Tuesday

In The Abode Of Lost Gods - Dieng Plateau


Its ancient name means The Abode Of Gods.
Verily, it must have been the chosen resort of the gods.. For though the divine dwellings are now vacant, the place still retains a surreal redolence of deep peace and beatitude, which can only be associated with a place called Paradise

A long drive from Yogyakarta in Central Java( Indonesia) through a hilly road winding up through green vistas, past the town of Wonosobo,  has brought us to one of the summits called Dieng.

Dieng Plateau is the caldera of two or more old volcanoes , situated 2500 meters above sea level. The annual average temperature being 15 degrees, ghostly veils of mist and shrouds of frost seem to have taken permanent residence here. The mineral rich soil of the plateau supports profitable cultivation of potato, tobacco , cabbage and asparagus. All the small towns sprinkled around the plateau engage in activities like curing, canning etc. There is also a geothermal plant that taps all the heat generated in this still active volcanic cluster ,to generate electricity.


Reaching the  high point of the plateau, away from the habitations, we come upon a neat field of manicured lawns and cobbled pathways. Here  stand a group of five hoary temples.

“ Candi Pendawa” announces the escort, “ the oldest Hindu temples in Indonesia……perhaps in the whole of South East Asia.”

Closer up, he introduces each one by name : “ Candi Arjuna, Candi Punta Dewa, Candi Srikandi….” ( Candi – pronounced Chan-dee means Temple)
We are amazed to see that our epic heroes, the Pandavas, should have had temples put up for them so far away from home -  with a shrine for Shikandin too, which is unheard of in our own country ! The mouments date from 8 to 10 CE .



The five temples , collectively called The Arjuna Group , all look similar ; the gray-brown stones look so worn and weary that a strong wind could reduce them to a mound of rubble. But, miraculously, they have survived for one thousand years.

Built in the 8thcentury CE, the Arjuna group is the prototype of the indigenous Hindu -Javanese religious architectural style which attained its splendid climax in the Siwa-Wisnu temple complex at Prambanan .

The basic Dieng design consits of a single square  Cella, open to the west, resting on a waist high podium fitted with a short flight of five steps. The doorway is surmounted by a lintel piece, carved with the fierce face of Mahakala, the celestial guard. All the temples are decapitated, the shikaras having fallen off. There are no freestanding pillars or statuary of any kind and the sancta are all empty. Some have little triangular niches on the walls to hold lamps. Four temples stand in a row while the fifth structure, a rectangular and shorter version sporting a curving roof, is placed facing the row. It is conjectured that this could have been a hermitage, a priest’s office or a reliquiary.



The oldest temple of the group seems to be The Arjuna, its age validated by an inscription found nearby. The most unique feature found in this structure is the presence ,on either side , of the Makara heads that served as outlets for holy water flowing out of the sanctum. This feature , the somasutra, common in South Indian temples is , reportedly, not found in any other ancient shrine in Indonesia.

The Srikandi is the other notable shrine of the group as it is the only one that has the Hindu Trinity carved on the exterior walls. Worked into rectangular frames, bearing distinct Southeast Asian features are bas-relief representations of Brahma on the South wall, Wisnu on the North wall and Siwa on the East wall.



A short distance away from the Arjuna Group, standing all alone within its own enclosure is Candi Bima , the most well preserved of all the Dieng Temples. The Bima appears large because its shikara  is intact. Also one chambered, it stands on an octagonal plinth facing east. The tower is devoid of its  finial, the Amalaka, though the gooseberry capping is seen on the second tier . The vimana shows several  Kudu  recesses from within which peep out serene stony faces, whose identity, in the  remains unknown. Could be Devatas , could be Kings......

Here too, the sanctum remains empty. From epigraphical evidence found in the precincts, it is known that the temple was renovated in 800 AD.




In addition to The Arjuna Group and The Bima, two more temples are found near the entrance to the  Dieng protected area – The Gatotkaca and The Durowati (=Draupadi) These are plain and  unremarkable.
Only these eight shrines are maintained by the Archeological Department . But scattered at random , all over the plateau , are remnants of similar structures ruined beyond repair and disappearing into wild vegetation or marsh – dozens of them, apparently.

“ They are all dedicated to Sang Hyang Guru or Dewa Siwa.” Informs our escort when we wonder what kind of idols might have inhabited these lovely places of worship .“Lingam representations and certain stone inscriptions have been found to support this fact. !”

