Sun, 13 Jul 2003

Gedung Songo Central Java's refreshing trendsetter

Jock Paul, Contributor, Semarang, Central Jakarta

Though the structures are not as famous as their younger Javanese successors, the Hindu temples of Gedung Songo offer a mind- clearing and picturesque walk through the mountains of Central Java.

In fact the scenery, temples, clear mountain air and outstanding views of this area in Central Java create a setting that Borobodur, Prambanan or any of Java's more celebrated temples struggle to match.

The beauty of visiting Gedung (known locally as "Gedong") Songo lies in being able to slowly meander up and down the hillside, appreciating each temple individually, at just the pace you want.

The six temples interact with visitors, and with each other, as each offers a new perspective on the rest. They are more or less evenly spaced out, about 100 meters to 200 meters apart, on individual plateaus and ridges that project horizontally out of the sloping hillside.

The structures, among Java's oldest Hindu temples, are direct successors to the temples in the Dieng Plateau. The temples show great unity and were built between 750 and 775 AD, except for the first one you come to as you walk up the path, which may have been built 30 years later.

The name is not the original, nor is it a literal meaning, but given because songo (nine in Javanese) is associated with good fortune in Java.

Gedung Songo highlights how, in Hinduism, the location of the temples is as important as the structures themselves. Standing on any of the plateaus and looking out toward west central Java lends a feeling of power, or control over the landscape below. The site, chosen to flatter the gods and be close to the gods, exudes tranquility.

The mountainside site also ensures cool, clean air that makes walking the kilometer of path that weaves up and down the hillside a pleasure rather than a struggle.

This site is best appreciated if you have at least a few hours to meander around, laze about and take in the views.

In the distance beyond the villages and rice fields, a line of volcanoes can be seen along the horizon, Mt. Lawu in the east, and Mt. Sumbing, Mt. Sundoro and Dieng in the west.

The temples are numbered one through six, and most are in quite good and original shape. The youngest temple, number one, is the first you come to and stands alone. The footpath that leads from the first to the second temple preserves part of the original pavement of the eighth century.

The largest group of structures is clustered around temple three.

The main temple here is dedicated to Siva, the one to the north Visnu and the one to the south Brahma. Inside, the statues of Nandiswara on the north and Mahakala on the south are still in place.

It is this temple that demonstrates that Javanese Hindu iconography had reached its mature form at this time: Ganesh is placed on the wall opposite the door, Durga on the north and Agastya on the south.

This pattern is the earliest example of the distribution that was standard throughout the rest of the Central Javanese classical period, and demonstrates that it was here at Gedung Songo that Javanese architects formulated a style that persisted, with refinements, for centuries, according to Jacques Dumarcay and John Miksic.

Those keen on ancient architecture will want to pay close attention to the edifice in front of the Siva sanctuary. It shows that a manual was used to design the building. Because the proportions were designed for a larger structure, the entrance would have only been one meter high. To avoid this, the architect lowered the base of the opening by cutting through the temple foot. This details shows, according to Dumarcay, that the architects wished to conform to Indian texts of architecture.

Leaving Gedung Songo, it is worth stopping about 10 minutes down the road in the flower market in Bandungan. Beautiful, locally grown fresh and dry flowers are on sale here. The market overflows into the main road and cannot be missed: It is worth a stop even if you can't take flowers with you.

The spot also provides a great view of the valleys of Central Java below. On a rare, cool clear day, the legendary volcano, Mt. Merapi, near Yogyakarta can be seen in the distance.