right. This is the most sacred and important part of Candi Sukuh.
On the left side there are rows of reliefs that seem to depict Javanese mythology featuring Kidung Sudamala with Pandawa Lima, Yudhistira, Bima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sadewa.
Also depicted, is a Ruwatan procession that was commonly carried out by the Hindu religious community at that time and even today, it is still practised by the local community, even with Muslim participation.
On the other side of the terrace, is single complete panel showing Lord Ganesh in a dancing pose, genitals revealed. The same goes to other animals in the reliefs. What is the purpose of all this? My guess is that the builders probably wanted the place to look like a theme park and not a Hindu temple as a form of protection against destruction by Muslims.