So what’s the Pandava connection ? we wonder.
His reply surprises us.“ Just as labels of convenience ! ” He says nonchalantly.
We are in for some lessons in history.




The Dieng temples are associated with The Sanjayas, the first Javanese Shaivite Hindu Dynasty, whose progenitor King Sanjaya, is said to have inaugurated his reign by consecrating a Sivalingam atop a peak near his capital, Mataram. Temple building activities began almost immediately in Dieng, a place chosen for holy rituals because of its altitude and pristine remoteness . In fact, the name Di-hyang ( ie, Dieng ) means Divinity .

Dieng was continuously sanctified with innumerable shrines and alters as the dynasty flourished,  expanded and mutated into a follower of the uniquely Javanese hybrid religion, Hindu-Buddhist-Animist.
But Dieng suffered a sudden death and just vanished when the whole region was mysteriously abandoned in the 10th Century.  The most probable reason attributed is a powerful volcanic eruption. 

The Abode of the Gods lay totally forgotten for an unbelievably long time. When the 19th. century colonial surveyor and photographer Isidore Van Kinsbergen set about draining the swamps and clearing the jungles in Dieng., he stumbled upon some ruins and started unearthing shrine after shrine after shrine….400 in all, as he recorded .  It was a prodigious find indeed !
 But unfortunately for Dieng, the world  was so agog with the recent discovery of the magnificent Borobudur and Prambanan temples nearby, that not enough attention was paid to these small temples. Consequently, they were dealt with more as debris to be cleared than as archeological wonders to be treasured.

The Dutch Colonial residents, ignorant of the cultural values of the occupied land, showed scant respect for historical treasures and assumed that plunder was legal activity . Ruins were mercilessly razed to create estates. Ornamental stones and valuable sculptures were carried off as souvenirs . Van Kinsbergen himself has photographed a lovely Dieng stele with carvings of Wisnu, erected as garden decoration in the Resident Officer’s bunglow.

                                   A Siwa-Mahadewa who was abducted from Dieng

 As the Dutch developed plantations , settlements  of labourers sprang up in the plateau and the simple folk saw no crime in helping themselves to dressed stones found so abundantly all around. Objects ,once revered ,came to fortify cattle pens or pave village lanes . The Jakarta Museum has only a few objects from Dieng among its collection, while a striking statue of a smiling Siwa (above) with beautiful decorations, is displayed in a private European museum.

Of the 400 temples discovered by the Dutch surveyor, only a handful survived upto modern times. And of these, only 8 were restored and granted the status of protected monuments by the local government.

                                              Away in some  museum

“ The Pandava names for these Siwa temples came in only as a handy device for identification purposes. “ Says our escort. “ When archeologists dig up shrines by the dozen, they need names better than Siwa I, Siwa II, Siwa III etc. to use as labels. And where else can you find hundreds of names if not in the Mahabharata? Besides, the epic is so enmeshed in our culture and tradition, that it has proved to be the most fortuitous grafting ” 

We had to agree . During our wanderings in the nearby villages, we were treated to renditions of  folk lore about Kunti "dipping Bima in this hotspring here to make him invincible" , Durowati having washed her long tresses in yonder river ( named Aswatama) etc. Even the prosaic trenches dug by the worthy Dutch surveyor to drain the marshy plateau have metamorphosed into "secret tunnels used by the Pendawas to escape the villainous Kurowas" ! Within four or five generations, quixotic legends from fertile imaginations have rooted themselves in racial memory as accepted mythology.

“ No use telling these folks that the Mahabharata was translated into Javanese only in 994 AD., long after these temples were built. “ Laughs our escort indulgently. "The beloved epics are so deeply embedded in our cultural heritage that lay people fully believe the episodes happened here, in our own land ! "

                             Mahabharata is firmly entrenched in Indonesian  culture 

The Dieng Temples , with their lost attributes and empty wombs, leave us clueless as to why they were built. Its an unresolved mystery why a people would keep building the same kind of temples to the same god at the same place again and again, as though frenzied . 400plus within  4sq miles !!!
Theories abound , of  Dieng having been an esoteric sanctuary for tantric rituals or for ancestor worship ; but nothing has been proved conclusively. 

When the Gods vacated Dieng a millennium ago, their secrets vanished with them. Now, we can only look in awe and wonder.

                                                   The brochure that enticed